Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
By the time we get to Tom Waits’ final three albums for Asylum Records, he’s not introducing many new sounds or themes into his music & lyrics, still focusing on the underbelly of society in the guise of blues and light jazz. His voice continues to be gruff and often gravelly, yet there’s beauty and power in the majority of his performances. I don’t think any of these albums has the top-to-bottom consistency of his debut, Closing Time, which I posted about here, but there are plenty of songs in this batch of records that rank among his best. One of the biggest surprises on Foreign Affairs (1977) is the appearance of Bette Midler on the conversational duet, “I Never Talk To Strangers.” Many people only know her as an actress and TV personality, but she was a singer first, and a damn good one (even though I’ve never been much of a fan). Similar to The Pogues’ Christmas classic “Fairytale Of New York” (a duet between Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl), Waits & Midler engage in a humorous back-and-forth barroom chat, with Waits in full Louis Armstrong mode trying to hit on a sweet-voiced Midler. I really like this song, especially the unique harmonies when they finally sing together (“Well only suckers fall in love with perfect strangers”). It’s not a Disney duet, that’s for sure. “A Sight For Sore Eyes” is another favorite, opening with “Auld Lang Syne” on piano and hints of “The First Noël” in the melody. It’s one of his best late night drunk-at-the-bar songs, with some classic lyrics (“For all these palookas, hey you know what I thinks”; “Half drunk all the time and I’m all drunk the rest”).
[Tom Waits with Bette Midler – “I Never Talk To Strangers”]
I love “Burma-Shave,” a sad story song with just voice & piano (until the trumpet solo at the end) about two people on the road trying to leave their sad lives behind. He uses the titular shaving product as the name of some mythical place they’re trying to get to, but their car crashes and they never make it. This one features more fantastic imagery (“She took out her barrette and her hair spilled out like root beer”; “Drill me a hole with a barber pole, I’m jumpin’ my parole just like a fugitive tonight”). “Medley: Jack & Neal/California, Here I Come” is like a run-on sentence of beat poetry (in tribute to two Beat Generation icons, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady) set to a slow, jazzy shuffle and typical Waits themes. It’s a cool tune, mostly due to the great snare drum brush work by Shelly Manne, and the cool bass and sax throughout. Back to the beginning of the album, “Cinny’s Waltz” is a brief instrumental with piano and sweeping strings. It’s cinematic and stately, and has a gorgeous Chet Baker-esque trumpet solo at the end. “Muriel” is a pretty and simple piano ballad with a sincere vocal performance (“Muriel, how many times I’ve left this town to hide from your memory”). “Potter’s Field” is an extended piece (over 8-1/2 minutes) with a big orchestral production. It sounds like the soundtrack to an old b-movie with Waits narrating the hipster dialogue. This one didn’t really win me over. “Barber Shop” is like a sister song to the previous album’s “Pasties And A G-String,” with lots of semi-coherent stream-of-consciousness lyrical ideas set to a finger-snapping shuffle. His voice teeters between smooth and scratchy on album closer “Foreign Affair.” I really like the melody and the accordion near the end. It’s not a perfect album, as he seemed to be rehashing ideas he had previously executed more successfully, but there are enough instant classics that make this an album I will continue to visit in the future.
Each time I played his next album, Blue Valentine (1978), I fell in love with it a little more. At least half the songs should make it onto a Waits career-spanning compilation. It doesn’t have an auspicious kick-off with “Somewhere” (from West Side Story). The serious sounding lush string arrangement doesn’t really work with his gravelly vocals, so even though it’s a classic song this performance left me a little cold. It’s quickly followed by “Red Shoes At The Drugstore,” which has a tribal feel (a possible influence on Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” the following year?), and the electric piano is a nice new sonic texture. He continues writing captivating turns-of-phrase, i.e. “There’s a dark huddle at the bus stop, umbrellas arranged in a sad bouquet.” “Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis” may be a simple piano ballad, but the memorable melody and amazing lyrics make it special. Singing from the perspective of the title character, he paints a positive picture of her life until the devastating final verse, when we find out the truth: she’s broke and in prison, and she’s writing to ask for money. As a record collector, I immediately identified with the line, “I still have that record of Little Anthony & The Imperials, but someone stole my record player, now how do you like that?” “Romeo Is Bleeding” is slow & swinging, with organ swirls, rimshots, a walking bass line and a smoky tenor sax solo (by Frank Vicari). The story centers on a gang leader who’s dying from a gunshot but won’t let anyone know, finally dying in a movie theater watching a James Cagney gangster movie. It’s super cool.
