KamerTunesBlog

Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

Forty Year Friday – TOM WAITS “FOREIGN AFFAIRS”

Artist: TOM WAITS
Album: FOREIGN AFFAIRS

[Welcome to Forty Year Friday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1977]

I spent two incredible months in 2012 revisiting & writing about the seemingly impenetrable yet immensely rewarding discography of Tom Waits. Over the course of that 7-part series I became intimately acquainted with a series of albums that I had only begun to explore over the preceding couple of decades. An artist of whom I once asked, “Does anybody actually like Tom Waits, or are they just pretending to enjoy his music to seem cool?,” had now become one of my favorites. I’m sure there are plenty of people who still feel the way I did, and hopefully my posts encouraged a few of them to give his music a shot. From his more accessible early material to the more challenging sounds of…well, pretty much everything he’s recorded since he moved from Asylum Records to Island Records in the early-‘80s, he carved out a niche that was distinctly his own. In 1977 he released his fourth album, which was included in Part 3 of the series. Here’s what I wrote about it at the time and, after playing it again last week for the first time in 5 years, my feelings about it haven’t changed at all. I rate it slightly lower than my favorite Tom Waits albums but I still love it and consider it one of my favorite releases of 1977.

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 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”).

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.

 

46 comments on “Forty Year Friday – TOM WAITS “FOREIGN AFFAIRS”

  1. mikeladano
    October 13, 2017

    Is it possible to own “Too much” Tom Waits?

    I don’t even know if I have this honestly. I have so much Waits that I’ve never listened to 6 or 7 of his albums. More than I feel I need in my life, and space is becoming such a problem.

    I dunno what to do. Someone else could enjoy these unplayed albums.

    Like

    • To answer your question, I think if you become a fan then it’s not possible to have too much Tom Waits in your collection. If you’re more of a casual fan, or collect his albums because you think it gives you street cred (I’m not saying you’re doing this, but I’m sure many people do), it’s probably best to whittle it down to the essentials…and my 7-part series is a good way to learn more about them (or at least one guy’s opinion).

      I’m surprised you have so much of his music, and I’m also surprised that you have albums in your collection that you haven’t played. I’ve always had a large batch of unplayed records that don’t go into the collection until I play them at least twice. I’ve known several people who amass a collection just to brag about the numbers, but half of their albums & CDs are still shrinkwrapped. I guess whatever makes them happy, but I want my collection to represent what I like and what I’ve listened to.

      Like

      • mikeladano
        October 13, 2017

        Most were gifts. I hate having unplayed albums in my collection. It’s now out of my control.

        I have a few Waits compilations and studio albums that I bought and like. The unplayed ones are in a pile of about 100 unplayed albums and I hate the situation.

        Like

      • Time for a game of Purge Or Play.

        Like

      • keepsmealive
        October 16, 2017

        You’ve mentioned before about space being an issue (I think I mentioned the IKEA shelves that worked well here, though I’m starting to run into the same problem as you, these days!). You have them in those tower spinners, right? Those are cool. Can you put shelves on the walls too? Do you know anyone handy with building who could help?

        Liked by 1 person

      • mikeladano
        October 16, 2017

        Not really anymore. We’re just out of space period.

        Like

      • keepsmealive
        October 16, 2017

        Damn, that’s a tough one!

        Like

      • I’ve been at that point of running out of storage space in the past and it’s a tough position to be in as a collector. There were a couple of years when I was in my old apartment (where I lived for 16 years) and new CDs were collected in cardboard boxes and stacked 4-5 boxes high. I rarely revisited anything in those boxes because they were so hard to get to. Then I bought a shelving unit for the hallway between my bedroom & living room and finally got everything in order. The house I lived in for 10 years after that had custom shelves built throughout the finished basement (man cave) which gave me plenty of space…until the shelves got jam-packed prior to moving two years ago. If my calculations are correct (and they better be), the media room I’ll have in about a month will have more than enough space for my CDs & LPs. I also plan on doing some serious purging. Not having access to my collection for more than two years, and being on the other side of 50, has made me realize I need to assess what I really need and what I can live without. Even if I whittle down the collection from 8,000 titles to 7,000 titles I’ll still have more than what most people would consider “normal.”

