KamerTunesBlog

Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

TOM WAITS Part 3 – Valentines, Affairs And Heart Attacks

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. **

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13 comments on “TOM WAITS Part 3 – Valentines, Affairs And Heart Attacks

  1. Brett B.
    May 11, 2012

    The other beautiful duality about “Burma Shave” is that it’s the name of the product that sponsored all of those highway signs with the rhyming verse, warning people about accidents:

    Like

    • Wow, that is amazing info. Thanks, Brett. It definitely explains his reasoning behind using the term “Burma-Shave” the way he did. I’m really happy you shared this. Hopefully other readers will scroll down to your comment.

      Like

  2. Markk
    May 13, 2012

    Great series. It’s fun to look at what other people think. I went to college with these albums in the late 70’s early 80’s and saw Waits in Madison around that time. He was definitely deliberately putting on a show – so when you say the Nighthawks abum is contrived, not really, he just went into the studio and did his show, or maybe really – it is ALL contrived. As I recall he even a a fake streetlight on the set, although it might be bad memory.

    It is funny I would rank the albums almost exactly the reverse of you. In this era, Small Change and Heart Attack and Vine and then Nighthawks over his first which I don’t like much at all. Actually I think You can already start to see something was happening with Heart Attack and Vine, in fact I recall drunken conversations about how he was changing back at college. He was more mainstream then you seem to think back then, being on Mike Douglas and on the late nite rock shows that we all watched.This was still the era before FM was taken over by classic rock and such. Plus a lot of regional acts would cover him. I remember Betsy Kaske (sp) doing a cover, Siegal-Schwall I think maybe, all these midwest guys that very very few probably remember.

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  3. Thanks for sharing your comments, Markk. I’m always happy to hear from someone who’s been a fan a lot longer than I have. I don’t think I realized he was considered mainstream back then (or even now), although I also wasn’t under the impression that he was a completely unknown cult artist. I figured it was somewhere in between. Perhaps his popularity was also regional. I hadn’t previously heard of the artists you mentioned, but it’s cool that they were covering Waits’ music back then.

    Several friends who have been Waits fans for years also prefer the albums you mentioned over some of the early stuff. Sometimes it’s just a matter of when you’re first exposed to an artist, and which albums you get into first. For me so far, his debut is song-for-song my favorite album, although it stands apart from the rest of his output. Heartattack And Vine comes across like a transitional album, with some amazing songs but also a few that don’t go anywhere. In the past when I would listen to it, not knowing his catalog that well, I think I liked it more, but there’s something about immersing myself in his catalog a few albums at a time that changed my perspective.

    I just returned from vacation and have started revisiting his first few Island albums. There’s so much good music on those records. I’ll be giving them each a few more listens throughout the week, as well as reading about them and really listening to the lyrics. There’s gonna be a lot to cover in my next post.

    I hope to hear from you again.

    Rich

    Like

  4. lesley-anne
    June 5, 2012

    Hi, came across this site whilst desperately trying to find a song I heard in a bar (far flung corner of Greece and back home so cant ask them) with Tom Waits singing (without any doubt it was him) – even my friend who has/knows most of his stuff drew a blank…so you never know you may be able to help – I have listened to every track on itunes and it aint there…its a very melodic,cheery orchestral song, romantic lyrics singing about love singing about the colours of something, moon, sky..god this sounds so vague – Tom being at more tuneful then gruff voice…its not really like anything I have heard him do before – it made me laugh as it was amongst a load of light easy listening chill out music – anyhow I cant find it and people in record stores are looking at me as if I imagined it…its not on the Coppola soundtrack which has been suggested several times – so, if you can help me I would be so very gratefull – I have become slightly obsessive about finding it and fear i’m wasting my life spending hours on forums!!

    Hoping you can put me out of my misery?!
    Lesley-Anne

    Like

    • Hi Lesley-Anne. I’m still getting to know Tom Waits’ music by revisiting his entire catalog a few albums at a time and writing about the experience here, so although that makes me less of a Waits expert than many longtime fans, a lot of his music is fresh in my mind right now. My initial thoughts when you mentioned the word “moon” were “Grapefruit Moon” (from his debut, Closing Time) and “I’ll Shoot The Moon” (from The Black Rider), but although both of these excellent songs are tuneful, neither would be reasonable described as “cheery.” You described his voice as more tuneful than gruff, which makes me think your song is from his Asylum years, although his non-raspy voice does appear from time to time on later albums. Are there any Waits albums that are not on iTunes? If so, you might want to expand your search to those releases, which might include his 3-CD set of rarities, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards. I will be getting to that collection in a couple of weeks, so if you haven’t found the song you’re looking for by then, check back here and perhaps I’ll uncover it for you.

      Sorry I couldn’t be of more immediate assistance. Good luck with your song search.

      Best wishes,
      Rich

      Like

    • Brett B.
      June 5, 2012

      Spotify can also help fill in any gaps that iTunes might have, and you can listen to the entire song; they’ll also display any soundtracks or compilations that Waits has appeared on.

      Like

      • Thanks, Brett. That’s great advice, and hopefully helpful for Lesley-Anne. I’ve heard great things about Spotify. I would give it a shot, but I already own thousands and thousands of CDs and LPs, and between constantly getting new releases and re-listening to complete artist catalogs, I’d have no time for it.

        Like

      • Brett
        June 5, 2012

        Rich, you’d have no need for it; your music collection probably exceeds Spotify’s!

        Like

      • Perhaps a slight exaggeration, Brett…but only slight (haha). However, since I don’t always have my collection with me, Spotify could come in handy when I want to hear something specific NOW.

        Like

  5. Shake-Boy
    July 2, 2012

    Hey Rich,
    Popped over here from the recently posted links to your site on tomwaitsfan.com.
    I’m enjoying reading through your blog.
    Just want to say I agree with your comments about the Blue Valentine album version of “Sweet Little Bullet From a Pretty Blue Gun”. Have you seen the December, 1978 live performance of this song from Austin City Limits? IMO one of his best live performances ever. I think you’ll like it far better than the studio version. In fact…the entire 55 minute Austin City Limits show is incredible. The “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” performance from this show is also amazing. Based on your comment above you’ll love how he does the Little Anthony and the Imperials portion of the song. Here are links. Interested in your thoughts.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ch6x9iHlVHU (sweet little bullet)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sf2nF2QFeWo (xmas card)
    Take Care
    Paul

    Like

    • Paul, thanks so much for stopping by and for your kind words about the blog. Also, I really appreciate you posting those two videos. That version of “Sweet Little Bullet…” really is amazing (yep, the vocals on the LIttle Anthony section are great…had a Ray Charles vibe as well), and makes me want to see that whole Austin City Limits performance. I was surprised to see him performing live with a guitar. I thought he was always behind the piano in the ’70s. I also liked that version of “Christmas Card…” although I think I prefer the more heartbreaking studio version.

      As is usually the case when I wrap up an artist’s catalog, I get a little burned out on their music and need a break before returning to it with fresh ears. However, it’s really nice to see those live clips, and when I do come back to Waits’ music in the future, in addition to re-listening to the albums I’ve finally gotten into, I will seek out live performances, non-album tracks and collaborations with other artists. I will also continue to visit the excellent Waits fan site, which I urge my readers to check out as well:
      http://www.tomwaitsfan.com/forums/

      Once again, thanks Paul.
      Best wishes,
      Rich

      Like

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