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A Tom Waits Primer
Disclaimer 2: I don't recommend listening to Waits' discography all at once.
Personal interaction with the artistTom Waits is one of the few artists whose entire discography appeals to me, and his music is, in my mind, anchored not only to the time of day but also the activity I'm engaged in: that time of day being evening/night, and that activity being reclining with a drink in hand. I know that might sound a little bit cliche, but the early albums at least definitely favor that treatment. As I move through Waits' discography, though, being upright and sober is also an acceptable way to listen. Waits was an instant like for me and my family. My wife and teenage daughters adore his music, too, especially the dark cabaret stuff.
Overview of the artistI'm not here to rehash encyclopedia entries and biographies about the man. The links are below for anyone who wants to dive in. tl;dr, though, Waits' 70s stuff is of the piano blues singesongwriter variety. It all goes down easy. Pretty simple and easy to define, mainly because this was before he met his wife, Kathleen Brennan, whom he married in 1980. His "blood and guilt" Irish Catholic wife had a massive influence on his styles going forward, and in my opinion, it was a positive influence, one that helped Waits spread his creative wings. Of course that influence wouldn't have gone anywhere if Waits wasn't already leaning in that direction. He just needed someone to give him the confidence to take the leap.
In the 80s, he went experimental, especially with the rocking Swordfishtrombones. Rain Dogs continued his experimental rock exploration, and he closed the decade with Franks Wild Years, in which he embraced the dark cabaret he'd only dabbled in on the previous two albums. He tried to set aside what he called "the embarrassing baby photos" phase of his career.
Then came the 90s (and early 2000s). Keep in mind that Waits is singesongwriter throughout his career. He is just adding other genres to that folk-esque backbone style of his. Experimental rock continues to dominate his discography at this time, too, but let's throw in some blues rock, vocal jazz, and some more of that dark cabaret Waits just does so damn well. I mean, Alice and Blood Money are basically theater pieces anyway!
Speaking of theater, Waits was involved in many cinematic and stage projects, his most famous being The Black Rider, but he not only wrote and performed theater pieces and film soundtracks, he was also a prolific side actor in many films. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but he said it himself: "I'm not an actor. I'm just a guy who does some acting."
This is merely the briefest of overviews into the life of a somewhat private and aloof artist who was just as interested in spending time with his wife and three children as making music for public appreciation. If anything has caught your attention so far, and if you're not turned off by Waits' "hobo act", his "pastiche of poverty", Barney Hoskyns' Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits and Patrick Humphries' The Many Lives of Tom Waits might be a couple biographies you'll want to check out.
- you want something to soothe your soul while the whiskey burns your throat
- you want the immediacy of singesongwriter
- you want the confessional of the universal
- you're an outcast
- you don't like middle-class dudes playing a "hobo" act
- you want something to easily sing along to
- you want something innocuous in the background
- you want something to pump you up
Similar artists and influencesWhen it comes to similar artists, perhaps it's better to look at the acts that had the biggest influence on Waits. First of all, when Waits was working at a restaurant, he would jot down notes of the diners' conversations, any snippet he found interesting, anything he could use for the everyman down on his luck feeling of his music. Men and women failing at life and yet still able to provide moments of piercing insight.
Waits said in an interview that his uncle's gravelly voice intially inspired him. He also rejected the hippie movement and adhered to the Beat movement of the 50s, finding solace in Kerouac's musings. In fact, he later collaborated with William S. Burroughs on a theater piece. Randy Newman and Dr. John were big musical influences on him, and after Brennan introduced Waits to Captain Beefheart, Van Vliet's style was huge. Of course, Bob Dylan's influence loomed large for Waits, as it did for many singesongwriters in the 70s, and Waits once said that if you want to know how to write a song, listen to Merle Haggard.
Last.fm attempts to provide a list of similar artists, but this is really just a matter of opinion. I strongly disagree with some of these picks, but here are the top ones: Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Captain Beefheart, Townes Van Zandt, Lou Reed, Tim Buckley, and Van Morrison. As far as I'm concerned, this is more a list of "if you like Waits, you'll like these" than "these artists are similar to Waits". I guess for me the one in that list the most similar is Lou Reed, not only because of his style but the sometimes sordid always ramshackle content of his music.
