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Off the Beaten Tracks: Tom Waits – the gruff with the smooth

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THE name Tom Waits is synonymous these days with a gravelly, world-weary voice described by one critic as seeming like ‘it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car’. Waits himself said it was ‘the sand in the sandwich’. Yet twasn’t ever thus. Early in his career Waits did not stand out vocally from the herd of West Coast singer-songwriters and it was not until his third studio album that he traded his dulcet tones for a growl. So what’s the story?

Thomas Alan Waits was born in Pomona, California, on December 7, 1949. His father Jesse was of Irish and Scots descent while his mother Alma’s family were of the Norwegian persuasion. The young Tom, who had an elder and a younger sister, said he had a ‘pretty normal childhood’ and a ‘very middle-class upbringing’. His mother was a regular churchgoer and typical American housewife. However his father, who taught Spanish in high school, had a serious drink problem. Tom described Jesse as ‘a tough one, always an outsider’. The boy would eventually inherit Jesse’s thirsty habits.

When Tom was ten his father left home and Alma took the kids to Chula Vista, a suburb of San Diego. Tom fell in love with the music of soul singers such as Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett and James Brown but they were supplanted in his affections by Bob Dylan in the early Sixties. When the Flower Power movement came along, Tom refused to join the hippie throng, preferring the jazz-loving Fifties Beat Generation typified by the books of Jack Kerouac. He described himself as ‘a rebel against the rebels’ and dropped out of high school aged 18.

After a spell working in a pizza restaurant, Waits was hired as a doorman at the Heritage coffee house in San Diego, which featured regular folk nights, and eventually persuaded his bosses to let him on stage. He would later complain: ‘I think I made more as a doorman than I did playing. Eight dollars a night on the door, six dollars a night on stage. A little strange . . .’

In 1971 Waits moved to Los Angeles in the hope that it would boost his career, and recorded two dozen demos of his songs which emerged in the 1990s as The Early Years, Vols 1 & 2. Waits was enraged at their ultimate appearance, describing them as ‘baby pictures’ unfit for release. True, they are unsophisticated, but they provide more than a hint of the songwriting talent to come with early versions of such strong songs as Ol’ 55 and I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You. 

Having signed to David Geffen’s Asylum label, Waits released his debut album Closing Time in March 1973. As a Rolling Stone reviewer put it, ‘His voice is self-mocking, bordering on self-pity, and most of his songs could be described as all-purpose lounge music . . . a style that evokes an aura of crushed cigarettes in seedy bars and Sinatra singing One for My Baby. Though it would sound like an unpromising idiom in which to work, what Waits does with it is very daring and almost entirely successful.’

The opening track, Ol’ 55, was snapped up by the Eagles, who included it on their album On The Border. Although Waits was pleased with the royalties this brought, he made no attempt to cosy up to his labelmates, snottily describing their efforts at country rock as ‘about as interesting as watching paint dry’ and adding that they ‘don’t have cowshit on their boots, just dogshit from Laurel Canyon’.

In his entertaining book Hotel California, journalist Barney Hoskyns adds: ‘He also took swipes at (the band) America, David Crosby and Neil Young. “I rode through the desert on a horse with no name,” he sneered. ‘How about, “I rode through the desert on a horse with no legs”? That I can see, but the song is so ridiculous. “I almost cut my hair” . . . so what? Neil Young is another one who is embarrassing for displaying a third-grade mentality. “Old man take a look at my life” . . . that’s real good.’

Waits explains his chippiness by saying: ‘I was a young kid. I was just corkin’ off and being a pr*ck. It was saying, “Notice me” followed by “Leave me alone”, sometimes in the same sentence. I talked to Don Henley (of the Eagles) about that and I apologised and I took it all back and we patched it up.’

Ol’ 55 is followed by the poignant I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You, about a pubgoer too shy to plight his troth to a fellow drinker. Martha owes a debt to the music of Randy Newman, as does Lonely, which is based heavily on the classic I Think It’s Going To Rain Today.  

The album ends with the nostalgic Grapefruit Moon and the instrumental title track. The producer was Jerry Yester, formerly of the Lovin’ Spoonful.

Waits was keen to get back in the studio but his manager Herb Cohen, whose roster included Frank Zappa, persuaded Tom to support the Mothers of Invention on a North American tour. He bowed out after the audience booed him and pelted him with rotten fruit. (What sort of concertgoer would bother to take a rancid orange to a gig just in case he doesn’t like the music?)

Album number two, 1974’s The Heart of Saturday Night, was produced by Bones Howe, who got the job by professing a love for Jack Kerouac. Interviewed for the website Sound on Sound, Howe said: ‘I told him I thought his music and lyrics had a Kerouac quality to them, and he was blown away that I knew who Jack Kerouac was. I told him I also played jazz drums and he went wild. Then I told him that when I was working for Norman Granz [founder of Verve Records, manager and producer for Ella Fitzgerald and one of the jazz idiom’s most talented entrepreneurs] Norman had found these tapes of Kerouac reading his poetry from The Beat Generation in a hotel room. I told Waits I’d make him a copy. That sealed it.’

The title track is a tribute to Kerouac and works well but much of the album is suffused with what one reviewer called ‘a cloud of self-pitying gloom’.

Despite his misgivings Waits agreed on another tour with Zappa and once again got a pasting from the crowds but the publicity helped him to become accepted as a serious artist. In New York he met the singer and actress Bette Midler, and they had an intermittent affair.

The transformation of Waits’s voice into a combination of Louis Armstrong and Howlin’ Wolf begins on the live-in-the-studio collection Nighthawks at the Diner, released in 1975, and is completed on Small Change in 1976. Here’s the first track, Tom Traubert’s Blues, which would become one of his best-known songs, covered by Rod Stewart. Producer Howe said Waits wrote the song after ‘he hung around on Skid Row in L A because he wanted to get stimulated for writing this material. He called me up and said, “I went down to Skid Row . . . I bought a pint of rye. In a brown paper bag. Hunkered down, drank the pint of rye, went home, threw up, and wrote Tom Traubert’s Blues. Every guy down there, everyone I spoke to, a woman put him there.’

Waits publicly attributed his new-found gravelly sound to a harsh lifestyle of whiskey and cigarettes but it seems generally accepted that it was an affectation designed to complement his image as a boho barfly. Whatever the reason, the billy-goat-gruff voice was here to stay, as we shall see in Part Two.

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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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