Saturday, October 29, 2011


One critic described Tom Waits voice as sounding like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car. His style is certainly distinctive as he incorporates blues, jazz, vaudeville, and experimental industrial sounds into his music. He has also worked as a composer for movies and musical plays and has acted in numerous films.

His songs often present a portrait of down-and-out characters in carnival-like and junkyard settings. Waits is influenced by Jack Kerouac, Louis Armstrong, Howlin' Wolf, Bob Dylan, Captain Beefheart, and Charles Bukowski and used elements from all of these artists in creating his idiosyncratic music.

Waits started playing at the Troubadour in LA in 1971. After being signed buy Herb Cohen, Waits made a series of demo recordings for the Bizarre/Straight label that weren't released until 20 years later, under the title The Early Years, Volume One and Volume Two.

Waits signed with Aslyum Records in 1972, and his first record Closing Time was released in 1973. The album was folk and jazz influenced and received a positive critical reaction, and eventually had three of the songs covered by The Eagles, Tim Buckley, and Bette Midler.

The Heart of Saturday Night came out in 1974, and revealed Wait's roots as a nightclub performer, with half-spoken and half-crooned ballads, often accompanied by a jazz back-up band. 

Nighthawks at the Diner came out in 1975, and was recorded in a studio with a small audience in order to capture the ambience of his live shows. There are lengthy spoken interludes between songs that punctuate his live act. A highlight of this album is Emotional Weather Report.

The first Tom Waits album that had a huge impact on me was Small Change that came out in 1976. The album was an attempt at resolving the cocktail lounge, down-and-out drunk persona that Waits had created. The mood is more pessimistic and cynical, but still heavily influenced by jazz. There are many excellent songs on this record including Tom Traubert's Blues, Step Right Up/The Piano Has Been Drinking, Invitation to the Blues, and I Can't Wait To Get Off Work.

Foreign Affairs (1977) was in the same vein as Small Change and continued to explore jazz and blues. Potter's Field is a long cinematic spoken-word piece set to an orchestral score. It also contains a duet with Bette Midler.

Another of my favorite albums by Waits is Blue Valentine (1978), which puts more focus on electric guitar and keyboards. The album has a dark, smoky, finger-poppin' blues sound and is full of great instrumental performances and Waits' trademark growl.

Heartattack and Vine was Waits' last studio album for Asylum and was released in 1980. It includes the song Jersey Girl that would eventually be covered by Bruce Springsteen in live performances.

In 1980, Waits married Kathleen Brennan, a screenwriter, who he met while working on the Francis Ford Coppola film One From The Heart. She is credited as a co-author on many songs on his later albums, and Waits often cites her as a major influence.

Swordfishtrombones was Waits' first album on Island and came out in 1983. It marked a sharp turn in Waits' musical direction. Up to this point he had played guitar and piano, but now started gravitating towards less common instruments. The album contained the sounds of bagpipes, the basson, the waterphone, the marimba, pump organs, and various percussion instruments. 

Waits wanted to break old and familiar habits and the sound of the music changed dramatically. He was now including primal blues, cabaret, rumbas, tango, early country, Tin Pan Alley, and more theatrical elements into his work.

This experiment with this new sound continued with one of his greatest albums Rain Dogs (1985). It was a sprawling collection of 19 songs and included guitar work by Marc Ribot, Robert Quine, and Keith Richards. There was also an emphasis on using instruments such as the marimba, the accordion, the double bass, and the trombone. There are several great tunes on this record including Singapore, Clap Hands, Jockey Full of Bourbon, Time, Gun Street Girl,  and Downtown Train.

Frank's Wild Years, a musical play by Waits and Brennan, was staged Off-Broadway in 1986, and directed by Gary Sinise. It also had a successful run at Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theater where Waits played the lead role. In the same year he had a lead role in Jim Jarmusch's Down By Law that also featured two songs from Rain Dogs. 

A recording of Frank's Wild Years was released in 1987 that included everything from sleazy strip-show blues, to cheesy waltzes, to lounge lizard-like sounds. The album has a spare, yet jarring sound, using squawking horns, bashed drums, snaky double bass, carnival organ, and accordion. It includes the well-known song Way Down In The Hole.

In 1990, Waits collaborated with theater director Robert Wilson, and writer William S. Burroughs on The Black Rider that premiered at Hamburg's Thalia Theatre. The work was heavily influence by the work of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. An album was released in 1993.

Bone Machine was Waits' first studio album in five years, and was released in 1992. The stark record featured a lot of percussion and guitar with little piano or sax. It has been described as a morbid, sinister nightmare that incorporated the ideas of his 80s experimental style.

The Mule Variations was issued in 1999 and has been described as melding backwoods blues, skewed gospel, and art stomp into a sublime piece of junkyard sound sculpture. In 2000, I was lucky enough to witness Tom Waits perform at The Beacon Theater in New York. It was a piece of theater as well as a concert and something I will never forget.

In 2002, Waits released two albums, Alice and Blood Money. Both had been written ten years earlier and were based on theatrical collaborations with Robert Wilson. Alice was a musical play about Lewis Carroll, and Blood Money was an interpretation of Georg Buchner's play fragment Woyzeck. The sound is full the Tin Pan Alley sound and spoken-word influences that emerged on Swordfishtrombones, while the lyrics were cynical and full of melancholy.

Real Gone came out in 2004 and contains some cryptic and elliptical political songs addressing the state of the world. The most explicit of these songs in Day After Tomorrow. The sound throws out the piano altogether and most of the songs start off with vocal percussion improvisations and there is a use of beatboxes as well. It's a strange album that becomes richer with repeated listening.

Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, & Bastards came out in 2006, and included 54 tracks of rarities, unreleased material, and new compositions. Brawlers features Waits more upbeat rock and blues songs, Bawlers contained ballads and love songs, and Bastards contains songs that fit in neither category, including several spoken-word tracks.There are several covers of songs or words by artists that Waits admired including The Ramones, Daniel Johnston, Weill and Brecht, Leadbelly, Charles Bukowski, and Jack Kerouac.

Bad As Me (2011) is Waits first collection of new material in seven years. The album keeps the experimentation, especially with percussion, but also involves blues, rockabilly, R & B, and jazz. Marc Ribot and Keith Richards contribute guitar tracks, Clint Maedgen plays sax, and Charles Musselwhite appears on harmonica, while the sound is filled out by Waits' son Casey on drums, banjo, percussion, and piano. The album makes use of all of the elements that Waits' has incorporated into his sound over the years.

Tom Waits has composed an amazing body of work that chronicles the adrift and downtrodden. He creates characters who are capable of insight and startling points of view, even though they live a life of uncertainty and despair. This is combined with an experimentation of sound that creates musical works of art that are totally unique.

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