The great Californian singer-songwriter, musician, actor and composer Tom Waits has been thrilling us since he first burst onto the scene with 1973’s Closing Time, a delightful folk- and jazz-tinged debut that contained songs soon to be covered by Tim Buckley and Eagles. A seven-strong string of albums for Asylum consolidated Waits’ status as a master of late-night, smoky barroom observation who has always been blessed with an eye for simpatico backing players and producers, including Bones Howe, Jimmy Bowen and, once he moved to Island Records, himself, often abetted by wife Kathleen Brennan.
Having recorded with great distinction across five decades, Waits has always had a strong cult following, but he has also enjoyed considerable mainstream success. The UK took him to its heart from the off, while, in recent years, he has enjoyed both acclaim – a given – and fine sales for albums like such as the Grammy-winning Mule Variations, Real Gone and his most recent, Bad As Me, these coming out via Anti-, a sister label to Epitaph.
In later years, as Tom’s music evolved into a thrilling area where songwriting meets the avant-garde, he has constructed aural landscapes way beyond the ken of lesser mortals. But while he he’s collaborated with everyone from William S Burroughs and Keith Richards to David Hidalgo and Charlie Musselwhite, Waits has maintained a ferocious bluesy strand. Far from inaccessible (Bruce Springsteen and Rod Stewart have tackled his songs), Tom Waits is an addiction for many.
Born Thomas Alan Waits in 1949, in the city of Pomona, California (named after the ancient Roman goddess of fruit), Waits then moved to Whittier and National City, down by the border, where he most likely developed his passion or all things Hispanic. Though a teenager during the 60s, Tom always gravitated more to the old-time sounds – the blues, the beatniks and the satirical icons of the Beat Generation – though he did have a hankering for Bob Dylan and performed the man’s songs a great deal when he secured stints at The Troubadour in Los Angeles.
Waits’ own early songs were recorded (but not released at the time) by Frank Zappa’s Bizarre/Straight imprint. The sessions threw up such gems as ‘I’m Your Late Night Evening Prostitute’, ‘Looks Like I’m Up Shit Creek Again’ and ‘Shiver Me Timbers’, as well as the soon-to-be-familiar ‘Ol’ 55’: charming affairs from 1971 and well worth tracking down.
Once signed to Asylum, Waits created the magical Closing Time and established his image as the lovelorn guy nursing a bottle of bourbon at the other end of the bar on the dark side of the street. Produced by Jerry Yester (The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Association, Modern Folk Quartet), the mix of folk and jazz-pop, with the countrified ‘Ol’ 55’ (covered by Eagles for On The Border) and the plaintive ‘Martha’ (Tim Buckley jumped on that for his Sefronia album), signaled the arrival of a major talent, seemingly already self-contained.
The bittersweet tone was expanded upon for 1974’s The Heart Of Saturday Night, for which Waits hooked up with Bones Howe and bossed a neat quartet featuring Jim Gordon on drums, Pete Christlieb on tenor sax, and Jim Hughart on double bass. Crisp ensemble playing and more wee-small-hours-of-the-morning gems such as ‘Drunk On The Moon’ and ‘(Looking For) The Heart of Saturday Night’ evoked time and place, and suggested that this was no ordinary troubadour.
The atmospheric double-live album, Nighthawks At The Diner, didn’t necessarily start out as a modern jazz album, but that’s how it ended. Recorded at the Record Plant, it was a landmark in Waits’ early career, perfectly capturing the burlesque shadowlands that were his stock in trade. On the other hand, despite positive reviews, it wasn’t exactly setting the charts alight. Living in the Tropicana Motel on Santa Monica Boulevard, Wait was also starting to live up to the stereotype of the down-at-heel jazzer.
By the time Waits and Bones delivered 1976’s Small Change, he was on his uppers, deciding to face his demons head on. “I tried to resolve a few things as far as this cocktail-lounge, maudlin, crying-in-your-beer image that I have,” he later said. “There ain’t nothin’ funny about a drunk… I was really starting to believe that there was something amusing and wonderfully American about being a drunk. I ended up telling myself to cut that shit out.”
