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The Essential... Tom Waits

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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‘GRAPEFRUIT MOON’
(from CLOSING TIME, ASYLUM, 1973)

Youʼd be hard pressed to find a debut album as good as Closing Time. Probing the depths of the isolation that was to recur throughout his entire oeuvre, itʼs heavy on lovelorn ballads and regret. Backed up by minimal guitar lines and gently pattered piano, Waits sings of empty clubs and bars, where loneliness hangs like a fog and the memories of lost loves are so raw as to be palpable amid the smoke and spilled beer. There are fans who believe Waits is at his best when wrapping his voice around something slow and mournful, and when you hear ʻGrapefruit Moonʼ you can see their point. Itʼs so wistful that it almost collapses under its own emotional weight, all lush strings and melancholy piano and lyrics like, “Now I’m smoking cigarettes, and I strive for purity / And I slip just like the stars into obscurity.”

Itʼs one of Waitsʼ most quixotic songs, still packing a serious lovesick punch forty years down the line. His sound was to become more distinctive and lighter on the lounge piano in subsequent records before his descent into sonic madness around the mid-80s, but Closing Time – and ʻGrapfruit Moonʼ in particular, though also ʻMarthaʼ and ʻI Hope That I Donʼt Fall In Love With Youʼ – was a solid introduction to that perennial Waits theme, that abject feeling of drinking alone, thinking about what could have been. Weʼve all been there.

‘THE PIANO HAS BEEN DRINKING (NOT ME)
(from SMALL CHANGE, ASYLUM, 1976)

Only three years passed between Closing Time and Small Change, but in that time Waitsʼ voice roughened to the grizzled rasp heʼs famous for now. Here it recalls Louis Armstrong the day after a whisky binge, shot through with gravel and sandpaper and a whole lot of pain. Thereʼs plenty on Small Change for everyone to love: the hoarse, aching moan of ʻTom Traubertʼs Bluesʼ; the acerbic, scatting paean to consumerism in ʻStep Right Upʼ; the wicked lechery of ʻPasties and a G-Stringʼ (a 1970s precursor to ʻBandz A Make Her Danceʼ if ever there was one); the infatuated piano ballad ʻInvitation to the Bluesʼ. Small Change is almost pure gold from start to finish.

But the high point is ʻThe Piano Has Been Drinkingʼ, which ticks all the Waits boxes of brilliance: bone-dry dissociation – “the jukebox has to take a leak / And the carpet needs a haircut” – the hilariously un-PC characters like “a mental midget with the IQ of a fencepost”, and sideways humour in lines like “and you canʼt find your waitress / with a Geiger counter”. Itʼs a soundtrack to extreme loneliness, a depressing confirmation that humour is pointless as a defence mechanism against alcoholic self-loathing. That balance between lugubriousness and wry wit is a tricky one to maintain, but Waits carries it off. ʻBad Liver and a Broken Heartʼ pulls a similar trick, and though it contains immortal lines like, ʻI donʼt have a drinking problem / ʼCept when I canʼt get a drinkʼ, itʼs the alcoholicʼs desperate transferral of blame in the piano ballad that kills me every time.

‘CHRISTMAS CARD FROM A HOOKER IN MINNEAPOLIS’
(from BLUE VALENTINE, ASYLUM, 1978)

Blue Valentine feels more like a play or film than album, even including a Bernstein-penned track, ʻSomewhereʼ from West Side Story. Itʼs filled with a huge cast of characters: the rookie gangster whoʼs killed at the movies in ʻRomeo is Bleedingʼ; the girl who waits futilely for her date, unaware heʼs been shot, in ʻRed Shoes By the Drugstoreʼ, and stab-happy Mrs Storm and strip poker-playing Hilda in ʻKentucky Avenueʼ. But by far the best is the hooker-narrator on one of Waitsʼ finest tracks. “Charlie, Iʼm pregnant,” she begins, and itʼs all downhill from there.

After she reminisces about their all-too-brief time together – “I think about you every time I pass a filling station / On account of all the grease you used to wear in your hair” – it transpires that, far from being married to a man who “gave me a ring that was worn by his mother”, sheʼll be “eligible for parole / Come Valentines Day”. In the clip below, ʻSilent Nightʼ segues into ʻChristmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolisʼ. Waits cuts into his own song in a Brechtian interlude, singing the Little Anthony and the Imperials song the hooker refers to as having been stolen. That performance in particular embodies all thatʼs great about Tom Waits: the deadpan humour, theatrics, pathos, self-referential storytelling, and the enduring appeal of social rejects, all in one Christmas package.

