Tom Waits - Biography
When probing the biographical minutia of Tom Waits, there’s a cautionary line from his song “Tango Till They’re Sore” (Rain Dogs, 1985 Island ) that one would be wise to employ in any attempt at separating the man from the myth and legend—
“I’ll tell you all my secrets, but I lie about my past.”
Using his unparalleled gifts for fabrication and confabulation, Waits has concocted a considerable career in the entertainment industry and constructed a cult following of rabid admirers ranging from college kids to celebrities. His songs are fractured fairy tales populated with prostitutes, reprobates, sailors and Eyeball Kids whose identities Waits assumes with the ease and abandon of a kid playing dress-up. And then there’s the voice. Described by fans and critics in turns as gravelly, bourbon-soaked, grizzly, like a cement mixer is lodged in his throat, guttural, like sandpaper, raspy, like he’s gargling shards of glass, it’s a voice that’s inspired imitators and lawsuits and probably made more people run for cover than swoon like a schoolgirl.
Thomas Alan Waits was born on December 14, 1949 in Pomona, CA to two teachers. His parents divorced when he was 11 and his mother took him and his two sisters to National City in San Diego County. By the time he was 15, he was playing guitar and singing in coffee shops. By the end of the ‘60s, Waits had cobbled together his first persona—an amalgam of childhood and teenage influences like Jack Kerouac, Lord Buckley, Bob Dylan, Harry Belafonte, Leadbelly and Lenny Bruce. He began to hone the Beat-inspired storytelling abilities, adding rambling and amusing introductions to his songs that would become a trademark of his live shows.
During the summer of 1971, Waits would take the bus to Los Angeles to play at the Troubadour’s hoot night. He was soon discovered by Herb Cohen, who was managing Frank Zappa and Tim Buckley at that time. About a year later, David Geffen saw Waits perform at the Troubadour and signed him to his fledgling label, Asylum.
Closing Time (1973 Elektra/Asylum) was released in March of 1973, but it went largely unnoticed. In fact, it wasn’t until other musicians began to cover Waits’ tunes that he showed up on the radar. Within a year, two major artists—Tim Buckley and The Eagles—recorded “Martha” and “Old ‘55” respectively. Not long afterward, Waits found himself opening for Frank Zappa.
For his next album, Waits would recruit a new producer. He was looking for a grittier sound and found a willing accomplice in Bones Howe. The result was The Heart of Saturday Night (1974 Elektra/Asylum) and the album sees Waits leaving his folksy sound behind for a more bluesy, melancholy side. He also establishes himself as a serious patron of beer joints and pool halls, a connoisseur of all-night diners and cheap cigarettes, and tour guide to the underbelly of America’s disillusions and their myriad, interconnecting interstates. From the straight-up blues of “New Coat of Paint,” to the palpable sense of longing in the title track, to the beatnik jazz-rap of “Diamonds On My Windshield,” The Heart of Saturday Night lays the foundation for the next decade of Waits’ recordings.
Herb Cohen believed the next project for Waits should be a live recording, something that would showcase his gifts as a compelling and comedic monologist and his rapport with the crowd. Waits was reluctant, but Howe suggested it be recorded in a controlled environment with a small audience made up of friends. They would serve beer and snacks and even get a burlesque dancer as a warm-up act. Waits was sold and the “live in the studio” album, Nighthawks at the Diner (1975 Elektra/Asylum), was born.
Nighthawks is an ideal point of entry to Waits’ early career. It is a captivating performance (actually four performances, edited to get the best material) that shows a side of the artist his previous records cannot. He is truly in his element and reveals himself as a superlative performer who has studied the idioms of Vaudeville, stand-up comedy, hepcat jazz, and down-and-out blues and distilled them into a singularity. With intros nearly as long as the songs themselves, Waits and the band burn through nine tunes and paint a picture of a man who is exceptionally talented for the drunken diner derelict he portrays himself to be.
In early 1976, Waits and the band hit the road to promote their new album. The tour included a disastrous stint at Ronnie Scott’s in London, where he was heckled and sparred with the audience. He was thrown out on the fourth night. But during his two weeks in London, he wrote the material for his next record, Small Change (1976 Elektra/Asylum). A critical and commercial success, the record climbed to #89 on the Billboard Top 200. It was his most ambitious album yet, with a lush string section on “Tom Traubert’s Blues,” an ode to strippers (“Pasties and a G-String,”) a goofy beatnik masterpiece (“Step Right Up,”) and the song that would sketch the caricature the man would become in most people’s eyes, “The Piano Has Been Drinking.” His iconic appearance on Norman Lear’s Fernwood 2 Night performing that song and his famous quip, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy” burned the image of Waits as the drunken drifting jazz bohemian into the American psyche. But Small Change is perhaps most notable for being the album where he found his voice—that voice. Whether it is or was an affectation or just the result of non-stop touring, smoking and drinking is up for debate. Whatever the cause, it was the voice he would later, literally trademark.
