Few voices are as instantly recognisable as Tom Waitsʼ. Somewhere between velvet croon and stygian rasp, it sings of dope fiends and psychopaths, nighthawks and hookers, stragglers and strippers – a whole gallery of oddballs.
Youʼll find them maundering in cafés long since empty, sitting in grimy bars and lying in rain-soaked streets, alone and awake and probably drunk at an ungodly hour. For all the recent talk about “outsider” music, the real spirit of alienation lives in these songs about people who carry on with a life on the borders of society, in liminal spaces and morally dubious hazes.
Fittingly for someone whose stories take place in the shadows, Tom Waits has always occupied a place on the periphery of the mainstream. Never quite radio-friendly enough to become a household name, his fame outside a rabid fanbase is largely due to a couple of painful cover versions by the Eagles and Rod Stewart (RIYL Rod Stewart and the Eagles, otherwise steer well clear) – strange, because if anyone has the potential to be everything to everyone, itʼs him.
Heʼs tried his hand at vaudeville, sea shanties, ballads, showtunes, and industrial-tinged rock, his output united not by genre or style but by the fact that itʼs all ineffably, wonderfully, obviously him. Heʼs also an accomplished film and theatre actor, and this ability to assume a role, however obscure or fantastic, is clearly a factor in his songwriting – whether he takes on the role of dispirited narrator, bereaved mother, or prisoner on the loose. He do the police in different voices. He may be most famed for his ballads, but look deeper and youʼll find plenty beyond the melancholy; thereʼs often a potent sense of schadenfreude at play, of a wicked relish taken in the grotesque, in holding up the folly of humanity for ridicule. Sometimes the result is funny and caricature-like; sometimes it rubs a little too uncomfortably close to your own experience. Itʼs sometimes sad, sometimes hilarious, and often both.
With such a varied catalogue and a career thatʼs been going strong since the 1970s with remarkably few slips (the Better Midler duets are best seen as an embarrassing footnote), itʼs difficult to pick the best. Here, then, is a cross-section. Where possible, the clips are of live shows; he may be great on record, but Waits was born to perform.
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