Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Right off the bat I have to say that Tom Waits’ Closing Time (1973) is a monster of a debut album. On first listen it’s a pleasant collection of piano-based singer-songwriter fare that was popular at the time (i.e. Elton John & Jackson Browne), with Waits offering a slightly more gruff vocal style, but the songwriting slowly reveals itself to be something special. Unlike much of his later work which is often sung in character, these performances are more heartfelt and direct, and every song is a winner. “Ol’ 55,” which was famously covered by The Eagles, has a folky melody and an instantly memorable hook (“Now the sun’s coming up, I’m riding with lady luck”). He plays the sad, lonesome loser on “I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You.” I knew from the demo version that it was a great song, and this recording is just as powerful. As I mentioned in my first post, the lyrics have a nice twist at the end when he sings “I think that I just fell in love with you” after the woman he’s had his eye on all night has left the bar. “Virginia Avenue” is a bluesy tune with jazz overtones and some blues guitar licks. I love the circular piano melody and muted trumpet. He’s already establishing a theme he would return to often: a sad sack story with an after-hours mood, the bars are closing, there’s nowhere to go and nobody to be with. “Old Shoes (& Picture Postcards)” is a country-folk song with simple harmonies during the second half of each verse (“So goodbye, so long, the road calls me, dear…”). As I expected when I heard the demo, this song needed a fuller arrangement, and I absolutely love it now, especially “Farewell to the girl with the sun in her eyes, can I kiss you and then I’ll be gone?” He uses a couple of children’s songs (“Sing a song of sixpence” and “Hush little baby don’t say a word”) to create a peaceful atmosphere on “Midnight Lullaby,” which is highlighted by muted trumpet and a hushed vocal performance.
There’s something about the higher piano notes during the early part of “Martha” that kills me every time. Also, it has an amazing chorus: “Martha, all I had was you and all you had was me.” It’s a melancholy look back at a love from his younger days, and when we discover that he’s not over her (“I love you, can’t you see?”), it’s truly heartbreaking. The second side of the original LP opened with “Rosie,” a very good country-blues song that pales slightly in comparison to any of the first six songs. “Lonely” features stark piano and aching vocals. Even though it’s a simple song with few lyrics (the word “lonely” repeated often), I love it. “Ice Cream Man” stands out from the rest of the album (which is very ballad heavy) with its uptempo arrangement and suggestive lyrics. It’s a fun tune with hints of Ray Charles’ “Hit The Road Jack.” “Little Trip To Heaven (On The Wings Of Your Love)” should be a piano bar standard. It has another killer melody (“Feel like I’m in heaven when you’re with me”) and a light, jazzy arrangement. Whoever inspired this song obviously made him really happy, and you can hear it in his voice during the “And it’s you” vamp at the end. “Grapefruit Moon” has a melody that blew me away the first time I heard it, making the lyrics “Every time I hear that melody…something breaks inside” somewhat prophetic. This is as catchy and melancholy as a Broadway show tune, and features a gorgeous cello & piano section. The instrumental “Closing Time” wraps up the album. It’s a perfect nightcap; a sweet little tune carried by piano and muted trumpet. This has to go down as one of the best debut albums I’ve ever heard. I didn’t expect it to impact me the way it did. No matter how good his subsequent releases might be, it’s hard to imagine anything surpassing this collection of incredible songs.
His second album, The Heart Of Saturday Night (1974), doesn’t quite reach the peaks of the debut, but it’s not far off. “New Coat Of Paint” is a tightly arranged blues shuffle with some very cool imagery (“Our love needs a transfusion so let’s shoot it full of wine”). “San Diego Serenade” has a similar feel to some of Bruce Springsteen’s ballads, and even shares the same lyrical inspirations as The Boss (“I never saw my hometown until I stayed away too long”). I’m getting the sense that Springsteen’s ballads were influenced by these early Waits records and not the other way around, since Waits delivered this music first. “Semi Suite” is a nice character study about a woman waiting at home while her truck driver husband is on the road (which explains the cute song title). I love the jazzy little horn section here. “Shiver Me Timbers,” the piano ballad with seafaring imagery, has a different feel than the 1971 demo I mentioned in the previous post, but I still really like it…especially the bridge (“And the fog’s liftin’, and the sand’s shiftin’, I’m driftin’ on out”). “Diamonds On My Windshield” features a great walking bass line and some evocative lyrics, but it’s not one of his best. The lyrics are more spoken than sung, pointing to some of his later work. “(Looking For) The Heart Of Saturday Night” is a quiet classic, with muted guitar and bass playing a slow repetitive figure, and sparse percussion apparently supplied by slapping his legs. This one has lyrics that could’ve been influenced by Springsteen (“With your arm around your sweet one in your Oldsmobile”).
