Saturday, March 6, 2021

Tom Waits: The only thing real is the music (the Asylum years)

With longtime friend and frequent collaborator Bette Midler

The Tom Waits story is a difficult one for anybody to tell. We don't know much at all about who the guy is as a person because he guards his privacy like it's gold.

In the half-century since Waits emerged from the fertile Southern California music scene with his unique style of jazzy folk, he has rarely done interviews with reporters, never with any biographer. He is well-known for pleading with friends and family to zip it up whenever a potential biographer comes calling. He's never, as far as I know, granted an interview with anyone as musician/actor/writer Tom Waits -- it's always been as offbeat, alternative-reality "Tom Waits." 

Every media appearance, to this day, is a scripted put-on. Waits was one of the original masters of performance art. Early on, he adopted his character of the boozy, calculating, dimwitted, streetwise con man. For 50 years, the only Tom Waits we have seen in public is some variation of that fictional character. Waits has acted in nearly 40 movies over those years, and that Tom Waits character is the one he always plays on film.

There have been a lot of guys over the years known mostly as the characters they play -- Charlie Weaver, Jose Jimenez, PeeWee Herman. But those guys would occassionally out themselves as Cliff Arquette, Bill Dana, Paul Reubens by peeking out from behind the costumes. Not Waits. Tom Waits the absurdly comic buffoon is the only Tom Waits we know. 

Obviously, we know about all the signposts of Waits' career. We know that his music career was kick-started when David Geffen signed him to Asylum Records in 1972. Waits spent the rest of the 1970s building a cult audience on the strength of a few critically acclaimed albums, several exhaustive international tours and frequent TV appearances in his guise as Odd Beatnik Tom.

We do know that Waits was struggling to make ends meet and was becoming disillusioned with his music career when his buddy Sylvester Stallone offered him a breath of fresh air. Stallone cast Waits in a small speaking part in the 1978 movie, Paradise Alley. It went well enough that Waits, a homebody at heart who hated touring, got an idea to pursue a different avenue. He completed his contract with Asylum in 1980 and moved to New York with an idea for a stage play he wanted to write. He was only there for a few weeks, though, when Francis Ford Coppola asked him to come back to LA and write a soundtrack for his new film, One From the Heart. Coppola set up a small office for Waits to use at Zoetrope Studios, where he met an assistant story editor named Kathleen Brennan, whom he married before he settled in to start work in his new job.

Waits landed an Oscar nomination for his score for One From the Heart. Coppola cast him in his movies regularly over the next several years, starting Waits on a successful side career. Waits settled in LA, and his new wife became his guiding force to make the outlandish experimental music he wanted to make. 

Waits' 50-year recording career is distinctly separated into two chapters -- lets call them the Asylum years (1973-80) and the Brennan years (1983-onward). I'll get into the Brennan years in a later post. It was in the 1980s and into the '90s when I became a rabid Waits fan. But for now, let's take a look at the Asylum records. (Click here for a sampler on Spotify.)

I was a casual Waits fan in the '70s. I did enjoy listening to some of these albums, a couple of them frequently. But I thought of these albums as more novelties than staples. I loved the wicked humor Waits brought to the table as much as I appreciated his music. My biggest issue was with the frequent spoken-word songs, in which Waits acts as narrator in tracks that sound like noir radio plays. Those things for the most part would stop me cold, and they tended to ruin my experience listening to these albums.

Ranked from least favorite to favorite:

No. 7. Closing Time (1973):
Waits' first album, produced by former Lovin' Spoonful pianist Jerry Yester before Waits adopted the gravel-voiced beatnik persona. It is still well-regarded as a vehicle for Waits' early songs, but there's nothing in the musical performance that brings me back after my first couple of times through. It's mostly low-key, acoustic jazz-folk stuff with Waits on piano. Closing Times' value is in its history, not its music. The opening track, "Ol' 55," was released as a single that went nowhere until the Eagles covered it on their 1974 album, On the Border.

No. 6. The Heart of Saturday Night (1974):
Waits' second album, his first with Bones Howe producing. Howe would be Waits' producer for the rest of the Asylum albums as well as the 1982 One From the Heart soundtrack album on Columbia Records. Howe punches up Waits' sound, putting a little rock and roll in the jazz lounge. Waits still sings in his nasally tenor, but the Beatnik Tom character starts peeking through. This one is worth returning to every now and then, a much better listen than the debut.

No. 5. Blue Valentine (1978):
Waits goes a little electric for the first time on this album, his sixth. One of my favorite Waits songs is here -- "Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis," a heartbreaking narrative of a life gone wrong. "$29.00," which closes the first half, is a highlight of the Asylum years. Other than that, there's too much orchestral arrangement on too much filler to hold my interest. Waits' cover of "Somewhere," from West Side Story, would be a great opening track had Howe not gone overboard with the strings.

No. 4. Nighthawks at the Diner (1975):
Waits' third album, where we first meet the gravel-voiced hustler, the iconic Tom Waits persona. This was recorded live in studio with a small audience. Waits gives everything he's got to establish this new character. He opens nearly every song with one of his signature croaky comic monologues. The music is pure jazz-lounge swing -- piano, tenor sax, upright bass and brushed snare drum, with Waits occasionally playing acoustic guitar. It's pretty entertaining, the only real problem being its 74-minute running time. I remember when I used to listen to this on vinyl, I really enjoyed the first two sides, but I would be done with it when I hit the long half-sung, half-spoken narrative "Putnam County" in the middle of Side 3.

No. 3. Foreign Affairs (1977):
No guitars on this one, Waits' fifth record. It's all piano, bass and drums with several clarinet, trumpet and tenor sax solos. Worth the price of admission for "I Never Talk to Strangers," a duet with Bette Midler about two lonely-heart cynics getting to know each other over drinks at the neighborhood bar. Most everything on this album is strong except for the execrable 8-minute-plus "Potter's Field" at the top of Side 2. Waits ruined a few of this era's albums with that spoken-word stuff.

No. 2. Small Change (1976):
Waits' fourth album, the second in a row recorded live in studio, straight to tape with no post-production. This album was my first exposure to Waits after I saw him on TV one weekend night (I think it was Saturday Night Live, but I'm not certain). The opening track "Tom Traubert's Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)" grabbed me immediately with its "Waltzing Matilda" reference in the chorus. But then Waits hooked me forever with the second track, "Step Right Up," a hilarious sendup of cheesy sales pitches for cheap cheesy products. Another Waits classic, "The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)" is here. But another spoken-word interruption, "Small Change (Got Rained On With His Own .38)," kills the mood near the back end of Side 2.

No. 1. Heartattack and Vine (1980):
Waits' final album for Asylum, before his life reboot, is by far his best album of this era. Electric guitar is the centerpiece for the first time, and the lounge jazz gives way to some nasty blues licks. This is the first perfect Waits album. Most tracks are top-rate. "Saving All My Love For You," "Jersey Girl" (later covered by Bruce Springsteen) and "On the Nickel" are the best ones. None of these nine songs are throwaways. This album is revelatory, the absolute best place to start with 1970s Tom Waits.

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