A Bottle In Front Of Me: The Strange World Of… Tom Waits

Tom Waits announced a remaster and reissue programme for all of his -ANTI material; here Jeremy Allen looks for ten points of entry into his bewildering and large back catalogue

“For a writer, it seems that your anonymity is important. The Devil’s Dictionary defines being famous as being ‘conspicuously miserable’. I like to feel I can move around without being noticed”
Tom Waits, March 1981

If the real Thomas Alan Waits has been evading us for the best part of four decades then his career has at least taught us something about ourselves. He’s an artist who lives within the camouflage of his creation were once he sought out the bottom of the bottle and the cheapest flophouse in town in the pursuit of authenticity. He’d work in gas stations and frequent all-night coffee shops for source material, in order to paint his own whimsical American landscape of dime stores, nocturnal carnivals and scrawled on bits of ephemera. When he released his debut Closing Time in 1973, paying your dues and making real music were the things that unduly concerned the listening public, and he really did pay his dues, supporting the Mothers Of Invention and getting abused every night for months on end. Waits’ journey from ostensibly bona fide to make-believe demonstrates how meta we’ve all become, and how postmodernism has seeped into our quotidian existence and informs our outlook. We’ve come to admire artifice like the French decadents did. There certainly are those who still believe Waits is a moonshine-guzzling clochard who sleeps rough on the wrong side of town in whiskey-pissed jeans every night, like they similarly have erroneous romantic notions about his old pal Keith Richards’ drug intake. But most of us are happy to play along with the charade – to admire the smoke and the mirrors and marvel at the enigma. You don’t have to be a murderer to write a murder mystery after all.

This stumblebum in tatterdemalion chic claims he was born in the back of a Pomona taxi cab in 1949, and whether the taxi part is true or not, he’s never allowed the truth to get in the way of a good story since. One of his most famous quips, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy” said during a chat show interview in 1977, is the first verifiable usage of the famous spoonerism (it’s often falsely attributed to Dorothy Parker), and if Waits did indeed say it first then it may well be his biggest contribution to posterity. The music hasn’t been bad either.

Many have attempted to compartmentalise his work, including the author and his wife (and co-writer). Waits chose “brawlers, bawlers and bastards” for his Orphans collection in 2006 to make life easier; Kathleen Brennan, who he met and married in 1980, famously said his songs are “grim reapers and grand weepers”. Broadly speaking, you can divide up his oeuvre between everything that came before Swordfishtrombones and everything subsequent, or even pre-Brennan and post-Brennan, not that that makes it any easier to digest; his albums are usually dense with songs, and perfused with stories and subplots, picaresque characters and grotesques, as well as a variety of musical styles.

“Kathleen was living in a convent, studying to be a nun,” he told Smash Hits in 1981. ”I met her when they let her out for a party on New Year’s Eve. She left the Lord for me." Brennan was actually working as a script analyst at 20th Century Fox, and Waits was cloistered in an adjacent room writing the soundtrack to the Francis Ford Coppola movie One From The Heart. Coppola called him “the prince of melancholy”, and it was this reputation that had helped Waits write himself into a corner. Once he’d got over the initial shock of being signed and paid to make records, he quickly became a strange amalgam of his eclectic influences: from Cole Porter to Lead Belly, the Beats to Lord Buckley. It was like the 60s never happened in his head, which was a handy USP when everyone else was on a comedown after the swinging decade, but once the dye had set in, there was surprisingly little room for manoeuvre, and by the early 80s he’d become somewhat jaded. There are early traces of the mutant blues in 1980’s Heartattack And Vine, not least of all in the excellent title track, but Waits would still need pushing over the edge before he could truly transmutate. He was listening to Captain Beefheart, early Delta-blues and Ethio-jazz, and it was Brennan who encouraged him to properly explore in his own work the sounds that were captivating him. “I didn’t just marry a beautiful woman,’ he would later say, ‘I married a record collection.” Counterintuitively, the more he seemed to go out on a limb, the more popular he’d become. But so much of what makes Tom Waits great is counterintuitive.

