Tom Waits is one of music’s best-kept secrets. You may not know his name, but you’ll know his songs – Rod Stewart’scover of ‘Downtown Train’ or Springsteen’s ‘Jersey Girl’ for instance. You may recall a distinctive looking actor in supporting roles in some of Coppola’s films perhaps. What you may not know is his voice; despite the fact that it is so much his trademark, he sued and won when someone impersonated him in a TV advert soundtrack.
To describe his voice as a bourbon-soaked, gravelly barroom growl would be to do him a disservice as it’s far more than that. It’s another musical instrument, but one latterly from the theatre or circus, not from any conventional orchestra.
He’s also been around for a while … first making albums in the early seventies. Songs on his early albums such as Small Change are populated with hoodlums and drunks, pimps and whores, people down on their luck. The arrangements are piano-based with some lush strings, bar-room blues contrast with jazzy basslines.
Then he moved from Asylum to Island records and changed direction with a ground-breaking trilogy of albums starting with Swordfishtrombones in 1983. On this album, his music becomes at the same time – more theatrical and also more guitar and percussion based. In his band, Marc Ribot is no ordinary guitarist having a more avant-garde style, and the percussion includes a wide array of things to hit apart from drums and cymbals – marimbas in particular. Waits himself uses a harmonium, organ or accordion instead of the piano too to create this new distinctive orchestration. His albums from 92′s Bone Machine take the Kurt Weill influence to extremes, being less accessible and more avant-garde in a fairground sort of style (although always interesting) before a return to his 80s style in 1999′s Mule Variations.
…and my favourite Waits album? It’s Rain Dogs – the sequel to Swordfishtrombones, released in 1985. There is not a single dud track from the first ‘Singapore’ and the anticipation of a journey just beginning, right to the end and the world-weary ‘Anywhere I lay my head’. As usual we meet a motley groups of Waitsian characters from Uncle Vernon in the percussive ‘Cemetery Polka’ to Brooklyn girls in the sublime aforementioned ‘Downtown Train’. We meet the guys ‘Walking Spanish’ – prisoners walking down death row and see the seedy side of life on ’9th & Hennepin’. My personal favourites are ‘Jockey full of bourbon’ and the title track, both of which are about booze and carousing, and although they’re not lullabies are strangely soothing musically. Several tracks are boosted by the appearance of Keith Richards too. This character fuelled album is upbeat and uplifting and totally addictive. Listen to this if you don’t believe me …
He did some concerts in the UK earlier this year – the first for ages. But he only gave 2 performances and both were in Scotland – lucky them. Tickets were over £100, but I read the reviews in the music press and it looked like they were worth every penny.
If you want to explore Tom Waits, Small Change, Rain Dogs and Mule Variations mark melodic and accessible places to start from his early, mid and later career respectively – I love all of them.