Twenty years ago, I never imagined I would listen to the music of Tom Waits, let alone own all of his albums, so my younger self would be quite surprised to learn that I eventually became a fan. In my high school days, I probably confused his name with John Waite, former lead singer of The Babys (who also scored a huge solo hit in the ‘80s with “Missing You”). Then in college and beyond, I would occasionally hear Waits’ music, with his barking voice and weird, dissonant instrumentation, and it would go in one ear and out the other. As recently as the mid-90s, I recall sitting at a bar with a friend as the jukebox was playing nothing but Tom Waits. I distinctly remember asking, “Does anybody actually like Tom Waits, or are they just pretending to enjoy his music to seem cool?” Shortly after that incident, though, I started coming around to his music, yet I don’t remember exactly what turned me around. Perhaps it was the numerous cover versions of his songs that I enjoyed (“Jersey Girl” by Bruce Springsteen; “Ol’ 55” by The Eagles; “Downtown Train” by Patty Smyth…and later by Rod Stewart), or maybe my tastes were simply expanding. Whatever the reason, around 1998 I bought a used copy of Rain Dogs (which I’ll discuss in a future post) and I liked it a lot more than I expected. I followed that soon afterward with the recently released compilation, Beautiful Maladies – The Island Years (1998), which included highlights of the five albums he released for Island Records in the ‘80s. A couple of years later, I bought a copy of another compilation, Used Songs 1973-1980 (2001), this time covering his earlier material on Asylum Records. Although I didn’t love everything on these CDs, I enjoyed enough to know that eventually I would explore his individual albums.
In preparation for revisiting his entire catalog, I spent the past week playing these two compilations along with two CDs of his early demos (which I’ll discuss below). Since I’ll be discussing many of these songs in the context of their original albums, I’ll just highlight what I consider my favorite songs from these compilations. From Used Songs 1973-1980, I think “Heartattack And Vine” is the perfect opening track, as it already has the clanging, percussive sound of his later work while still rooted in the blues. “A Sight For Sore Eyes” is a beautiful piano ballad that begins with the melody from “Auld Lang Syne” and has a memorable vocal hook (“For all these palookas…”). “Whistlin’ Past The Graveyard” is an uptempo blues tune with a swinging feel to the chorus. “Step Right Up” was probably the first Waits song that blew me away. That bouncy bass line and Waits’ scat-like vocals always bring a smile to my face. I knew “Ol’ 55” and “Jersey Girl” from the Eagles and Springsteen versions, respectively, but the originals pack even more punch than the covers. “(Looking For) The Heart Of Saturday Night” is a dead-ringer for Springsteen, and “Tom Traubert’s Blues” (which references “Waltzing Matilda”) is simply gorgeous. You’ll notice that Bruce Springsteen’s name has come up a couple of times. There’s definitely a similarity between them on numerous songs (especially during Waits’ Asylum years), and I look forward to figuring out who was influencing whom as I delve into Waits’ catalog. Both were born in 1949, their debut albums were released in 1973, they have husky voices and write songs about characters on the fringes of society. They obviously share similar influences and they must have been listening to one another as well.
With a few exceptions, it’s hard to believe most of the songs from Beautiful Maladies – The Island Years were written by the same person as those earlier songs. His voice is harsher and the instrumentation more bizarre, and the addition of Marc Ribot’s distinctive angular guitar work sets these songs apart. “Clap Hands” has a cool atmosphere with subtle percussion driving it along. “Underground” sounds like a twisted chain gang song. The melody in “Innocent When You Dream” sounds like an old French record, even though it’s sung in English. “Frank’s Wild Years” features spoken word on top of Hammond organ and a walking bass line. “Way Down In The Hole” has a nice little horn part and a typically twisted Ribot guitar solo. “Cold, Cold Ground (Live)” has an almost lilting melody, and the accordion is a nice addition. “Downtown Train” has all the elements that made for successful cover versions by Patty Smyth and Rod Stewart. Although it’s less polished than those performances, it’s more straightforward than other Waits songs from this era. “16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought Six” is super cool, with raspy vocals, clangy percussion and a great repeated guitar figure. The compilation closes with “Time,” an absolutely beautiful tune. The melody is simple and his vocals have an aching quality. It quickly became one of my favorites.