        Mike, I hope you can resolve your storage dilemma sooner than later.

        Like

      • keepsmealive
        October 16, 2017

        Just wanted to add: Rich, I really like your process of playing everything twice before adding it to the main collection. Mine usually get a once-over in the house, then added to the iPod for walks and car play. Twice is even better!

        Also, that’s an excellent answer to Mike about Tom’s stuff. Everyone has a level of needing him in their collection – from not at all, through having a few that appeal to them, to having them all!

        I’m curious: The people who never take off the shrinkwrap from albums – do they also buy albums because they’ll look good in frames on the wall? Oh man, that’s frightening stuff!

        Like

      • As long as you play each album at least once it earns a place in your collection, and giving them another listen on your iPod is a great way to hear them in a different context. I tend to do the same. As for the people who still have shrinkwrapped albums in their collections, I’m not sure if they’re framing them or if they just want to show them off. Hey, if it makes them happy who am I to question it? But they’re wrong & crazy. Hahahaha.

        Like

      • Phillip Helbig
        October 17, 2017

        “If you’re more of a casual fan, or collect his albums because you think it gives you street cred (I’m not saying you’re doing this, but I’m sure many people do)”

        In the little-known song “A Small Cigar” (which contains some of his best-ever vocals and wonderful late-night–jazz-bar piano tinkling), Ian Anderson brilliantly satirizes those who want to be cool. Here are the truly excellent lyrics, with stuff in bold which your remark reminded me of:

        A small cigar can change the world
        I know, I’ve done it frequently at parties
        Where I’ve won all the guests’ attention
        With my generosity and suave gentlemanly bearing
        A little flat tin case is all you need
        Breast-pocket conversation opener
        And one of those ciggie lighters that look rather good
        You can throw away when empty
        Must be declared a great success
        My small cigars all vanish within minutes

        Excuse me, mine host, that I may visit
        A nearby tobacconist
        To replenish my supply of small cigars
        And make the party swing again

        I know my clothes seem shabby
        And don’t fit this Hampstead soiree
        Where unread copies of Rolling Stone
        Well-thumbed Playboys
        Decorate the hi-fi stereo record shelves
        If you ask me they’re on their way
        To upper-middle-class oblivion
        The stupid twits, they roll their only
        One cigarette between them
        My small cigar’s redundant now
        In the haze of smoking pleasure
        Call it a day
        Get the hell away
        Go down the cafe
        For a cup of real tea

        By the tube station, there’s a drunk old fool
        Who sells papers in the rush hour
        I hand to him ten small cigars
        He smiles, says, “Son, God bless you”

        A small cigar
        Has changed his world, my friend
        A small cigar
        Has changed the world again

        A small cigar . . .

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Phillip. I hadn’t heard that song in years and never really paid it much mind, even though I’ve heard it multiple times since I bought the Nightcap compilation years ago and it’s appeared on one of the expanded CD reissues (Too Old To R&R, I believe), but I see the connection to this conversation now that you’ve pointed out the lyrics. I’m always impressed by your ability to effortlessly weave references to Tull, Fairport Convention &/or Iron Maiden into discussions on any artist. well done, sir.

        Like

      • Phillip Helbig
        October 17, 2017

        ” I’m always impressed by your ability to effortlessly weave references to Tull, Fairport Convention &/or Iron Maiden into discussions on any artist. well done, sir.”

        😀

        It’s easy, actually, since English rock is so incestuous. Connect Steeleye Span (which goes to Tull since Tull played on a Maddy Prior solo album and to Fairport because Hutchings founded both) to Iron Maiden? Easy: both Maiden guitarist Janick Gers and Steeleye Drummer Liam Genockey played in the band Gillan (though not at the same time). Gillan, of course, gets us to Deep Purple, at the core of many of the most incestuous bands. One of the usual suspects, former Rainbow and current Purple keyboarder, Don Airey, toured with Tull in 1987. .-) Since Peter Sellers played ukulele on a Steeleye Span album (really! and Bowie played sax with Steeleye as well), one can connect Sellers to essentially any English rock musician in less than 6 degrees of separation.

