Hey Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime? The World of Tom Waits


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Thread: Hey Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime? The World of Tom Waits

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    Hey Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime? The World of Tom Waits

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    Thomas Alan “Tom” Waits is a native of California. He was born there and he still lives there, though of course his musical career and life have taken him far and wide over nearly forty-five years. I'm not going to write a bio of him: if you've never heard him the chances are you've heard his songs sung by someone else, but if you really want to read about him, here [url]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Waits[/url]

    Without ever a single hit to his name, and though his albums are revered in many circles they are hardly what you'd call massive sellers, Waits has charted a course through music which has seen him earn the admiration of everyone from Springsteen to Crystal Gayle and The Eagles to Rod Stewart. Many people have had hit singles with his music, and it's been featured on both the big and small screen. Having recently celebrated his sixty-sixth birthday, he's still going strong and released an album in 2013, which surely is not the last we'll hear from him. His style is varied: he uses elements of blues, folk, jazz, vaudeville, island music, soul and rock, as well as other, less recognised music forms, and the number of instruments he employs is hard to determine, as he tends to often make his own, like banging chair legs on the floor or hitting pots and pans together.

    But though he has wandered happily through such areas as experimental, jazz and folk music, Waits' music career began in a much more sedate manner, as his debut album, a quiet, understated affair that even then hinted at greatness to come, shows us. And this, of course, is where we begin our descent into the often madcap, exhilarating, sometimes frightening and frequently baffling, occasionally beautiful but always wonderful world of Tom Waits.

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    Closing time --- 1973 (Asylum)

    With characteristic laconic wit, Waits chooses words associated with endings for his beginning, and indeed there is also there the connotations linked with the pub and the tavern, which would become his shelter and his keeper for several years as he spiralled into an ever-worsening descent into alcoholism and abuse. There is nothing of the later experimental work that would colour his later material here, but then, he was only twenty-four, and had yet to discover all the darkness the world had to offer. Even so, this doesn't read as an album written by a wide-eyed optimist or someone with their head in the clouds. As we'll see, Waits' feet were always firmly planted on the ground, if perhaps too often swinging from a barstool.

    Counting in the song, and indeed marking the moment when, to all intents and purposes, his recording career began, its “One, two, three, four” as a song The Eagles would filch for their On the Border album, a situation about which Waits would later growl “The Eagles ain't Country. There's no shit on their boots!” kicks the album off. A slow, lazy piano which would become something of Waits' trademark sound takes “Ol' 55” in, and it is very Country in feel and shape. You can see why Frey and Henley wanted it. But even as this could be seen as an ode to the car, (I'm not sure which one but I'm sure some American will enlighten me) it is in fact used merely as a metaphor for escape, perhaps unwilling escape. When Waits sings ”Just a-wishin' I had stayed a little longer” you get the feeling he would rather have been back with his lover than riding away in his car, but there's a feeling of inevitability about it, a sense that all things come to an end, and when that happens, it's good to have a means of escape, perhaps even a getaway car.

    It's a low-key, downbeat opening to the album, and it doesn't get much more upbeat really for much of it. Even at that, it's a bitterly lovely song as he growls ”The sun's comin' up/ I'm ridin' with Lady Luck/ Freeways cars and trucks” There are some nice touches on the guitar but mostly it's very much a piano driven song, though I think that may be a celeste or a harmonium on the chorus; certainly both are used on the album. Another slow, bitter ballad then in “I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You”, this time an acoustic guitar song, as Waits fears falling for a woman he has met, knowing the pitfalls of romance. ”Had a beer and now I hear/ You callin' out for me” he drawls as he Wonder[s] if I should offer you a chair?” It's the first example of a song that Waits would use to twist and warp the idea of a ballad, making love a dirty word and something to be avoided. In the end though, he capitulates as he sighs ”I think that I just/ Fell in love with you.” The song also contains the title of the album, although it does finish with a song so titled, an instrumental.

    The first time the album takes an upswing and it kicks off on the slow, lazy bass of Bill Plummer, then the piano evokes a kind of drunken stagger as lonely trumpet from Delbert Bennet keeps its lonely vigil. “Virginia Avenue” is one of a number of songs which would reference local areas and places Waits knew of, frequented or visited, enshrining them forever in his music. Fun fact: this song also appears on The Early Years Vol 1 where it is slightly different. Where he sings ”What's a poor boy to do?” the original line is ”What's a poor sailor to do?” Thought you'd like to know. I'll remind you when we get to that album's review. Interesting look forward to the future too when he sings ”Blues I leave behind me/ Catchin' up on me.”
    His first song not to include the title in the lyric, “Old Shoes (And Picture Postcards)” is also one of a selection of titles which would have footnotes in parentheses. A jaunty but yet slow acoustic guitar ballad with a lot of folk in it, it relates the decision to leave someone after what would appear to have been a long relationship. He sings ”So long, farewell/ The road calls me dear/ And your tears cannot bind me anymore.” One of the strengths of this album is that none of the songs are too long. Most come in around the three-minute mark, with one or two edging over four and one almost five, but that's the longest. It's just enough time to appreciate the song, let it sink in before it vanishes like an echo in your brain. Waits was, and is, a master of the art of using brevity. You'll find no ten-minute compositions in his music.

    Another feature of his songs is that they usually concern or are built around characters, characters who are inevitably flawed. The man who leaves his clingy lover in the above song, the guy who walks along Virginia Avenue looking for a bar and of course the fellow who hops into his “Ol' 55” and hightails it out of town. These characters and personages make his songs more real somehow, and for me at any rate have enabled them to speak to me; not that I know anything about being drunk and wandering the streets at 3am, but the very flaws of his characters, their shortcomings is in my view what makes them real, and relatable, and that much more powerful for being pathetic. We can identify with them. We know them, or someone like them. Perhaps we are, or were, them. But we see through their eyes and hear through their ears, and the world we see is a different one than our own eyes bring to us. It's a damp, squalid, dark, threatening and unforgiving one, where every shadow could contain an attacker, or someone wanting to rob us of our bottle, and every friend must be searched for a knife, just in case. The milk of human kindness has soured for these people, if it was ever fresh, and as we journey on with them through Waits' albums we will get to know the world they inhabit.

    Another thing Waits would often do is build his songs around nursery rhymes, or incorporate parts of them in the lyric, as here, when “Midnight Lullaby” begins with the words ”Sing a song of sixpence/ A pocket full of rye”. Acoustic piano is attended by trumpet as the song moves along on a nice, swaying sort of rhythm, and Waits muses ”When you are dreaming/ You see for miles and miles.” The song ends with a piano rendition of “Hush Little Baby”, another nod to the world of children's stories and rhymes, appropriate as this appears to concern him talking to his child.

    I don't want to rag on him on his first outing, but for me this is where the album's quality begins to dip slightly. I do like “Martha”, but I feel the piano is a little harsh here, though the cello from Jesse Ehrlich in the chorus certainly saves the song. Still, I regard it as one of the weaker tracks on the album, despite the reflective nature of the song as a guy telephones his old lover out of the blue to recall the old times. It also ends badly, I feel. “Rosie” then is another piano-driven track, though the piano is much softer and gentler this time. The melody is a little reminiscent of “Virginia Avenue” and returns to the Country feel of “Ol' 55” with some fine pedal steel from Peter Klimes, and the subject matter is somewhat similar, then what I would call a lower grade trio of songs comes to a shuddering end with “Lonely”.

    Possibly, in my estimation, one of Waits' worst early songs, it's again driven by piano, but the this time it's the vocal I find very harsh, and the lyric mostly consists of the title. It just seems like something that, were there other tracks considered for and dropped from the album, should have joined them. I really don't like this song, and it's seldom I would skip any Waits song but I often do jump over this one. Luckily the album then rallies strongly, as if eager to throw off the somewhat cloying influence of the last three tracks, as “Ice Cream Man” is only the second upbeat track, where Waits first reveals his wicked sense of humour. Sexual innuendo follows sexual innuendo as he smirks ”Got a big stick momma/ That'll blow your mind” and goes on to assure the lady ”When you're tired and you're hungry/ And you want something cool/ Got something better than a swimmin' pool!” There's a boppy, jazzy, almost big band rhythm driven by some fine basswork and soaring guitar. He even starts and ends the song with the sound of an ice cream van's chimes! Oh Waits, you devil!