Still, the lifestyle inspired such classics as ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets To The Wind in Copenhagen)’, ‘The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) (An Evening with Pete King)’ – referencing the co-founder of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club – and ‘The One That Got Away’. Noted for its Hollywood noir/pulp fiction aesthetic, Small Change is one of many albums that holds a cherished place in the hearts of Waits aficionados, and was even a mild commercial success. It’s certainly worth immediate perusal and discovery.
Likewise Foreign Affairs and Blue Valentine: monochrome and lurid albums both. Waits’ late 70s body of work was gaining impressive stature, with stand-out cuts including ‘I Never Talk to Strangers’ (a duet with Bette Midler), the ritzy ‘Burma Shave’, the autobiographical ‘Kentucky Avenue’ and the brilliantly mordant ‘Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis’.
Tom said hello to the 80s, and adieu to Asylum, with Heartattack And Vine, a Californian-made disc with a distinctly N’Awlins center. Jerry Yester was back again for arrangements, and there would be future royalties when Springsteen covered ‘Jersey Girl’, a track which many mistakenly assumed The Boss himself had penned.
Before fully casting off the old image, Tom constructed a soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola’s 1982 One From The Heart, a dual blessing since Waits met future wife Kathleen Brennan during the project. Despite Wait’s billing, Crystal Gayle was the more featured vocalist, and the A-list LA session men bolster a very classy set.
Waits’ second phase came with a move to Island and the left turn of Swordfishtrombones, one of the best albums of the decade thanks to the stomping ‘16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought-Six’ and the divine ‘In the Neighborhood’, two tracks that began to fix Tom in similar territory to Captain Beefheart and Ry Cooder.
Rain Dogs and Franks Wild Years complete a loose trilogy: skewed blues, Big Easy rhythms, Keith Richards, Robert Quine and Chris Spedding on electric guitars, and the artist in residence on top experimental form as he carouses through ‘Jockey Full Of Bourbon’, ‘Downtown Train’ (a major hit via Rod Stewart) and ‘Hang On St Christopher’, hailed by Elvis Costello as one of the greatest songs ever written. Tom had turned his attention away from the sunny West Coast and towards New York City, and his attempts to emulate the urban sound of a grit-spattered neighbourhood are judged to perfection.
Big Time is a fine live résumé of a classic Waits set from 1987, and coincided with an epic tour of North America and Europe, where the response must have been music to the ears for a man now vindicated; no more cheap flophouses for him. With movie work flooding in, Waits now concentrated his efforts of the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s film Night On Earth, with Ralph Carney’s battery of brass the perfect foil to his own pump organ, piano, percussion and vocals.
Losing none of his urgency as he entered the 90s, Bone Machine was a studio set that inspired a new breed of wannabe gravellers the likes of Gomez and Kellermenech. Released in 1992, the album is the sound of a man doing what he damn well pleases on ‘Dirt In The Ground’ and the grim ‘Murder In The Red Barn’. Keef is back on board to co-write ‘That Feel’, and the overall stripped-back blues make this a cert for discovery, especially as it won the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Album.
Tom’s interpretations for the Robert Wilson/William S Burroughs play The Black Rider resulted in another astounding left-turn, and, by 1999, his star could hardly have been higher. Another Grammy, for Best Contemporary Folk Album, was the reward for the exceptional Mule Variations (a Top 10 success in the UK, Germany and Belgium, and a No.1 in Norway), on which Kathleen Brennan’s humanising qualities offset Tom’s Delta cacophony. Love songs abound, and the tender ‘Hold On’ epitomises a return to the carny barker style. Also check the ballads ‘Pony’ and ‘House Where Nobody Lives’.
Another Robert Wilson-inspired disc, Blood Money, was one of two albums released simultaneously in 2002. The songs took their lead from the stage show Woyzeck, and Waits stayed within that format for Alice, which also collected songs written for an theatre production directed by Wilson. Following in 2004, Real Gone was a Brennan/Waits tour de force, with Primus bassist Les Claypool and contemporary drummer Brain holding down the beat while longtime accomplice Larry “The Mole” Taylor, of Canned Heat fame, added four- and six-string guitars and Marc Ribot brought his free-form colours to the party.