‘FRANK’S WILD YEARS’
(from SWORDFISHTROMBONES, ISLAND, 1983)

The early albums may have been transmissions from the periphery of society, but the songs themselves were conventional. Not so Swordfishtrombones, a record that whichever way you look at it is just plain weird, so much so that Asylum wouldnʼt release it. Firstly, the instrumentation is far more interesting than before: there are over ten kinds of drum listed in the credits, along with bagpipes, marimba, banjo, and brass. The songwriting is more abstract too. Then thereʼs the huge range of moods – love and melancholy in the shanty ʻShore Leaveʼ; bitterness and envy in ʻGin-Soaked Boyʼ; the stifled agony of bereavement in ʻSoldierʼs Thingsʼ, and alienation in ʻTroubleʼs Braidsʼ. Oddest of all the songs is ʻFrankʼs Wild Yearsʼ, a Dostoyevskyan tale told with such drained indifference that Waits the narrator is almost as odious as his psychopath character.

Over lethargically plunked piano, Waitsʼ Kurt Weill-esque wheeze tells of Frank, an average guy next door with a wife whoʼs a “spent piece of used jet-trash, made good Bloody Marys, kept her mouth shut most of the time” (nice) and a dog with a skin disease. Frank stops by the liquor store one night, buys a couple of beers, and drives home to set his house, wife and dog aflame, watching them “burn Halloween orange and chimney red.” As you do. Itʼs the final, pithy line that clinches it: “Never could stand that dog.” As murder ballads go, this oneʼs pure ice: no motive, no reasoning, no anticipation and no remorse, just fantastically chilling psychopathy.

Swordfishtrombones was Waitsʼ first experimental album proper, the first in a trilogy of particularly eccentric records. Itʼs testament to Waitsʼ longevity that, thirty years after the fact, ʻFrankʼs Wild Yearsʼ still sounds completely deranged.

‘TIME’
(from RAIN DOGS, ISLAND, 1985)

Waits wove the weird hobo vibe of Swordfishtrombones into a more concrete conceptual narrative for Rain Dogs, the second of the bizarre triptych. Rain Dogs just about wins it for me as Waitsʼ best album, mostly on the basis of his voice, which by this stage was more of a roar than a howl, dripping with tension and irony and fear. The title refers to dogs that are unable to smell their way home after the rain, a metaphor thatʼs extended to cover New York Cityʼs homeless. Rain Dogsʼ heft comes from Keith Richardsʼ guitar and some stellar songwriting that covers all the bases – spoken word in ʻ9th and Hennepinʼ (“All the doughnuts have names that sound like prostitutes”); glorious towering brass in ʻAnywhere I Lay My Headʼ; sea shanties in ʻSingaporeʼ and polka in ʻCemetery Polkaʼ, which ghoulishly predicts family membersʼ deaths in pursuit of their cash.

Yet far from feeling scattered, the theme and their weary narrator unify the songs. Itʼs therefore pretty hard to pick a stand-out track from the melange, though as both the central song and one of the albumʼs longest, ʻTimeʼ, a ballad dedicated to the plight of the dispossessed, feels like a fulcrum around which the rest of the record hinges. In a voice heavy with defeat and irony, Waits sings, “the wind is making speeches / And the rain sounds like a round of applause.” The accordion and guitar are subtle and his timeworn vocal heavily foregrounded as he sings of the tragic displaced: Matilda and Napoleon, left out in the rain, able to take solace only in a past thatʼs been cast with a rosy glow of nostalgia. Time may heal all wounds, but it causes them too.

