Classic Americana Albums: Tom Waits “Closing Time”

Asylum Records, 1973

Tom Waits "closing Time' cover art

A drunk props himself up at one end of a seedy bar; a down-and-out stumbles across a dirty city street in search of somewhere safe in an unfriendly city; a working girl looks blankly at the face in the mirror, trying to remember what happened to her dreams; and all the while, the slow, echoey, haunted sound of an old upright piano provides a soundtrack. This is the world that Tom Waits introduced us to on ‘Closing Time’, and it’s now been 50 years since ‘Closing Time’ introduced us to Tom Waits. 

‘Ol’ 55’ kicks off the record with a kind of easy going stoner vibe; a slow four count, a few tentative piano notes before the groove starts, and then…imagine the young songwriter, given his chance to record a long player, and making his opening lines:

“Well, my time went so quickly, / I went lickety splitly  / Down in my ol’ 55”

Lickety splitly? Ok, Tom… Great song, though. Great enough that the Eagles picked it up, even after they had become possibly the biggest act in the USA.

Next up is the delicate ‘I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You’, which in many ways may be seen as a litmus test for the album as a whole. There will definitely be those out there who find its simplistic chords and bar room narrative a little too saccharine; but on the other hand, we’re all the heroes (or anti-heroes) of our own lives, and this is a song that captures the missed chances that lacking self worth engenders, and with quite some empathy, too. It may not be Shakespeare, but as Noel Coward observed, “It’s strange how potent cheap music can be”. 

The mood this creates is replicated again and again throughout the record, on touching vignettes such as ‘Rosie’, ‘Lonely’, ‘Grapefruit Moon’ and ‘Little Trip to Heaven’.  There is one stand out, though, one song that encapsulates the whole record and gives it its crowning glory. That song is ‘Martha’. It is an entire movie, or even a novel, in one brief song; the opening lines establish the narrative (even if the concept of using a telephone operator to patch you through to the recipient of your call is now long gone)

“Operator, number please; it’s been so many years / She remembers my old voice, while I fight the tears / ‘Hello, hello there, is this Martha?  / This is old Tom Frost / I am calling long distance, don’t worry about the cost’”

“She remembers my old voice”… multitudes are contained in those few words. Having set up the premise of an old man contacting a former love from so far back in his life, the way Waits contrasts the realities of the lives that have been lived with the still burning romances and recollections of youth is beautifully realised. 

“Those were the days of roses, poetry and prose / And Martha, all I had was you and all you had was me”

If Waits had never written another song, this one alone would surely have guaranteed his immortality. Fortunately, it’s not a one track album, and if ‘Martha’ is the centrepiece, the songs around it complement and carry a mood throughout. Only the cool jazz of ‘Ice Cream Man’ breaks out of the nostalgic and even dream-like reverie of the record, perhaps giving a clue that Waits wouldn’t be satisfied to allow us too much sentimentality in the future. 

For this record, though, he gave us a collection of songs that call out to the hopeless romantic in us; one that, in contrast to the other great songwriters of the time, is channelled through Tin Pan Alley and the great American Songbook – but with just enough grit that it still stands up today as something other than a museum piece. As such, the record has a timeless quality, that sounds like it could have been made any time from 1920 to 2020. 

If it offered little clue to the extreme places where Waits would push his muse in later years, it nonetheless gave a perfectly realised collection of late night songs for anyone who has experienced a bruised heart but holds onto an unbowed spirit. There will always be a time to put the candles on, pour a glass of something right, and immerse yourself in the wooden, sepia tones of ‘Closing Time’.

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Jim Sutherland

I was working at the University of Arkansas student radio station, I guess in 1973, when I pulled this out of the Asylum promo pack – the first track grabbed me & I played it that night on my 2300 to 0200 shift. Loved the album them, still do.