“Fumblin’ With The Blues” is another solid (but not great) song that includes some nice jazzy guitar and a lead clarinet (uncredited in the packaging). I love the line, “Well now fallin’ in love is such a breeze, but it’s standin’ up that’s so hard for me.” “Please Call Me, Baby” is as good as anything on these first two records. It’s an awesome love song, even though the protagonist is no angel. There’s a great melody, sweeping strings, and some of his strongest vocals (“Please call me, baby, wherever you are”; “I don’t want you catching your death of cold out walking in the rain”). “Depot, Depot” is a slinky blues-jazz tune with a cool vibe, but it’s far from essential. “Drunk On The Moon” is a slow blues with vivid descriptions of street scenes. The instrumentation is what makes this song great, especially the sax- and trumpet-led upbeat jazz section after the second chorus. The album closes with “The Ghosts of Saturday Night (After Hours At Napoleone’s Pizza House),” just spoken word vocals with piano and standup bass. It’s not much of a tune, but has some vivid images (“He dreams of a waitress with Maxwell House eyes and marmalade thighs with scrambled yellow hair”). The near-perfect Closing Time was a tough act to follow, and song-for-song The Heart Of Saturday Night may not be as strong, but had this been his debut album he still would’ve been considered a major talent. It’s quite a one-two punch from an artist whose sound was quickly evolving.
Nighthawks At The Diner (1975), originally released as a 2-LP set, was a slight disappointment for me. It’s a combination of late night lounge jazz, stand-up comedy and performance art, and it comes across as slightly contrived. Even the setting is fake. Ostensibly a live album of new material performed in a nightclub, it was actually recorded at The Record Plant Studios in L.A. The faux-nightclub atmosphere, in front of invited guests, makes this more of a calculated “project” than an intimate performance. That being said, there are a handful of standout tracks. “Eggs and Sausage (In a Cadillac with Susan Michelson)” is a slow, melancholy piano ballad that evokes the feeling of a diner breakfast after a long night of drinking (“I’m in a melodramatic nocturnal scene”). There are some great piano runs (not sure if they’re performed by Waits or pianist Mike Melvoin), and the album title comes from this song. “Nobody” is another wonderful piano ballad with a subtle but strong melody, and passionate Louis Armstrong-inspired vocals. I especially love the line, “They’ll only just break your poor heart in two.” His version of country singer Red Sovine’s “Big Joe And Phantom 309” is incredible. It’s a long and lovely “story song” about a hitchhiker and the truck driver who picks him up. It turns out the driver actually died 10 years ago, sacrificing himself to save the lives of some school kids, and you can hear a pin drop as the audience is mesmerized by every word.
Most of the songs here include “(Intro)” tracks that showcase Waits’ storytelling, as he cracks jokes and plays the “life of the party.” They’re enjoyable, but after hearing them one or two times they become inconsequential. None of the other songs are bad, but they didn’t make a huge impact on me either. “Emotional Weather Report” uses weather-related metaphors set to a jazzy shuffle. “On A Foggy Night” has some nice plucked guitar accents against a slow stand-up bass line. “Better Off Without A Wife” is a slow ballad with a perky melody and humorous lyrics about the pleasures of not being tied down (“Sleep until the crack of noon, midnight howlin’ at the moon”). He introduces “Nighthawk Postcard (From Easy Street)” as an “inebriational travelogue,” and that’s a fitting description. At more than 11 minutes, it overstays its welcome, and even with great musicianship and lots of subtle musical shifts, it doesn’t warrant repeated listening. He sounds like he’s leaning against the bar at the end of the night on the perfectly titled slow blues-jazz tune, “Warm Beer And Cold Women.” He half sings/half speaks over a lovely piano melody on “Putnam County,” which includes some fantastic images (“Swizzle stick legs jackknifed over naugahyde stools”; “Coiffed brunette curls over Maybelline eyes”). I like the uptempo swing arrangements on “Spare Parts” (I & II), but they’re mostly settings for his spoken lyrics. As a one-time performance piece this is an enjoyable record to listen to, but I didn’t get any more out of it after several listens. I certainly won’t be revisiting it as often as the first two albums.