        Like

      • That was awesome, Phillip. Still awaiting the launch of your blog so we can read your unique perspective in one place.

        Like

      • Phillip Helbig
        November 7, 2017

        “Still awaiting the launch of your blog so we can read your unique perspective in one place.”

        Coming real soon now! I decided to write the blog software myself. Although most blogs work OK, occasionally there are problems and the bloggers don’t know how to fix them (obviously, this shouldn’t be their job, but often there is not an easy way to a) get a problem noticed and b) get it solved quickly). By writing my own blog software (completely from scratch; I figure that I got about half of it done in 6 hours, so it should be finished when I can find another six), I hope to have more control.

        I definitely expect it to be online by the end of the year.

        Like

      • That sounds like a great yet complicated undertaking, Phillip (complicated for me but obviously not for you). Looking forward to it. One of the things I like about using WordPress is the sense of community among fellow bloggers. It seems like there are more conversations within WordPress than any other blog-hosting sites. Hopefully you’ll make yours user-friendly.

        Like

      • Phillip Helbig
        November 14, 2017

        “One of the things I like about using WordPress is the sense of community among fellow bloggers. It seems like there are more conversations within WordPress than any other blog-hosting sites. Hopefully you’ll make yours user-friendly.”

        I think the idea of a “blog network” has gone the way of Yahoo as a “directory of the web”. However, WordPress works reasonably well, so people who read one blog will tend to read others rather than jump through hoops to get some other platform working. Also, there is the “blog roll” feature with links to other blogs.

        User-friendliness is the main reason to do it myself: everything needed (timestamps, threaded replies, spam protection) but no bells and whistles so that it will load fast even on a slow connection. Also, if something goes wrong, I can fix it, rather than having to get someone to fix it.

        Like

      • I eagerly await your blog and I have no doubt that it will look & function extremely well. The wait has been long but you haven’t reached “Chinese Democracy” levels of anticipation. 😀

        Like

      • Phillip Helbig
        November 16, 2017

        The wait has been long but you haven’t reached “Chinese Democracy” levels of anticipation. 😀

        I’m not a GnR fan so this might be a FAQ, but does that title stem from the fact that the wait for it was to be as long as the wait for Chinese democracy?

        Like

      • I’m also not much of a GnR fan so I don’t have an answer to your question, but your suggestion is certainly a possibility. I own Appetite For Destruction on CD and have digital copies of the two Use Your Illusion albums, but I rarely find myself in the mood to play them. I even tend to change the station when one of their hits appears on the radio. I guess that’s because they didn’t make an impact on me when they were first released so I have no emotional connection to them. Perhaps one day I’ll feel differently.

        Like

    • Vinyl Connection
      October 13, 2017

      Yep. I’m in the ‘too much Tom’ category. Though I like this one!

      Liked by 1 person

      • mikeladano
        October 14, 2017

        It’s not that I don’t like Tom, just that there is a LOT of Tom, and I have to be in the mood.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t think most people need to own all of Waits’ albums (like I do), but there are some key albums that everyone should have if you’re even a casual fan.

        Like

      • So you own too much Tom Waits and don’t like them all, or you only have a few but think that it’s possible for others to have too much of his music?

        Like

  2. Aphoristical
    October 13, 2017

    I think this one’s a career low point, and it’s unusual given how early in his career it is. I feel like he did the piano singer songwriter thing really well on his first few albums, then lost direction until Swordfishtrombones in 1983. Burma Shave is really good though.

    Like

    • A career low point? I certainly don’t agree with that, although I do agree that he did this type of thing better on earlier albums. I love Swordfishtrombones and much of what came later, but it’s almost like listening to two different artists.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Aphoristical
        October 14, 2017

        Do you have a least favourite Waits’ album? Excluding soundtracks and live albums, this is my least favourite. I also don’t like a lot of Heartattack and Vine, but that one has some amazing ballads.