Nighthawks At The Diner (1975)

By his own admission, Tom Waits didn’t know what he was doing when he started out. First album Closing Time has its moments, including opener ‘Ol’ ‘55’ which his Asylum labelmates The Eagles covered, providing him with bread and antipathy. While this may prove controversial amongst Waits obsessives, there’s something about the delivery on his early work that to me sounds like a poor man’s Randy Newman. Follow up The Heart Of Saturday Night could hardly fail with the maudlin and masterful (near) title track on it, but there’s still something too unfinished and incompatible with the Waits persona one has come to know and love.

Nighthawks At The Diner aimed to transpose his inimitable live shows onto vinyl, and with some success. It feels like the true place to start after a couple of false dawns. Bones Howe – who’d cut his teeth as a jazz engineer before producing sunshine pop hits in the 60s – was brought over from The Heart Of Saturday Night as producer, and would continue to oversee Waits’ albums until he jumped ship for Island when Elektra refused to sanction his strange new direction (Swordfishtrombones).

"I sat in David [Geffen]’s office and he played me Closing Time and a few demos that Tom had cut,” said Howe. “He was playing guitar on them, and it sounded to me like he was trying to be Bob Dylan. But you listen to a song like ‘Grapefruit Moon’ and you can hear the jazz tinge to it.” Significantly Howe would persuade him to concentrate on writing more on the piano.

The live album would feature jazz drummer Bill Goodwin, the mercurial Mike Melvoin on piano, Jim Hughart on upright bass and Pete Christlieb on the tenor sax. Nighthawks was recorded live in a makeshift concert venue created at the Record Plant in Los Angeles, with shows recorded over two nights in late July 1975. Barbara Streisand had recorded an album at the venue (it’s now a shopping mall), and while it was unusual for a new artist such as Waits to make a live record, his hepcat speak and repartee were perfect for the medium. The partisan audience was plied with plonk and potato chips, with a stripper hired as a warm up. Waits then served up ‘Eggs And Sausage’ and convivial, slightly risque rapping and crooning over an ambient burlesque accompaniment. It certainly captures and projects his character better than anything hitherto attempted. Howe describes it as like “Allen Ginsberg with a really, really good band."

Small Change

Aged 28, Waits spent two weeks in London during what he described as a “hellish year” recording arguably his first cohesive masterpiece in Small Change. The intemperate jazz is dressed up with strings and bells like a Christmas tree, and the woozy and wistful numbers are laced with mixed emotions just like the holiday season itself. It’s overproduced in order to complement the extremities of his tattered vocal chords, making for an indulgence of colour. ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets To The Wind In Copenhagen)’, ‘I Wish I Was In New Orleans (In The Ninth Ward)’ and ‘Invitation To The Blues’ lay it on in spades but never quite overstep into cornball territory. ‘Bad Liver And A Broken Heart (In Lowell)’ picks up the lonely barfly motif from Nighthawks – named after the famous Edward Hopper painting of course – and throws in a musical reference to Casablanca just to ensure you didn’t miss it. Retrospectively Waits told Rolling Stone in 1977: “I put a lot into ‘Bad Liver And A Broken Heart’. I tried to resolve a few things as far as this cocktail-lounge, maudlin, crying-in-your-beer image that I have. There ain’t nothin’ funny about a drunk. You know, I was really starting to believe that there was something amusing and wonderfully American about a drunk. I ended up telling myself to cut that shit out.”

Elsewhere ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’ also co-opts Australia’s best-loved bush ballad ‘Waltzing Matilda’, and yet somehow it’s one of the most moving six minutes forty seconds in recorded music. And ‘Step Right Up’ mixes up advertising patter with the quickfire jiveass talk he learnt from Kerouac’s writing and patrons at the Heritage nightclub where he used to work on the door while living out of his own car, Factotum-style: “It gets rid of unwanted facial hair/ It gets rid of embarrassing age spots/ It delivers a pizza and it lengthens and it strengthens and it finds that slipper that’s been at large under the chaise lounge for several weeks…” Like pop art, it pitches at you with no product other than itself, and its curious, though not unsurprising, that advertisers later attempted to use Waits’ style to shift their wares when he refused to comply by selling them his songs. A Frito-Lay corn chip advert was so convincing that the singer spent days phoning around friends to apologise and assure them it wasn’t him in the commercial. He filed a suit against the company in 1988 and won a $2.5 million payout in 1992. “I spent it all on candy”, he said. “My mom told me I was foolish”.