    And we're back on track. “Little Trip To Heaven (On The Wings Of Your Love)” is a fine laid back ballad with smooth trumpet and flowing piano, its melody recalls in part “Midnight Lullaby”, Bennet really excelling here on the brass. “Grapefruit Moon” is the final vocal track, piano again taking centre stage with some very prominent bass, some of the runs on the piano again nodding back to “Virginia Avenue”, and indeed presaging the later “On the nickel”, and Ehrlich returns to add some lovely cello. Waits echoes the thoughts of us all on certain songs when he sings ”Every time I hear that melody/ Something breaks inside” before a beautiful duet between piano and cello sets the seal on a sumptuous almost-closer. We end then on the title track, and only instrumental, the only words being a muttered “This is for posterity” from Waits at the beginning. The tune is taken by a lazy, almost reflective piano and some lovely harmonica, taking us out in fine style and bringing the album to a soft and relaxing close.

    TRACK LISTING

    O
    l' 55
    I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You
    Virginia Avenue
    Old Shoes (And Picture Postcards)
    Midnight Lullaby
    Martha
    Rosie
    Lonely
    Ice Cream Man
    Little Trip To Heaven (On The Wings Of Your Love)
    Grapefruit Moon
    Closing Time

    Some debut albums set the charts on fire, some receive critical acclaim, and some just vanish like ripples in a pond. But still waters run deep, and though this initial effort from Tom Waits did not exactly make headline news across the world and introduce a star, but he had made his mark quietly and almost unobtrusively, and while the world may not have been watching and listening, the music fraternity was. As mentioned, The Eagles, making their name at this time, were impressed enough by the new songwriter to cover one of his songs, and later Bette Midler herself would cover “Martha”, while Meat Loaf would put a rendition of the same song on his 1995 album.

    As time went on, Waits became the go-to guy, the musician's musician, and his refusal to go with the flow, his willingness, even eagerness to buck trends --- he once said “I slept through the sixties” --- would mark him as both a maverick and a stone cold music genius. His trademark gravelly voice was as yet still to develop, and would only really come into its own on his third album, Small Change, when he would really come to the attention of everyone. Taken as an album in its own right, this is a pleasant, if often bitter, country/folk outing, with some extremely clever at time lyrics. But beyond that, it was setting down a marker, a new singer/songwriter honing his considerable talent and placing his bet down on the table, a bet that would pretty much always reap him large and profitable dividends, at least musically if not always financially.

    Closing Time made one simple but undeniable statement: Tom Waits had arrived.

    Come away, human child to the waters and the wild
    With a faery hand in hand.
    For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand. - WB Yeats "The Stolen Child"

    I drink to forget, but I never forget to drink.

    "If the real Jesus Christ were to stand up today
    He'd be gunned down cold by the CIA" - The The, "Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)" - Mind Bomb, 1989


    The most destructive force on the planet is not nukes or global warming...it is the human ego. - Ralph Rotten

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    In this section I'll be discussing the genius of Tom Waits, featuring three songs of his and reproducing the lyrics, talking extensively about them, and trying to give you a real appreciation for the ridiculous amount of talent this man has. We're going to start off with something that is in fact live, and was never on any studio album. Taken from the 1975 album
    Nighthawks at the Diner, the album itself is something of an oddity, being recorded as it was in a recording studio, Record Plant in New York, but the studio was setup like a bar, and the performance taped live and although listening to it it sounds impromptu and ad-lib, the whole thing was actually rehearsed before the band got on stage, as it were.

    On the album, Waits spends plenty of time in between tracks telling little anecdotes, sometimes to so with the songs, sometimes not, but it's all extremely entertaining, and though the music is fantastic, sometimes the introductions or intermissions if you like are even moreso. None of the tracks on this album ever surfaced on a studio Waits album, since or after, so this is the only place you get to hear such excellent compositions as “Emotional Weather Report”, “Nobody” and “Warm Beer and Cold Women”.

    The one I want to concentrate on, though, to open this section, is a song many women may take offence at, but it's all meant in fun, so don't be too hard on the guy. You'll understand what I mean when you hear the title.
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    “Better Off Without a Wife” from Nighthawks at the Diner, 1975 (Asylum)


    The song is a piano based blues/jazz melody wherein Waits extols the virtues of being single. You can go where you want, when you want, no-one's on your case. He talks about his friends, who are all married, and how he doesn't want to be like them. Of course, he only looks at one side of the argument, but it's a great funny little song at its heart, and if you leave any simmering outrage at the door, you'll realise he's only singing about what we all think of from time to time, single, married or divorced.

    Here's the lyric.

    All my friends are married: every Tom and Dick and Harry:
    you must be strong if you're to go it alone.
    Here's to the bachelors and the bowery bums
    And those who feel that they're the ones
    Who are better off without a wife.

    [CHORUS]
    I like to sleep until the crack of noon:
    Midnight howlin' at the moon.
    Goin' out when I wanna, comin' home when I please.
    I don't have to ask permission if I want to go out fishin':
    And I never have to ask for the keys.

    Never been no Valentino but I had a girl who lived in Reno
    Left me for a trumpet player, but it didn't get me down.
    He was wanted for assault though he said it weren't his fault.
    You know, the cops they rode him right out of town.

    [CHORUS]

    Selfish about my privacy; as long as I can be with me
    We get along so well I can't believe.
    I love to chew the fat with folks and listen to all your dirty jokes.
    I'm so thankful for these friends I do receive.


    The next one I want to share with you is from his album Rain Dogs, and it's a track entitled “9th and Hennepin”. I guess it's purely coincidental that Rain Dogs is his ninth album, but the track itself is written about real-life events, as is much of the imagery on the album. It's quite odd in that it has no real verse or chorus structure, and Waits does not sing it. It's more like drawled poetry behind a very discordant piano, wailing clarinet, double-bass and marimba, and you get the feel of looking out of grime-encrusted, yellow windows out onto rain-washed streets at night. The song is spoken in one continuous verse, though he does take breath a few times to allow the piano to carry the tune.

    Waits described the inspiration for the song thus: “Most of the imagery is fromNew York. It's just that I was on 9th and Hennepin years ago in the middle of apimp war, and 9th and Hennepin always stuck in my mind. "There's trouble at 9th and Hennepin." To this day I'm sure there continues to be trouble at 9th and Hennepin. At this donut shop. They were playing "Our Day Will Come" byDinah Washington when these three 12-year-old pimps came in inchinchilla coats armed with knives and, uh, forks and spoons and ladles and they started throwing them out in the streets. Which was answered by live ammunition over their heads into our booth. And I knew "Our Day Was Here." I remember the names of all the donuts: cherry twist, lime rickey. But mostly I was thinking of the guy going back toPhiladelphia fromManhattan on theMetroliner withThe New York Times, looking out the window in New York as he pulls out of the station, imagining all the terrible things he doesn't have to be a part of.”
    (Transcribed verbatim from Wikipedia article)

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    “9th and Hennepin” from Rain Dogs, 1985 (Island)


    It's typical of the sort of social commentary Waits puts into his songs. But he never seems to do this to be seen as controversial, or to be noticed, or praised for his cleverness. The lyrics seem to be written in a genuine, honest attempt to bring someone's plight to the attention of the masses. You can always imagine Waits staggering along a dark street, raincoat pulled tight across his scrawny chest, a half-empty bottle of whiskey clutched in his bony hand, shouting at and haranguing everyone he meets in a slurred, drunken voice. Like some inebriated prophet of the sidewalk, Waits always seems to not only write for the common man, or woman, but to be right down there among them. As I once said about Nick Cave, he's kind of the patron saint of the dispossessed.

    Anyway, here's the lyric, poem, prose, call it what you will. What can't be denied though, is that it is genius, on every level.

    Well it's 9th and Hennepin, and all the donuts havenames that sound like prostitutes.
    And the moon's teethmarks are on the sky like a tarp thrown over all this
    And the broken umbrellas like dead birds,
    And the steam comes out of the grill like the whole goddamned town is ready to blow.
    And the bricks are all scarred with jailhouse tattoos, and everyone is behaving like dogs.
    And the horses are coming down Violin Road, and Dutch is dead on his feet.
    And the rooms all smell like diesel and you take on the dreams of the ones who have slept here.
    And I'm lost in the window; I hide on the stairway, I hang in the curtain and I sleep in your hat.

    And no one brings anything small into a bar around here:
    They all started out with bad directions.
    And the girl behind the counter has a tattooed tear:
    “One for every year he's away” she said.
    Such a crumbling beauty --- ah there's nothin' wrong with her that a hundred dollars won't fix.
    She has that razor sadness that only gets worse with the clang and thunder of the Southern Pacific going by.

    And the clock ticks out like a dripping faucet till you're full of rag water and bitters and blue ruin
    And you spill out over the side to anyone who'll listen.
    And I've seen it all through the yellow windows of the evening train.


