Some artists just have to find the right time to filter their way into your consciousness. For me one of those is Tom Waits. He’s popped up at various times over the years. The Old Grey Whistle Test performance of ‘Burma Shave’ that you can find below, and a couple of ill-advised album purchases. He’s always been intriguing, and I felt that I would like him if only I practised. Much like some beers, Waits is a bit unpalatable until you acquire the taste.
In the end it was ridicule from a highly knowledgeable music friend that did it. Missing Records in Glasgow had a load of cheap Waits albums, and I started where Tom did with his debut ‘Closing Time’ and the ‘Asylum Years’ compilation. These were a far better bet than my previous try with ‘Swordfishtrombones’ which is probably not the easiest way into Waits-world. The earlier material, Waits with stabilisers perhaps, is much more accessible than his later albums. The more conventional instrumentation and, at least at first, less gravelly voice let you become accustomed to the way his mind and music work without the scary noises that came with the influence of Captain Beefheart and Harry Partch.
Waits clearly regards his voice as an instrument that can be used in the same way as any other to create a mood. The influence of Beefheart on his singing after 1980, along with a far more angular percussive sound means the growl is more exaggerated because the music demands it. By the time of ‘Alice’ in 2002 he has assimilated the influences and the voice is closer to his early Asylum work on the title song especially. The Jazz, Blues and Folk tinged music is back as well.
His wife Kathleen Brennan described two styles of Waits’s songs, “grim reapers” and “grand weepers”. While that’s a bit oversimplified, I know what she means. If Waits has written any less than stellar lyrics, I haven’t heard them yet. Lines like “As he dreams of a waitress with Maxwell House eyes”, and “Now some say he’s doing the obituary mambo and some say he’s hanging on the wall” are poetry at least as good as anything Dylan has brought us.
Waits inhabits the world of Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac (‘Jack & Neal /California, Here I Come’ on ‘Foreign Affairs’) and Edward Hopper paintings (‘Nighthawks at the Diner’), and it is at least partly this that makes him an essential Americana artist. His blend of so many American music styles with the art and literature of the middle of the last century make him stand out from almost anyone else as a documenter of a world now pretty much gone. It’s also that which makes it worth persevering with his music. Unlike some beers it is possible to acquire the taste, I certainly have.
Barney Hoskyns unauthorised biography ‘Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits’ is a great read as is anything by Hoskyns. It runs a bit short on personal detail as Waits and Brennan actively worked to stop people talking to him, but as a review of Waits the artist it is definitely worth a read.