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Tom Waits

Tom Waits.fw

Though he’s claimed in the past that his own work is too mainstream, the one-man experiment in sound that is TOM WAITS, fits comfortably into even the most stringent definition of the term “musical maverick”. With his distinctive billy-goat-gruff vocals, Tom’s frighteningly like he’s been drinking industrial-strength paint-stripper since childhood. A born raconteur (December 7, 1949, Pomona, California – to be exact), the esteemed singer-songwriter spent most of the 70s reeling off post-beat, neon-frazzled commentaries on the seedier side of American low-life, tragi-comic portraits set to his own brand of spiked, piano-led lounge blues/jazz. A switch to Island Records in the 80s turned his career on its head in Britain, his transitional “Swordfishtrombones” both primitive and literate in equal measures of any drink from the cocktail bar. WAITS is an artist with defiantly singular vision and is a rare commodity in a marketplace where so often the blind lead the blind in a musical wild goose chase for the next trend.
Signed by manager Herb Cohen to Asylum Records in 1972 (after being spotted performing his nostalgia-addled set at The Troubadour), Tom’s Jerry Yester-produced debut album CLOSING TIME (1973) {*8}, didn’t sell vast amounts initially, but it did contain `Ol’ 55’ which was duly covered by the EAGLES on their third album `On The Border’. Probably squeezed out of the market by the likes of equally serene RANDY NEWMAN and VAN MORRISON, the curly cult crooner possessed a searching sentimental style, displayed on such graceful tunes like `Martha’, `Lonely’, `Grapefruit Moon’ and `I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You’.
Not as hip as its predecessor, THE HEART OF SATURDAY NIGHT (1974) {*6} was nevertheless more proficient and cool, his down-trodden Jack Kerouac-meets-Charles Bukowski persona beginning to develop and reach out to his audience. Nocturnal and reflective through eyes of a boozy weekend perspective, WAITS rasps his way through some beat-poetry (`Diamonds On My Windshields’), heartfelt ballads (`Please Call Me, Baby’), lounge-jazz (`New Coat Of Paint’) and country-folk (the title track).
For double album, NIGHTHAWKS AT THE DINER (1975) {*6}; recorded live against a nightclub backdrop in front of a studio audience, WAITS was in his element, reeling off wry vignettes with casual ease. Comic exchanges, intros and songs fresh to the singer’s canon, he took his listeners into his foggy but literate mindscape, best served on `Better Off Without A Wife’, `Warm Beer And Cold Women’ and the picturesque 11-minute `Nighthawk Postcards’; note too of his jazzy backing from Jim Hughart (double bass), Bill Goodwin (drums), Pete Christlieb (tenor sax) and Mike Melvoin (piano).
Retaining Hughart and settling with Lew Tabackin (tenor sax) and sticksman Shelly Manne, SMALL CHANGE (1976) {*7} was a confident step forward, his booze-sodden recollections more focused and his songwriting more complex. Tracks such as `Tom Traubert’s Blues’ (interpolating trad piece “Waltzing Matilda”; and later covered by ROD STEWART), `Invitation To The Blues’ (namechecking Cagney and Hayworth) and `Bad Liver And A Broken Heart’, close to the bone for barflys everywhere.
Tom even attempted to cultivate his parched vocals on FOREIGN AFFAIRS (1977) {*5}, dueting with BETTE MIDLER for `I Never Talk To Strangers’; his then-girlfriend was RICKIE LEE JONES who featured on the album’s cover shoot. Paying homage to his beat-poet progenitors (Kerouac and Cassidy) on `Jack And Neal – California, Here I Come’, and slightly sabotaging “Auld Land Syne” inside `A Sight For Sore Eyes’, the record had its moments, albeit a little too sombre for some.
With BLUE VALENTINE (1978) {*6}, WAITS expanded his blues beats through the addition of an electric guitarist and keyboard player, although somewhat missing on the orchestral opening “West Side Story” dirge, `Somewhere’. Almost getting in the boots of HOWLIN’ WOLF or jazzateer Duke Ellington, the barstool bluesman hits the heights on `Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis’, `$29.00’ and `Romeo Is Bleeding’.