In a 2005 interview, Waits was asked to list his top twenty albums of all time. These were his choices, and perhaps there are some clear marks of influence herein:
- Frank Sinatra - In the Wee Hours
- Thelonious Monk - Solo Monk
- Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band - Trout Mask Replica
- The Rolling Stones - Exile on Main St.
- Gavin Bryars - The Sinking of the Titanic
- Bob Dylan & The Band - The Basement Tapes
- The Lounge Lizards - Lounge Lizards
- The Pogues - Rum Sodomy & the Lash
- Leonard Cohen - I'm Your Man
- Little Richard - The Explosive Little Richard
- James Brown - Star Time
- Various Artists - Texas-Czech Bands, 1929-1959
- Frank Zappa - The Yellow Shark
- Various Artists - Aria: A Passion for Opera
- Bill Hicks - Rant in E-Minor
- Various Artists - Prison Songs (Historical Recordings From Parchman Farm 1947-48), Vol 1: Murderous Home
- Marc Ribot - The Prosthetic Cubans
- Houndog - Houndog
- The Les Claypool Frog Brigade - Purple Onion
- Elvis Costello & The Imposters - The Delivery Man _______________________________________________
The AlbumsThis album list does not include bootlegs or other recordings not approved by the ever-litigious Tom Waits.
The Asylum Years (label formed in 1971 in LA, founded by David Geffen and part of the Warner Music Group).
- Closing Time (1973). How many times have I heard this album by this point? It's like seeing the face of an old friend, getting a bit misty-eyed, and enjoying a warm hug from him. This whole album is an embrace. And he's got stories for you... all the things that happened since last you met. Waits has got an eclectic style to his storytelling, too, one you never get tired of hearing. He's just as comfortable going acoustic guitar as he is at sitting behind the piano and plinking out the blues. But Waits is at his best once he's got a few drinks in him and his music turns slowly like an inebriated carousel. Album art zip file link.
- The Heart of Saturday Night (1974). Man, Saturday night’s a bitch. Sometimes it’s me putting on a tie, you putting on a dress, and we go out and laugh at the bloodshot moon in the burgundy sky. Other times it’s us fighting like cats and dogs, but that’s all right, I guess, since it’s raining cats and dogs, anyway. While you’re out catching your death walking, I’m so lonesome I might as well be a sailor in the middle of nowhere. Both of us stumbling into the heart of all that revelry and heartbreak. Shiver me timbers, but Saturday night can be a real bitch! Album art zip file link.
- Nighthawks at the Diner (1975). This is a weird one. Is it technically a live album or technically a studio album? It's both. Kinda. They wanted to do a live album because that's where Waits thrived. Got him in that rare jazz mood where he can rattle off the coolest one-liners you'll ever hear. But the venues around town were "toilets" in the 70s, so they decided to just invite some people into the studio for two nights to do a live show--but they recorded it using studio equipment in a studio environment. So some people criticize this recording for being fake. Bohemian coffeehouse cool oozes from this album, Waits standing there with a drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other, as he swaggers and stumbles around the microphone, doing what he does best: lowering the temperature of the room with the coolest anecdotes around. Some real laugh-out-loud moments sprinkled here. Album art zip file link.
- Small Change (1976). They say that’s Cassandra Peterson (Elvira, Mistress of the Dark), and that those are her real tits. Okay. Cassandra says it’s not her. Whom to believe? Now that that’s out of the way, how about that sour whiskey music? This album gets better with every listen. And how to listen? Just lie back on the sofa, close your eyes, and listen, which isn’t something we often do with music. But that's the treatment this one needs, especially on a cool, rainy afternoon. Small Change seems to me to be a track by track play of a piano player working at a blues bar who likes to partake of the firewater along with the customers, so by the end of Side A, he’s had one too many, and he has to blame it on the piano. Apparently this is a common occurrence, though, because he alludes to his bad liver later on. But everything will be all right, because his shift is just about to come to an end, and he’s looking forward to getting off work and going home to see his girl. The on-album persona aside, Waits did have a real-life drinking problem. Early on he joked that his only drinking problem was when he couldn't get a drink, but later in life he finally enrolled in Alcholics Anonymous. It's all fun and games until the booze threatens to destroy your life. NSFW outtake cover art.