By now, Waits had amassed a formidable discography with plenty of rarities. In his own words, the 3CD collection Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards was “a big pile of songs… Some are from films, some from compilations. Some is stuff that didn’t fit on a record, things I recorded in the garage with kids. Oddball things, orphaned tunes…” but it has thematic unity and an encouraging sprawl that repays discovery. Among the gems are snapshots of weirdness from Disney and Shrek movies; covers of Skip Spence’s ‘Books Of Moses’ and Daniel Johnston’s ‘King Kong’; murder ballads and Joey Ramone’s ‘Danny Says’; the standard “Young At Heart’; English folk airs; and even a dip in ‘Sea Of Love’. It did Tom no harm, either, and has become his best-selling album to date, with worldwide figures of a million plus.
By now, Waits was reluctant to tour, so fans snapped up Glitter And Doom Live, which was compiled from Waits’ small 2008 jaunt, and boasted plenty of crowd favourites, along with a second disc devoted to ‘Tom Tales’: the wit and wisdom, the interjections, shaggy dog stories and monologues that are all part of the overall picture.
By the time Bad As Me surfaced, in 2011, it had been almost a decade since his last album proper. Taking the opportunity to confront his own myth, Waits worked up a life-affirming set backed by a cast of stellar veterans, including Keith Richards (again), Sir Douglas Quintet legend Augie Myers on organ and accordion, harmonica virtuoso Charlie Musselwhite, the sublime Los Lobos leader David Hidalgo, Red Hot Chili Pepper Flea and the usual familiars.
The results were badass and good fun, as everyone seemed to agree. Neil Young was on hand to induct Waits into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame that same year, and Waits has since joined The Rolling Stones onstage (duetting with Jagger on ‘Little Red Rooster’), started in the movie Seven Psychopaths, and made a triumphant appearance at the 2013 Bridge School Benefit, where he stole the show with his first live performance of five years.
But that’s what he always does…
Tom Waits' debut album is a minor-key masterpiece filled with songs of late-night loneliness. Within the apparently narrow range of the cocktail bar pianistics and muttered vocals, Waits and producer Jerry Yester manage a surprisingly broad collection of styles, from the jazzy "Virginia Avenue" to the up-tempo funk of "Ice Cream Man" and from the acoustic guitar folkiness of "I Hope That I Don't Fall in Love With You" to the saloon song "Midnight Lullaby," which would have been a perfect addition to the repertoires of Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett. Waits' entire musical approach is stylized, of course, and at times derivative -- "Lonely" borrows a little too much from Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" -- and his lovelorn lyrics can be sentimental without being penetrating. But he also has a gift for gently rolling pop melodies, and he can come up with striking, original scenarios, as on the best songs, "Ol' 55" and "Martha," which Yester discreetly augments with strings. Closing Time announces the arrival of a talented songwriter whose self-conscious melancholy can be surprisingly moving. Words: William Ruhlmann
If Closing Time, Tom Waits' debut album, consisted of love songs set in a late-night world of bars and neon signs, its follow-up, The Heart of Saturday Night, largely dispenses with the romance in favor of poetic depictions of the same setting. On "Diamonds on My Windshield" and "The Ghosts of Saturday Night," Waits doesn't even sing, instead reciting his verse rhythmically against bass and drums like a Beat hipster. Musically, the album contains the same mixture of folk, blues, and jazz as its predecessor, with producer Bones Howe occasionally bringing in an orchestra to underscore the loping melodies. Waits' songs are sometimes sketchier in addition to being more impersonal, but "(Looking For) The Heart of Saturday Night" and "Semi Suite" are the equal of anything on Closing Time. Still, with lines such as "...the clouds are like headlines/Upon a new front page sky" and references to "a 24-hour moon" and "champagne stars," Waits' imagery is beginning to get florid, and in material this stylized, the danger of self-parody is always present. Words: William Ruhlmann
The fourth release in Tom Waits' series of skid row travelogues, Small Change proves to be the archetypal album of his '70s work. A jazz trio comprising tenor sax player Lew Tabackin, bassist Jim Hughart, and drummer Shelly Manne, plus an occasional string section, back Waits and his piano on songs steeped in whiskey and atmosphere in which he alternately sings in his broken-beaned drunk's voice (now deeper and overtly influenced by Louis Armstrong) and recites jazzy poetry. It's as if Waits were determined to combine the Humphrey Bogart and Dooley Wilson characters from Casablanca with a dash of On the Road's Dean Moriarty to illuminate a dark world of bars and all-night diners. Of course, he'd been in that world before, but in songs like "The Piano Has Been Drinking" and "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart," Waits gives it its clearest expression. Small Change isn't his best album. Like most of the albums Waits made in the '70s, it's uneven, probably because he was putting out one a year and didn't have time to come up with enough first-rate material. But it is the most obvious and characteristic of his albums for Asylum Records. If you like it, you also will like the ones before and after; otherwise, you're not Tom Waits' kind of listener. Words: William Ruhlmann