Waits came back strong on his fourth album, Small Change (1976). The addition of legendary jazz drummer Shelly Manne was a major coup, as his percussion work adds so much light and shade to these songs, many of which have a similar vibe and sound. Album opener “Tom Traubert’s Blues” was a song I already knew pretty well, and it only got better each time I heard it. This is the song that references “Waltzing Matilda,” and many fans probably think that’s the title. The string section adds an orchestral feel which sets it apart from other Waits ballads. I can’t foresee ever tiring of this. The infectious, bouncing bass line and upbeat jazz rhythm make “Step Right Up” an easy song to love. The lyrics may just be a collection of advertising slogans, but his rapid-fire delivery keeps things interesting throughout. “Jitterbug Boys” finds him adopting the persona of a barroom braggart (“I slept with the lions and Marilyn Monroe”; “Fought Rocky Marciano, played Minnesota Fats”) with clever lyrical twists (“Resting on my laurels and my hardys too”; “It’s fast women, slow horses, unreliable sources”). He sounds like Louis Armstrong with extra gravel in his throat on “I Wish I Was In New Orleans,” even quoting “When The Saints Go Marching In.” He plays the loveable lush on “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me),” with lyrics that are as witty as the title (“The spotlight looks like a prison break”; “You can’t find your waitress with a Geiger counter”). “Invitation To The Blues” is a story song, first about a man longing for a bus stop waitress, and then about the waitress herself, all set to a piano-led blues with gruff vocals.
Shelly Manne makes his presence known on “Pasties And A G-String,” which is a duet between Waits’ voice and Manne’s perfectly tuned drums. It features almost stream-of-consciousness lyrics about a strip club, and various scat vocals (“Zoobazabba zibbazabba…”). This is a one-of-a-kind song, and it quickly became a favorite. There’s a brief piano reference to the standard “As Time Goes By” at the beginning and end of “Bad Liver And A Broken Heart.” Although on the surface this is similar to “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me),” there are some great lyrics that set this one apart (“I don’t have a drinking problem, except when I can’t get a drink”; “I’ve got my own double-cross to bear”). “The One That Got Away” is carried along by a walking bass line and snapping fingers, with a little sax thrown in. It’s more spoken than sung, and each verse features a different character lamenting “the one that got away.” Beginning with an extended saxophone solo (by Lew Tabackin) that sounds like he’s playing under a street lamp, “Small Change” is basically hipster poetry set to a light jazz groove. The chorus is simply, “Small Change got rained on with his own .38.” The album ends with “I Can’t Wait To Get Off Work.” The lighthearted piano melody makes this stand out from the rest of the album. Even though he’s in a dead-end job sweeping floors, he’s happy that he has a woman waiting for him at home, but since he’s stuck at work “this broom’ll have to be my baby.” I would rank this album on the same level as The Heart Of Saturday Night. There are a few unremarkable songs, but at least as many new classics, and I’ll be coming back to this one again and again.
So that wraps up the first four years, and albums, of Tom Waits’ recording career. Before spending so much time with them this past week, I knew they were good but never expected to love so many of these songs. I know his style changes not long after this era, and he’ll never again sound like this, so I’m very pleased that I finally got to know this often overlooked portion of his catalog. Next up will be his final three albums for Asylum, which I’ve already begun listening to. Check back soon for my next post, and thanks for reading.