- Foreign Affairs (1977). First, there's the album cover. Something critics of Waits might point to and say, "See see! This is what I'm talking about. The pretension." Waits definitely was going for a cover that would represent the film noir mood of his music up to this point. But it's all an act, right? I mean, he's just some guy who grew up in a normal family in a suburban California neighborhood. Right? My rebuttal is: And? Is there no place for theater, for adopting a persona, in music? Waits deliberately lived in neighborhoods that reflected not only the poverty but the bohemian cool that pervades his music. And he's not just a singer; he's an actor, too, so he's got that theatrical sense about him. That's why his live shows use props. Bette Midler guests on this album... perhaps Waits' first misstep. Like his other albums, this one swims in drink. Funny thing about the cover, though: the woman thought she was Waits' girlfiend, but she wasn't. She was just one of the Troubador slags. Album art zip file link.
- Blue Valentine (1978). It's Thursday night and close enough to the weekend for a drink. Besides, a little fire in your belly might shake off this damp chill. All her usual bull and excuses and best intentions are scribbled on a rain-soaked postcard in your mailbox. You take it and climb the stairs on dreams, and after your drink, you think you might fall asleep if only the sirens would start. Cover art.
- Heartattack and Vine (1980). When you're so far gone in the liquor you think even the rain is a beverage. Anyway, it doesn't take much imagination to understand the implications of the album title, an obvious reference to Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles, the very heart of the rise of cinema and all its attendant lures into the corruption of innocence. This album is certainly more blues guitar-driven than Waits' six previous recordings, bringing with it even sexier grit (that seems to be obsessed with prostitutes). Like pretty much all his other music, these songs are snapshots into the lives of seedy people who live in the quiet, dark, lonely hours between the closing of the bar and the opening of the circus. This is the final Asylum record, and Waits was contractually-obligated to write it since he owed the label seven albums. You might know Springsteen's cover of Waits' "Jersey Girl"... and I can't help but wonder if the "sha la la la la la las" are indicative of Waits' fatigue with his label. Album art zip file link.
- One From the Heart (1982). Coppola lured Waits back to LA, taking him away from his newfound love for the NYC creative atmosphere, to write a soundtrack in the vein of Waits' earlier stuff, a sound the singer was trying to break away from. I like to think it was fate that brought him back to the West Coast, because if he'd not torn himself away from NYC, he never would've met his future wife (who worked in the film studio), and the latter part of his discography probably wouldn't have been as wonderful as it is. The beauty of that alone is, in my mind, worth the making of this overwrought, schmaltzy album. I'm sure Crystal Gayle is a fine singer, but her energy just doesn't work when mixed with Waits. There's just something about duets like this that drives me crazy. Like, the back and forth is just so cheesy? Don't think of this as a Waits album; it's a collaboration and as much a Gayle album, which, in my book, is a hard pass. This album is sanitized Tom Waits. Album art zip file link.
- Night on Earth (1991). I feel that if people didn't realize this was a Waits album, they'd rate it higher. People bring baggage into a Waits listening experience, and if the expectations aren't met, well, there's bound to be some disappointment. First of all, Waits' voice is conspicuously absent througuhout most of this soundtrack, as the artist decided--unlike with One From the Heart--to focus on instrumentals. Thus this recording lacks the full Waits experience fans grew to love, providing more of an overall noir-jazz soundtrack feel than having anything specifically to do with the voice of the broken-down, boozing loner our itching ears want to hear. Album art zip file link.