Two welcome changes in style made Blue Valentine a fresh listening experience for Tom Waits fans. First, Waits alters the instrumentation, bringing in electric guitar and keyboards and largely dispensing with the strings for a more blues-oriented, hard-edged sound. Second, though his world view remains fixed on the lowlifes of the late night, he expands beyond the musings of the barstool philosopher who previously had acted as the first-person character of most of his songs. When Waits does use the first-person, it's to write a "Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis," not the figure most listeners had associated with the singer himself. The result is a broadening of subject matter, a narrative discipline that makes most of the tunes story songs, and a coherent framing for Waits' typically colorful and intriguing imagery. These are not radical reinventions, but Waits had followed such a rigidly stylized approach on his previous albums that for anyone who had followed him so far, the course correction was big news. Words: William Ruhlmann
Heartattack and Vine, Tom Waits' first album in two years and his last of seven for Asylum Records, is a transitional album, with tracks like the rhythm-heavy title song and "'Til the Money Runs Out" foreshadowing the sonic experiments of the Island albums, while piano-with-orchestra tracks like "Saving All My Love for You" and "On the Nickel" (written as a motion-picture title tune) hark back to Waits' Randy Newman-influenced early days. It is just as well that Waits never entirely gave up on the ballad material; "Jersey Girl," a Drifters-style song, is a winner, and it was appropriated by Bruce Springsteen on his 1981 tour. Words: William Ruhlmann
Between the release of Heartattack and Vine in 1980 and Swordfishtrombones in 1983, Tom Waits got rid of his manager, his producer, and his record company. And he drastically altered a musical approach that had become as dependable as it was unexciting. Swordfishtrombones has none of the strings and much less of the piano work that Waits' previous albums had employed; instead, the dominant sounds on the record were low-pitched horns, bass instruments, and percussion, set in spare, close-miked arrangements (most of them by Waits) that sometimes were better described as "soundscapes." Lyrically, Waits' tales of the drunken and the lovelorn have been replaced by surreal accounts of people who burned down their homes and of Australian towns bypassed by the railroad -- a world (not just a neighborhood) of misfits now have his attention. The music can be primitive, moving to odd time signatures, while Waits alternately howls and wheezes in his gravelly bass voice. He seems to have moved on from Hoagy Carmichael and Louis Armstrong to Kurt Weill and Howlin' Wolf (as impersonated by Captain Beefheart). Waits seems to have had trouble interesting a record label in the album, which was cut 13 months before it was released, but when it appeared, rock critics predictably raved: after all, it sounded weird and it didn't have a chance of selling. Actually, it did make the bottom of the best-seller charts, like most of Waits' albums, and now that he was with a label based in Europe, even charted there. Artistically, Swordfishtrombones marked an evolution of which Waits had not seemed capable (though there were hints of this sound on his last two Asylum albums), and in career terms it reinvented him. Words: William Ruhlmann
With its jarring rhythms and unusual instrumentation -- marimba, accordion, various percussion -- as well as its frequently surreal lyrics, Rain Dogs is very much a follow-up to Swordfishtrombones, which is to say that it sounds for the most part like The Threepenny Opera being sung by Howlin' Wolf. The chief musical difference is the introduction of guitarist Marc Ribot, who adds his noisy leads to the general cacophony. But Rain Dogs is sprawling where its predecessor had been focused: Tom Waits' lyrics here sometimes are imaginative to the point of obscurity, seemingly chosen to fit the rhythms rather than for sense. In the course of 19 tracks and 54 minutes, Waits sometimes goes back to the more conventional music of his earlier records, which seems like a retreat, though such tracks as the catchy "Hang Down Your Head," "Time," and especially "Downtown Train" (frequently covered and finally turned into a Top Ten hit by Rod Stewart five years later) provide some relief as well as variety. Rain Dogs can't surprise as Swordfishtrombones had, and in his attempt to continue in the direction suggested by that album, Waits occasionally borders on the chaotic (which may only be to say that, like most of his records, this one is uneven). But much of the music matches the earlier album, and there is so much of it that that is enough to qualify Rain Dogs as one of Waits' better albums. Words: William Ruhlmann
