Icon: Tom Waits

Sam Adams

By Sam Adams

on 10.24.11 in Icons

Tom Waits’s career can be easily split into halves: the barfly crooner and the guttural prophet of doom. The albums from Swordfishtrombones on – built around clattering rhythms and that unmistakable growl – have largely overshadowed the career that came before, but Waits’s first seven albums, all recorded for Island Records, make up a formidable, if less challenging, body of work. It’s a long way from the screwball Bette Midler duet of “I Never Talk to Strangers” to the infernal howl of “Earth Died Screaming,” one of the greatest leaps made by any modern musician, but it helped that Waits was already at the top of his game before he raised the bar impossibly higher. The seamless persona, part Beat poet and part barstool philosopher, of Waits’s early records – best heard on Nighthawks at the Diner – prefigures an interest in stagecraft and spectacle that culminated in a series of collaborations with avant-garde theatre director Robert Wilson. And, of course, there’s the Waits we now know best, with the lurid rasp of a carnival barker and the fury of a disappointed god. So open up Waits’s cabinet of curiosities and poke around; just be ready to draw your hand back when something pale and eyeless springs suddenly to life.

The Barfly

The early part of Waits’s career was given over to bourbon-drenched, jazz-inflected piano-bar blues.

The Heart Of Saturday Night

Tom Waits

Tom Waits is still finding his voice on his second album, literally and figuratively. The smooth croon of "Shiver Me Timbers" and "Drunk on the Moon" bears little resemblance to his familiar apocalyptic rasp, although it's got just enough sand to scuff up the former's swelling French horn. The after-hours trawl of "(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night" veers close to sentimentality, but Waits's romanticism is cut with weariness, as if he keeps searching only because he prefers failure to defeat. The cool-cat spoken word of "Diamonds on My Windshield" points the way to future glories, swinging crime-novel patois like a bebop Raymond Chandler. Stacked next to Nighthawks at the Diner or Heartattack & Vine, The Heart of Saturday Night inevitably feels a tad unformed, but the melancholy beauty of "Semi Suite" and "San Diego Serenade" is unassailable, no matter who's singing.

Nighthawks At The Diner

Tom Waits

The best of Waits's early records captures him in front of a live audience at the fictitious Rafael's Silver Cloud Lounge, actually a recording studio turned into a makeshift speakeasy. Like the setting itself, Waits's booze-addled persona is both real and staged, a performance so effortless that it seems to inhabit him rather than the other way around. Apart from the bachelor anthem "Better Off Without a Wife" (memorably covered by Buzzcocks' Pete Shelley), the songs lose something out of context, but they thrive in Nighthawks' tobacco-stained atmosphere. Waits's interstitial patter is as engaging as the songs themselves, rife with hepcat lingo and dive-bar jokes. The supple jazz quartet are clearly in on the joke; Jim Hughart's upright bass acts as a counterpoint to Waits's sleepy drawl. Prefiguring the otherwordliness of Waits's later recordings as well as his interest in theatrical spectacle, Nighthawks conjures a world as seductive as any film noir.

Foreign Affairs

Tom Waits

A mixed bag of slick jazz and sprawling narratives, Foreign Affairs is a well-traveled collection that takes a handful of wrong turns. Recorded and mixed directly to two-track tape, the album strives for spontaneity, though it's hard to swing when there's a studio orchestra in the mix. "I Never Talk to Strangers" is a near-miraculous fusion of styles, a giddy, barbed duet that pits Waits's disheveled growl against Bette Midler's acid-tongued warble. Not every odd-sock combination comes together: "Potter's Field" tries to bridge the album's disparate halves, but the full-scale orchestration clashes with the spare contours of Waits's spoken-word slur. "Burma Shave," however, is a miniature masterpiece, an impressionistic story of lovers running from the law scored to Waits's fluid piano and a late-breaking muted trumpet; it's like Bonnie and Clyde as told by Miles Davis. Waits's lounge lizard persona is starting to wear thin, but he punches right through the holes and surges on to something more mysterious and mercurial.