    Waits also has this uncanny ability to tap into the wanderer, the restless dreamer in all of us, and nowhere is this more perfectly demonstrated than in the tragic tale told in “Burma shave”. It's a piano-led song, almost a ballad, about two youngsters who are tired waiting for something to happen, and decide to leave where they live and seek out the fabled better life waiting just out of reach. But of course, never one to let fantasy outlive reality, Waits has them involved in a pileup and killed.

    Yes, it's a morose song, but very realistic, and sadly probably true of many of the “wild ones” who thought they were indestructible. Waits tells the story of how the name of the song came about thus (this is from memory, so I may not get it right: I think it comes from a radio interview): “When I was growin' up and we'd go out driving with my father we'd keep passing these signs, they'd say things like “Food and gas up ahead --- Burma Shave!” And I thought Burma Shave was a place. Never realised it was just a shaving product till I grew up. I was really upset, thinking “Never gonna live there, Tom!”

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    “Burma-Shave”, from Foreign Affairs, 1977 (Asylum)


    The song is really almost a one-man-show. Waits plays the piano, sings the lyric and the only other accompaniment is right at the end, with a plaintive sax break. In many ways an introspective song, it's certainly gritty and full of realism, and yet there's no moral here. Waits doesn't make the point that maybe the girls should have stayed at home instead of going off on what she hoped would be an adventure. Similarly, he doesn't say that she was right to do what she did, even though it cost both her and the boy their lives. In the end, there is no right or wrong. People are people, they'll do stupid, impulsive things, but if they didn't, then they wouldn't be people.

    Waits takes the role of observer, narrator and does not take sides in the story. His voice is not sad as he describes the car crash and the resultant death (or deaths; we assume the boy dies, but only the girl is mentioned as being “pulled from the wreck”. It's also not confirmed she is dead, though it's assumed to be the case) but almost philosophical, a musical shrug that hey, these things happen, and it's tragic, but that's life.

    And here's the lyric:

    Liquorice tattoo turned a gun metal blue scrawled across the shoulders of a dying town.
    The one-eyed jacks across the railroad tracks and the scar on its belly pulled a stranger passing through.
    He's a juvenile delinquent: never learned how to behave ---
    But the cops would never think to look in Burma-Shave.

    The road was like a ribbon and the moon was like a bone:
    He didn't seem to be like any guy she'd ever known.
    Kinda looked like farley granger with his hair slicked back;
    She says “I'm a sucker for a fella in a cowboy hat. How far are you going?”
    He said “Depends on what you mean.” He says “I'm only stopping here to get some gasoline.”
    He says “I guess I'm going thataway, just as long as it's paved:
    I guess you'd say I'm on my way to Burma-Shave.”

    And with her knees up on the glove compartment she took out her barrettes
    And her hair spilled out like rootbeer and she popped her gum, and arched her back.
    “Hell, Marysville ain't nothing but a wide spot in the road:
    Some night my heart pounds just like thunder: don't know why it don't explode.
    Cause everyone in this stinking town has got one foot in the grave
    And I'd rather take my chances out in Burma-Shave.

    Presley's what I go by: why don't you change the station?
    Count the grain elevators in the rearview mirror.”
    She said, “Mister, anywhere you point this thing has got to beat the hell out of the sting
    Of going to bed with every dream that dies here every mornin'.
    So drill me a hole with a barber pole.
    I'm jumping my parole just like a fugitive at night.
    Why don't you have another swig?
    Pass that car if you're so brave?
    I wanna get there before the sun comes up in Burma-Shave.”

    The spider web crack and the mustang scream:
    Smoke from the tyres and the twisted machine.
    Just a nickel's worth of dreams; every wishbone that they saved
    Lie swindled from them on the way to Burma-Shave.

    The sun hit the derrick and cast a bat wing shadow up against the car door on the shotgun side.
    And when they pulled her from the wreck you know she still had on her shades.
    They say that dreams are growing wild just this side of Burma-Shave.


    If the lyrics above prove anything, it's that, excellent as Tom Waits' music is, it's his lyrics that truly characterise his songs, give them heart and life. The man is a poet, and puts that poetry to music. But it's not airy-fairy poetry: it's the poetry of the streets, the words of the ordinary man, the view from the gutter. He has a way of framing the most mundane settings and objects in a way no-one else can, allowing us to see through the eyes of the characters in his songs, feel what they feel, dream what they dream and understand in the way only they can.

    It's a rare talent, and almost a lost art, but as long as Waits is around, it won't be lost just yet.
    Last edited by Trollheart; September 13th, 2019 at 05:43 PM.
    Come away, human child to the waters and the wild
    With a faery hand in hand.
    For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand. - WB Yeats "The Stolen Child"

    I drink to forget, but I never forget to drink.

    "If the real Jesus Christ were to stand up today
    He'd be gunned down cold by the CIA" - The The, "Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)" - Mind Bomb, 1989


    The most destructive force on the planet is not nukes or global warming...it is the human ego. - Ralph Rotten

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    Offline: Depressed Trollheart's Avatar
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    Many of Waits's albums would follow themes, though only one to my knowledge is an actual concept album, and his second one certainly does bring together songs that are linked with a common thread, this being travelling, movement, comings and goings, hellos and farewells. It's a much higher tempo, upbeat affair in general than Closing time, and it shows him stretching his musical muscles as his songwriting develops beyond the mostly lovelorn ballads of the debut.

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    The Heart of Saturday Night --- 1974 (Asylum)

    This album would also mark the beginning of a relationship that would flourish throughout most of Waits's career, that of his friendship with producer Bones Howe, who would helm almost all of his albums from here on in. Right away we're presented with a louder, rougher, more rowdy Waits than has been present on the debut. The man who peeked through slightly in “IceCcream Man” now comes strutting to the fore as we open on “New Coat of Paint”, with an exuberant piano and a rolling melody, the voice of a man who's ready for a night on the town. ”You wear a dress” he tells his lady, ”I'll wear a tie/ We'll laugh at that old bloodshot moon/ In that burgundy sky.” Much of the introspection of Closing Time is left behind now as Waits puts on his best duds and steps out on the town with his best lady, smirking ”Fishin' for a good time/ Starts with throwin' in your line.” If this was anyone else, you might say that he'd learned the lessons from the mostly positive reception of his debut, but its low sales, and had decided to give people something to dance to, or tap their fingers to, a more commercial Waits. But then, this is Tom Waits, and he don't give a shit what you think or who you are. Perhaps underlining this, the next track is a slow moody ballad, as “San Diego Serenade”, later covered by Nanci Griffith, returns us to the style of the debut. Again piano led, it features a beautiful string section accompaniment that really lifts the song to another level, and you can hear the regret in his voice as he sings ”Never saw your heart/ Till someone tried to steal it away/ Never saw your tears/ Till they rolled down your face.”

    And then we're off again with “Semi Suite” (another word play which would become his trademark) as he drawls the tale of a truck driver on the road, and the woman he leaves behind to wait for him. Strongly driven by smoky trumpet and bass, this song trips along in a very mid-paced jazz/blues vein, the sort of song you could definitely see Waits playing in a smoke-choked bar as patrons ignore his empty tip jar and glasses clink amid conversation. Some fine piano as ever sprinkled through the tune, and really effective double bass from Jim Hughart adds to the small-town-jazz-club-after-hours feel of the song. Although written from the perspective of the woman, the song could be taken as an anthem for truckers, as Waits sings ”He's a truck driving man/ Stoppin' when he can.”

    One of the standouts for me is next, another ballad as Waits leaves everything behind in “Shiver Me Timbers” to go to sea, possibly inspired by his time spent with the Coastguard. Soft violin accompanies him as he moans ”The fog's liftin'/ Sand's shiftin'/ And I'm driftin' on by” and there's a lovely midsection on acoustic guitar. Following this beautiful creation we have a swinging blues tune in “Diamonds on My Windshield”, pulled along by a wonderful double bass and some skittering percussion, Waits almost performing a rap of sorts, very jazzy. The rhythm of the vocal really comes into its own when he sings ”Eights goes east/ fives goes north/ Merging nexus, back and forth”. It's a short song, an ode to driving home in the rain, an example of the sort of minimalist song he would come back to time and again, one of them being nothing more than percussion.



    A simple acoustic guitar then ushers in the first of two semi-title tracks. ”(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night” trips along nicely in a laconic manner, folky and acoustic and very catchy. Double bass again plays a prominent part in this song, then we kick the tempo back up for the first time since the opener with “Fumblin' with the Blues”, an upbeat bopper with a lot of jazz and swing in it. The piano comes back into its own here, and some fine saxophone adds its voice, as does electric piano. It's a song that's kind of hard to sit still to, and Waits's voice is on fine form here. He perhaps begins to look at his drinking habit here as he admits ”I'm a pool-shootin' shimmy shyster/ Shakin' my head/ When I should be livin' clean instead.” Taking the tempo down then for “Please Call Me Baby”, a lovely little bluesy piano tune as Waits tries to win back his lover after an argument, and frames his desire in a blatant lie about being concerned about her health: I don't want you catchin'/ Your death of cold/ Out walkin' in the rain” but defends his actions rather pathetically and self-deprecatingly when he sings ”If I exorcise my devils/ My angels may leave too.” Lovely strings section employed here too.