“$29.00” is a slow Chicago blues that features some smooth guitar by Roland Bautista (in the George Benson/Wes Montgomery mold) and subtle tinkling piano by Da Willie Gonga. He’s singing about a prostitute again, and how her only possessions are “$29.00 and an alligator purse.” “Wrong Side Of The Road” is another cool blues tune, and I like the way the sax harmonizes with the guitar. Although the lyrics seem to be of the cut-and-paste variety, the feel and groove are what won me over. “Whistlin’ Past The Graveyard” is simply awesome, featuring one of his funkiest grooves, like a cross between Captain Beefheart and Dr. John. The Steve Cropper-esque guitar line is pure perfection. “Kentucky Avenue” has a Bruce Springsteen storyteller vibe, a la the more dramatic parts of “Jungleland.” It’s pretty good, but I think he’s covered this territory better on previous songs. “A Sweet Little Bullet From A Pretty Blue Gun” is slow and funky, but his affected vocals (like an over the top Dr. John) kept me from really enjoying it (although it does have an awesome groove). Album closer “Blue Valentines” is one of those songs that becomes more enjoyable with each listen. With just his own electric guitar and a great little jazz/blues guitar solo by Ray Crawford, he once again plays the cad with a shady past (“I’m always on the run, that’s why I changed my name”). The melody is subtle but captivating, and his gruff voice is strong, passionate and sincere (“This blind and broken heart that sleeps beneath my lapel”). It’s hard to find much fault with this album. Sure, he may have covered much of this terrain in the past, but there are so many memorable songs, at least six of which would appear on the proverbial Waits compilation I mentioned above. Also, that’s his then-girlfriend Rickie Lee Jones posing with Waits on the back cover.
[Tom Waits – “Whistlin’ Past The Graveyard”]
There are some noticeable sonic changes on his final album for Asylum, Heartattack And Vine (1980), specifically the dry production and muted instrumentation. It’s especially noticeable in the drums, with barely a cymbal to be heard, creating a haunting, ominous effect. This sound was also being used by Peter Gabriel at the time. So although the songwriting remains essentially the same, the album has a different feel from its predecessors. Album opener, “Heartattack And Vine,” is a very slow, dirty blues shuffle. It’s a killer tune, visiting the usual characters (drunks, addicts, hookers, etc.), and his growling vocals are strong and sinister, yet playful. The slow blues instrumental, “In Shades,” is credited to “The Tom Waits Band.” It features tasty guitar work by Roland Bautista, and is carried along by Ronnie Barron’s Hammond organ. “Saving All My Love For You” is a love song from someone who knows he’s far from perfect (“I’ll probably get arrested when I’m in my grave”). It’s a tender performance, and he even occasionally sings sweetly. “Downtown” is an incredible song with some rock-and-roll attitude; a slightly funky blues tune with a simple, kick-ass chorus (“Goin’ downtown, down, down…town”). It mines similar lyrical territory to Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side,” and includes a nice little Hammond organ solo. The song that first brought him into the mainstream, thanks to a cover version by Bruce Springsteen, is “Jersey Girl.” Written about his new love (and future wife), Kathleen Brennan, with whom he continues to co-write much of his music, it’s a dead-ringer for Springsteen. What a gorgeous song, and even the sickly-sweet orchestral accompaniment couldn’t undermine its power (“Nothing else matters in this whole wide world when you’re in love with a Jersey girl”).
