It’s been just over 30 years since Tom Waits made his recording debut. In that time his music has taken adventurous twists and turns, from confessional country-blues and jazz-flavored lounge to primal rock and avant-garde musical theatre. By turns tender and poignant, strange and twisted, his songs have tended to explore the dark underbelly of society as he has given his voice to a litany of characters and tales on the fringe and in the fray.
Waits has drawn from a deep well of song idioms; folk, blues, country, jazz ballads, polkas, waltzes, cabaret, swing, popular ballads and a category which by now can only be described as ‘Waitsian’. The tools of his trade have included such instruments and objects as the marimba; trombone; brake drum; metal aunglongs; banjo; bell plate; bullhorn; conga; accordion; optigon; mellotron; maracas; pump organ; basstarda; chamberlain; harmonium; viola; sticks; chairs and musical saw as well as the regular old guitar, bass, piano and drums. There is also, of course, his trademark gravelly voice.
In the early-Seventies Tom Waits worked as a doorman at the Heritage in San Diego, a nightclub where artists of every genre performed. An avid fan of such authors, songwriters, musicians and performers as Hoagy Carmichael, Lord Buckley, Bob Dylan, Stephen Foster, Raymond Chandler and Marty Robbins, Waits began developing his own idiosyncratic musical style, combining songs with monologues. He took his newly formed act to Monday nights at the Troubadour in LA, where musicians from all over stood in line all day to get the opportunity to perform on-stage that night. Shortly thereafter, Waits was signed to Asylum Records. He was 21 years old.
Waits first formal recording, Closing Time, was released in 1973. Among the tracks was “Ol’ 55,” a song later covered by his labelmates The Eagles for their On the Border album.
Waits began touring and opening in America for such artists as Charlie Rich, Martha & The Vandellas and Frank Zappa. As the decade unfolded, Waits gained increasing critical respect and a loyal cult audience with his subsequent albums – The Heart of Saturday Night (1974); Nighthawks at the Diner (1975); Small Change (1976); Foreign Affairs (1977); Blue Valentine (1978) and Heartattack and Vine (1980). It was an incredibly prolific period for Waits, establishing his reputation as a visionary songwriter.
* * *
In 1982, the same year as his Oscar-nominated soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola’s One From the Heart, Tom Waits produced Swordfishtrombones with Kathleen Brennan. It was the first time Waits had produced his own work. The response from his record company Elektra-Asylum, however, was less than enthusiastic – both Waits and the album were dropped, with label president Joe Smith warning “with this record you will lose all your old fans and gain no new ones”. Smith’s successor Bob Krasnow also elected not to release the album or renew Waits’ recording contract.
A year later, in 1983, Waits signed to Island Records, then one of the world’s leading independent labels. Island rescued the now legendary Swordfishtrombones and released it with new artwork as his first album for the label.
Swordfishtrombones marked a startling new creative point in Waits career with its visceral hybrid of styles and instrumentation. Waits experimented with the sound of his voice, tried unusual recording techniques and utilized found sounds and bizarre textures. His trademark storytelling backed by a piano combo had mutated into impressionistic and surreal aural landscapes.
Just at the time in the Eighties when hair and recording got slick and big, Tom Waits offered up ‘lo-fi’ primitivism, helping to set off a whole new aesthetic that went on to inspire a generation of new artists.
This period of bold experimentation continued with Rain Dogs (1985) and Frank’s Wild Years (1987) which, with Swordfishtrombones, formed a landmark trilogy, one of the most accomplished musical achievements of the decade.
The trilogy was followed by Big Time (1988), a film and soundtrack record of Waits’ acclaimed 1987 U.S. tour; Bone Machine (1992), which won an American Grammy Award for Best Alternative Album and The Black Rider (1993), a recording of the songs and music Waits wrote for director Robert Wilson’s award-winning opera, adapted by Beat novelist William Burroughs from an old German folk tale.
So successful was The Black Rider - Germany’s longest-running and most influential stage production of the Eighties - that Robert Wilson later commissioned Waits and his wife and collaborator Kathleen Brennan to compose the songs and music for two further ‘street operas’. The first, ‘Alice’, based on Lewis Carroll’s life and works, premiered in Hamburg at the end of 1992 while the second, Woyzeck (based on the German writer Georg Büchner’s nightmarish 19th century play of a cuckolded soldier who murders his girlfriend), opened in Denmark eight years later. The songs from both works later appeared on Alice and Blood Money, the albums Waits released in 2002.
* * *
In retrospect, it was always inevitable that an artist so steeped in imagery as Tom Waits should be naturally fascinated with the cinema. His first steps in that direction came when he wrote songs for Sylvester Stallone’s 1978 movie, Paradise Alley, in which Waits also had a cameo appearance. He then wrote and performed two songs for Ralph Waite’s acclaimed portrait of skid row, On the Nickel (1980), before being entrusted with the soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart, the director’s follow-up to his epic and award-winning Apocalypse Now.