Waits’ fifth album, Foreign Affairs (1977 Elektra/Asylum) was a bit of a disappointment coming on the heels of Small Change. Notable for the duet with Bette Midler (“I Never Talk to Strangers”) and featuring then-girlfriend Rickie Lee Jones on the cover, the album is more blues-oriented and less fun than any of Waits’ previous records. It’s also the first time he’s directly referenced his love of the Beat poets (“Jack & Neal.”)
In 1978, at the invitation of Sylvester Stallone, Waits recorded a few songs for the film Paradise Alley. The film also marks Waits’ foray into acting, playing a barroom pianist named Mumbles. Acting seemed to come naturally to him and would become a parallel career that continues to this day.
He also began work on his next album, Blue Valentine (1978 Elektra/Asylum), which would prove a radical departure from Foreign Affairs and begin his shift away from beatnik lounge lizard into something darker and less easy to define. It begins with a strikingly beautiful cover of “Somewhere” from West Side Story. It’s a version that would make Barbara Streisand weep, but they wouldn’t be tears of joy. It’s Waits at his most guttural, yet it’s somehow tender and moving. It’s followed by his most experimental recording up to that point, “Red Shoes by the Drugstore,” a minimal, whispered tale about a girl waiting for her guy to show up for a date, but he’s been busted robbing a jewelry store. Gone are the first-person narratives about the late-night exploits of the booze-and-smoke-fueled gutter bard. Many of the characters on Blue Valentine are obviously not Waits, but he gets into their skin, becomes them, and sings them to life. He even takes the first person view of a prostitute writing a postcard to her ex on “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis.” He seems freed by this new vantage point. No longer bound to his own mortal coil, he’s free to try on the clothes of the others he’s encountered in his travels. The album is full of spectacular tales and the writing is Waits’ best so far, especially the heartbreaking “Kentucky Avenue,” a semi-autobiographical song about his childhood friend with polio and their ingenious, bittersweetly innocent plot to escape the world around them.
The ‘70s seem to come crashing to an end for Waits. The ‘80s await, and from the outset, it’s clear that he is not a man made for the Reagan era. He spends the last year of the decade helping Rickie Lee Jones with her debut album and touring Europe with her.
After having a bit of a falling-out with Jones, Waits moved to New York City in early 1980. He tried to quit drinking but had no luck. He felt ready to move on musically and began searching for a new producer, but had no luck finding one. But the trip wasn’t entirely futile—he was approached by Francis Ford Coppola to record the soundtrack for his upcoming film.
Waits moved back to L.A. and set up shop in Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios. It took him a year and a half to score the film, during which time he recorded and released his seventh album, Heartattack and Vine (1980 Elektra/Asylum). The strangeness bubbling under the surface of Blue Valentine is evident throughout the album, especially on the sputtering, swaggering title track. Later in the year, Bruce Springsteen added “Jersey Girl” to his live set, significantly boosting Waits’ profile.
In August of 1980, he married Kathleen Brennan. This was indeed a turning point in his life as she may have indeed saved Waits from himself. From here on, she would become his closest ally and partner on every venture and receive credit as co-writer and co-producer on nearly every subsequent release.
Coppola released One From the Heart in 1982 and it was such a flop that he was forced to file bankruptcy. But the soundtrack earned Waits an Oscar nomination which he lost to Henry Mancini. He would go on to appear in many more Coppola films, including The Outsiders and Rumble Fish and The Cotton Club.
Between his newfound partnership with his wife and the discipline imposed upon him during his time at Zoetrope, Waits felt it was time to leave his longtime producer and pilot the tugboat himself. When he presented his next record to Elektra, they rejected it outright, saying it lacked commercial potential. He was picked up by Island Records and Swordfishtrombones was released in 1983.
Though there were indications on the last two records that Waits was searching for a new direction, little could prepare the average fan for this bold statement. Swordfishtrombones was the place where Waits’ vision coalesced from an assemblage of influences into something wholly original—a phantasmagorical vision that would carry him to the present. His instrumental palette completely changed. The standard jazz and blues lineup is replaced with marimbas, chamberlains, and junkyard percussion. From the opening pointillistic clamor of “Underground,” it’s immediately clear that this is a different kind of Tom Waits record. Having honed his gift for storytelling for more than a decade, for the first time, Waits sets his characters free and they roam like cagey beasts through the oddball soundscapes. “16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought-Six” is the clarion call, should any doubters remain listening five songs in, signifying a new era with it’s clanging percussion and syncopated, driving rhythm.