- Swordfishtrombones (1983). Take an unshaven shuffle through the neon rain, with nothing but a pack of dirty playing cards and a lonely heart. Follow the slow parade drumming down some empty town street, remembering all the dirty details of the neighborhood. Dip into the desert a couple times while you’re at it and take in the snapshots of tragic lives, and if you’re thirsty, drink water from a swordfishtrombone. What the hell is it anyway, and is the water any good? Count the number of parties playing in the heads of people you pass every damn day. In Waits' real life, this is his big artistic break from the past, both creatively and professionally. He'd completed his Asylum contract, and this was as good a time as any to move away not only from his producer but his (swindling) manager. Waits and his wife took over managerial responsibilities themselves, and they seem to have done a better job with that side of the business as well. Brennan--his wife--also brings her influences to bear, including giants like Captain Beefheart. Asylum rejected this record, as it was a departure from his previous sound, so Waits took up Island's offer to release it. Album art zip file link.
- Rain Dogs (1985). Take every undesirable yet attractive thing you read in a dime-store pulp novel and throw it into a pot stirred by an unshaven vagabond, and you get this bourbon-soaked album. Mad hatters and beat poets doing the polka on this postcard mailed from desolation row. Album art zip file link.
- Franks Wild Years (1987). You’re a lonely, heartbroken truck driver going down a dark highway to drop off a load at an amusement park, but the park is abandoned with all the lights on and the rides operating. So you go wild, dragging your heels across the cracked pavement, looking up at the stars and growing ever more dizzy watching them wheel through their orbits. And the narrative of this album plays like a movie in his mind. Album art zip file link.
- Big Time (1988). The recordings here were taken from two shows Waits did on separate days in November of 1987. Unlike Nighthawks, however, this is a true live album, part of the overall Franks Wild Years tour, not something contrived for a studio audience. Though Waits never goes full Bowie when it comes to on-stage roleplaying, the singer did adopt for a short time a kind of alter ego in Frank, referencing how he torched his house (in that short, spoken word track) before taking off for the big time. In keeping with the theatricality of the Frank concept, several dramatic audio effects were added in post-production, not only audience applause but also snapping fingers, boot stomping, train whistles, gunshots, and whatnot. Disregarding the post-production shenanigans, though, I find it interesting how some of these songs are re-imagined in a live setting. Waits was fascinated by the idea of the street preacher, and some of that comes out here. Can I get an "amen"?! Album art zip file link.
- Bone Machine (1992). This album opens sounding like a bone machine, as if the percussion is being pounded out on the bones of people, the earth screaming like a mother forced to swallow her own increase, her children unable to escape the devouring dirt because we're all chained to her--all because one brother slew another, and the dust cried out for vengeance. Yet this is our home. For all its ugliness, it's beautiful. For all its grit and grime, it's smooth and clean. If you think of Earth as a hotel, you're gonna wanna complain to the manager. But if you think of Earth as a prison, it's pretty damn nice. This album won the Grammy for Best Alternative Album, and when Waits found out, he said to his friend, the filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, "Alternative to what?" Good question, Tom. Waits' wife co-wrote half the songs on this album, demonstrating Brennan's growing influence in the creative evolution of her husband. Album art zip file link.
- Bone Machine: The Operator's Manual (1992). This is a long CMJ radio network interview with Tom Waits, featuring tracks from the album of the same name. Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. This isn't an album, just an interview in which Waits explains what the album is about and the process of its creation and production. He says the albums started with the title, so in that sense, this is a concept. He wanted songs that would fit the title "Bone Machine", so songs that evoke a sense of horror, songs about the inevitability of death, since it is a fact that we all die screaming. And not only us, but everything. The earth first, and eventually the universe. There's no escape. One thing I love about this interview is how he describes songs like they're entities: he describes the creative process in such beautiful metaphorical terms, like when he talks about how a song is "sick", meaning a song isn't working in a certain context or a song is unfinished... it's "sick", and Waits, as a kind of doctor, has to diagnose the song's sickness and help it get better. He also talks about the listener's relationship to songs, saying that an individual song is like a bar of soap. You can hold it in your hand, and sometimes your relationship with the song lasts only as long as a bar of soap, and once it's gone, you move on to the next song. He discusses how his performance aesthetic is changing, too, going from a guy who sat at a piano to a more physical, animal show and how it's connected to the spirit of music that, in some ways, can work as a poltergeist. Perhaps this is connected to Waits getting older and getting angrier, which is why he thinks his percussion has improved. Because he gets to hit shit with more gusto. Waits mentions religion so many times in this interview, which I find interesting, as he's getting it from both his wife and his mother, and that influence finds its way onto the album in frightening clarity. Album art zip file link.
