Armed with one of the most distinctive voices in popular music — a gravelly, smoke-scratched rasp that crosses Joe Cocker and Louis Armstrong at the end of a particularly bad bender — Tom Waits is at once a throwback and a visionary. His gritty Everyman sing-song and tubercular jazzcat persona — fusing seedy imagery and a frankly boozy, druggy ambience in music that is somehow quite beautiful and often unfashionably sentimental — hail directly from both Kurt Weill and the Beat generation. On the other hand, Waits is a sterling songsmith who has downplayed his gift for melody to daringly explore a fashionably dark avantist compositional mode using wildly imaginative production techniques.
Like Captain Beefheart and Sonic Youth, Waits forges a new musicality out of decay, clangor and chaos. Few musicians of his generation (he was born in 1949) have as much street cred — bringing acute intelligence to a seemingly casual (and dissolute) sensibility, Waits is a crucial relay point between Beat writers, especially William S. Burroughs and Charles Bukowski, and today’s young hipsters — and he gets props for occasionally proving that uncompromising art and successful commerce can coincide.
Both volumes of The Early Years hail from 1971, when Waits made some early (unreleased) recordings for Frank Zappa’s Bizarre label before moving on to David Geffen’s Asylum Records. The two belated collections find Waits singing in a higher, clearer voice with sparser, more conventional arrangements than he would later adopt, when dissonance and metallic percussion timbres became an intrinsic part of his compositions. The songs are early-’70s SoCal singer/songwriter pop in the Randy Newman vein, albeit overlaid with a fine layer of LA grit and distinguished by such characteristic titles as “I’m Your Late Night Evening Prostitute” and “Looks Like I’m Up Shit Creek Again.” And even those sound like classics. (Vol. 2 includes early versions of such well-known Waits numbers as “Ol’ 55,” “Grapefruit Moon” and “Old Shoes (& Picture Postcards),” all of which were rerecorded for Closing Time.)
Closing Time, shows the young Californian at his least confident and most vulnerable, searching for a sound but having his work whitewashed by Jerry Yester’s formulaic production. While his artistry and originality are evident in such emotive tracks as “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love with You” and “Martha,” the album is polluted by attempts to shoehorn Waits into a bland singer/songwriter mold. Overburdened by acoustic guitars and occasional backing singers, the songs don’t focus enough on Tom’s expressive lyrics or vocal talents.
The similar Heart of Saturday Night is entertaining but relatively faceless. As with Closing Time, the material Waits sings straight melts into the mush of mid-’70s AOR. Nevertheless, the album bears the first hints of the highly stylized, jazzy, after-hours persona that would become Waits’ trademark (shaped, in part, by producer Bones Howe — Waits’ collaborator for the remainder of his Asylum stay). “Diamonds on My Windshield” is the first good example of Waits’ narrative-lyric technique, backed only by an upright bass and high-hat/snare combo. The moving title track reveals a more emotive and intimate side — one that would prove equally significant during his Asylum years.
The double-live Nighthawks at the Diner is the quintessential pre-’80s Waits LP, portraying him as a hep and humorous sleazy nightclub act playing Rafael’s Silver Cloud Lounge (an actual place located between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, named after the owner’s Rolls Royce). The small-audience intimacy and Howe’s sparing production are key factors in the LP’s success. From the introspective, metaphorical “Emotional Weather Report” to the bachelor anthem “Better Off Without a Wife,” Waits sells this show on sheer character. Milking his rapport with the audience for all it’s worth, he throws out one-liners and local cultural references like a hip Henny Youngman. As it established a solid identity, Nighthawks was a turning point in Waits’ career and a good place for neophytes to begin.
Small Change and Foreign Affairs are, overall, his strongest Asylum releases. Both sessions were recorded and mixed live in the studio — complete with orchestra — and possess the perfect balance of compositional maturity and production expertise, allowing the strings’ lush romanticism to augment the songs rather than overshadow them. Small Change contains his most fervent tracks (“The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)” and “Tom Traubert’s Blues”), as well as “Step Right Up,” a jumpy ode to snake-oil salesmen everywhere.
Foreign Affairs tugs on the heartstrings with the piano-bar ballad “Muriel” and the music-box beauty of “A Sight for Sore Eyes”; the scat-like “Barber Shop” complements the circus-barker call of “Step Right Up.” Best of all, however, is “I Never Talk to Strangers,” a duet with Bette Midler; “Burma-Shave,” a tale of unfulfilled dreams, comes in a close second.
Blue Valentine, while a satisfying enough album, seems a bit short on originality when set in career context. Side One, for instance, reads like a Waits how-to manual: one part strings (“Somewhere”), one part jazz poetry (“Red Shoes by the Drugstore”), one part piano ballad (“Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis”), one part colorful narrative (“Romeo Is Bleeding”), and one part sultry blues (“$29.00”). Side Two is more of the same.
Heartattack and Vine is the bluesiest of Waits’ albums, highlighted by the Chicago-electric sound of the instrumental “In Shades” and the killer Hammond organ sound that runs throughout. A bit of this blues touches several of the other tracks (most notably the title cut and “Downtown”), reprising an infrequently used ingredient in Waits’ now-consistent recipe. Also contributing to the LP’s power are the raucous “‘Til the Money Runs Out” and the tender “Jersey Girl” (far better than Springsteen’s subsequent cover).
Bounced Checks is a German compilation that overlooks Closing Time but does contain some previously unreleased tracks, including “Mr. Henry,” alternate versions of “Jersey Girl” and Blue Valentine‘s “Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard” and an amusing spoken version of “The Piano Has Been Drinking” which, recorded live in Dublin, might as well be a different song. With the subsequent release of Anthology (thirteen of the best tracks from every Asylum album except Nighthawks), Bounced Checks‘ enduring value is in its unreleased material.