Rain Dogs (1985 Island) followed, and those looking for a return to form were disappointed. If anything, Waits cranked up the weird by working in influences like polkas, rumbas, Captain Beefheart, New Orleans brass bands, and German composer Kurt Weill as well as employing Marc Ribot to lay down some seriously sinister guitar lines. Though it is widely considered his best record, it never achieved any mainstream recognition. Even after Rod Stewart scored a hit with Waits’ “Downtown Train” four years later, few would research the song’s author.
The influence of Weill came to the forefront for his next work, a play called Franks Wild Years. Staged by the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago and directed by Gary Sinise, the play featured Waits on stage as Frank and songs from the production would became his 10th album. He and the band jumped between genres as agilely as Gene Kelly danced in the rain. Moving from rockers like “Hang On St. Christopher” to achingly beautiful ballads (“Time,”) to corny, Vegas-inspired lounge-jazz (“Straight to the Top,”) Franks Wild Years (1987 Island) was a tour de force that encompassed Waits’ chameleon-like shape-shifting in a tidy package.
The time on stage likely inspired the next project, a feature-length concert film called Big Time (1988 Island). Waits devoted a lot of time to acting in the next few years and scored the soundtrack to the Jim Jarmusch film, Night on Earth (1992 Island). Five years had passed between actual albums, a span of time that fans would have to get used to.
Sometime in 1988, Waits was approached by Frito Lay to write a jingle for their chips that sounded like “Step Right Up.” He said no, and the snack giant found an impersonator to record the commercial. Waits sued, arguing that his voice was unique and fans might believe he was endorsing their chips. He won and was awarded a $2.3 million settlement.
For Bone Machine (1992 Island) Waits dredged up new characters from the murky depths of his psyche. His Bukowski-like characters of 15 years ago seem quaint in comparison as he exorcised demons with warped gospel tunes (“Jesus Gonna Be Here,”) related the rumors of a surreal angel (“Black Wings,”) and bragged the brags of a manly-man headed to Hollywood to be in the pictures (“Going Out West.”) It is an eerily confident record for something that sounds so primal. Unlike other artists at the time who were exploring newfangled studio gadgetry, Waits seemed to go back to the Stone Age, pummeling scrap metal for drums and using lo-fi sounds that would become hip in the coming years.
The following year, he collaborated with William S. Burroughs and Robert Wilson to write the music for their play, The Black Rider (1993 Island). The album proved to be his last for Island. Perhaps he sensed the directions he wanted to go were out of the purview of a major label. Whatever the reason, it would be six years before there was a new album. In the meantime, he busied himself with acting and guest appearances on other people’s records.
Mule Variations (1999 Anti-) was Waits’ independent label debut, but one would never know from listening. It was a direct descendent of the mercurial experiments he began nearly ten years before, but starker, darker and stranger. Despite this, the album received two Grammy nominations and won the award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Maybe the world was finally ready to embrace Waits’ eccentricities.
Anti- (a subsidiary of the punk label, Epitaph) released Alice and Blood Money two soundtracks from plays by Robert Wilson in 2002. Though the material was nearly ten years old, fans appreciated the tide-me-over offerings between real albums.
Real Gone (2004 Anti-) stripped off all the layers of paint and influences Waits has accumulated over the years to reveal a bare-bones, unpolished sound. The piano has gone. There are cracks and maybe even some termite damage. But Waits has always embraced the beauty of decay and there are some gems buried in the debris, notably the 10-minute potboiler “Sins of My Father.” Waits gets overtly political for the first time with “Day After Tomorrow,” and sums up the noise he creates with “Clang Boom Steam.”
In 2006, Waits gave a remarkable gift to his fans by way of the 3-CD set, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards (2006 Anti-), a stupifyingly rich treasure trove of rarities, unreleased material, and a ton of new material for good measure. The set is divided into 3 parts, with each CD representing the different styles into which Waits’ songs could be most easily pigeon-holed—Brawlers contains the rockers, Bawlers serves up the ballads, and Bastards has everything in between, from bizarre sound experiments to spoken word pieces. While it’s probably not the best place to start for someone new to Waits, it is essential for the fan.
Where Tom Waits goes from here is anyone’s guess. Stylistically, nothing is out of the question. But while most rock stars get more mellow and predictable with age, it’s clear that is not the path Waits has chosen. He will most likely continue down his own path, not blazing it, but hacking it down, bit by bit, with a rusty old machete that he found near the hobo jungle, down by the tracks in the town with no cheer.