Although they weren’t released until the early-90s, I wanted to visit the two CDs of demos he recorded in 1971 (prior to his 22nd birthday) before moving on to his proper catalog. There are two separate CDs, The Early Years, Vol. 1 (1991) and The Early Years, Vol. 2 (1993), each containing 13 songs. Of these 26 songs, only 12 later appeared on his albums, so there are 14 songs exclusive to these CDs. These performances were probably not intended for public consumption, but it’s nice to have a document of his formative years before signing his first record deal.
On Vol. 1, there are numerous songs that caught my attention. “Goin’ Down Slow” is a very good, slow blues shuffle. The full band arrangement differentiates it from most of the other solo performances here. “Poncho’s Lament” is basically a country/folk tune, in the vein of Townes Van Zandt, with Waits on acoustic guitar. There’s a great hook in “I’m glad that you’re gone, but I wish to the lord that you’d come home.” He switches to piano for “I’m Your Late Night Evening Prostitute,” which is sung from the perspective of a barroom piano player, and could be a companion piece to Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”
“Had Me A Girl” is a fun song with fingerpicked guitar and a peppy, catchy chorus (“My doctor says I’ll be alright…but I’m feeling blue”). The rhymes throughout the song are silly, but I think that was intentional. “Ice Cream Man” is a bluesy, piano-based, innuendo-laden tune (with full band again) that is not related to the old blues song made famous by Van Halen. The piano sounds slightly out of tune on “Virginia Avenue,” which adds to the charm, and I like the way his voice slowly climbs in the verses. “When You Ain’t Got Nobody,” a simple piano ballad/lament, is decent but not great, yet I love the melody at “It’s either feast or famine, I’ve found out that it’s true.” He sounds blissful on “Little Trip To Heaven,” especially that wistful whistling solo and lines like “I know that I’m in heaven when you smile.” This is one of the true gems on this CD. The brief “Frank’s Song” is a catchy little tune (“Now look out Frank, you’re gonna lose your mind”) which unfortunately was never recorded in a more fully realized version.
There are just as many notable performances on Vol. 2. “Hope I Don’t Fall In Love With You” is a sad and tender love song with a pretty melody and some nice sparse guitar playing. It has a cool lyrical twist at the end, where we learn the woman he’s been singing to was someone he admired from across the bar but didn’t actually fall in love with until she was gone. It’s nice to hear the sparse, guitar-and-vocal version of “Ol’ 55” here. “Blue Skies” is a simple short song, and I really enjoyed the melody at “Give me another woman to take her place.” The excellent piano ballad “Nobody” has a memorable melody at “No one can keep a love that’s gone wrong” and “They’ll only just break your poor heart in two.” “Shiver Me Timbers” is another great piano ballad/story song with nautical references about leaving home and loved ones behind for a life at sea. The melancholy piano melody in “Grapefruit Moon” is simply breathtaking. He shifts gears with a fantastic bouncing stand-up bass on “Diamonds On My Windshield,” which includes those quick piano trills that really elevate the song. “Old Shoes” (later to include “& Picture Postcards” in the title) is a slow country blues with just acoustic guitar, vocals and whistling. I really like it, but it would benefit from a beefed up arrangement. Perhaps that’s what I’ll find when I revisit his debut album. I’ll discuss that in my next post.
I’m really excited about finally delving into Tom Waits’ weird, wacky and wonderful world after teasing myself this past week with the two compilations and two Early Years CDs discussed here. I know I won’t love everything he’s recorded, but I can already tell that his songs tend to reveal themselves after numerous listens. Also, I enjoy his simple piano songs, his sappy romantic ballads, his abstract percussive tunes, and even the creepy horror-movie weirdness of “What’s He Building?” (from 1999’s Mule Variations), so I’m open to just about anything. I know that Tom Waits fans are extremely devoted, and I hope to hear from lots of you over the next couple of months so I can gain some additional insight into his songs and albums. And hopefully my discoveries will inspire you to revisit some songs you may have forgotten or previously overlooked.