    From this on it's pretty much slow material and moodier pieces as we head into “Depot, Depot” riding on a thick trumpet line and some smoky sax, and a repeat in the lyric of a line from “Virginia Avenue” as he asks ”Now, tell me, what a poor boy to do?” while “Drunk on the Moon” (is it coincidence, I wonder, that his previous album also had a song about the moon as the second-last track?) continues this loose theme, as ”Some Bonneville is screamin'/ Its way wilder down the street” and Waits realises ”I've hocked all my yesterdays/ Don't try to change my tune.” Great sax solo here from Tom Scott which ushers in a total change of rhythm as the double bass takes the tune and ramps up the tempo, swinging and strutting along till the piano brings it all back down to earth for the concluding section.

    We end then on the other song with (kind of) the title in it, “The Ghosts of Saturday Night”, with an almost narrated vocal backed by rippling piano, kind of an outro to the album, or an epilogue. Here Waits uses a device he would return to, time and again, waitresses and restaurants as he speaks of a woman with ”Maxwell House eyes/ With marmalade thighs /And scrambled yellow hair” and of eating ”Hash browns, hash browns/ You know I can't be late.” The music is almost incidental, a soft backing for his recounting of the late night folks and what they do when we're all in bed, the ghosts of Saturday night.

    TRACK LISTING

    1. New Coat of Paint
    2. San Diego Serenade
    3. Semi Suite
    4. Shiver Me Timbers
    5. Diamonds on My Windshield
    6. (Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night
    7. Fumblin' with the Blues
    8. Depot, Depot
    9. Please Call Me Baby
    10. Drunk on the Moon
    11. The Ghosts of Saturday Night (After Hours at Napoleone's Pizza House)

    You can definitely see the effect his drinking was having on Waits's songwriting here. While it's improving in leaps and bounds from the songs on his debut, it's also more concerned with characters who weave from one dark alley to the next in search of an after-hours drinking hole or club they can stagger into. The problems of relationships are explored too and an abiding love for cars and driving, and here too Waits expands on his respect for and love of jazz and blues, dialling back the folky influences and dropping much of the Country feel too.

    Allover, it's a much more accomplished and well-rounded album, and points the way to the one which would bring him to international notice, though that is yet one album away. The things he sings of are not esoteric: they are the visceral and raw, real and relatable, and they pull us into his dark, murky world, showing us what life is like on the bad side of town. This would continue to be the path he would tread throughout his next few albums, always showing us the darker side of life, shining his torch like some spectral nightwatchman and often throwing up darker and more scary shadows than we could ever possibly imagine. There is, however, great tenderness to be found in his songs too, and this would occasionally leak through perhaps despite his best efforts to remain gritty and hard-bitten.

    But if you had decided to take that trip through the dark halls of humanity with him, you had better be prepared, because the journey had just begun.
    Come away, human child to the waters and the wild
    With a faery hand in hand.
    For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand. - WB Yeats "The Stolen Child"

    I drink to forget, but I never forget to drink.

    "If the real Jesus Christ were to stand up today
    He'd be gunned down cold by the CIA" - The The, "Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)" - Mind Bomb, 1989


    The most destructive force on the planet is not nukes or global warming...it is the human ego. - Ralph Rotten

  4. #4
    Offline: Depressed Trollheart's Avatar
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    So what do you do when you've had two pretty much whimpers of albums, that never bothered the charts and hardly spread your fame far and wide? Well, if you're Waits you record a double live album, in a studio, and use nothing off the previous two albums!

    Conceived as very much a jazz record that would capture the atmosphere of small jazz and beat clubs, Waits's third effort would feature entirely new material, plus one cover version, inviting a studio audience into a space where tables and drinks were set up, and encouraging background chatter and noise. It wouldn't win him any commercial plaudits, but it would be different and unique enough to secure him a place in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.


    And in this case, take it from me, you must.


    Nighthawks at the Diner --- 1975 (Asylum)



    If there's one thing this incredible album demonstrates it's how much of a showman Waits is. Not only did he write all this new material and perform it almost without rehearsal (he wrote nothing down, making it a challenge for his band to learn it), but he sprinkles the music with amusing and clever anecdotes and introductions, many of which are almost as good as listening to the songs themselves. An invited audience to what became a sell-out show having first been warmed up by a performance by a stripper, Waits and the band take the stage, and give us an “Emotional Weather Report”.


    Before that though, there's the opening intro, as the band keeps time behind him, Waits welcoming everyone to “Raphael's Silver Cloud Lounge”, although it is in fact The Record Plant Studios in LA. This seems to be the first real instance of what would become his classic drunken drawl, as he slightly slurs his words (though you can make out every one perfectly; this is just an act, a stage persona - isn't it?) as he goes on to tell us “I'm so goddamn horny the crack of dawn better watch out!” and how “You're gone three months and you come home, everything in your refrigerator's a science project!” When the song begins, it's pretty much a continuation of his opening monologue, as he slips in references to local spots, and sings (or really, speaks in rhythm) about ”Tornado warnings in effect before noon Sunday/ For the areas including/ The western region of my mental health/ And the northern portion of my ability/ To deal rationally with my /Disconcerted precarious emotional situation.”


    Some very jazzy music underpins this, upright bass, trumpets and sax, and that sort of ticking percussion that you hear in these sort of clubs, the drummer seeming more to just be keeping time than actually playing. I guess it would be termed a jazz jam, maybe? It's more a slow blues intro then to “On a Foggy Night”, with another entertaining scene-setting by Waits as he takes us on “an improvisational adventure into the bowels of the metropolitan region.” There's not too much point in my recounting what he says here; you really need to hear this to get the proper atmosphere, and in fairness much if not all of it is very America-specific and quite dated in some cases - stuff about saving coupons off an “Old Gold”? The song then wanders along on a slow, lazy blues/jazz line as Waits meanders through the tune, slipping into monologue and then back to singing as he goes.


    A hilarious resume of his eating experiences in local restaurants introduces the next song, as he drawls, to enormous and knowing applause, “I've had strange looking patty melts at Norms, I've had dangerous veal cutlets at The Copper Penny. I ordered my veal cutlet, Christ it walked off the plate and down to the end of the counter, tried to beat the shit out of my cup of coffee! Coffee just wasn't strong enough to defend itself!” The song then contains the title of the album as “Eggs and Sausage (in a Cadillac with Susan Michelson)" slides in from his monologue, the restaurant theme developing through the song. Another slow, bluesy style song with his easygoing vocal and some fine work on the piano too. Another standout then comes in “Better off Without a wife”, as he introduces it by saying it's “for anyone who's ever whistled this song (plays “The Wedding March”) then grins as he admits “Well maybe ya whistle it but ya lost the sheet music.” He then goes on to describe his ideal date: with himself. Hilarious.



    The song is wonderful though. ”Sleepin' till the crack o' noon/ Been out howlin' at the moon/ Goin' out when I want to/ And comin' home when I please/ Don't have to ask permission/ If I wanna go out fishin'/ Never have to ask for the keys.” It rides along on a slow bouncy sort of honky-tonk rhythm on the piano as Waits croaks out the advantages to being single. This before he met Kathleen I assume. The first song on the album not to have an introduction, and the original intended title for the album, “Nighthawk Postcards (from Easy Street)” opens on a sliding walking bass line before Waits comes in with the vocal, something he calls himself an “inebriational travelogue”, the song again not so much sung as spoken, the images evoked of a city at night seen through the eyes of a drunk, as he says “You been drinking cleaning products all night, open to suggestions.”

    It's by far the longest track on the whole album, at eleven and a half minutes as he weaves his way through the nighttime streets, watching the denizens of the city as they scurry to and fro. Some great sax work again and a hypnotic bass line accompanies him as the song speeds up and slows down, Waits singing/talking about sailors, movie-goers and used car salesmen as he swaggers on down the rainsoaked avenues, “Using parking meters as walking sticks” and the band kicks into a bit of a boogie as he goes on his way.