Heartattack And Vine

Tom Waits

The apex of Waits's Island Records run is his most self-consciously degenerate, trading slinky jazz for distorted guitar and swampy beats. "Heartattack and Vine" and "Downtown" find him on familiar turf, but he's moved from sitting on the curb to stomping through the gutter. Waits hasn't ditched his wise-cracking barfly persona so much as subsumed it into a larger cast of characters. The blue-collar romantic of "Jersey Girl" isn't a doomed sucker, just a working stiff taking inspiration from the corny conviction of a doo-wop "sha la la." (Waits's original is, not surprisingly, more internal and less triumphalist than Bruce Springsteen's better-known cover.) It's doubtful Waits knew it would be three years until his next album, but Heartattack still has the feel of a summing-up, the period at the end of a bleary-eyed sentence. It's a climax and a prelude at the same time.

Closing Time

Tom Waits

Tom Waits began his career at the end, portraying a washed-up saloon singer with a barrel full of a broken hearts and tip jar stuffed with dreams - at the ripe old age of 24. A little bit Sinatra and a little bit Kristofferson, couched in an early '70s orchestral soft-rock milieu, Waits' debut demonstrates a precocious mastery of songwriting conventions that would form the basis for his later innovations.

"I Hope That I Don't Fall in Love with You" is a barroom first-sight romance ("I turn around to look at you, you light a cigarette/I wish I had the guts to bum one, but we've never met") with a twist at the end worthy of a seasoned Nashville pro: the dreaded deed in the title only happens once she's walked out the door. "Old Shoes (and Picture Postcards)" is a king-of-the-road farewell song with a jaunty shuffle rhythm and singalong chorus; "Midnight Lullaby" is windowsill wooing told in slurred, lascivious nursery rhymes as a trumpet player serenades in the back alleys below. In "Ol' '55," the weatherbeaten protagonist revs away in his trusty clunker; in "Martha," he desperately dials an old flame four decades after their glory years. "We were all so young and foolish," he declares with drunken aplomb. "Now we are mature."

For all its formalism, Closing Time isn't without quirks: Waits invents words at will ("lickety-splitly") and, in "Ice Cream Man," offers up the sleaziest reinvention of a childhood icon since the evil clown. But in skipping prematurely to an imagined old age, Waits managed to outfox time. These songs feel as gorgeously musty and familiar today as they did when he unpacked them from his magical trunk for the first time. - Karen Schoemer

Blue Valentine

Tom Waits

Tom Waits's characters aren't the kind of saps to wrap their gums around a cheap and easy word like love. In "Kentucky Avenue," an idealistic derelict creatively comes on to his crippled sweetie: "Let me tie you up in kite string," he suggests, "and I'll show you the scabs on my knee." The anti-heroine of "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis" builds a fantastic scaffold of lies to impress a loyal former john before confessing the truth in the final verse: "I need to borrow money to pay this lawyer and Charlie, hey/ I'll be eligible for parole come Valentine's Day." "Wrong Side of the Road," a burlesque blues number embellished with saxophone and organ, is the world's most deranged marriage proposal. "We'll do 100 miles an hour spendin' someone else's dough," Waits promises his lucky moll. "We'll drive all the way to Reno on the wrong side of the road."

Waits's sixth album is easy to overlook - caught between the peaks of his early crooner phase and the avant-garde theatrical clatter of his 1983 reinvention Swordfishtrombones, it offers subtler charms and a more brooding tone than his benchmarks. But just because he's not known for understatement doesn't mean he can't pull it off. "Blue Valentines" is a guitar-and-voice jazz ballad modeled on Julie's London's low-key 1955 hit "Cry Me a River"; "$29.00," about the slow and steady ruination of an innocent arrival in Hollywood, is one of the nastiest sagas in his catalog, but he sings it without breaking a sweat. That is, until the fade out, when he backs away from the mike and lets rip with a couple of "ay-yi-yi"'s and an inexplicable "cuckoo." But these are borderline inaudible and barely count. - Karen Schoemer

Small Change

Tom Waits

Audiences love a grim spectacle, and by his fourth album Tom Waits was pretty much a one-man lowlife circus. Between the cover photo of a strip joint dressing room, the lubricated jazzbo arrangements, the gargling-razor-blades vocal tone and the scenes set in tattoo parlors, soggy night clubs and wee-hours bus depots, he barely seemed willing to raise his head out of a puddle of stale beer and spilled martinis.