Tom Waits wrote a song called "Frank's Wild Years" for his 1983 Swordfishtrombones album, then used the title (minus its apostrophe) for a musical play he wrote with his wife, Kathleen Brennan, and toured with in 1986. The Franks Wild Years album, drawn from the show, is subtitled, "un operachi romantico in two acts," though the songs themselves do not carry the plot. Rather, this is just the third installment in Waits' eccentric series of Island Records albums in which he seems most inspired by German art song and carnival music, presenting songs in spare, stripped-down arrangements consisting of instruments like marimba, baritone horn, and pump organ and singing in a strained voice that has been artificially compressed and distorted. The songs themselves often are conventional romantic vignettes, or would be minus the oddities of instrumentation, arrangement, and performance. For example, "Innocent When You Dream," a song of disappointment in love and friendship, has a winning melody, but it is played in a seesaw arrangement of pump organ, bass, violin, and piano, and Waits sings it like an enraged drunk. (He points out the arbitrary nature of the arrangements by repeating "Straight to the Top," done as a demented rhumba in act one, as a Vegas-style Frank Sinatra swing tune in act two.) The result on record may not be theatrical, exactly, but it certainly is affected. It also has the quality of an inside joke that listeners are not being let in on. Words: William Ruhlmann
Perhaps Tom Waits' most cohesive album, Bone Machine is a morbid, sinister nightmare, one that applied the quirks of his experimental '80s classics to stunningly evocative -- and often harrowing -- effect. In keeping with the title's grotesque image of the human body, Bone Machine is obsessed with decay and mortality, the ease with which earthly existence can be destroyed. The arrangements are accordingly stripped of all excess flesh; the very few, often non-traditional instruments float in distinct separation over the clanking junkyard percussion that dominates the record. It's a chilling, primal sound made all the more otherworldly (or, perhaps, underworldly) by Waits' raspy falsetto and often-distorted roars and growls. Matching that evocative power is Waits' songwriting, which is arguably the most consistently focused it's ever been. Rich in strange and extraordinarily vivid imagery, many of Waits' tales and musings are spun against an imposing backdrop of apocalyptic natural fury, underlining the insignificance of his subjects and their universally impending doom. Death is seen as freedom for the spirit, an escape from the dread and suffering of life in this world -- which he paints as hellishly bleak, full of murder, suicide, and corruption. The chugging, oddly bouncy beats of the more uptempo numbers make them even more disturbing -- there's a detached nonchalance beneath the horrific visions. Even the narrator of the catchy, playful "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" seems hopeless in this context, but that song paves the way for the closer "That Feel," an ode to the endurance of the human soul (with ultimate survivor Keith Richards on harmony vocals). The more upbeat ending hardly dispels the cloud of doom hanging over the rest of Bone Machine, but it does give the listener a gentler escape from that terrifying sonic world. All of it adds up to Waits' most affecting and powerful recording, even if it isn't his most accessible. Words: Steve Huey
Tom Waits collaborated with director Robert Wilson and librettist William Burroughs on the musical stage work The Black Rider in 1990. A variation on the Faust legend, the 19th century German story allowed Waits to indulge his affection for the music of Kurt Weill and address one of his favorite topics of recent years, the devil. Waits had proven an excellent collaborator when he worked with director Francis Ford Coppola on One from the Heart, making that score an integral part of the film. Here, the collaboration and the established story line served to focus Waits' often fragmented attention, lending coherence and consistency. He then had three years to adapt the score into a record album in which he did most of the singing and writing (though Burroughs contributed, singing one song and writing lyrics to three), and he used the time to come up with his best recording in a decade, a varied set of songs that work whether or not you know the show. (Seven of the 20 tracks were instrumentals.) Waits used the word "crude" to describe his working method several times in the liner notes, and a crude performing and recording style continued to appeal to him. But the kind of chaos that can sometimes result from that style was reined in by the bands he assembled in Germany and Los Angeles to record the score, so that the recordings were lively without being off-puttingly primitive. Words: William Ruhlmann