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Very few of the ballads are memorable at all: they’re slow, lazy, and pretty much all build on feeling and devotion where earlier they used to also build on blistering vocal melodies (‘Yesterday Is Here’, anyone?).

tom waits tour poster – Best Tom Waits Podcasts (2019)

TOM WAITSCrawling Down Cahuenga: Tom Waits’ L.A. There’s an ease to Waits’s work in Buster Scruggs that makes it seem like it might just be what straddles the line between the two mediums—or come closest to really defining what Waitsian might mean—as his growl pitches high, low, and all over the place in his search for gold. For all that the chapter teeters into cheerful, outsize silliness, Waits lends it all a remarkable naturalism, his fists pumping emphatically at his sides whenever he speaks or sings as if that gesture might help his voice carry more clearly from his body. As he wanders off the frame at the end of the chapter, once again singing Mother Machree,” the reprise serves a perfect cap. Though he may contain multitudes—songs and films, sinners and saints—there’s only one Tom Waits.

Born Thomas Alan Waits in 1949, in the city of Pomona, California (named after the ancient Roman goddess of fruit), Waits then moved to Whittier and National City, down by the border, where he most likely developed his passion or all things Hispanic. Though a teenager during the 60s, Tom always gravitated more to the old-time sounds – the blues, the beatniks and the satirical icons of the Beat Generation – though he did have a hankering for Bob Dylan and performed the man’s songs a great deal when he secured stints at The Troubadour in Los Angeles.


TOM WAITS

Turn on your TV and you’ll hear the Who, the Rolling Stones and even the group Kansas selling everything from cars to telecommunication services. But singer-songwriter Tom Waits abhors television commercials. He simply won’t do them. Waits, 55, is known for his gritty, croaking voice and his songs celebrating the underbelly of society, the characters who live on the edge.

Likewise Foreign Affairs and Blue Valentine: monochrome and lurid albums both. Waits’ late 70s body of work was gaining impressive stature, with stand-out cuts including ‘I Never Talk to Strangers’ (a duet with Bette Midler), the ritzy ‘Burma Shave’, the autobiographical ‘Kentucky Avenue’ and the brilliantly mordant ‘Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis’.

Tom Waits (shown here performing during his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction) has released a new song with Marc Ribot. Track listing: 1) Heartattack And Vine; 2) In Shades; 3) Saving All My Love For You; 4) Downtown; 5) Jersey Girl; 6) ‘Til The Money Runs Out; 7) On The Nickel; 8) Mr Siegal; 9) Ruby’s Arms.

Thomas Alan Waits (born December 7, 1949) is an American singer, songwriter, musician, and actor. His music is characterized by his distinctive deep, gravelly voice and lyrics focusing on the underside of society. During the 1970s, he worked primarily in jazz, but since the 1980s his music has reflected greater influence from blues, vaudeville, and experimental genres.

The darker imagery and percussion heavy blues-rock of 1992’s Bone Machine was a tougher benchmark in Waits’ music and he was unafraid to drift towards occasional inaccessibility. His wild musical stew embraced elements of vaudeville and Weill’s legacy. The Black Rider, released in 1993, featured studio versions of songs Waits wrote for the Robert Wilson-directed play of the same name, co-written by Burroughs.

Rain Dogs and Franks Wild Years complete a loose trilogy: skewed blues, Big Easy rhythms, Keith Richards, Robert Quine and Chris Spedding on electric guitars, and the artist in residence on top experimental form as he carouses through ‘Jockey Full Of Bourbon’, ‘Downtown Train’ (a major hit via Rod Stewart) and ‘Hang On St Christopher’, hailed by Elvis Costello as one of the greatest songs ever written. Tom had turned his attention away from the sunny West Coast and towards New York City, and his attempts to emulate the urban sound of a grit-spattered neighbourhood are judged to perfection.

