Tom Waits - Musician, Actor, Icon

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The secret of Tom Waits' success is...well, a secret. It's difficult to pinpoint why a guy who looks like a psychotic bum, sounds like he eats razor blades for breakfast, and riffs on the burnt-out lives of drifters, losers, crooks, street kids and prostitutes, should exert such incredible influence through four decades of musical output.


Got drunk with Louis Armstrong, what's that old song? I taught Mickey Mantle everything that he knows.

- 'Jitterbug Boy', Small Change, 1976

Waits had heard Ken Nordine's 'word jazz' recordings made in the late 1950s. Imagine James Stewart reading Jackanory to the accompaniment of a smooth easy jazz trio, and you have some idea of what Nordine's improvisatory musings sounded like.

However, Waits' delivery owes rather more to the comedian Lord Buckley. 'His Royal Hipness' was a crazy white cat who told traditional tales in hipster-jazz speak and famously renamed Jesus 'the Nazz'. Waits took Lord Buckley's deep growl and Deep South accent, added another 50 years, a whole lotta bourbon and his own highly-developed comic timing, and produced the voice for which he is now famous on his second album, Nighthawks at the Diner (1975).

This was a 'live' album, in the sense that the studio was temporarily converted into a bar and packed with friends and acquaintances for the recording. Waits intersperses his songs with his own brand of stand-up comedy - or sitting-down-at-the-piano comedy.

I'm so goddamn horny the crack o'dawn better be careful around me...

'Opening Intro', Nighthawks at the Diner, 1975

However, being the love-child of Lenny Bruce and Tom Lehrer is only part of the story. Waits is often associated with the Beat poets of the 1950s and 60s - Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso et al.

cue erudite paragraph on Waits' lyrics in relation to Beat poetry. I also like this quotation:

There's a fascinating album that came out in '57 on Hanover Records: 'Kerouac/Allen'. It's Jack Kerouac telling stories, with Steve Allen playing piano behind him. That album sort of sums up the whole thing. That's what gave me the idea to do some spoken pieces myself.

-- New Musical Express. Todd Everett, 29 November 1975

Early Life

I'll tell you all my secrets but I'll lie about my past...

- 'Tango Til They're Sore', Raindogs, 1985

Tom Waits was born in 1949 in Pomona, California to schoolteacher parents.

[[They later moved to San Diego and around the age of 15, Waits got a job at Napolean's Pizza House. He worked there for several years, until he became a professional musician, and this establishment crops up in several of his songs.]]

The Asylum Years

Waits was discovered by rock manager Herb Cohen (who also managed Frank Zappa). He moved to LA, and by 1972 was signed to Asylum Records. In his early twenties, Waits was already sounding threescore years and ten. The jazzy piano and wistful lyrics of his first album, Closing Time (1973) were not going to rock the world, but already Waits was proving to be a compelling musical storyteller, singing of ordinary people trying to cope with life, going to work, pleading with lovers, wandering the streets drunk at 2am.

There's a common loneliness that just sprawls from coast to coast... It's like a common disjointed identity crisis. It's the dark, warm narcotic American night. I just hope I'm able to touch that feeling before I find myself one of these days double-parked on easy street.

(interview in Newsweek, 1976)

In danger of becoming an entertaining but less-than-fashionable lounge pianist, and perhaps tired of being on the road playing club after club, Waits moved into LA's infamous Tropicana Motel in 1975 and started living the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. Jim Morrison had lived at the Tropicana in the late sixties, Janis Joplin had died there in 1970. The playwright Sam Shepard was in residence and soon Blondie and the Ramones would be swinging by.

Waits produced some of his finest early albums during this period, including Small Change (1976), Foreign Affairs (1977), Blue Valentine (1978), Heartattack and Vine (1980). His jazzy sound developed an urban cool, a lowlife lilt, a sardonic twang. He introduced as characters the prostitutes, drug addicts, gangsters and shysters found in the motels and all-night cafes of LA. Waits shows a greater breadth in these albums than he had previously displayed - Blue Valentine, for example, moves from true love (Kentucky Avenue) to tragedy (Romeo is Bleeding), from despair (Blue Valentines) to hope (Somewhere).

But Waits was also having problems. With alcohol, especially. And with girls. He started an affair with his friend, singer Ricki Lee Jones, which ended two years later in 1979. He was becoming disillusioned with the music industry and perhaps dissatisfied with his own musical development.

In 1980, Waits was approached by Francis Ford Coppola to write the soundtrack for the film One From The Heart. In the offices of Zoetrope in LA, Waits met one of Coppola's script editors, Kathleen Brennan. They were married in August of the same year.

Waits' longtime producer, Bones Howe has said of Kathleen: 'She really separated him from everybody in his past. And frankly, it was time for that for Tom.'

Over the next couple of years, Waits separated from Bones Howe, wrote a new album which was co-produced by Kathleen, and left Asylum Records for Island Records after Asylum turned the new album down. Apparently it was considered not commercial enough.

The Island Years

In fact, Swordfishtrombones, released in 1983, proved to be the musical breakthrough Waits needed.

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