“Til The Money Runs Out” doesn’t really stand out, as the gravel-shouted melody is nothing new, but the groove reminds me of the Who’s version of “Shakin’ All Over.” His lament for the plight of the homeless, “On The Nickel” (also spelled as “Nickle”), is a stark and striking song, but it’s not one I want to play over & over. “Mr. Siegal” has a Dr. John/New Orleans vibe, but mostly it’s a standard Waits blues song. The orchestra and piano melody on album closer “Ruby’s Arms” remind me of his first album, perhaps because that record’s producer (Jerry Yester) arranged and conducted the orchestra here. Even his voice sounds like a slightly huskier version of his younger self, without the rasp and growl he was becoming known for. It’s a nice, elegant way to end the album, but far from essential. Until now, I would’ve ranked Heartattack And Vine a little higher, but hearing the progression of his music over the first seven albums these past few weeks, I don’t think it’s as strong as the others. However, my three favorite tracks (“Heartattack And Vine,” “Jersey Girl” and “Downtown”) are among his very best, and make this album essential if not perfect. That’s seven out of seven so far…not a bad track record.
Before beginning the next phase of his career, with Island Records, Waits wrote and recorded the soundtrack for the Francis Ford Coppola film, One From The Heart (1982). This is an anomaly in his catalog, consisting of mostly romantic songs and including vocals by Crystal Gayle (of “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” fame), who has three solo performances and four duets with Waits. The first track is a medley of three songs, “Opening Montage: Tom’s Piano Intro/Once Upon A Town/The Wages Of Love,” moving from a piano intro to lush strings (like a romance film from the ‘40s) to slow jazz (with a tight horn section). Gayle’s voice moves from Streisand (a major negative for me) to sultry to Karen Carpenter (when she sings the title) on “Is There Any Way Out Of This Dream?” The duet “Picking Up After You” is one of the better songs here, with some smoky trumpet (by Jack Sheldon) and tasty tinkling piano (by Pete Jolly). The country-tinged “Old Boyfriends,” a solo Gayle number, features light brush work on the snare and subtle lead guitar, but at nearly 6 minutes long it overstays its welcome. “Broken Bicycles” is a nice piano ballad, with Waits equating love with “old broken bicycles out in the rain.” The lounge-jazz orchestral ballad “I Beg Your Pardon” reminds me of “You Don’t Know Me,” made famous by Ray Charles and many others.
One of the highlights here is “Little Boy Blue,” a bouncy, snappy, Hammond organ-led jazz song that mixes nursery rhymes with hipster beat poetry, and features some of his most jazz-tinged vocals. “You Can’t Unring A Bell” is a short, percussive song with stand-up bass and sparse, nearly-whispered vocals. The tympani gives this a unique texture and atmosphere. I assume “This One’s From The Heart” is the film’s love theme (perhaps I’ll appreciate this music more if/when I see the movie). It’s a romantic duet with sultry trumpet and orchestral backing. I was disappointed that Gayle & Waits never sang together, instead simply alternating verses. The sax wail at “I can’t tell if that’s a siren or a saxophone” is a nice effect. There are a few other songs included, but they’re minor and not worth delving into. Of the two bonus tracks on the 2004 CD reissue, I prefer “Candy Apple Red.” It’s a sad, simple song, but I like the angry lyrics (“I don’t care if she never comes back”; “I’m gonna drink just like a son of a bitch”). I doubt I’ll come back to this soundtrack often, but I will be sure to see the movie at some point, and hopefully re-evaluate the music then.
** I need to take a short break, but when I return in a couple of weeks I’ll be jumping into his first few recordings for Island Records, including two albums that are considered among his best: Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs. I think this is where his catalog becomes more challenging, but ultimately it should be a rewarding experience really getting to know those records. **