Track listing: 1) 16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought-Six; 2) Red Shoes; 3) Underground; 4) Cold Cold Ground; 5) Straight To The Top; 6) Yesterday Is Here; 7) Way Down In The Hole; 8) Falling Down; 9) Strange Weather; 10) Big Black Mariah; 11) Rain Dogs; 12) Train Song; 13) Johnsburg, Illinois; 14) Ruby’s Arms; 15) Telephone Call From Istanbul; 16) Clap Hands; 17) Gun Street Girl; 18) Time.

Bowie on Bowie presents some of the best interviews David Bowie has granted in his near five-decade career. Each featured interview traces a new step in his unique journey, successively freezing him in time in all of his various incarnations, from a young novelty hit-maker and Ziggy Stardust to plastic soul player, 1980s sell-out, and the artistically reborn and beloved elder statesman of challenging popular music. In all of these iterations he is remarkably articulate and also preternaturally polite as almost every interviewer remarks upon his charm. The features in this book come from outlets both prestigious—Melody Maker, MOJO, New Musical Express, Q, Rolling Stone—and less well-known—the Drummer, Guitar, Ikon, Mr. Showbiz—but no matter the renown of the magazine, newspaper, or website, Bowie lets us approach the nerve center of his notoriously creative output.

One of the few songs on Bone Machine that sounds like anything approaching fun,” All Stripped Down” starts with a bit of captured studio chatter and what sounds like Waits singing through a megaphone. Despite this, it’s a reminder that we all enter the afterlife devoid of material possessions. (All the creatures of the world are gonna line up at the gate all stripped down.”) Waits often writes about the idea of religious absolution or a state grace as a physical space; Down There by the Train ” and B-side Take Care of All of My Children ” both toy with this conceit.

Musician and Waits devotee Warren Zanes provided personal liner notes to Women Sing Waits, which you can read here Find the album’s artwork and full tracklist below. But Waits says performing night after night on the road takes its toll on his voice.

Waits started out his career seeking authenticity: frequenting all-night diners, taking jobs at service stations and living in and out of flophouses; contemporarily the drifter he now plays is a sort of inverse Dorian Gray, a grotesque of the tatterdemalion wreckage he might have become (he knocked the bottle on the head in 1992). One of the most interesting features of his career has been watching the character development of the imposter whose records we buy, from the wild, footstompin purveyor of mutant blues—starting around the time of 1980’s Heartattack and Vine—to the beatboxing-in-the-bathroom bard of DIY hip-hop on 2004’s Real Gone.

Named as one of VH-1s Most Influential Artists of All Time, it is no surprise that Waits body of work has long been covered (and coveted) by other musicians. Notable cover versions include Bruce Springsteen (Jersey Girl); Rod Stewart and Everything But The Girl (Downtown Train); Johnny Cash (Down There By the Train); Marianne Faithfull (Strange Weather); The Ramones (I Dont Wanna Grow Up); 10,000 Maniacs (I Hope I Dont Fall In Love With You); Tim Buckley (Martha); T-Bone Burnett (Time); Bob Seger (Blind Love); Lucinda Williams (Hang Down Your Head); Los Lobos (Jockey Full of Bourbon); Elvis Costello (More Than Rain) and The Blind Boys of Alabama (Jesus Gonna Be Here) as well as Wicked Grin, the critically acclaimed collection of Waits songs recorded by John Hammond and released in 2001.

We catch up a couple of weeks before he brings his ‘Swordfishtrombones Revisited’ show to the National Concert Hall in Dublin. The show will reimagine Tom Waits’s classic album through the voices of a host of offbeat performers, and it’s the latest instalment in a series that in the last 10 years has featured the music of Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, and that of another Waits album – ‘Rain Dogs’.

And just when it looked as if Waits would follow the flow of pop performers crossing over into film acting (the crowded list includes Sting, Phil Collins, Cyndi Lauper, David Bowie, the Clash’s Joe Strummer), he cut a different path. In 1986, he created and performed in Frank’s Wild Years” (subsequently an album) as a musical at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. Last year, he joined a sterling cast, including Rene Auberjonois, Bud Cort and Joe Frank, at the Doolittle Theatre for a performance tribute to French playwright Eugene Ionesco.