- The Black Rider (1993). In some ways, this is like a lot of Waits' other work, but in other ways, it's completely different. It's got all his grit, of course, but as far as I know Waits doesn't have another operatic concept album like this. (He has the "Franks Wild Years" show, but it was never made into a concept album.) Also, this is the only time he strikes me as creepy (not throughout, just in spots). This album isn't as highly regarded as his giant albums, but I think it's worth anyone's time to give it a close listen. It'll make you wince until it goes down smooth and you're craving more. Basically, this is the creative result of a theatrical collaboration Waits had with a stage director and the famous Beat generation writer William S. Burroughs. This opera is a retelling of the German "Freischütz" myth, about a gunslinger who makes a deal with the Devil for a number of magic bullets that unerringly hit their targets. All but one. In a classic Faustian twist, there's one bullet that's under control of the Devil. In this story, a mild-mannered clerk makes the deal to win the hand of a huntsman's daughter. He must prove his worth as a hunter, and with the magic bullets he does, but on his wedding day, the final bullet under Satan's control kills the clerk's young bride. And in a Greek tragedy parallel, the clerk, like Orpheus in his inconsolable grief, disappears from society. Orpheus is driven to wandering and drink, and in the end he is torn apart by Dionysus' maenads. The clerk joins Satan's carnival, losing his heart, soul, and mind to the infernal pleasures of the circus. This work first appeared as a play in 1990 in Hamburg before being arranged into a concept album. Album art zip file link.
- Mule Variations (1999). Whenever I start a Waits album and try to write some of my thoughts down, I find it difficult to say much because I feel like I lack perspective. When you five-star pretty much an entire discography, you realize you're just a fanboy and therefore aren't sure you have anything useful to say. Here Waits is gritty once again, but it's like he's a hobo singing in some dirty alleyway, singing through a metal can, using whatever he's got within reach for percussion. (A connection to the bone machine?) This music sticks to me like hot summer, sticking to me like unshakable memory. Like most Waits albums, this one, too, is a cathartic experience, but unlike other Waits' recordings thus far, this one is "surrural", meaning the themes are about rural American life, but since they're stories told by Waits, they going to be a bit surreal, aren't they? Waits won a Folk Grammy for this one, having drawn heavily on blues field recordings as the main influence. Yeah, shows that the Grammys don't know their ass from a hole in the ground. Album art zip file link.
- Alice (2002). Is there a greater opening track on any album ever, a truer poetic strike to the eyes that'll make you weep through the rest of the 48-minute journey? This entire album is wrapped in madness and death--is the narrator actually singing from beyond the grave (from beyond the rabbit hole)? Nothing creepier than a violin accompanying your soul on its descent into Hell, driven by suicide. Don't worry, though. They've got a jazz bar down there where you, being disembodied, will fit right in. Listen to the champagne laughs, gaze upon the strangled ebony curls, and know what it was once to be alive. This record's got history that goes beyond the mere studio production. Most of these songs were written for Waits' play, Alice, that he wrote with the same theater director who collaborated with him on The Black Rider. The stage Alice debuted in 1992, ten years before this album. So in a sense this album is more rooted in Waits' Island years, the little sister to Bone Machine and The Black Rider. Cover art.