Swordfishtrombones (1983)

If the shoot the piano player schtick was becoming old hat, then 1983’s self-produced Swordfishtrombones was a spasmodic jerk into a new dimension. In fact it was a case of, we don’t need a piano where we were going (bar the deeply affecting and altogether too brief Cole Porter-like ballad ‘Johnsburg, Illinois’, named after the birthplace of Kathleen Brennan). It’s preceded by ‘18 Shells From A Thirty-Ought-Six’, which rattles along to the exuberant noise of a junkyard orchestra, as if to say “this is how it’s going to be from now on”. There’s actually some piano on two other tracks on the second side – including the weepie ‘Soldier’s Things’ – but its significance is severely diminished in ratio to the marimbas, congas, Darbuka drums, the odd chair, some metal aunglongs, bagpipes, a freedom bell, a parade drum, an African talking drum and so on. Meanwhile on songs like ‘In The Neighbourhood’, full brass is utilised to sound like a mutant Salvation Army band.

As well as the throaty Don Vliet vox, Waits was heavily influenced by Harry Partch, the American composer who not only created immersive soundscapes and percussive symphonies out of found objects, but also brought together the worlds of vagrancy and the avant garde – a feat Waits would only achieve in the imagination. Wait’s brings some of Partch’s inventiveness to the dirty blues tracks, while he brings humour and weirdness to the noirish monologues like ‘Frank’s Wild Years’, which would start as a vignette and grow into an altogether bigger beast (or beasts).

Swordfishtrombones is the first offering in what’s widely considered a trilogy, and while the second part – Rain Dogs – is feted by many as the greater work, mixing his lounge lizard persona with noirish cop shows and Weimarian oompah, the first album in the series takes precedence for being the originator. Rain Dogs does carry some of the best songs of Waits’ career and sounds like a Springsteen album for the criminally insane, though it’s here where the blueprint is laid down, or more precisely the old one is thrown away and the rules state that there are no rules. Opener ‘Underground’ for instance features a plinky staccato guitar lick that duals delicately against Waits’ monstrous voice, and many have assumed over the years that it’s Marc Ribot. It is in fact the work of Fred Tackett, an unsung hero in the world of Waits, whose percussive lead style was a mantel Ribot assumed and developed and took to staggering new heights over the years.

Down by Law (1986)

As previously mentioned, Waits had wormed his way into the affections of the legendary director Francis Ford Coppola, appearing in a number of his films such as Rumblefish, The Outsiders, more recently providing narration for Twixt, and most famously playing Renfield in 1992’s Dracula. The other auteur who has become one of his key collaborators is Jim Jarmusch, who he met when Waits and Brennan moved to New York during the mid-80s. Waits wrote and performed the soundtrack to one of Jarmusch’s films, 1992’s Night On Earth, and he’s acted or appeared as himself in several more.

He apparently met Jarmusch, Marc Ribot, and another musician and actor, John Lurie, who played alongside him in Down By Law, all on the same night at a Soho party thrown by the painter Jean Michel Basquiat. Like when Tony Visconti met Bolan and Bowie on the same evening, it would bear much fruit. Not least of all, Waits’ turn in Down By Law, which helped cement and augment the Tom Waits persona. While Waits’ has carved a reputation for himself as a character actor over the years, this was a rare starring role, and he brings cinematic cool to the art house black-and-white comedy alongside his two co-stars (the other main actor is Roberto Benigni). There’s clearly a lot of Waits’ in Zach the DJ, though working out where Waits begins and ends is tricky enough without adding another dimension.

"It’s obvious in the case of Tom Waits that the character he portrays is not really Tom Waits,” said the director. “It’s Zach, it’s someone that has different obsessions and different responses to people. But there is a strong element of Tom Waits in that character. It was actually Tom’s idea that he should play a DJ. In my first draft, I had him as an unemployed musician, but I always felt that was too close to Tom, and so did he."