    It's the sort of song that seems so directionless and abstract and improvisational that it could conceivably go on forever, or at least until Waits loses his voice, but it ends well and leads into another anecdote which flows into “Warm Beer and Cold Women”, where Waits returns to the Country influences he explored on his debut album. It's a nice swaying ballad driven by piano as he sings about ”Platinum blondes and tobacco brunettes”, Pete Christlieb ripping off a fine sax solo, then “Putnam County” is another sort of improvisational trip through ... Christ I don't know. It's all very on-the-fly, seat-of-your-pants songwriting. But it's exceptionally entertaining. Into a blues shuffle then for “Spare Parts (A Nocturnal Emission)" as Waits sets the scene: ”The dawn cracked hard like a pool cue/ And it weren't takin' no lip/ From the night before.” It's a finger-clickin', toe-tappin', hand-clappin' infectious beat and sax and bass drive it along in a sort of a slowed-down “Diamonds on My Windshield” feel.


    “Nobody” is an old-style Waits ballad with his hard-bitten twist on it, almost completely piano driven, and it's the shortest of the tracks on the album, bar the intros: just under three minutes. It leads into the only cover version, Tommy Faile's “Big Joe and Phantom 309”, with a short - very short - intro from Waits who declares “It's story time again!” Quite funny when he declares “Gonna tell ya a story about a truck driver” and one guy --- one guy --- claps, hoping to start something off no doubt, but there are no takers. Hate that. Anyway, the song is credited to as I say Tommy Faile but Waits incorrectly says that it was Red Sovine that wrote it. Some quick research reveals that it was Sovine who had the hit all right, but it's Faile's song. Anyway it's the usual ghost-from-the-past-appears-to-help-stranger stories, set in a trucking concept. Cute, but a little predictable. It's for once not a piano song, but ticks along on some really nice acoustic guitar.


    We end then on the outro, “Spare Parts II” as Waits thanks everyone for coming: “Woulda been strange if nobody had shown up!” There's the introduction of the band - perhaps odd, given that this is the end of the gig as it were, but then Waits always has been a maverick and does things his own way. And so comes to an end a pretty unique album, a singular experience and a hell of a hard album to review and get across to you all; I envy the lucky few who got to actually participate in this. Must have been a blast, and talk about immortality!


    TRACK LISTING


    1. Opening Intro
    2. Emotional Weather Report
    3. Intro
    4. On a Foggy Night
    5. Intro
    6. Eggs and Sausage (in a Cadillac with Susan Michelson)
    7. Intro
    8. Better off Without a wife
    9. Nighthawk Postcards (from Easy Street)
    10. Intro
    11. Warm Beer and Cold Women
    12. Intro
    13. Putnam County
    14. Spare Parts I (A Nocturnal Emission)
    15. Nobody
    16. Intro
    17. Big Joe and Phantom 309
    18. Spare Parts II and Closing


    I never got to see Waits live (though I did give my brother a ticket to go when he couldn't afford it) but from the sounds of this album he must be one of the greatest entertainers to see onstage. His presence just radiates from the album and commands your attention. It's something that I again have to remark on, even though I've already said it, but to actually record a live album with completely new material is something I know of no other artist attempting. To think he had, at this point, a loyal enough fanbase that they would buy this album and listen to all-new tracks in a live setting is really something special. Basically, it's like a new studio double album. But live. If you know what I mean.


    If this hadn't cemented his position as a bona fide star, then the album that followed it would, though again the charts would know little of it and radio would always ignore him. No hit singles for Tom Waits, but then, that was not the world he inhabited.


    And on balance, I think I prefer to live in his world.
    Come away, human child to the waters and the wild
    With a faery hand in hand.
    For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand. - WB Yeats "The Stolen Child"

    I drink to forget, but I never forget to drink.

    "If the real Jesus Christ were to stand up today
    He'd be gunned down cold by the CIA" - The The, "Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)" - Mind Bomb, 1989


    The most destructive force on the planet is not nukes or global warming...it is the human ego. - Ralph Rotten

  5. #5
    Offline: Depressed Trollheart's Avatar
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    If one album set out to slay the beast that his rampant alcoholism had become, it was his fourth album, third studio, Small Change, released in 1976. Waits has said of that time, “I was beginning to think there was something amusing and wonderfully American about being a drunk. This was me saying cut that shit out.”


    Featuring some songs which would go on to become standards of his, and turning out to be one of his most favoured albums, Small Change upped the ante for Waits, and was the point at which he began experimenting with sounds, moving away from the usual instruments and arrangements, and started getting serious, while still cocking a snook at the world in general.


    Small Change --- 1976 (Asylum)


    Waits is one of those rare performers who totally polarises opinion: you either love him to death, or you hate him and think he's overrated. There is no middle ground. It's a rare person who will say “I could listen to a few Waits tracks, but I don't like most of his music”. Similarly, his fans love everything he does, and again it's rare you'll hear someone who likes his music say “Oh yeah, but that album was AWFUL!” Which is weird in a way, as fans of most artists will have their reservations about certain of their heroes' works; there will be albums they like and ones they don't often listen to, but even when Waits puts out sub-standard (for him) material, it's generally recognised as still being streets ahead of anything else.


    Small Change is mostly regarded as the zenith of his “early period”, up to the mid-to-late seventies. After this, Waits's music changed, and became (if possible) weirder and more off-the-wall. That said, this should in no way be seen as a “typical” Waits album, (if indeed such a thing exists!) as virtually every time he released something he went in a new direction, and still does.


    Heavily influenced by jazz and blues, and often with only one instrument (piano, sax, bass) backing his gravelly voice, it's a melancholy ride with occasional smirks, both at himself and at America, and deals rather intensively with the subject of alcoholism, a condition Waits was certainly familiar with. No two tracks are the same, but every one has something to say.


    Kicking off with “Tom Traubert's Blues”, a short piano and string passage introduce the song before Waits's eating-gravel-for-breakfast-voice makes its mark on the song. Melodically if not lyrically, it's loosely based around the old Australian traditional song “Waltzing Matilda”, and tells the tale of a man staggering from place to place, a bottle in his hand, sorrow and pain in his heart. ”I'm an innocent victim/ Of a blinded alley/ And I'm tired of all these strangers here/ No-one speaks English/ And everything's broken.” It's actually a beautiful ballad, and was as you may know covered reasonably competently by Rod Stewart (where annoying DJs persisted in calling it “Waltzing Matilda”!), and like a lot of Waits songs, it hasn't really got a clear verse-chorus-verse structure, although the [/i]”Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda/ You'll go waltzting Matilda with me”[/i] sort of forms the chorus, as such.


    The song, like most of Waits' work, features some amazing lyrics: ”And it's a battered old suitcase/ To a hotel someplace/ And a wound that will never heal” that really pull you into the song, and into the mindset of the main character. In many ways, Small Change itself is a mini-opera, a drama set to music, a million stories in the naked city, and we listen as the various characters weave in and out of the songs (often with a bottle or glass in hand), telling their tales of woe, and stagger off into the dirty, garbage-strewn night.


    “Step Right Up” is a complete departure next, carried on upright bass, minimal percussion and sax, as Waits takes the part of a street barker, hawking his wares to anyone he can pull in. ”Step right up, step right up/ Everyone's a winner/ Bargains galore!” The frankly ludicrous claims made by him for “the product” - ”It forges your signature/ Entertains visiting relatives/ Turns a sandwich into a banquet/ Walks your dog/ Helps you quit smoking...” - are clearly his swipe at the way these often crappy products are talked up by their sellers, culminating in the ultimate ”It finds you a job/ It IS a job!” and at the end he warns ”You got it buddy:/ The large print giveth/ And the small print taketh away!”


    Then it's on to another ballad, and another character enters the play, as the “Jitterbug Boy” tells of his adventures: ”Cos I've slept with the lion/ And Marilyn Monroe/ Had breakfast in the eye/ Of a hurricane.” The song, like the vast majority on this album, is mostly carried on a simple piano melody, and like most of Waits's material, it's his incredibly distinctive voice that shapes the song. It's of course very American-based in the lyric: ”Got drunk with Louis Armstrong/ What's that old song?/ I taught Micky Mantle everything he knows.” When I first heard this I had no idea who Micky Mantle was! Didn't stop my enjoyment of the song though.


    Things stay slow then for a piano and string driven ballad, one of Waits's finest, “I wish I Was in New Orleans”. Waits tends to often use a lot of popular (at the time) culture references and even nursery rhymes in his lyrics, as here he sings ”I can hear a band begin/ 'When the saints go marchin' in'/ By the whiskers on my chin.” He also tends to namecheck places, streets, establishments in his songs, as here: ”All along down Burgundy” and ”Then Claiborne Avenue/ Me and you”.