The semi-spoken title track opens with an amplified flick of a match and a deep inhale; rather than counting down "one, two, three, four," "I Wish I Was in New Orleans" kicks off with a series of rhythmic grunts. But like Dean Martin's boozehound schtick, Waits-as-souse is a sleight-of-hand routine that requires brilliant timing, comic genius and impeccable musical chops. For all its bald humor, "The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)" is a cliche-upending literary tour-de-force of the dissipated mindset: "The jukebox has to take a leak/And the carpet needs a haircut/And the spotlight looks like a prison break," he growls. "Jitterbug Boy" is a no-goodnik character study so flawless, it's almost Hemingwayesque. Only on the opening track, "Tom Traubert's Blues," does he set aside the bad-boy act and reveal the wounded romanticism that is his true stock in trade. When an orchestra swoons and that rugged voice breaks into tenderness, he's incomparable. Waits may have loved his whiskey, but he never forgot his bread and butter. - Karen Schoemer

The Showman

Waits’s live performances and collaborations for the stage create a bridge between the warring halves of his career.

Music From The Original Motion Picture "One From The Heart"

Tom Waits, Crystal Gayle

While he was reinventing himself in the three-year gap between Heartattack and Vine and Swordfishtrombones, Waits signed onto Francis Ford Coppola's doomed musical One From the Heart, penning a set of songs that hearken back to the ariose romanticism of Blue Valentine. Paired with Crystal Gayle, who takes the lead vocal on "Old Boyfriends," "Take Me Home" and "Is There Any Way Out of This Dream?" Waits drops the wolfish howl he unveiled on Heartattack, undermining the implausible claim that his voice had simply changed. The lush romanticism is an awkward fit, as much for Waits as it was for Coppola, although fans longing for one last crack at Waits's first period will want to investigate with care.

Big Time

Tom Waits

The soundtrack to Waits's 1988 concert film is as notable for what's not included as what is, namely all but a token representation of his pre-Swordfishtrombones catalogue. Drawing mainly from that album, as well as the ensuing Rain Dogs and Franks Wild Years, Big Time strips down the songs without sacrificing any of their lumbering clatter. (There's one ringer, the previously unreleased studio track "Falling Down.") If anything, the relative spareness of a song like "16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought-Six" only makes it creepier, as if some misbegotten laboratory experiment has been accidentally released into the wild. Without the ambient atmosphere of Nighthawks at the Diner, the album doesn't stand on its own, and the live versions are too different from the preceding albums for it to serve as a compact introduction. Like most live albums, it's a worthy footnote, intriguing on its own terms but not a replacement for the source materials.

Franks Wild Years

Tom Waits

Soundtracking a theatrical production authored with wife Kathleen Brennan, Franks Wild Years (subtitled "un operachi romantic in two acts") is a travelogue shadowing the titular figure — presumably the fugitive furniture salesman of Swordfishtrombones' "Frank's Wild Years" — on a shambling journey round the world. In the context of a bona-fide stage show, Waits's Brecht-Weill fixation is in full bloom, with eccentric keyboard instruments like pump organ and Optigan echoing the hurdy-gurdy of The Threepenny Opera's "Mack the Knife." Although there's substantial stylistic overlap with its predecessors, Franks truly stands on its own, or at least it did until The Black Rider came along six years later.

The Black Rider

Tom Waits

The first of three collaborations with avant-garde theatre director Robert Wilson — Alice followed in 1992, Woyzeck a decade later — The Black Rider also plays off Waits's lifelong fixation with the Beat poets (see Foreign Affairs' "Jack & Neal/California Here I Come") by throwing William S. Burroughs into the mix. The carny barker of "Lucky Day Overture" is a demonic cousin to the fast-talking pitchman of "Step Right Up," which is part of the problem. Waits seems at times to be performing himself, intensifying previous personae to the point of self-parody but not staking out new territory of his own. The songs, which would have been spelled by Burroughs' dialogue on stage, run together on record, their Germanic overkill growing almost oppressive over the long haul. For those who dig Waits's at his doomiest, The Black Rider is a gold mine, but the rest will wait in vain for a second act.