What really binds together Waits’ weird recipe of American music, though, is a deep-seated holding of the antinomies of the contemporary experience: love and despair, reverie and presence, anxiety and solace. His music is often strange, but its essence never is—throughout it is a wholly relatable palette of feelings and emotions. From his crushing, piano-driven ballads to his caustic rock pieces and eccentric spoken-word tracks, Waits always reflects things we can recognize from our own lives, even if we don’t happen to be lost hobos, wayward cowboys, ancient lovers, or barroom maniacs. Ultimately, his music is about the relationship between the longing we feel for authentic experiences and the peace we feel when we finally let that longing go.

This song turns it all upside down, trading in Waits’ typical portraits of yearning and rambunctious vagrancy for transcendent images of love and goodness. Take It With Me” is about a man on the other side of love, looking back at his life without sadness or regret. The calm centerpiece of an album full of bombast, violence, and weighty American sadness, this stripped-down reverie for voice, piano, and bass finds solace through its gentile thesis. Indeed, it proves that Waits has never needed more than 88 keys and an open heart.

Nighthawks at the Diner is a distinctly American record, as Waits repeatedly names products (Velveeta, Campbell’s, Coca Cola, Pepto Bismol, etc.), car makes (Ford, GMC, Malibu, Oldsmobile, etc.), and other objects associated with the country to establish a skeleton for his own universe. The most fascinating way Waits invokes the feel of America is in his geographical variety. Befitting an album named after Edward Hopper’s hallowed American painting from 1942, a handful of songs capture night scenes in urban bars and diners (Eggs and Sausage,” Nighthawk Postcards From Easy Street,” Warm Beer and Cold Women,” Spare Parts I,” and Spare Parts II”). Other tunes nestle into the day-to-day life of small towns and suburbia (Better Off Without a Wife” and Putnam County”). Still others find themselves on the backroads, on the outskirts of the city and reality (Foggy Night” and Big Joe and Phantom 309”). Each section represents the whole in its own way. The whole grants each section its identity.


Having recorded with great distinction across five decades, Waits has always had a strong cult following, but he has also enjoyed considerable mainstream success. The UK took him to its heart from the off, while, in recent years, he has enjoyed both acclaim – a given – and fine sales for albums like such as the Grammy-winning Mule Variations, Real Gone and his most recent, Bad As Me, these coming out via Anti-, a sister label to Epitaph.


Look at the album covers. On the debut album, Waits is sitting at his piano within the bar; here, Waits is pictured on the street, coming out of the bar against a typical nightlife background. This perfectly reflects the difference in content: Closing Time was mainly devoted to nostalgia and unshared love moanings, while Heart Of Saturday Night is a far more ‘biting’ album, more in the vein of ‘Virginia Avenue’ than ‘Martha’ or ‘Rosie’. That’s not to say there are no love ballads on here: in fact, I count the best of these, ‘San Diego Serenade’, as the highest point of the album. A lush, gorgeous, mildly orchestrated piano ballad that hits you below the belt with its minimalism and beautiful lyrics. Of course, it’s also very important that it’s all a matter of delivery – and Tom’s gruff-griff delivery is perfect (I shudder to think how the song could have fared, say, in the hands of Sinatra. Yeeesh!).

Just when the pop music cognoscenti had him pegged as a singer-songwriter who spent his time lamenting lost loves and dreams over warm glasses of booze, along came his 1983 album, Swordfishtrombones,” which dove into dark maelstroms of fury with weird, sly instrumentations and vocals.

2. Mule Variations (1999). Incorporating a breadth of styles, ranging from heartbreaking balladry (House Where Nobody Lives) to creepy paranoia (What’s He Building in There?), there’s something for everyone on Mule Variations, especially the Waits fanatic. It earned Grammy nominations in both the folk and rock categories, and upon release became the highest-charting album of his career to that point.