Speaking about the fateful party where they all met, Lurie – who composed the soundtrack of Down By Law and was saxophonist in the no wave jazz outfit the Lounge Lizards – tells this amusing anecdote that inadvertently stars the singer of the 1984 soft rock tearjerker ‘Missing You’: "Jean Michel Basquiat was a really good friend of mine, probably my best friend at this particular time, and my band was about to go on tour so he throws this dinner party for me. Now, at the dinner party was Andy Warhol, Steve Rubell, Bianca Jagger, Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente, Wim Wenders, Tom Waits, Jim Jarmusch and like thirty other people – everybody’s a heavyweight in some area. This party was just a great party.

“So, Andy Warhol writes in his diaries that this party was the best party he’s been to in, like, 5 or 10 years and he was going to stop hanging out with faggots and start hanging out with artists because they are just so much more elegant and interesting. Now, the woman who transcribed his goddamned diaries turned me and Tom Waits into ‘John Waite’. Do you realise a person could retire from nightlife forever if Andy Warhol said your party was the best party he’s been to in 10 years? I really got screwed. Her name’s Pat. If you put her in the article, misspell Pat."

Franks Wild Years (1987)

The runt of the litter of the 80s Island trilogy, Franks Wild Years, nevertheless has plenty to recommend it, from the ukelele mariachi of ‘Blow Wind Blow’, the beautifully somnolent ‘Innocent When You Dream’, the ponderous western wanderings of ‘Yesterday Is Here’, the Franco-inflected klezmer of ‘More Than Rain’, the throat-clearing blues of ‘Telephone Call From Istanbul’ and the latterday The Wire-theme ‘Way Down In The Hole’. The liberal use of a police bullhorn throughout also adds to the luddite-like innovation and the general Lynchian weirdness of the narrative, and the whole work feels more focused and cohesive than the previous two, even if it has trouble living in the same company as those masterpieces. Franks Wild Years is like the Harrison to the previous albums’ Lennon and McCartney.

It’s an LP that tells a story, and it should come as little surprise therefore that the songs were part of a stage show, which Waits started working on around 1983, with the song ‘Frank’s Wild Years’ presumably the seed from which the ideas grew. Frank’s Wild Years the stage show (with the apostrophe back in) eventually ran between June and July 1986 in Chicago, put together and performed by the Steppenwolf Theatre company. "Charles Bukowski had a story that essentially was saying that it’s the little things that drive men mad,” said Waits, referring to the original song from Swordfishtrombones that would turn into a complete story. “It’s not the big things. It’s not World War II. It’s the broken shoelace when there is no time left that sends men completely out their minds. I think there is a little bit of Frank in everybody."

Intriguingly Waits dad was called Frank, and he said that while his father and everybody else thought it was about him, Frank had previously gone by his first name Jesse. Apparently Jesse Frank Waits switched to his second name when he moved out West so he’d sound less like a hick and more like the more sophisticated Frank Sinatra. Their relationship was disrupted when his father left in 1960, and he looked to 50s beatnik hipsters like Ginsberg and Kerouac as father figures. ‘They were the ones I looked to for guidance,” he told Sean O’Hagan in 2006. “See, my dad left when I was 10, so I was always looking for a dad. It was like, ‘Are you my dad? Are you my dad? What about you? Are you my dad?’ I found a lot of these old salty guys along the way.’”

The operetta received mixed reviews and has remained unperformed since its initial run, but for Waits and Brennan – who wrote much of the libretto – the experience was a positive one, and there’d be more to come. When asked what benefits involvement in both theatre and film had on his music, Waits said in 1988 that it meant he’d become “more comfortable stepping into characters in songs. On Franks Wild Years, I did it in ‘I’ll Take New York’ and ‘Straight To The Top’. I’ve learned how to be different musical characters without feeling like I’m eclipsing myself. On the contrary, you discover a whole family living inside you”.