        Like

      • I know it’s technically a live album, but Nighthawks At The Diner is pretty low on my list. Franks Wild Years is another one that’s far from a favorite. Otherwise, I found a lot to love on just about every other record he’s released.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Aphoristical
        October 17, 2017

        I went through and ranked 16 Tom Waits albums a few months ago (most of his studio albums, but not the most recent one ‘Bad As Me’). I had Nighthawks at the Diner at #11 and Frank’s Wild Years at #8, so I guess those are both mid-table albums for me. I generally like his first few albums and the 1983-1999 period the best.

        Like

  3. J.
    October 13, 2017

    I’ve never truly loved any of Waits’ earlier stuff. Loads of great songs, but the Asylum Years compilation is all I really need.

    Like

    • I can understand that, but I really love the early years. Not every album from top-to-bottom but more than what appears on that compilation. I especially love Closing Time, which is like nothing else in his discography. Are you a fan of his later stuff?

      Like

      • J.
        October 13, 2017

        I love his later stuff. Rain Dogs was my entry point. My English teacher gave me a tape back in 96 or so and I jumped right into his stuff from there. The Island and Anti stuff is pretty much essential to me, though the Anti-era is probably my favourite.

        I guess stuff like Mule Variations, Blood Money and Bad As Me are a perfect marriage of his more eccentric stuff and the smokey barroom balladeer early albums.

        Like

      • I love every album you mentioned and would rank them among my favorites, although Closing Time might be right at the top. He’s due for a new album. Hopefully he unleashes one on us soon.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. 80smetalman
    October 13, 2017

    I must admit that I don’t have much experience of Tom Waits. However, you do make a very good point about Bette Midler. I knew she could sing when I saw the film, “The Rose.”

    Like

    • My parents had an early Bette Midler album in their small record collection when I was a kid and I liked a lot of it. Haven’t listened to her music much over the years but there’s no doubting that she had (has?) some impressive pipes and I love the work she did with Waits on this album. One of these days I’ll have to watch The Rose. I’ve seen clips but never the whole thing. Loosely based on Janis Joplin, I believe.

      Liked by 1 person

      • 80smetalman
        October 17, 2017

        It is definitely based on Janis. It’s still a good film and proves what a great voice she has.

        Like

      • I think she also did an excellent version of The Stones’ “Beast Of Burden.” She can rock out with the best of ’em when she wants to.

        Liked by 1 person

      • 80smetalman
        October 17, 2017

        That she can.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Murphy's Law
    October 14, 2017

    My favorite Tom Waits are the introductions to his songs live. The man can tell a story.

    Like

    • I agree about Waits’ storytelling abilities. I’ve never seen him live but I can tell from his live recordings & videos that it’s an integral part of the Tom Waits experience.

      Like

  6. 1537
    October 14, 2017

    Great review Rich, I like this one but I haven’t really spent enough time over the years with it.

    Like

    • Thanks, Joe. Until I wrote my Waits series I had only listened to this album a handful of times. I wouldn’t put it in the upper echelon of his discography but there’s plenty to love. I hope you like it even more the next time you play it.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. keepsmealive
    October 14, 2017

    I am a simple man. I see Tom Waits, I give a Like and two thumbs-up in the comments!

    I’m gonna jam this record again, and soon! Thanks!

    Like

  8. Alyson
    October 15, 2017

    Sorry, just realised I haven’t dropped by yet to leave a comment this weekend – I’m afraid back in 1977 Tom Waits totally passed me by and since that time I feel I know him better as an actor. To be honest his particular style is not for me (just a bit too gravelly for my liking) but since starting my blog, his name has cropped up quite a lot and I’ve even been sent some tracks of his to listen to, so I realise just how well-loved and respected he is amongst many of you. I will have another listen to the clips later on and fully expect them to grow on me. Great story-telling.

    Like

    • Hi Alyson. I didn’t think this would have been on your musical radar back in ’77. Whenever you’re ready to dip your toes into his discography, there are several albums you should probably get before this one. At the very least, there are two excellent compilations that cover a good portion of his career.

      Liked by 1 person

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