On HEARTATTACK AND VINE (1980) {*7}, WAITS opted for a combination of supple roots-R&B tracks and heartbroken love ballads, the set also spawning the haunting `Jersey Girl’, which was later covered by SPRINGSTEEN. Tempering his gravel-growl with softer, piano-led ballads such as `On The Nickel’, the blues-driven title track and his Gerry Goffin-Michael Masser collaboration, `Saving All My Love For You’, WAITS was beginning to find his eclectic balance. Meanwhile, one could see him in his inaugural bit part in the film, `Paradise Alley’; three years he emerged in `Wolfen’.
Already finding a handful of tunes placed among the celluloid, his first foray into film scores came through Francis Ford Coppola’s romantic fantasy, ONE FROM THE HEART (1983) {*7}. A record that bid sour-throated adieu to the bloodshot, tattered-tux sermonising of his 70s albums, he’s assisted on this endeavour by CRYSTAL GAYLE, her of chaste-voiced country fame; she is for the most part, fairly incongruous. Which is perhaps why sumptuously orchestrated duets (originally intended to feature the earthier BETTE MIDLER, whose previous collaboration with WAITS on his “Foreign Affairs” set was reportedly the inspiration for the movie in the first place) on such as `Once Upon A Town’ ebb and flow with cultured ease yet never really pack the emotional punch they were intended for. WAITS, for his part, is in his upmarket boho element, yet GAYLE’s formal, note-perfect vocals fail to smoulder against the jazzy arrangements (although they come close on the downbeat `Old Boyfriends’), never mind igniting any kind of sexual tension with WAITS’ scuzzy croon. More telling than any amount of Broadway torch-singing on either participant’s part is the fact that WAITS’ sloppy, cracked carnival piano and vaguely ominous accordion and brass arrangements on `Instrumental Montage’ are the most striking things here, frowning petulantly at the tasteful fare around them and – along with the wire-taut `Little Boy Blue’ and spiteful tympani dirge, `You Can’t Unring A Bell’ – pointing the way towards the man’s future experiments, his score for Jean-Luc Godard’s First Name: Carmen (1983) not included.
This was the end of an era for the maverick singer-songwriter as he signed to Island Records, and employed a more esoteric strategy. The gloriously titled SWORDFISHTROMBONES (1983) {*8} introduced the new WAITS sound, a surrealistic cut up of mutant jazz, skewed keyboards rhythms, jarring guitar and wildly inspired lyrics. Like a manic marching band taking over a ghost town, `Underground’ opens the album’s account, but it really comes into its own on the BEEFHEART-esque `16 Shells From A 30.6’, `Gin Soaked Boy’ and his coolest dirge up to now, `In The Neighborhood’.
Another not to garner much attention from his homeland, but spicing up the UK Top 30, RAIN DOGS (1985) {*9} advanced this formula, again employing an array of session musicians to realise his eccentric musical vision. Quirky and fractured as only Tom could be, the record was littered with jarring jewels like `Jockey Full Of Bourbon’, `Clap Hands’ and another ROD STEWART procurement `Downtown Train’. Of course there were off-kilter polka diversions, but keeping to his newfound formula, other grandiose movers came through `Time’, `Big Black Mariah’, `Walking Spanish’ and `Gun Street Girl’.
With material co-written with wife and Irish playwright, Kathleen Brennan (whom he married on December 31, 1981) and adapted from a song on “SWORDFISH…”, FRANKS WILD YEARS (1987) {*7} was set to a musical stage show that included the brilliant horn-driven weirdness of opening salvo, `Hang On St. Christopher’. Notable for its carnival atmosphere and swing-styled arrangements, the three husband-wife credits `I’ll Be Gone’, `Yesterday Is Here’ and `Please Wake Me Up’ solidify the accordion man’s newfound continental café approach; the bible-beating `Way Down In The Hole’ and `Cold Cold Ground’ bring some sanity to the set.