    His ballads are occasionally satirical, and once in a while downright funny, as in the case of the next track up, the hilariously titled “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Ne)”, in which he does bad piano as only a great pianist can, hitting wrong notes just at the right time, creating a dischord and dissonance that is entirely crafted and intended. Though the skewed piano playing is funny, the real laughs are in the lyric. Check the opening lines: ”The piano has been drinking/ My necktie is asleep/ And the combo went back to New York/ The jukebox has to take a leak/ The carpet needs a haircut/ And the spotlight looks like a prison break/ And the telephone's out of cigarettes/ Balcony is on the make.” Genius!


    And still the mood stays slow, but returning to the real world, there is no humour, intended or otherwise, in “Invitation to the Blues”. Again carried on a lone piano melody, it's the tale of broken-down people and wounded hearts: ”You wonder if she might be single/ She's alone and likes to mingle/ Gotta be patient, try to pick up a clue.” Good sax in here too, adding a real jazz-haunt vibe to the song. Like most of the songs on Small Change, the lyric in this is primarily concerned with the damage alcohol abuse does, and the shattered wrecks it makes of people's lives. There's no glamourising of drinking here, as he said himself in an interview, “There ain't nothin' funny about a drunk [...] I was really starting to believe that there was something amusing and wonderfully American about being a drunk. I ended up telling myself to cut that **** out." (courtesy Wikipedia, from Smellin' Like a Brewery, Lookin' Like a Tramp by David McGee).


    The next track is another maverick, with absolutely nothing but Waits' voice behind percussion, as he describes the goings-on at a strip club, in “Pasties and a G-string”, where men come to ”Get a little somethin'/ That you can't get at home.” It's quite an amazing song, never heard anything like it. It's followed by “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart”, which uses the basic melody of “As Time Goes by” from Casablanca, and is again a slow song if not an actual ballad, and again concerned with alcoholism: ”Got a bad liver and a broken heart/ I drunk me a river since you tore me apart/ I don't have a drinkin' problem/ 'cept when I can't get a drink.” It's a real story of a guy who knows he's sinking fast, but since his heart is broken he doesn't really care. Another carried on a single piano melody, with some great lyrics: ”No the moon ain't romantic/ It's intimidating as hell/ And some guy's trying to sell me a watch/ So I'll meet you at the bottom of a bottle/ Of bargain scotch”. Not to mention ”Hey what's your story?/ Well I don't even care!/ Cos I got my own double-cross to bear.” Like I said before, genius...


    Another stripped-down track follows, with just an upright bass and sax for company, “The One That Got Away” is a real finger-clicker, despite the lack of instrumentation, or even proper melody. It's a story, prose told to a semi-musical background. It's almost a slow rap. Before there ever was rap. Then we're into the title track, another of the same and carried almost entirely on tenor sax, with Waits relating the aftermath of the gunning-down of small-time criminal Small Change who ”Got rained on with his own 38”, and you can just picture him lighting up another cigarette as he leans against a lampost in the half-light, collar pulled up against the chill, as he remarks without surprise ”No-one's gone over to close his eyes.” It's just accepted as one of those things that happen here, every day, and people ignore it, go on with their lives. ”His headstone's a gumball machine/ No more chewing-gum or baseball cards/ Or overcoats or dreams.” The only mourner at his street funeral is the sax player,and hey, it's his job. Nothin' personal.


    The album closes on another ballad, the tale of a guy working in a store after closing time, sweeping the floors and dreaming of seeing his girl after work. We'll all be familiar with the sentiments behind “I Can't Wait to Get Off Work”, and it's another piano-driven song, perhaps finishing the album on a low-key note, but with a certain amount of hope, as the character here has at least found gainful employment, has his girl and some money in his pocket.


    TRACK LISTING


    1. Tom Traubert's Blues (Nine Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)
    2. Step Right Up
    3. Jitterbug Boy (Sharing a Kerbstone with Check E. Weiss, Robert Marchese, Paul Body, and the Mug and Artie)
    4. I Wish I Was in New Orleans (In the Ninth Ward)
    5. The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) (An evening with Pete King)
    6. Invitation to the Blues
    7. Pasties and a G-string (At the Two O'Clock Club)
    8. Bad Liver and a Broken Heart (In Lowell)
    9. The One That Got Away
    10. Small Change (Got Rained on with His Own Thirty-eight
    11. I Can't Wait to Get Off Work (And See My Baby on Montgomery Avenue)
    Come away, human child to the waters and the wild
    With a faery hand in hand.
    For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand. - WB Yeats "The Stolen Child"

    I drink to forget, but I never forget to drink.

    "If the real Jesus Christ were to stand up today
    He'd be gunned down cold by the CIA" - The The, "Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)" - Mind Bomb, 1989


    The most destructive force on the planet is not nukes or global warming...it is the human ego. - Ralph Rotten

  6. #6
    Offline: Depressed Trollheart's Avatar
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    And so our, as Waits might put it himself, inebriated stroll takes us to 1977 and his fifth studio album, where everything changed as Waits assumed a film-noir aspect for the album, and invited the great Bette Midler to contribute. It's not, to be fair, one of his better albums in my opinion, and suffers from some weak tracks, but there are some pretty stupendous ones there to make you forget those ones.

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    Foreign Affairs --- 1977 --- Asylum

    The first Waits album to open with an instrumental, and that being in fact only the second such, “Cinny's Waltz” is a nice laidback piano tune with slowly rising strings halfway through and finished with a fine sax solo, taking us into “Muriel”, one of the below-par tracks I spoke about earlier. Opening on a piano line similar to some of the introductions on Nighthawks at the Diner, it's a slow blues ballad with Waits in reflective mood, in tone slightly like “Martha” but much gentler, with again nice trumpet and sax accompanying Waits on the piano. It's only when the song ends that we realise Waits is just muttering about the woman into his beer, as he slurs ”Hey buddy/ Got a light?” One of the standouts is next though, and while it's sandwiched between two pretty poor tracks in my estimation, nothing can dull the power of Waits and Midler together, hissing at each other like alleycats and eventually going home together. Midler is the perfect foil for Waits as she sneers “I never talk to strangers”, and he tries to hit on her. The song begins with her ordering a Manhattan, then Waits's drunken slur as he sidles up to her and sings ”Stop me if you've heard this one” and her snapping ”Did you really think I'd/ Fall for that old line?/ I was not born just yesterday.” The music is again slow and bluesy as she retorts ”You're life's a dime store novel/ This town's full of guys like you” and Waits snaps back ”You're bitter cos he left you/ That's why you're drinkin' in this bar” and they duet on the next line ”Well only suckers fall in love/ With perfect strangers.” At the end of course, they realise they're more alike than they would have preferred to have admitted.

    I really don't like “Jack and Neal/California Here I Come”, and really I have to say that only the first part of that sentence is true, as the latter is a cover of the old song, only a few moments of it. But the sax-driven diatribe about Jack and Neal trying to buy ”From a Lincoln full of Mexicans” just doesn't do it for me. It's one of those travelogues he became known for, but unlike the ones on the previous album it just seems like it's missing something. Maybe it's the fact that there's no real tune or melody, just Waits talking over the sax and bass. As I say it then goes into “California Here I Come” at the end, but as far as I'm concerned they're welcome to it. Waits returns to his usage of nursery rhymes for “A Sight for Sore Eyes”, though the actual tune eludes me. I know I've heard it before, just can't pin it down.

    The song concerns a guy coming back to his hometown and looking for his old mates, but they've all either married, moved on or come to an unfortunate end. It opens with a rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” before Waits in the role of the returning prodigal shows off his riches - ”Have you seen my new car?/ It's bought and it's paid for/ Parked outside of the bar.” - but finds few of his old cronies there to brag to. He meets someone though who tells him ”The old gang ain't around/ Everyone has left town” as the piano carries the tune in that maddeningly-familiar-but-elusive melody. Eager to spread the wealth and show how he's risen in the world he tells the barman ”Keep pouring drinks/ For all these palookas” as he listens to the stories of what's happened to all the old gang: ”No she's married with a kid/ Finally split up with Sid/ He's up north for a nickel's worth/ For armed robbery.”



    The longest song on the album is next, and it's an odd one. Riding on a mournful clarinet courtesy of Gene Cipriano with an orchestral introduction, it's the first one I've seen yet where Waits doesn't write his own music, this being created by Bob Alcivar and his orchestra. Waits again more or less speaks the vocal as he narrates the tale of “Potter's Field”, which it seems holds a dark secret. ”Whiskey keeps a blind man talkin' all right” he remarks, adding with a knowing wink and no doubt a tip of an empty glass, ”And I'm the only one who knows/ Where he stayed last night.” It seems to be about a convict on the run, and the music builds up to crescendos of almost forties detective-movie style. Like waves the music rises and falls, punctuated by the bass and the whining clarinet. It's quite a work of art. It comes to something of a climax when he warns ”If you're mad enough to listen/ To a full of whiskey blind man/ You be down at the ferry landing/ Oh, let's say half past a nightmare/ And you ask for Captain Charon/ With the mud on his kicks/ He's the skipper of the deadline steamer/ And it sails from the Bronx/ Across the River Styx!”