Waits succeeded magnificently. His soundtrack – featuring duets with country singer Crystal Gayle - is an enduring classic of American cinema. One from the Heart also won Waits an Academy Award nomination. It was the start of a long association with Coppola, evidenced by Waits’ appearances as an actor in the director’s Rumble Fish, The Outsiders, The Cotton Club and as the unforgettable Renfield in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
In 1986 Waits appeared in Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law, a film that coincidentally marked the international debut of Italian actor Roberto Benigni. That same year Waits made his theatrical stage debut with Frank’s Wild Years - a musical play he co-wrote with Brennan - at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre.
Later film appearances included Ironweed, Queen’s Logic, The Fisher King, At Play in the Fields of the Lord and another Jarmusch movie, Night on Earth, for which Waits and Brennan composed the score, released as an album in 1991.Waits also had a memorable acting turn in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts.
Following the release of The Black Rider in 1993, there was to be a six-year hiatus before the next Tom Waits’ album. In those intervening years, however, he devoted himself to an array of different musical projects. Waits and Brennan, for instance, wrote two songs for the ‘Dead Man Walking’ soundtrack album at the request of director Tim Robbins.
Tom also contributed a song to the Wim Wenders’ film, The End of Violence while, in 1998, Waits and Brennan composed the score and a song for ‘Bunny’, which won the Oscar for Best Short Film (Animated). That same year Tom and Kathleen wrote two songs for Barry Levinson’s ‘Liberty Heights’ film.
Among other films to which Waits and Brennan have contributed songs are Ed Harris’s Pollack, director Arliss Howard’s Big Bad Love and the Oscar-nominated Shrek 2 while Waits can be seen playing opposite Iggy Pop in Jim Jarmusch’s critically acclaimed 2004 film of vignettes, Coffee & Cigarettes.
In between this film work, Waits also recorded a vocal for Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, the English composer Gavin Bryars’ remarkable 75-minute orchestral essay. The work centred on a 1971 field recording of a London hobo singing a religious tune; on Bryars’ album, Waits duets along with the voice of the tramp.
* * *
In 1999 Tom Waits returned to the limelight with Mule Variations, his first album in six years and his debut for the independent American label, Anti / Epitaph. The album, which synthesised Waits’ affinity for the American song tradition with his love of naturalistic sound worlds, was arguably the most direct and intimate recording of his career. It was certainly the most successful, selling over a million copies around the world and winning a Grammy into the bargain. In the UK it was Waits’ first-ever Top 10 hit.
As the follow-up Waits released two separate and distinct albums – Alice and Blood Money – on the same day in May 2002. The albums were as original as they were different from each other, with Alice chronicling the songs Waits and Brennan had written for Robert Wilson’s 1992 theatrical production and ‘Blood Money’ containing the music commissioned for 2000’s Woyzeck. “Alice’s songs are a school of fish that lead the listener into the rapture of the deep. Blood Money’s songs are musical dispatches from the dark, human carnival of life,” said Waits, explaining how the two albums differed.
His rich vein of creativity continued with Real Gone, Waits’ 2004 album which featured primal blues, rock-steady grooves and Latin rhythms, all mixed and stirred with what Waits called “cubist funk” and “vocal mouth percussion” – the latter unveiling his unique approach to hip-hop ‘human beatboxing’. For the first time in Waits’ career, there was no piano on the record.
In between album releases, Waits also returned to the road. A legendary live performer, his appearances are rare, extraordinarily memorable and highly anticipated events. Part distorted vaudeville, part big top, part piano bar and part stand-up, live shows are meticulously orchestrated to have all the grace and excitement of a derailing train, as those lucky enough to have seen his post-Mule tours can testify. In the US, for instance, Waits’ 2006 summer “Orphans” tour - the live prelude to the album release - received some of the most extraordinary critical applause of any concert series in the past decade.
* * *
Waits and Brennan were recently named number four in a list of the ‘100 Best Living Songwriters’ published by America’s Paste magazine. “In literature only a handful of writers have pulled off the near impossible. In music, it happens on every Tom Waits recording,” said the magazine.
Named as one of VH-1’s Most Influential Artists of All Time, it is no surprise that Waits’ body of work has long been covered (and coveted) by other musicians. Notable cover versions include Bruce Springsteen (“Jersey Girl”); Rod Stewart and Everything But The Girl (“Downtown Train”); Johnny Cash (“Down There By the Train”); Marianne Faithfull (“Strange Weather”); The Ramones (“I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”); 10,000 Maniacs (“I Hope I Don’t Fall In Love With You”); Tim Buckley (“Martha”); T-Bone Burnett (“Time”); Bob Seger (‘Blind Love’); Lucinda Williams (‘Hang Down Your Head’); Los Lobos (“Jockey Full of Bourbon”); Elvis Costello (“More Than Rain”) and The Blind Boys of Alabama (“Jesus Gonna Be Here”) as well as Wicked Grin, the critically acclaimed collection of Waits’ songs recorded by John Hammond and released in 2001.
There is also a diverse list of artists who have cited Waits as an inspiration, including Bob Dylan who named Tom as one of his “secret heroes”.