The Black Rider (1993)

The stage show of The Black Rider chimed with the public in a way Frank’s Wild Years never quite managed. It still gets performed contemporarily, mainly in Europe, and had a celebrated run at the Barbican in 2004 with Marianne Faithfull as Peg Leg. Robert Wilson – who Waits had originally approached to produce Frank’s Wild Years – was the one who approached him to write the score this time around, and Waits must have thought he was in dreamland. His hero William Burroughs was drafted in to write the libretto. Waits claims not to be a fan of musical theatre, but after watching Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach he commented: "I was unable to fully return to waking for weeks. Wilson’s stage images had allowed me to look through windows into a dusting beauty that changed my eyes and my ears permanently." As for Burroughs, the meeting with him in Kansas was an odd, invigorating experience: “It was very exciting, really. It felt like a literary summit. Burroughs took pictures of everyone standing on the porch. Took me out into the garage and showed me his shotgun paintings. Showed me the garden. Around three o’clock he started fondling his wristwatch as we got closer to cocktail hour. He was very learned and serious. Obviously an authority on a wide variety of topics. Knew a lot about snakes, insects, firearms…”

The Guardian said the 2004 version of the show, based on the German folk tale Der Freischutz, had a “wonderful Wilsonian eclecticism”. Wilson followed 1990’s The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets to give it its full title with Woyzeck, also a German folk tale and also a collaboration with Waits. The songs from the latter appeared on Blood Money in 2002, and those from another Wilson / Waits collaboration, Alice (based Lewis Carroll’s on Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland), were released on the same day. They’re both more than worthy of your time, but Black Rider is the original and the best, full of songs Waits describes as “three legged chairs… you provide just enough for them to be able to stand up. You paint ‘em, let ‘em dry and move onto the next one”.

The stripped back album reflects the Brechtian inspiration of the project, and Waits brings the full force of his Kurt Weill influence with the addition of saws on three tracks, including the instrumental ‘Black Box Theme’. Don Neely also brings the otherworldly sound to ‘Flash Pan Hunter’ and ‘November’; ghostly yet preposterous, it somehow sits perfectly with Joe Gore’s banjo. Waits barks on the former like Max von Sydow with a riding crop: “Beware of elaborate telescopic meats! They will find their way back to the forest!”

Mule Variations (1999)

In keeping with the previously discussed counterintuitiveness of Waits’ career, he signed with the indie label ANTI- and went on to win a Grammy and have the biggest hit of his career with Mule Variations in 99. What he did differently it’s hard to say, although maybe the world had just caught up with him by that point. Waits released the more experimentally rhythmical and uncompromising Bone Machine the same year he knocked the demon drink on the head in 1992, so whether or not Mule Variations was his first album without collaboration with the bottle is a moot point. Certainly he wouldn’t be drawn on an answer, apparently getting tetchy when asked, saying it was “personal”.

The lyrical ideas are a ragbag of the usual creepy capers and eye-popping peculiarities – the freakshow family of ‘Eyeball Kid’, the parochial paranoia of ‘What’s He Building?’, the affecting murder ballad about a real girl ‘Georgia Lee’ – but there’s a sense of easing up on Mule Variations where the musician is suddenly relaxed enough to allow all of his children to sit together. Also, where the early albums are all about L.A. and the Island trilogy is inspired by New York, Mule Variations sounds like it’s coming from the anonymous idyl of rural California, which is indeed where Waits and Brennan are now settled.

There’s still the same stomping, guttural blues driving many of the tracks (‘Big In Japan’, ‘Cold Water’, the beat-boxy ‘Filipino Box Spring Hog’), but piano is back on songs like ‘House Where Nobody Lives’, while ‘Hold On’ has an anthemic AOR hook to rival ‘Downtown Train’ or ‘Hang Down Your Head’. Mule Variations is certainly not his most innovative work but you can’t argue with the wonderful songs throughout; it’s more a consolidation and in some ways a celebration, although if you’d just come to Tom Waits then that probably wouldn’t be immediately apparent.

Real Gone (2004)

“Someone once said I’m not a musician but a tonal engineer,” he said in 88. “I like that. It’s kind of clinical and primitive at the same time.” There’s something clinical and primitive about Real Gone, an album that’s essentially an intergenerational lo fi hip hop record made by a 54-year-old white man and his son. Casey Waits appears on eight of the 14 tracks, providing, variously: turntables, percussion, drums and handclaps. There’s an ascending kazoo-like sound on opener ‘Top Of The Hill’, which one assumes comes from the then 19-year-old Waits Jr’s turntables, and his interjection again behind the decks adds an old school hip hop feel to the jittery ‘Metropolitan Glide’.