    But my favourite on the album by a long way is next, and I've written about “Burma-Shave” already, so let me just say that it's the tale of a girl who hitches a ride with a stranger out of her one-horse hometown, only to end up dying with him when the car takes a spill on the freeway and crashes into a truck. The music is sad and mournful, almost all piano solo, as if the musician knows what is going to befall the young rebel girl and her new beau. It's so driven by piano alone that it's actually a little jarring when the sax outro comes in, but it fits in well. It's a touching and tragic song, and yet Waits sings it almost with a shrug, as if this sort of thing happens all the time, which it probably does. For every starry-eyed dreamer who makes it out of Nowheresville, USA, there are probably ten who decorate the sides of the road to freedom in wooden crosses or lie in unmarked graves along its length.

    Waits being Waits, the next track is based entirely on a bassline with some drums, as Waits visits the barber and has one of those conversations people used to have when they were getting their hair cut but don't seem to bother with any more. “Barber Shop” is great fun and a real exercise in how it doesn't have to take ten instruments and multitracking to make a great song. It's very interesting, and something I never noticed before, that there is no guitar at all on this album. Bass yes, but no lead or even rhythm guitar. The album ends on the title track, a sumptuous piano ballad with attendant strings. It harks back to “Burma-shave” as he sings ”You wonder how you ever fathomed/ That you'd be content/ To stay within the city limits/ Of a small midwestern town.” It's a song of wanderlust without any real direction or target as he says ”The obsession's in the chasing/ And not the apprehending.” It's a really nice relaxing way to close an album which is far from his best, but shines with some real gems.

    TRACKLISTING

    1. Cinny's Waltz
    2. Muriel
    3. I Never Talk to Strangers
    4. Medley: Jack and Neal/California Here I Come
    5. A Sight for Sore Eyes
    6. Potter's Field
    7. Burma-Shave
    8. Barber Shop
    9. Foreign Affair

    When Waits was creating the album he envisaged a film-noir idea, which is certainly borne out on the sleeve and indeed within most of the tracks, which all retain a kind of forties feel to them, with the mention of Farley Granger in “Burma-Shave”, Potter's Field harking back to It's a Wonderful Life (though whether that's intentional or not I don't know) and the barber shop, virtually disappeared now. It fits in well with Waits's kind of refusal to deal in the present and remain in his own gin-soaked world of Gene Crouper and Chuck E. Weiss, muttering about kids these days and dreaming of Cadillacs and Pontiacs. Eventually he would drag his feet protesting into the twentieth century (don't tell him it's now the twenty-first!) and open out his music to more modern sounds and techniques, but it would take time.

    Waits is a man whom you take or leave: he ain't gonna change for no-one and no record executive is going to press him to write a hit single or use a famous producer on his albums. The grand old man of real music, Waits is a force to be reckoned with and a law unto himself, but when you have this amount of talent that's accepted. A maverick, a trend-avoider and always the guy stuck on the barstool in the corner, muttering to himself, laughed at until he sits at the piano and starts reeling off those sublime melodies, you could use the old cliche Tom Waits for no man, but we all wait to see what he comes up with next.

    And what he came up with after this was ... breathtaking.
    Come away, human child to the waters and the wild
    With a faery hand in hand.
    For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand. - WB Yeats "The Stolen Child"

    I drink to forget, but I never forget to drink.

    "If the real Jesus Christ were to stand up today
    He'd be gunned down cold by the CIA" - The The, "Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)" - Mind Bomb, 1989


    The most destructive force on the planet is not nukes or global warming...it is the human ego. - Ralph Rotten

  7. #7
    I know I missed a lot of good songs having not been from specific eras. Thanks for introducing tom waits. His song "Martha" is catchy. Meanwhile since I use spotifly and it has been generating a playlist of songs probably from that time. So I feel this is a good artist. What he wrote was a good song, and had good instrumental music. Now I am wondering if there should be a movie forum.
    Last edited by Theglasshouse; September 21st, 2019 at 11:08 PM.
    I would follow as in believe in the words of good moral leaders. Rather than the beliefs of oneself.
    The most difficult thing for a writer to comprehend is to experience silence, so speak up. (quoted from a member)

  8. #8
    Offline: Depressed Trollheart's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Theglasshouse View Post
    I know I missed a lot of good songs having not been from specific eras. Thanks for introducing tom waits. His song "Martha" is catchy. Meanwhile since I use spotifly and it has been generating a playlist of songs probably from that time. So I feel this is a good artist. What he wrote was a good song, and had good instrumental music. Now I am wondering if there should be a movie forum.
    You're welcome, and thanks for commenting. Waits's music isn't for everyone, so I'm glad you've enjoyed what you've heard so far. Do be aware that his sound changed drastically around 1985 with the release of one of his best albums, Rain Dogs, but it is a seismic shift and takes some getting used to.

    After all the work they've put into making the music forum, I doubt the mods will go for a movie one, but I'd be for it, certainly. Have to make it movies and TV though.
    Come away, human child to the waters and the wild
    With a faery hand in hand.
    For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand. - WB Yeats "The Stolen Child"

    I drink to forget, but I never forget to drink.

    "If the real Jesus Christ were to stand up today
    He'd be gunned down cold by the CIA" - The The, "Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)" - Mind Bomb, 1989


    The most destructive force on the planet is not nukes or global warming...it is the human ego. - Ralph Rotten

  9. #9
    I thought about a movie forum to be honest too, Glass, since I'm sure there are some movie aficionados here as well, but this is a writing forum first, of course, and I'm sure the blues will be a bit reluctant. Let's see how successful the All Things Music forum is before we suggest the movie forum
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    And check out Gertie's blog on her favorite top twenty-five albums between 1955-2017 Hidden Content

  10. #10
    Offline: Depressed Trollheart's Avatar
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    Although really none of Waits's albums would ever be considered a proper commercial breakthrough, would never yield him that big hit single or that track that took him into the households of the world and made him known to all, he has quietly over the years insinuated himself into a position almost of music god. So many musicians quote, cite, cover or are influenced by him that it's tempting to think that he was around forever. But though mainstream success eluded him - I don't really think he bothered courting it, to be honest - his albums over a period from 1976 to 1987 just got better and better, and this is what I would consider his golden period. That's not to say that albums following that were poor, but as he stretched out in new directions and tried new things, albums like Bone Machine, The Black Rider, Alice and Blood Money just seemed to lack something, be a little less accessible, at least to me. This, however, remains one of his crowning achievements for me. But then, so does the next. And the next…

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    Blue Valentine - 1978 - Asylum

    One thing you always got from Waits, at least around this time, was pure frank honesty on the cover of his albums. He didn't go for showy, glitzy or abstract album covers: it was usually just a picture of him, but the picture almost always portrayed a particular aspect of him, or referenced the state of mind or body he was in at the time. Closing Time shows him leaning against a piano, alone, perhaps a little daunted on his first outing but still with a confident swagger and a gleam in his eye, while on the cover of Small Change he's addressing his rampant alcoholism and destructive lifestyle, looking away as if to say “What the fuck am I doing here?” On the front of this album we find him in reflective mood, perhaps thinking about lost lovers, his career or his attempts to stop drinking before it killed him. You can almost see into his heart, which is appropriate given the title, and there's a world-weariness and almost a sense of resignation in his nearly-closed eyes; you can nearly hear him sighing.

    But if you thought the album was going to be a contractual obligation, by-the-numbers effort that he really wasn't interested in, then you really don't know Tom Waits. The album contains some of his most cynical songs alongside some of his most beautiful ballads, and is almost a marriage of Heaven and Hell as he goes once again searching through the alleyways of society after dark, poking through the refuse to reveal the human detritus, the spent men and fallen women, the whores and the drunks and the barkers and the con-men, and telling their stories.

    Proving once again that you must expect the unexpected with Waits, the album opens on a cover of the famous “Somewhere” from the musical West Side Story, Waits giving it his own special ragged touch as he growls his way through the love ballad, supported by the return of Bob Alcivar's sumptuous orchestra. It's completely out of left-field, something he has never done before and something I don't think he ever repeated, and it sets the tone for the album. Almost like "Thunder Road" on Bruce's Born to Run, it's the only optimistic song on the album, which then descends into a litany of hookers, pimps, eloping kids and spree killers as, if you like, Waits leaves the movie theatre and shuffles back out onto the hard cold streets of reality, turning his collar up against the rain, back in the world he knows.