Blood Money

Tom Waits

The retitled soundtrack to Robert Wilson's stage production of Woyzeck is the best of Waits's theatrical efforts, at its height the equal of anything on Bone Machine or Mule Variations. Perhaps having the spine of Georg Büchner's play to build on freed Waits to compose at will, or perhaps he'd simply gotten the hang of collaborating with Wilson, but Blood Money feels like a full-throated Tom Waits album rather than an adjunct to an unseen story. "Misery Is the River of the World" raises the curtain in familiar sturm und drang style, but "All the World Is Green" broadens the palette to include the saw of a melancholy cello. Reading up on Büchner's play might deepen your appreciation, but it's not a necessity; the songs tell their own stories as well as fitting into a larger one. "God's Away on Business" leans closest to the Waits-by-numbers of The Black Rider, but it's infused with a knowing wink, as if Waits knows we've all been here before.


Tom Waits

An effective children's story depends on a perfect balance of menace and wonder. Disney golly-gee'd Lewis Carroll's Alice stories into toothlessness, while Jefferson Airplane overplayed their darkness - the ominous "White Rabbit" is practically an anti-drug commercial. But Tom Waits is the ideal carnival barker to lure kiddies to the other side of the looking glass. His voice suitably animated and wheezy as a dilapidated accordion, his spirit possessed by a giddily insatiable appetite for decadence, Waits offers a temptation that's equal parts alluring and terrifying, a balance of excitement and fear best summed up when he asserts, "Everything you can think of is true."

Waits's version of Wonderland is like a Bowery flophouse transplanted to Weimar Germany, populated by two-faced boys ("Poor Edward") and ranting Teutons ("Kommienezuspadt") instead of manic rabbits and murderous queens - in short, a place recognizable to anyone who's followed his career-long fascination with what he once dubbed "a world going on underground."

Originally composed for a 1992 Robert Wilson stage production, the songs here occasionally feel programmatic and, as a piece, can lack narrative flow. But most of the material stands on its own, even out of context, especially the title track, one of his finest love songs to date. - Keith Harris

The Prophet

For the latter part of his career, Waits became a cross between carnival barker and doomsayer, calling down fire with his scorched-earth voice.


Tom Waits

It's hard to imagine how fans accustomed to the boozy romanticism of Waits's Island years might have reacted to the opening clangor of Swordfishtrombones' "Underground," but one imagines a freshly clobbered Wile E. Coyote with birds circling his head. Chalk it up to his recent marriage to Kathleen Brennan, whose record collection was as rich in Captain Beefheart as Waits's was in Mose Allison, or a long-simmering restlessness, but it remains one of the most startling and successful reinventions in the history of music. The sheer breadth of the album's inspirations is staggering; in a contemporary interview, Waits cited Charles Bukowski, Howlin' Wolf, Nino Rota, Cuban nightclub music, the Salvation Army, Dr. Zhivago, the film noir Nightmare Alley and a kind of "Oriental Bobby 'Blue' Bland approach." Rhythm has supplanted harmony as the primary structuring element, from the lurching, industrial beat of "16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought-Six" to the marimba pulse of "Swordfishtrombone." The lyrics run to open surrealism, leaving the nightclubs and dive bars behind for a world of his own invention. With its lulling horn fanfare, "In the Neighborhood" goes a way towards bridging the distance from Heartattack and Vine, but the song won't stay put; the neighborhood is only a state of mind. A trio of instrumentals ("Dave the Butcher," "Just Another Sucker on the Vine," "Rainbirds") underline the preference for mood over melody: "Dave" is a dissonant organ dirge, while "Sucker" sounds like the score to some lost Charlie Chaplin short. Waits burned his oeuvre to the ground; he could have been left with only ashes, but instead he found unspoiled earth that was his and his alone.