Released after a long hiatus during which he changed labels, the self-produced Swordfishtrombones transforms Waits from a bourbon-drenched barfly to an autonomous and eccentric ringmaster. Gone are the romantic piano ballads and jazz trios, replaced by adventurous arrangements of creepy marimba rhythms, pleasing dissonance and creative absurdity. The album’s anthem is undoubtedly “16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought-Six” in all its twisted glory; “Frank’s Wild Years” and “Down, Down, Down” are also prime cuts.
On Rain Dogs, Waits’ beatnik hobo poetry, Beefheart (by way of Satchmo) vocals and some just plain impeccable songwriting (“Downtown Train” has been covered many times) are bolstered by a phenomenal band — guitarist Marc Ribot and junkyard percussionist Michael Blair supply the album’s most defining sounds, but the backing cast also includes Keith Richards, Chris Spedding, Robert Quine and chief Lounge Lizard John Lurie. Such diverse cuts as “Cemetery Polka” (with Farfisa, trombone and parade drum), “Blind Love,” (virtually a country cover of “Jersey Girl,” complete with fiddle and Keith Richards’ twanging) and “Jockey Full of Bourbon” (a conga-driven rhumba) give the album a wonderful sense of schizophrenia.
Franks Wild Years (“Un Operachi Romantico in Two Acts”) formed the basis for a stage show that toured traditional theatrical venues in 1988. In small ways, the album harks back to Rain Dogs (“Hang on St. Christopher,” for instance, is akin to that album’s “Clap Hands”), but in a real sense it’s entirely different from any of Waits’ previous work. Most importantly, it succeeds as a concept album about a character who escapes from “Rainville” to travel the world, seeing Vegas, New York and parts unknown. Waits’ idiosyncratic production employs vocal treatments, chameleonizing his already unmistakable voice into assorted colors and textures.
The soundtrack for the documentary film of the same name, Big Time draws most of its songs from Rain Dogs and Franks Wild Years. It also includes “Red Shoes” (an adaptation of the similarly named track on Blue Valentine) and two new cuts: “Falling Down” and “Strange Weather.” As no other such collection exists, Big Time is, in a sense, a compilation, but the versions on it are so different from their studio equivalents that it’s more like an adjunct to the three preceding albums.
Especially in this context, the Night on Earth soundtrack sounds like a wise holding action. Three tracks for the Jim Jarmusch film have vocals; although two are different versions of the same song (“Good Old World,” “Back in the Good Old World”), it’s a damn good song. The crackerjack band, which features Bay Area notables Joe Gore on guitar and Ralph Carney on everything from trumpet to pan pipes, ably emits Waits’ distinctive junkyard wino jazz. Of the instrumental pieces, only the perfectly noir “Los Angeles Theme (Another Private Dick)” and the darkly jaunty “Carnival (Brunello Del Montalcino)” stand out a bit, and although the album doesn’t merit close scrutiny or even repeated listenings — it is, after all, a film score — Night on Earth can make you feel like you’re a character in one of Waits’ songs.
With guest appearances by Primus bassist Les Claypool, Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo (on violin and accordion) and Keith Richards (who provides yowling alleycat harmonies on “That Feel”) as well as Carney and Gore, Bone Machine is true to its title: skeletal but impeccably, artfully structured. The hellish apocalyptic imagery of the opener, “Earth Died Screaming,” pretty much sets the tone, although the gloom is somewhat relieved by at least one certifiable Waits classic: the delightful “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” (later covered by the Ramones). Waits’ already fuzzy growl is often further distorted; combined with the percussion-heavy arrangements, the effect is very dark. Indeed, the album’s claustrophobic, nightmarish feel may have been what put a damper on its initial reception, but in retrospect, Bone Machine ranks with Waits’ finest work.
The Black Rider contains music written for a theater production by pioneering dramatist Robert Wilson and William S. Burroughs (who “sings” on the studiedly curious “‘T’Ain’t No Sin”). Perhaps the best track is the darkly hilarious opener, “Lucky Day (Overture),” a little carnival waltz with Waits as a freak-show barker. Wrought in Waits’ now familiar Weill-on-the-Bowery style, some of the songs are quite moving, and the poetry is as good as ever. Elsewhere, though, Waits indulges some of his shmaltzier tendencies while Wilson’s high-falutin’ presence seems to have made the whole thing a bit more precious and pretentious than it need be. It ain’t one of his best, but even mediocre Tom Waits merits 55 minutes and 39 seconds of attention.
Waits has done quite a bit of acting, appearing in The Cotton Club (1984), Down by Law (1986), Candy Mountain (1987) and other films.
Waits’ songs have proven amenable to some mainstream-minded pop singers, but the tribute-paying Step Right Up lays claim to his innovative eccentricity as an inspiration for undergrounders; among those plundering the catalogue are Violent Femmes (“Step Right Up”), Archers of Loaf (“Big Joe and Phantom 309”), Pete Shelley (“Better off Without a Wife”), Alex Chilton (“Downtown”), Jeffrey Lee Pierce (“Pasties and a G-String”) and Tindersticks (“Mockin’ Bird”). In a twist, the Buckley recording tucked between Pale Saints and Frente! is not by young Jeff but by his old man, Tim: a 1973 album version of “Martha.”
Taking a very different view of the same subject, cool Toronto song stylist Holly Cole explores Waits’ compositional classicism and jazz orientation on Temptation, a languorous, spaciously rendered collection of his least pulpy numbers. Cole’s smoky alto already paints the material in much different hues than Waits’ froggy rasp, and the spare arrangements — as little as string bass and brushes for “Temptation” or piano for “Frank’s Theme,” as much as a rhythm section and horn trio for “Little Boy Blue” — push the bracing revisionism even further.