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A Brief History of Tom Waits

In 1977, Tom Waits appeared on parody talk show Fernwood Tonight after his tour bus ‘broke down outside’.

Lounging on the studio sofa in black-tie, his hair slicked back and his posture relaxed, he looked about as comfortable as you possibly could in front of a few million people. Martin Mull’s satirical host persona remarked upon the bottle in Waits’ hands, and Tom famously quipped:

I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”

Perpetually found propping up a bar, or swirling Woodford reserve in a dirty tumbler, Waits carried the neon torch of the Beats and Bukowski out of the mid-century with all the grace and charm of a down-and-out drunkard. His persona was as alluring as it was repulsive, and the genesis of his now devout cult following stems mostly from his innate sense of don’t-give-a-fuck. He is a musician first, an actor second, and impossibly cool counter-cultural icon third. But listening to his 1973 debut Closing Time, with all it’s ballad pageantry and soft charm, it seems Waits’ career was born out of a natural talent for songwriting and not just knocking back whiskey.

Closing Time bears many of Waits’ most popular songs, including the indelible I Hope I Don’t Fall in Love With You and Ol 55. But it was covers of these tracks, by bands such as the Eagles, that brought them their most acclaim and left Tom’s debut sitting in the half-light of a nameless city bar.

Out of such shadows come devout listeners, though. Shedding some of the sentimentality of his debut, Waits’ sophomore effort The Heart of Saturday Night found him at his most electric and profound. His lyrics are straight from the Kerouac songbook (if old Jack Dulouz had ever written one) and the pool halls, small-towns, and washed up has-beens of the Beat tradition are strung up as the last great hope of America. He doesn’t care about the big-shots, the city-slickers. Life is at its most raw in the winos and loudmouths found on a Saturday night in the city, Waits tells us.

The album’s cover, paying homage to the cold and lonely artwork of Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours, transposes the early-hour melancholy of Ol’ Blue Eyes up a few keys. The city is alive; Waits is not alone like Frank but instead joined by other vaudevillian creatures of the night. The colour palette is not cold and icy, but warm and inviting like the glitz of downtown. We’re looking at, not just listening to, the Heart of Saturday Night. And it’s Tom.

Tom rode the proverbial Downtown Train all the way to Beatsville for a decade until the release of Swordfishtrombones in 1983. Asylum, Waits’ previous label, had been replaced with Island records – and that wasn’t all that had changed. A new sound had arrived for Tom, borrowing from genres beyond the Ginsberg canon and experimenting more and more with his now gravelly, gnarled bark of a voice. The pianos and strings made way for an orchestra of the bizarre, and familiar songwriting about blue-collar dreams became abstract things of memory. Waits retreated further and further into the enigmatic niche he’d carved for himself as one of the end-of-century greats, shrouding his persona in more cigar smoke and mirrors.

Waits once remarked on his piano and guitar playing that he has only ever learned to be a ‘jack of all trades’, picking each up and dabbling with them like a child does a toy. It doesn’t show in his work, with songs like Ice Cream Man showing Waits is at home at a piano as he is at the bar.  No matter the genre or point in his career, Waits has played each instrument like its his last and the industry is all the better for that.

Sometimes music alone isn’t enough for a personality as relentlessly intriguing as Waits, and other media need to know such talent exists. Enter Tom Waits, the actor. Cult musician meets cult film, Waits has starred in a few niche favourites and brought with him the same air of mystery that dominated his stage performances each time. 1999’s ensemble superhero flick Mystery Men (A film I could also wax lyrical about until the rapture) was my first exposure to Waits outside of his music, where he played Doc Heller – a hapless inventor with a libido as big as his laboratory. Screen time was saved for the bigger stars of the show, but whenever Waits appeared the film really kicked up a gear. More recently he has demonstrated a penchant for more mainstream cinema, appearing alongside Christopher Walken and Colin Farrell in Seven Psychopaths (2012). After seeing him mature through his music from beatnik to legend, it’s impossible not to dream of more films bearing Waits’ in the cast list. His very name being uttered brings a quiet hush, not quite knowing what to expect but craving it all the same. So an open plea: make more movies, Tom. The world needs it right now.

This year (I am not going to name it, it doesn’t deserve it) has been woeful. The reaper has claimed some of music’s greatest names, and left fans mourning in times that feel unsafe and, frankly, unwelcome. Its been a sad, lonely year for music fans. New releases have healed the pain somewhat, but what has left cannot be replaced.

But Tom Waits just turned 67, and that means we have something to celebrate.

Words by Will Carroll

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