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Off the Beaten Tracks: Tom Waits Part Two – the Kathleen Effect

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AT the end of Part One we left Tom Waits having fully assumed his seedy, gravel-voiced public persona with the 1976 album Small Change. It was his first to reach the US Top 100 and to promote it he went on tour. When he sang Pasties and a G-String a stripper would appear on stage for added verisimilitude. Here’s a slightly later clip, sadly minus exotic dancer.

In 1977 he recorded Foreign Affairs, which included I Never Talk to Strangers, a duet with his on-off girlfriend Bette Midler. It also featured that year on her own solo effort Broken Blossom. The Waits album ventures further into the cool jazz idiom to which he had always aspired, with a quintet playing live in the studio. Medley: Jack and Neal/California Here I Come  is another paean to Tom’s Beat Generation hero Jack Kerouac. The maudlin barfly anthem A Sight for Sore Eyes begins with a piano playing Auld Lang Syne and contains the line ‘Half drunk half the time and I’m all drunk the rest’.

Potter’s Field  is a theatrical poetry production complete with orchestra and musical references to Rhapsody in Blue and Slaughter on Tenth AvenueBarber Shop (Good morning mister snip, snip, snip) is much more fun with excellent bass and drums from Jim Hughart and Shelley Manne. The near title track Foreign Affair  has been described as ‘anglophile’ and could indeed have been sung by Noel Coward (after a tracheotomy). Unfortunately for Waits, the album received a lukewarm critical reception and failed to match the sales of its predecessor.

That same year Waits struck up a relationship with fellow singer-songwriter Rickie Lee Jones, who shared his bohemian pretensions and love of strong drink. For his live performances he began to use stage props, the first being a lamp post although thankfully dogs were not involved.

For the next album, 1978’s Blue Valentine, Waits switched to electric guitar from piano as his main instrument and replaced his backing group of jazzers in favour of a slightly rockier sound. However the first track is the strings-laden Bernstein/Sondheim song Somewhere, from West Side Story. Waits’s performance brings back painful memories of that by P J Proby in the Sixties, although to his credit Tom’s version is almost certainly meant to be ironic. Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis gets off to a promising start with the opening line ‘Charlie I’m pregnant’. I have to say I find the album more interesting lyrically than musically. Kentucky Avenue  is autobiographical, referring to a street where Waits lived as a boy. He told an interviewer: ‘I used to walk down Kentucky Avenue collecting cigarette butts. And I finally got me a paper route. I used to get up at 1 o’ clock in the morning so I could deliver my papers and still have time to break the law.’ A character in the song is based on a boy in the neighbourhood who had polio.

I’ll steal a hacksaw from my dad
Cut the braces off your legs
And we’ll bury them tonight
Out in the cornfield.

The back cover of Blue Valentine shows Waits pinning Rickie Lee to the bonnet of his 1964 Ford Thunderbird. On tour to promote the album, he had a petrol station built on stage as a backdrop.

Following the dramatic success of Jones’s single Chuck E’s in Love, tensions grew between the couple over their contrasting fortunes and also RLJ’s heroin addiction, which repulsed her lover. Following a European tour he ended the relationship. As I wrote here, she was devastated and went on a cocaine binge before holing up in a hotel and writing the brilliant break-up album Pirates.

Waits decided to relocate to New York from LA but was persuaded to return temporarily by the film director Francis Ford Coppola, who asked him to write the music for One From The Heart after hearing his duet with Bette Midler. Set in Las Vegas, and described as a ‘lounge operetta’, it portrays the marital problems between Hank and Frannie, played by Frederic Forrest and Teri Garr. Waits wasn’t keen on the idea, because Coppola wanted him to return to his earlier musical style, but eventually took the movie man’s shilling. The decision also paid off romantically because Waits fell for Kathleen Brennan, an Irish-American assistant story editor on the Hollywood scene, and they became engaged within a week.

Disillusioned by what he saw as a lack of faith in him shown by Asylum, Waits broke off from writing for the film to record a final album contractually owed to the label. Heartattack and Vine, released in 1980, is no token effort, however. It is musically harder-edged while also more tuneful than its predecessors and contains some killer songs. Chief of which is Jersey Girl,  written for Kathleen, who was living in New Jersey when he met her. It describes a lovestruck chap about to give up the bachelor life – ‘Got no time for the corner boys, down in the street making all that noise’. In the chorus, Waits sings ‘Sha la la la, I’m in love with a Jersey girl.’ He told an interviewer: ‘I never thought I would catch myself saying “sha la la” in a song. This is my first experiment with “sha la la”.’