Divorced from the queasy visuals, BIG TIME (1988) {*7} was more an extended precis of WAITS’ “Island” wild years than a proper live soundtrack. As a stand-alone document, it’s also a gruffly spirited insight into the – increasingly rare – phenomenon of WAITS in the raw. The fact that some of the material was drawn from Swedish and German gigs might account for the relative lack of banter, but that just means more focus on the music and the growling.
If CAPTAIN BEEFHEART cultivated his bark with deliberately caught head colds, WAITS sounds as if he’s had chronic bronchitis since birth; has anyone else in popular music drawn quite as much phonetic mileage from as relatively innocuous a word as “Down”?; a back to back, near definitive version of `Way Down In The Hole’ and `Falling Down’ (the obligatory unreleased studio track) has TW taking the proverbial rough with the smooth. The latter actually stands as one of his more unsung ballads, differentiated from the rest of the album by its personnel – including LITTLE FEAT alumni Fred Tackett and Richie Hayward – and elegiac pump organ. Willie Schwarz evokes a similar tone with his accordion on a delicious `Cold Cold Ground’, even if his stage-mates are all jutting elbows and bulging veins. Restricting himself to a casually shredded solo on `16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought-Six’, veteran NY hipster Marc Ribot, in particular, is a model of discordant economy. Together with Greg Cohen, Ralph Carney and Michael Blair, he connives with WAITS in re-animating many of the man’s creations for the psycho-dramatic headspace of the stage: `Telephone Call From Istanbul’ shuffles and spasms like a slavering idiot savant gone to the hop, `Yesterday Is Here’ menaces by stealth and – even if the idea of an audience clapping along to a TOM WAITS song is somehow ridiculous – `Clap Hands’ is sheer reptilian, Ribot-strafed incantation.
In tandem with a serious leftfield turn in WAITS’ recording career, the Coppola association continued through the early to mid-80s with minor roles in The Outsiders (1983), Rumble Fish (1983) and The Cotton Club (1984). His first major screen part came via Jim Jarmusch and his cult classic, Down By Law (1986), where he played a surly, rootless DJ framed for a crime he didn’t commit, contributing his own `Jockey Full Of Bourbon’ to the soundtrack. Another convincing role opposite Jack Nicholson in Depression era drama, Ironweed (1987), announcing his entry into mainstream cinema. If memorable turns in enjoyable failures such as Candy Mountain (1987), Cold Feet (1989), The Two Jakes (1990), Queens Logic (1991) and At Play In The Fields Of The Lord (1991) didn’t exactly raise his profile, the early 90s found him with typically subversive roles in two of his biggest Hollywood movies to date, The Fisher King (1991) and as an insect-eating lunatic in Coppola’s huge horror re-invention, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Following on from 1991 when he sued a radio ad company for using a sound-alike in a chips commercial and won nearly $2.5 million, a solo WAITS scored NIGHT ON EARTH (1992) {*4}. Teaming up with director Jim Jarmusch for this peculiar little quirk of a movie, WAITS took a couple of main codas: `Good Old World’, `Theme’ plus `Mood’, and riffed a subtly different take for each of the quintet of vignettes. The results however, were disappointing by WAITS’ high standards. While `Good Old World’ is a by-the-book WAITS standard of junkyard “thunk” and backyard growls, it lacks an edge to make it as transcendent as so much of his back catalogue. It takes flashes of Joe Gore’s razor-wire guitar to lift it past torpid.
His next album proper was BONE MACHINE (also 1992) {*8}. The title was apt, a stark collection of minimalistic clanking and dark, muted musings; the prime example stemming from the opening track, `Earth Died Screaming’. Preaching hell-fire damnation to anyone within ear-distance of his visceral verbal, Tom perfects his morbid, lo-fi ghetto-blasters in `Dirt In The Ground’, `The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me’ and `Jesus Gonna Be Here’. Only the piano-led `Whistle Down The Wind’ and `Who Are You’, let up from his relentless ruminations.
THE BLACK RIDER (1993) {*4} held the musical fruits of a comic operetta collaboration between director Robert Wilson and uber-beat poet, William S. Burroughs. A painful document that was a low-point in WAITS’ career, the curtain was called after 20 weird and not wonderful ditties had taken up its allotted 80 odd minutes.