    The song is followed by “Red Shoes by the Drugstore”, which rides on a boppy, upbeat percussion with sort of sprinkled guitar flying through it, almost like a tribal dance or something. Typical again of Waits, there's no real structure to the song, no verse/chorus/verse; it just sort of runs as an almost stream-of-consciousness lyric yet with a definite form. Having eschewed guitar completely from his previous album Waits perhaps overcompensates this time out, bringing in three more apart from himself, giving the album a fuller sound.

    One of his alltime classics is up next, the heartbreaking ballad “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis”, as a woman writes to her ex-lover to tell him how well her life is working out these days. ”Stopped taking dope/ Quit drinking whiskey/ My old man plays the trombone/ Works out at the track.” It's a solo performance by Waits on the piano, a slow, bluesy melody, but in the end the woman comes clean: ”Charlie, for God's sake/ You wanna know the truth of it?/ Don't have no husband/ He don't play the trombone/ Need to borrow money...” It also contains one of my favourite lines written by Waits: ”Everyone I used to know/ Is either dead or in prison.”



    I feel the jazz elements are lessened here too, as he proceeds into a straighter blues rock direction, particularly on the next two tracks, starting with “Romeo Is Bleeding”, with a certain latin swing to it and a feel of, again, the gangs from West Side Story with finger clicking and congas, the vocal a low hiss, almost as if Waits is afraid to be heard, maybe hiding from the gangs. Some great organ on this for which we owe thanks to Charles Kynard, as Waits tells the story of the gang leader who listens to the police sirens but ”just laughs, cos all the racket in the world/ Ain't gonna save that copper's ass/ He ain't never gonna see another summer/ For cuttin' down my brother/ And leavin' him like a dog behind that car without his knife.”. Romeo has been shot but doesn't seem to care, or even notice, hard as nails and probably realising he's dying but glad that he has extracted retribution for his brother.

    For the second time Waits records a song over eight minutes, and it's a belter as he really sinks his teeth into the blues for “29$”, another of my favourites on this album. With Kynard again at the helm and Waits himself in fine form on the piano, featuring some stupendously righteous blues guitar the song again follows a broken-down resident of the night city as he tells her ”Little black girl/ You shoulda never left home/ There's probably someone that's/ Still waiting up for you.” and true to his fears the girl is hustled, robbed and ends up in hospital where the doctor shakes his head and groans ”Lucky to be alive/ Only lost half a pint of blood/ Twenty-nine dollars/ And an alligator purse.” Some truly superb blues playing here makes the song seem nowhere as long as it is, and you could listen to it for twice the length. It's a great cautionary tale, again jumping back to “Burma-Shave” and showing that the grass is not always greener, that sometimes it's better to stay at home where you're safe.

    You might think after a powerhouse performance like that, the album would begin to dip a little in quality, and to be fair, this might be the case with lesser artists, but Waits has his foot on the accelerator here and he ain't braking for no red light! There are five songs to come and each is as good as, if not better than the other. “Wrong Side of the Road” takes as its protagonist a couple eloping, with a blues shuffle and again exquisite organ work from Charles Kynard as the man encourages the woman to come with him against her parent's wishes, to run away with him to Reno. It's a slow blues meander as he snarls ”Tell your momma and your poppa/ They can kiss your ass/ Poison all the water/ In the wishing well.” This guy also does not have the Christmas spirit in his heart, as he sneers "Strangle all the Christmas carollers/ Scratch out all their prayers/ Tie 'em up with barbed wire/ And push 'em down the stairs.” Yeah, well, we’ve probably all wanted to do that after the sixth group have knocked on the door, haven’t we?

    As he convinces her to leave her house and head off with him his intentions take on a much darker tone when he promises "With my double-barrelled shotgun/ And a whole box of shells/ We'll celebrate the Fourth of July/ We'll do a hundred miles an hour/ Spendin' someone else's dough/ Drive all the way to Reno/ On the wrong side of the road.” Again, there’s a correlation of sorts here to the aforementioned “Thunder Road” by Springsteen and indeed to his later “Nebraska”, both featuring, if not actual killers, men in the process of enticing a young woman out of the house to go driving with them, with surely dubious motives. The tempo kicks up then for the infectious “Whistlin' Past the Graveyard” in which Waits lays the urban legend down that he was ”Born in a taxi cab”. There's a bit more of the jazz about this one, with trumpets and saxes taking the tune and bouncing it along like Waits as he goes ”Whistlin' past the graveyard/ Steppin' on no crack.” The next song again I've written extensively on, (that will be posted soon) so let me just say that “Kentucky Avenue” is a piano ballad that seems at first to be a story of two kids making plans for their day, until right at the end you realise one is handicapped, as Waits sings, in one of his most emotional vocals, ”Take the spokes from your wheelchair/ And a magpie's wing/ I'll steal a hacksaw from my dad/ Cut the braces off your legs.” It's a song that always makes me cry, and I don't care who knows it. A fragile, viciously beautiful and bitter, heart-smashing ballad that nobody else but Waits could write. The orchestra coming in at the revelation in the lyric just increases the pathos and tragedy of the song. My eyes are wet even now, and that's how it should be with a song such as this.

    Then we're in the seedy hotels that he has frequented no doubt on more than one occasion for “A Sweet Little Bullet from a Pretty Blue Gun”, somewhat of a return to the rhythm of “Romeo is Bleeding”, and with Waits again plundering childhood tunes as he opens with ”It's raining, it's pouring” and later ”Old man is snoring/ Now I lay me down to sleep/ Hear the sirens in the street/ All my dreams are made of chrome/ Have no way to get back home/ And I'd rather die before I wake/ Like Marilyn Monroe.” The guitars play a great part in this, as does the sax, and it just oozes trashy sexuality and questionable morals as it slinks along the alleyways. At its heart, it's a song that looks back to “29$” and describes the plight of the many thousands of young girls who leave home looking for fame, to be discovered, and end up peddling their bodies, the only thing left that they can sell, on the hard city streets.

    The title track closes the album, and it's another bitter ballad, with the addition of an “s” to the end, making it “Blue Valentines”, as the album cover becomes the song, Waits recalling the cards he gets from his ex-lover in Philly "To mark the anniversary/ Of someone that I used to be/ And it feels like there's/ A warrant out for my arrest.” Reflective guitar carries the song almost on its own, no percussion, no sax, no piano, a true triumph, an indication of what can be done with just one instrument. Okay, it's probably a few guitars, but nothing else that I can hear. The song also references his drinking days and what it has done to him as he moans "It takes a whole lot of whiskey/ To make these nightmares go away/ And I cut my bleedin' heart out every night.”

    TRACKLISTING

    1. Somewhere
    2. Red Shoes by the Drugstore
    3. Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis
    4. Romeo Is Bleeding
    5. 29$
    6. Wrong Side of the Road
    7. Whistlin' Past the Graveyard
    8. Kentucky Avenue
    9. A Sweet Little Bullet from a Pretty Blue Gun
    10. Blue Valentines

    At this point, I feel there just was no stopping Waits. Having created a masterpiece like Blue Valentine you would have forgiven him for taking a rest, but no: it only took two more years before he would release yet another incredible album. If nothing else though, this showed his refusal to be categorised, boxed up, restricted. On Small Change he had gone in all directions, making it impossible both to pin him down and to know or be able to guess where he would jump next. For Foreign Affairs he went all film-noir and bluesy, and now he was throwing blues and jazz together and adding in some other elements, but continuing to talk and tell the stories of the dispossessed, the pathetic, the drunk and the abused, and to send some half-drunk warnings to those who wanted or wished to join the dark world, tread the grey, unforgiving streets he walked.

    If you want to make it out here, you had better man (or woman) up and grow yourself a real thick hide, cos this ain't no place for the weak. You'll be chewed up and spat out by the system, and the only way to avoid that is to do some chewin' and spittin' yourself. You wanna take a walk on the wild side, you better have the bus fare, cos this wagon ain't stoppin' any time soon, and once you're on board you're there for the long haul.

    So look into my eyes, kid, he says, chewing down on a cigar and knocking back a whiskey, his bloodshot eyes trying to make out which of the two of you he's talking to, and tell me you got what it takes to make it on these mean streets, And if not, then stay at home with your parents and your college degree and your dog and your summer job, cos you wouldn't last pissin' time.

    It ain’t nice out here.
    Come away, human child to the waters and the wild
    With a faery hand in hand.
    For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand. - WB Yeats "The Stolen Child"

    I drink to forget, but I never forget to drink.

    "If the real Jesus Christ were to stand up today
    He'd be gunned down cold by the CIA" - The The, "Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)" - Mind Bomb, 1989


    The most destructive force on the planet is not nukes or global warming...it is the human ego. - Ralph Rotten

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