‘WAY DOWN IN THE HOLE’
(from FRANKS WILD YEARS, ANTI, 1987)

Franks Wild Years is notable for having about half the songs co-written by Kathleen Brennan. Though to my mind itʼs the weakest of the triptych, a couple of the tracks stand out. Fans of the TV show The Wire will be familiar with ʻWay Down In the Holeʼ, which was covered by a host of musicians for the opening credits. Unlike the grim torture that is Rod Stewartʼs cover of ʻOlʼ 55ʼ, some of these are actually great – check out Steve Earleʼs version. Not only does the song benefit from the badass association with Omar Little and Prop Joe, it also stands on its own as a stellar track. And yes, while technically itʼs Christian rock (forgive me), the shaker percussion, a swinging guitar riff, faint gospel choir and Waitsʼ rasping howl elevate ʻWay Down in the Holeʼ pretty far above your standard Jesus fare. Lyrically, itʼs one of Waitsʼ simpler tracks – thereʼs very little by way of punning or storytelling here – but thatʼs partly where its beauty lies. Even without the wordplay, and with the Christianity, Waits proves himself more than capable of carrying a great song. Bob Dylan, take note.

‘BIG IN JAPAN’
(from MULE VARIATIONS, ANTI, 1999)

Dirty, grizzled bluesy rock is the order of the day with Mule Variations. Of course, sleaziness by this point had long been at the fore with Waits, but this record – and Bone Machine before it – is particularly scuzzy, as if itʼs been kicked around a car park. Waitsʼ gravelly howl in ʻBig In Japanʼ, backed by mucky drums and a lurching guitar riff, is perfection. It reels off contrasts in couplets – “I got the style but not the grace / I got the clothes but not the face / I got the bread but not the butter / I got the winda but not the shutter” – before finding solace in the fact that, “hey, Iʼm big in Japan.” One of Waitsʼ more comedic songs in the vein of ʻStep Right Upʼ, this oneʼs particularly strong by virtue of its simplicity. Mule Variations is one of his harder albums, and though the more strait-laced among Waitsʼ fans might lament a lack of ballads (ʻHold Onʼ is one of his loveliest, though), this sludgy vibe feels just right for his older voice. I read an interview once where Waitsʼ house was described as overstuffed with books and records, some of which are well over fifty or sixty years old. That impression that time stops still in Waitsʼ world never feels keener than in this record. Itʼs a world where people still call cars “jalopies”, buy things from dime stores and drive for hours down roads without seeing another soul.

‘ALICE’
 (from ALICE, ANTI, 2002)

Alice, like its complement Blood Money, was released as the soundtrack to the play of the same name, loosely centred on the relationship between Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson and Alice Lidell, on whom the central character of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass was based. The paedophilia of that relationship is alluded to in the play, lending a decidedly creepy undertone to proceedings. That being said, the titular track is one of Waitsʼ most stunning ballads, lyrically evocative and instrumentally sublime. Tape hiss and a mournful sax provide the perfect backdrop to melancholy-drenched vocals, and the lyrics ingeniously evoke that feeling where everything – however inanimate or irrelevant – reminds you of someone you love: “And the raindrops on my window / And the ice in my drink / Baby all I can think of is Alice… Thereʼs only Alice”.

Waitsʼ voice is on fine form here too, held barely above a croaky whisper at times, taking on the quality of decayed tape at others, but still retaining the velvetiness of his early songs. The real-life relationship ʻAliceʼ refers to lends this fragile, emotive love a deeply uneasy cast. It also illustrates just how fluid the interplay between story and song are with Waits, and how where one exists the other is never far behind.

‘TOM TALES’
(from GLITTER AND DOOM LIVE, ANTI, 2009)

A bit of a wildcard, this, but not much can better capture Waitsʼ performance persona, as lyrically elegant ad-libbing onstage as it is on record. And after over thirty years of touring, to my knowledge the manʼs never repeated a joke. ANTI collated over half an hour of onstage banter from his ʻGlitter and Doomʼ tour and released it as a single 35-minute track named ʻTom Talesʼ on the second disc of the live album.

On paper, some of the gags might make you physically cringe (thereʼs one about “shellfish” shrimp that donʼt give to charity which honestly Iʼm sorry for even writing here) but, as any comedian will tell you, humour is all about the delivery. And Waits certainly delivers, with a laconic, wry tone and perfect timing to his observations, anecdotes and jokes. Hereʼs my favourite: You know what really bothers me is when somebody tells you that their cell phone is also a camera. I just hate that. Whatʼs wrong with having something thatʼs just what it is and being happy about it? It makes me want to say to them…“My sunglasses are also a tricycle.”

Indeed. You keep doing what you do, Tom Waits. Itʼs certainly worked up until now.

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