There’s the pervasive sound of Waits’ own beatbox throughout the record (see: ‘Clang Boom Steam’ and ‘Day After Tomorrow’), which he apparently hacked out in the bathroom and looped. The list of collaborators is kept to a minimum, with Les Claypool popping up now and again but keeping it tasteful, and Marc Ribot provides some of his most delicate and delectable guitar in decades, ‘Dead And Lonely’ and ‘Hoist That Rag’ being two of the most perfect examples. The latter is a bellicose rant about the injustices of war, and one of his most memorable songs of the last 20 years to boot, and ‘Sins Of My Father’ also seems to be aimed at the Bush presidents, father and son. Waits had previously eschewed politics for his own world of the absurd, but on Real Gone he rather lets the genie out of the bottle.

Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards (2006)

Where to start with Orphans, a sprawling work that suddenly appeared in 2006 with 54 songs, 30 of them original, with rarities and old tracks from soundtracks and stage plays that didn’t previously have homes all thrown together onto one glorious triple album. Predating Aphex Twin’s Soundcloud dump by a decade, it was more an analogue dump than anything, but that certainly implies the material is in some way substandard. On the contrary, many of these tracks are as good as anything Waits has released throughout his career, and the “big pile of songs” he subdivided into three sections, makes a bit more sense with an element of curation. When the Guardian suggested he was mellowing in old age by designating the songs to various categories, Waits spat back: “Don’t know ’bout that. Just thought it would make for easier listening if I put them in categories. It’s a combination platter, rare and new. Some of it is only a few months old, and some of it is like the dough you have left over so you can make another pie.”

Brawlers features the pounding opener ‘Lie To Me’ that sounds like The Cramps and the chain gang urgency of ‘2.19’; Bawlers is all about the reflective ballads like ‘Fannin Street’ – though typical of Waits, there’s a story buried in the song about Lead Belly and a notorious red light district in Houston, Texas; and Bastards is a compendium of more experimental works where he retrospectively collaborates with Beat poets and covers ‘What Keeps Man Alive?’ from the Threepenny Opera. The three sides are about to get a re-release, and will be sold separately for the first time.

The song that grabbed the headlines on release was ‘Road To Peace’, and quite rightly so. In a world where suicide bombings and terrorism have become commonplace beyond the walls of Jerusalem, it’s perhaps even more visceral now for those who know areas well that have been affected, or people who’ve been caught up in terrorist atrocities. “There was a tall, thin boy with a wispy moustache disguised as an orthodox Jew / On a crowded bus in Jerusalem, some had survived World War Two,” sings Waits in an unusually diaphanous and high-pitched drawl which he maintains throughout, often delivering enjambments without rhymes to unsettle the listener further. “And the thunderous explosion blew out windows 200 yards away / With more retribution and seventeen dead along the road to peace”.

“I was pissed off,” he told Sean O’Hagan. “Started with a line I read in the paper one day: ‘He studied so hard it was as if he had a future.’ It was about this kid who got blown up in a suicide bomb on a bus in Israel. They say God doesn’t give you anything he knows you can’t handle. Well, I don’t know if I believe that.”

He added: “This song ain’t about taking sides, it’s an indictment of both sides. I tried to be as equitable as possible.”

Glitter And Doom (2009)

Tom Waits rarely tours these days, making his gigs more like events when they happen. And on Glitter And Doom he takes his gift for communicating with audiences between songs to its logical conclusion, by sharing around 30 minutes of observations and weird facts that pretty much resemble a short comedy routine, albeit an especially weird one. This certainly isn’t his best live album, but you’ll not get something as extraordinary as ‘Tom’s Tales’ anywhere else. Observational comedy is mostly tedious of course, but it works because Waits is a surrealist, and what he observes is undoubtedly different to what other human beings observe. You sense also as the piece unfolds that the facts he reels off, like there being more insects in a square mile than people on earth, or that Barnum and Bailey put Sarah Bernhardt’s leg in formaldehyde and charged patrons eight bucks a pop, are less part of a routine and more just details swimming around behind his eyes waiting to slide out of his mouth. From working in gas stations to stand up, Waits seems to be one of those people who can turn a hand to anything and do it well.

All of Tom Waits -ANTI albums have been remastered for reissue over the coming months

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