Rain Dogs

Tom Waits

The touchstone for Tom Waits's second act, Rain Dogs consolidates the gains of Swordfishtrombones and extends them with the help of an all-star cast. The key addition is guitarist Marc Ribot, whose spindly leads yank the songs in unexpected directions. On "Singapore," his percussive plucking sets up a conflicting rhythm that bleeds into the mix like a drunk seeing double. It's saying something that Ribot makes the biggest impression on an album that also features guest spots by Keith Richards ("Big Black Mariah") and Robert Quine ("Blind Love"). Waits's arrangements are unceasingly inventive — check the combination of banjo, upright bass and hand drums on "Gun Street Girl" — and he's increasingly aware of his voice as an instrument. On "Cemetery Polka," he sounds as if his throat is clogged with graveyard dirt, while on "Hang Down Your Head" it's heavy with more sorrow than his words can bear. It's telling that "Downtown Train," subsequently travestied by Rod Stewart, is left until nearly last, despite being the album's most obvious commercial prospect. Waits starts off by breathing fire in the listener's face; refreshments will be served, but only for those who stay 'til the end.

Bone Machine

Tom Waits

Released after a five-year break between albums — then the longest in his career — Bone Machine marks the beginning of a era in which Waits's records are isolated and self-contained, as if he goes dormant after each session and reemerges only after he's come up with something to say. The marionette march of "Earth Died Screaming" recalls the clatter of Rain Dogs' "Singapore," but Waits strips the songs bare as he goes, paring away the excess; "Jesus Gonna Be Here" is just upright bass, dobro, and Waits's voice echoing in what sounds like an empty warehouse. On "In the Colosseum," he sounds as if he's been to hell and back and might just consider repeating the journey, the clanking percussion forging a concrete link to the album's title. Like the contemporaneous The Black Rider, Bone Machine risks falling into a fire-and-brimstone rut, but "Black Wings" shifts the album into a slightly less apocalyptic register. "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" could be a demented Disney theme, and "That Feel" closes with a dash of ghostly gospel harmony. It's hardly Waits's most approachable album, but its skeletal embrace is surprisingly welcoming.

Mule Variations

Tom Waits

After another lengthy break between albums, Waits emerged with an album that sums up his post-Swordfishtrombones career without breaking much in the way of new ground. Given that there's no one else working his turf, the lack of innovation isn't an issue; the title, with its allusions to stubbornness and repetition, proclaims as much. "What's He Building" is a distorted, paranoid monologue delivered atop radio squeals and disembodied whistles, as if Waits was constantly fiddling with the frequency, trying to tune in his own signal. "Get Behind the Mule" draws on a bluesy well not much tapped since Heartattack and Vine, and there's a gentleness to "House Where Nobody Lives" that had largely slipped out of his repertoire, but they're variations on a theme and not strides forward. By this point, Waits has made so many consistently surprising records that it's almost disorienting to come across one that's tweaking the formula rather than changing it up. There are still great moments, but they're great in the ways we've come to expect.

Real Gone

Tom Waits

Opening with the swish of turntables worked by his son Casey, Tom Waits's 17th album wastes no time throwing down the gauntlet. If The Mule Variations leaned on past advances, Real Gone kicks away the crutches, forcing Waits to find his footing again. There's not a note of keyboard on the entire album, and though there's no disguising his voice, Waits buries it in distortion and puts it low in the mix, forcing it to fight its way to the top. "Shake It" distills the distorted stomp of Bone Machine to its infernal essence, while "Metropolitan Glide" fulfills Waits's desire to create a "dance craze," albeit one that by the sound of it can only be engaged in by skeletons. "Circus" is just warped music box and record-player static, an end-times take on one of Waits's pet subjects. The 10-minute "Sins of the Father" is the boldest step, a slowly building narrative built on a minimalist riff, less "Burma Shave" than it is "Desolation Row." Even after so many years, the old conjurer still has a few tricks left.

Bad As Me

Tom Waits

Arriving seven years after Real Gone, Bad As Me busts out of the gate with the churning horns of "Chicago." But with the lagging tabla beat of the next track, "Raised Right Men," Waits steps on the brakes, and he more or less keeps his foot down for the rest of the album. The word "relaxed" is nowhere in Waits's lexicon, but there's an unhurried ease to songs like "Talking at the Same Time" and "Back in the Crowd." Waits sings away from the beat, as if even his rhythm section can't set his pace. "Last Leaf" confronts mortality with fleeting defiance, and "New Year's Eve" is a mandolin-tinged waltz, not a time signature that gets much play in his repertoire.