Jersey Girl was recorded by Bruce Springsteen as the B-side of a 1984 single, Cover Me. Brucie and Waits performed the song together at a concert in LA and it became a live favourite with Springsteen fans into the 21st century.

Tom and Kathleen were married in August 1980 and honeymooned in Tralee, County Kerry, where her family were based. Shouldn’t think much drink was involved, then. After the couple moved into an LA apartment many of Tom’s male friends felt cut off and, as predicted in Jersey Girl, fell by the wayside.

That October, recording began for the One From the Heart soundtrack. The intention had been for Waits to duet with Midler again but she proved unavailable and the country star Crystal Gayle had to suffice. The movie was released in 1982 to unenthusiastic reviews but the critics were kinder about the record, particularly the track This One’s From The Heart

The soundtrack proved to be Waits’s last album with producer Bones Howe after almost ten years working together. ‘He called me up and said, “Can we have a drink?”,’ Howe told the website Sound on Sound. ‘He told me he realised one night that as he was writing a song, he found himself asking, “If I write this, will Bones like it?” I said to him that we were getting to be kind of like an old married couple. I said I don’t want to be the reason that an artist can’t create. It was time for him to find another producer. We shook hands and that was it. It was a great ride.’

Kathleen became a major influence on her husband’s music, taking over as his manager from Herb Cohen and introducing him to her extensive record collection, which included the complete works of Captain Beefheart.  Waits was inspired by this and decided to take his career in a new direction. He told author Barney Hoskyns that ‘once you’ve heard Beefheart it’s hard to wash him out of your clothes. It stains, like coffee or blood’. I do find it hard to believe, however, that Tom was a stranger to the works of the Cap’n up to that point, given that Herb Cohen managed them both for quite some years. 

Learning of Waits’s parting from Asylum, Island Records chief Chris Blackwell got in touch offering to release his next album. Produced by Tom himself, this was 1983’s terrific Swordfishtrombones, which eschewed the previous piano-and-orchestra lounge-lizard routines in favour of surreal songs and a more anarchic approach involving instruments including marimba and bagpipes. The first track, Underground does indeed sound as if it was recorded in a dungeon and establishes the Don-Van-Vliet-meets-Kurt-Weill tone of the record. Dave The Butcher is like a warped carousel from a David Lynch movie, perhaps EraserheadSixteen Shells From a Thirty Ought Six  rattles along splendidly, sounding as if it were recorded in a scrap metal merchant’s yard.

There are some ballads, including Johnsburg Illinois and In The Neighborhood, plus weirdnesses such as Frank’s Wild Years, in which a blind chihuahua with skin disease comes to a violent end. This is followed by Swordfishtrombone, with its irresistible combination of double bass and marimba. Truly an album like no other. Initially it failed to make a commercial impact, particularly in the US, but Britain’s New Musical Express named it No 2 in its LPs of the year (after Elvis Costello’s Punch The Clock) and it became accepted as a classic.

Rain Dogs, in 1985, again produced by Waits, cemented his status as a true original. A concept album about the ‘urban dispossessed’, it continues the marimba and bass motif with the notable addition of Marc Ribot on guitar. Here he is on the excellent Jockey Full of Bourbon and the title track.  

Ribot said: ‘Rain Dogs was my first major-label-type recording, and I thought everybody made records the way Tom does. I’ve learned since that it’s a very original and individual way of producing. As producer apart from himself as writer and singer and guitar player he brings in his ideas, but he’s very open to sounds that suddenly and accidentally occur in the studio. I remember one verbal instruction being, “Play it like a midget’s bar mitzvah”.’ That, to me, sounds like one from the Beefheart playbook. More about Ribot in a future column.

Amidst the studied eccentricities are some melodic gems including Hang Down Your Head (Ribot again resplendent) and Downtown Train, which would provide a chart-topper for Rod Stewart. Another guest guitarist on three songs including Big Black Mariah is a young shaver named Keith Richards. Waits described the spectral Keef as ‘just a great spirit in the studio’ and added: ‘He’s very spontaneous, he moves like some kind of animal. I was trying to explain Big Black Mariah and finally I started to move in a certain way and he said, “Oh, why didn’t you do that to begin with? Now I know what you’re talking about.” It’s like animal instinct.’

Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs are rightly regarded as Waits’s masterpieces and regularly feature in lists of the all-time best rock albums. Combining his music with a prolific acting career including appearances in movies such as Down By Law, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Short Cuts, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Seven Psychopaths and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,  he struggled to match those records in subsequent years, although Bone Machine and Real Gone have their moments.

It was in March 2011 that Neil Young inducted Waits into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  As he received the award, Tom growled: ‘They say I have no hits and that I’m difficult to work with. And they say that like it’s a bad thing.’

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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