A part in Robert Altman’s acclaimed Short Cuts – cast as the wonderfully named Earl Piggot – had premiered in 1993, while musically, WAITS also contributed the brilliant `Little Drop Of Poison’ to Wim Wenders’ 1997 effort, The End Of Violence. He duly appeared in superhero send-up, Mystery Men, and took much of the plaudits for his Palme d’Or-winning chinwag with IGGY POP in Jarmusch’s 1986 short, Coffee And Cigarettes (released in full in ‘03).
It was six long years before WAITS returned to the music biz, the Epitaph label (more identified with the day’s hardcore/punk scene) astonishingly taking up the reins for his marvellous comeback set, MULE VARIATIONS (1999) {*7}; if his gruff vox could be singled out as one type of music, it would indeed be “hard core”. Now nearly fifty years of age (and looking every part of it!), WAITS had his first UK Top 10 success with the set, and even more importantly, his debut into the American Top 30; Brennan was co-conspirator on nearly all the cuts.
Why bother with a double-set when two simultaneously-released single albums will do. 2002’s BLOOD MONEY {*7} and ALICE {*7}, gave WAITS another cross-Atlantic success. While the former was a loose adaptation of Georg Buchner’s 1837 play, Woyzeck (inspired by a mad and murderous German soldier) and featuring Larry Taylor, bluesman CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE, Colin Stetson, and others, the latter was also augmented by the aforementioned Robert Wilson in a one-time song-cycle production project about Lewis Carroll muse, Alice Liddell (the inspiration behind Alice In Wonderland). Reminiscent of WAITS’ heyday as perpetrator of “Swordfish…” and “Rain Dogs”, the tracks are then conceptual and story-driven.
Some might claim that WAITS has been REAL GONE for decades, but if the title of his umpteenth album (released 2004) {*6} was stating the obvious, the music wasn’t. Shorn of frippery, disassembled, distorted and scar-naked, it roared to the gun-metal rhythms of Marc Ribot and Les Claypool (ex-PRIMUS), as WAITS barked out agit-surrealist protest: `Sins Of My Father’ howled against cancerous politics to a chain-gang lurch, `Day After Tomorrow’ was a heroic rasp for sanity, `Hoist That Rag’ a death-growl bolero, an anti-social club for embattled guerrillas. That this kind of in-house subversion managed to breach the US Top 30 (UK Top 20) must be proof of something; if not a popular revelation, then at least evidence that music hasn’t drowned in market-slop just yet.
WAITS ran up more thespian (mainly psychos and nutters) movie roles in further films such as Domino (2005), The Tiger And The Snow (2005), Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006), The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009), and his most recent: `The Book Of Eli’ (2010), Seven Psychopaths (2012) and `Twixt (2012).
Back on track in 2009, GLITTER AND DOOM LIVE {*5} culled music from his most recent studio sets for Anti Records (plus a 35-minute spoken-word story, `Tom’s Tales’ on the deluxe version), but even a proper backing band couldn’t save this somewhat shambolic affair; he covers LEADBELLY’s `Fannin’ Street’ and re-vamps `Singapore’ from “Rain Dogs”.
BAD AS ME (2011) {*7} reunited the man with blues and jazz, his CAPTAIN BEEFHEART-ian similarities cropping up on `Get Lost’ (plus the title track) and his NICK CAVE-esque preachings coming up trumps in `Raised Right Man’. With a stellar cast that included his son Casey Waits on drums, KEITH RICHARDS and LOS LOBOS’s David Hidalgo as guest guitarists (alongside stalwarts Ribot and Musselwhite), keyboard player Patrick Warren and of course, lucky lady Kathleen Brennan as co-composer, the 60-something TW is just something else. He mightn’t be the most famous “rock star” (those are serious inverted commas) in showbiz, but few singers and actors can muster the gruff intensity of TOM WAITS at his bizarre best.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD BG/LCS/MR / rev-up MCS Aug2012

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