That landmark album was the first in an informal trilogy—followed by Rain Dogs (1985) and Frank’s Wild Years (1987)—that were sonically and stylistically linked by Waits’ newfound sense of adventure and thematically tied by the song Frank’s Wild Years” (which Waits and Brennan would mount into a stage musical). This fruitful period in Waits’ career was capped with a tour documented by the Big Time film and album (1988).

Few musicians have captured the emotional complexity of being an American in the 20th and 21st centuries with as much elegance and nuance as Tom Waits Blending blues, jazz, rock, and experimental music (among other genres), his tableaus of modern life find spiritual common ground everywhere—from Tin Pan Alley, Harry Partch, and Bob Dylan to Raymond Carver, Jack Kerouac, and Charles Bukowski.

Waits: Luxury casting! I like that. When you can afford to hire everything! I want 300 emus on my lawn by 6 ‘clock. And I won’t take no for an answer! And I want an 8-foot fence. You know?” And I want—yeah it can get a little absurd like that if you’re out of control on the budget. I have people watching me all the time. … Oh, that gun—my grandma’s.44 Smokeless Dance,” that’s the name of it. I just saw it on the barrel … I didn’t realize what it was before.

Waits’ massive triple album, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards, was full of explosive songs that ranged from hard rockers to quietly searing tearjerkers. The album’s very first track was possibly its most potent: The amped-up Lie to Me” comes across as Jerry Lee Lewis-meets-Howlin’ Wolf, sung from the shadowy side of the bar.

You can only really appreciate the full extent of his ability when you hear a sad old cabaret artist like Rod Stewart trying to cover his songs (Downtown Train and Tom Traubert’s Blues, in Rodney’s pitiful case) or when you realise that the very best of Bruce Springsteen’s work – take a listen to Racing In The Street off Darkness On The Edge Of Town – seems like a valiant attempt at imitation. And on the subject of Waits cover versions, Springsteen’s Jersey Girl is the only one to pass muster.

The titles speak for themselves – ‘Little Bullet From A Pretty Blue Gun’, anyone? The central epic of the album, though, is the eight-minute long ‘$29.00’, telling the creepy story of a poor girl mugged and injured by street bandits. What’s special about the song? Nothing, I guess. Not on first glance. But then you glance at the lyrics, you pay closer attention to Tom’s ragged hoarse bellowing, you notice tiny little overtones in the playing and you realize the uniqueness of this experience – just like Steely Dan crossbred sarcastic socio-biting lyrics with ‘routine’ jazzy arrangements to unexpected results, Tom tells these dark alley stories with a typical ‘dark alley arrangement’. And that’s pretty scary. And the ‘twenty nine dollars and an alligator purse’ line is bound to stick to you forever.

Well you really can’t keep up with Keith. He’s from a different stock. I didn’t realise it at first, but then I met his father and I understood. His dad looked like Popeye. He had the little corncob pipe and the wink in his eye – oh man! I was real nervous and trying to not be afraid, but he’s real regular, a gentleman, and we had a lot of fun. He just loves to play. He’ll play at four ‘ clock in the morning, play until the bottle is gone, like an old troubadour, until they can’t remember any more songs or they turn out the lights and tell us to leave.

Recounting the devastating murder of Georgia Lee Moses and the questions it raised, this is one of Waits’ most deeply melancholic songs. For those who keep up with the news, How can this happen?” is almost a daily question; this is that sentiment in song form. Fortunately, Waits’ sympathetic piano playing and singing guides us through.

The arrangements reclaim the mixture of old-timey and surreal that Mr. Waits has long savored, with twangy guitars, pushy horns, woozy saloon piano and drumming that conjures roadhouses, music halls and military tattoos. There are half a dozen blues stomps, with none other than Keith Richards joining in the guitar scuffles with David Hidalgo, of Los Lobos, and the eclectic sideman and bandleader Marc Ribot.

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