- Blood Money (2002). This album has one of my favorite Waits’ songs: “God’s Away on Business”. And if you’ve not seen the Cookie Monster fan video for this, do yourself a favor. I would kill to see one of these dark cabarets live, this one, incidentally, being songs from the Waits/Brennan theater piece, Woyzeck. I’d wear a cravat and a top hat to the affair. I’d put on eyeliner. One last thing: can anyone sing a lullaby like Tom Waits? He can tuck me in anytime he wants and tell me stories about how miserable everything and everyone is. Album art zip file link.
- Real Gone (2004). Do you hear a keyboard (piano) anywhere on this album? Maybe I missed it somewhere, but I'm not hearing one. (Okay, I hear some now, but it's barely used.) This is all guitars, and percussion. Sounds like he's flirting with some of those popular indie rock sounds that swirled around the beginning of the century, yet this is typical Waits experimentation, so he makes whatever he's doing his own, transforming it through his dark meditations on sin. Brennan's influences are so strong here that she's basically become a co-songwriter at this point. Here, at the end of his career, the 70s Waits is finally, at last, dead. Some sinister, black ghost has risen in his place, grinning shamelessly. Though this is Waits' only studio album I don't gush over, I understand a little better what he was talking about in one of his interviews: about how he feels angrier as he ages, and how percussion sounds better because of it. If you follow the mule from Mule Variations, it'll lead you into the barn of Real Gone. And if you follow the mule, don't complain when you get dirty. Album art zip file link.
- Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards (2006). Imagine Waits being your dad and having him tell you a bedtime story where you're all alone on the planet, the moon is a piece of rotten wood, and the Earth is an overturned piss pot. Imagine Waits being your zoology professor, revealing the brutality and grittiness of slavery and copulation at all levels of the animal kingdom, including you and your neighbors. Imagine Waits doing an album of nothing but Child ballads...oh man, I'm gonna send him a letter! (Seriously, whom do I write for Waits to see this idea?) This is not some kind of greatest hits compilation. Quite the opposite: it's got rarities and unreleased tracks, those orphaned songs that "fell behind the stove while making dinner". You ever clean out the gunk that falls behind the stove? It's greasy, grimy, and probably full of flavor if you could just be brave enough to try it. Them. Not "it". Though these were released together as a three-disc set, they were consciously separated along lines of influence and style. Brawlers explores the blues and consequently rock, Bawlers sees Waits diving into heart-wrenching ballads, and Bastards focuses more on his megaphone-toting, carnivalesque experimentation. Waits excels at all three, of course, but you can pick what to listen to based on your mood or interest. Album art zip file link.
- Glitter and Doom Live (2009). Ol' Tom was an indefatigable pursuer of miscreants in the music, film, TV, and commercial industries, and after having successfully sued, like, four major corporations/outlets for using his songs without permission, Waits developed quite the reputation as someone not to be fucked with. He would hunt your ass down if you tried any funny business. Same went for this tour. He had his people require ticket holders to produce valid ID at the entrance to the show, and if the name didn't match the ticket, the concert-goers were denied entry. This was a massive "fuck you" to scalpers. Surely with Tom's litigious history and his tireless pursuit of integrity, the touts should've known better. I'm glad Waits did one last tour at the end of his career so we can hear him revisit his classics across all his albums. Not only the songs but the spoken-word anecdotal parts are snippets taken from ten different shows during the tour. So when you get to disc 2, don't think that Tom just stood there telling stories for 35 minutes straight. Album art zip file link.
- Bad as Me (2011). All aboard Waits’ latest (last) studio album! The man is a national treasure, that’s all there is to it. He succeeds at pretty much everything he tries, even here in his 60s, still kicking ass like he did at the beginning of his career, because he based his style on a timeless cool. As always, he’s sometimes smooth as hell, other times wacky and not giving a single fuck. I wonder if this album will end up being the last leaf on his tree. I feel like there's a little bit of everything from Waits' career on this album, from the gypsy rusty-accordion sounds to the growling mud-wrestling vocals to the lonely heartbroken crooning to the feeling of spinning around in circles while staring up into the night sky of a pitiless universe where you then fall down drunk not on wine but on the inevitability of death. Album art zip file link.
The Tom Waits Library