That's not to say Waits has mellowed, exactly. "Hell Broke Luce" extends his interest in the lives of soldiers, with baritone sax so low it sounds like the rumble of mortars and a little simulated machine-gun fire for extra PTSD. "Satisfied" ponders death as a release from the body — "Lay my vertebrae out like dice/ Let my skull be a home for the mice" — but not before its needs are fully met. He even invokes the patron saints of rock 'n' roll dissatisfaction: "Mr. Jagger, Mr. Richards/ I will scratch where I been itchin'." It is perhaps not coincidental that Richards also plays on the song.

Waits scratches plenty of itches on Bad As Me, no two songs are alike, although most draw on templates he's laid down over his long and varied career. The album never quite settles on a mood for long enough to cast the kind of sustained spell as Bone Machine or Small Change do, but with so much time between recordings, it's not surprising Waits feels the itch to dance with as many partners as he can.


Tom Waits

Orphans is so chock-a-block full of Tom Waits trademarks - bangings, clangings, swamp hollers, jailbreak recipes, hobo manifestos, starlit waltzes, dime-store valentines, last-call singalongs - that it's easy to overlook how seriously out of character it is: For the first time in the 33 years he's been making records, Waits is looking backward instead of forward, honing instead of innovating. And yet what could have been just a simple career-spanning collection of outtakes, B-sides and compilation tracks has sprawled into something weirdly akin to a statement: an instruction manual for how his mind works, a voluntary sheaf of contact sheets.

Disc one, "Brawlers," dismembers rockabilly, juke-joint blues and gospel testifiers with Waits's usual avant-garde aplomb, muddling obsolete sounds and progressive visions; "Road to Peace," a chilling, moaned snapshot of failed Israeli-Palestinian relations, is the sole effort to rise out of the atemporal stew and attach itself to current events. Disc two, "Bawlers," offers an embarrassment of sentimental riches: unabashed odes to natural wonders ("You Can Never Hold Back Spring"), corner-bar breakup ballads ("It's Over"), banjo-plucking moongazers ("Shiny Things") and a pedal-steel-draped take on a pop standard ("Young at Heart"). Disc three, "Bastards," collects compilation rarities like Kurt Weill's "What Keeps Mankind Alive," an industrial-hell version of Disney's "Heigh Ho" and the classic-car monologue "The Pontiac."

Liberated - at least for the time being - from the tremendous, self-imposed pressure to be inventive all the time, Waits is pinning himself down instead of propelling himself onward. But the quality is so stunningly high throughout, the scale so overwhelming and the scope so ambitious, that the slight air of redundancy vanishes on the breeze. - Karen Schoemer

Glitter And Doom Live

Tom Waits

Tom Waits is in a profoundly unimpeachable position. He is perceived as grizzled and crazed and magnificently out-of-step. And, most crucially, a genius. An inscrutable iconoclast, with a hobo's sense of style and a coal miner's voice box. Over time, he has begun to resemble a video game villain - dark, rarely seen, unbeatable. The Legend of Zelda's Ganon, basically. So hearing him on Glitter and Doom, a live album, is both a treat and a curiosity. Here is this unknowable artist, perpetuating the folkloric artifice, and perhaps even stretching it into full-blown myth. Waits's growl is deeper, his stories more cracked and poetic, and his band more lurching and lockstep. He is only himself, without context or contemporaries.

In 2008, Glitter and Doom was the first Waits tour in three years and he and his band traveled through the underserved Southwestern swath of America - places like Mobile and Tulsa and El Paso. So the fans in attendance, often traveling a great distance to see Waits, are rapturous, slurping down much-loved compositions, like Rain Dog's "Singapore" with the same verve as the never-before-heard story song, "Live Circus." Most of the time Waits's howlish singing style can verge on the grotesque and hilarious. "What does it matter, a dream of life, a dream of lies?" he woofs on Bone Machine's "Dirt in the Ground." It is terrifying, melancholic and logical at the same time - one of Waits great, uncelebrated gifts. On a restructured "Falling Down," one of Waits's best and most heartbreaking songs, he is almost freakishly hoarse. Which, we suppose, is by design.

Glitter and Doom is an unsurprisingly defiant work, culling mostly from stellar later albums like Real Gone and the odds 'n' ends compilation Orphans. It's a stopover until the beast grows bigger and darker, but suitably menacing no less. - Sean Fennessey