Tom Waits follows the gravelly-voiced musical path of blues and jazz vocal greats like Howlin’ Wolf and Louis Armstrong. Defying musical category, Tom also tips his well-worn hat to rock, experimental and folk styles.
He’s a fan’s dream of outtakes, live versions and B-sides, never recording a song the same way twice.
The song that tells you Tom Waits’ style the best could be “Little Drop of Poison.”
It was on his 1975 release Nighthawks at the Diner that he invented his “God of the Drunk” persona to entertain the onsite audience.
Since then his gritty delivery and tall tales have given him a unique place in the universe.
During the live recording of Nighthawks Tom plays piano like a lounge performer, sings and spouts poetry over saxophone riffs reminiscent of Jack Kerouac and tells dirty jokes. It’s still one of his best albums. Here’s Tom performing “Emotional Weather Report” two years later.
I highly recommend a listen to Nighthawks at the Diner all the way through. Especially if you are lonely, drunk or love poetry.
Tom Waits was raised in San Diego, California. His story goes that his mother gave birth to him in a moving taxi cab.
Fascinated with crooner Bing Crosby and the compositions of George Gershwin and Stephen Foster, Tom also loved poetry. Jack Kerouac was his hero. Tom took notes too from the darker, more booze-soaked Charles Bukowski.
Tom Waits was living in his car, a teenager with a job as a doorman at L.A. club the Heritage when he decided to write songs. He started taking down overheard bits of conversation – writing them on napkins, matchbooks and notebooks.
In 1969 Tom Waits started his solo act at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles. His first record Closing Time was put out in 1973 on Asylum. These songs and a few other takes were immortalized without the gritty voice.
His second full-length The Heart of Saturday Night is my favorite Tom Waits record.
Based in jazz and blues – it’s a great recommendation for music lovers who don’t know Tom yet.
Poetry, romance and nightclub swagger meet on the opening song “New Coat of Paint.”
Nighthawks at the Diner was next in 1975. Tom Waits took a risk using the live audience, performing extended mixes of jazzy bluesy poems about love and desolation.
Small Change, his 1976 release gave us an idea of what most Tom Waits albums would sound like from that point on. Tight, smart compositions with wandering vocals and morals.
Don’t miss the clever “Step Right Up.”
A few years later Tom Waits would win a lawsuit when an the chip company Frito Lay used the style in this song for a commercial. Waits had to take it to the Supreme Court, but eventually won 2.5 million.
A satisfying prize for a man who always refused a good sell out.
After this Tom Waits was courted by filmmakers as a soundtrack artist. He worked with Sylvester Stallone on Paradise Alley, Jim Jarmusch’s Night On Earth and the 1980 documentary Streetwise.
Famous director Francis Ford Coppola especially loved the troubadour, asking him to compose for Night on Earth. Waits also was asked to play parts in his films: Rumblefish, The Cotton Club, Dracula and The Outsiders. Tom Waits has appeared in many movies since including: Down by Law, Ironweed and Short Cuts.
Heartattack and Vine, the next release in 1980 had a similar vibe to Small Change. It was on the 1983 record Swordfishtrombones that Waits started to push the envelope.
He had met his future wife, writer Kathleen Brennan, when he made the movie One from the Heart. Kathleen suggested that Tom make the record sound much different than his earlier work.
Using new instruments (some made from junkyard parts) and weird effects that test the listener’s loyalty, Swordfishtrombones also has some of Tom Waits’ best melodic songs – “16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought-Six”, “Johnsburg, Illinois”, “Frank’s Wild Years” and “Shore Leave.”
If there was any doubt about Tom Waits as a brilliant songwriter, this record erased it.
That same year Tom Waits dropped Rain Dogs. Such great songs! “Jockey Full of Bourbon”, “Clap Hands” and “Walking Spanish” are all worth a spin. “Jockey…” was featured in the movie Down by Law.
Tom Waits wrote a musical play with love interest Kathleen Brennan and the resulting songs were collected for the record Franks Wild Years. Big Time was next, a set of tracks from a concert film Waits did on his own.
Bone Machine in 1992 showed Waits at his most experimental. It won him a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album. In my opinion this is his most disconnected work. This and The Black Rider, his next experimental release are so abrasive and edgy they left many of Tom’s melody-loving fans behind.
Mule Variations in 1999 found Tom Waits coming back to his more organic style. There was a touch of the edge in there. Balanced this time most successfully in the song “Big In Japan.”
The record reached #30 on the U.S. charts, won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
In 2002 Tom Waits and the label Anti released two records at the same time. Alice and Blood Money were full of ballads and meandering poetry. Real Gone followed two years later. His first album without a piano. The best song of the bunch is “Green Grass.”
Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards dropped in 2006. A wayward 3-disc set of outtakes, B-sides and previously unreleased material.
Glitter and Doom in 2009 was a live rendering of his Gloom and Doom Tour the year before. The in-person versions of his great songs like “Singapore” turned out the best. Much of it was hard-to-hear and works probably best for fans who already know Tom Waits’ work.
This same year Barney Hoskyns’ biography of Tom Waits was released. Lowside of The Road: A Life of Tom Waits.
In 2011 Bad as Me dropped. With it was the best song we’d heard from Tom in years – “Satisfied.” Love how he name-drops the Rolling Stones.
There are too many great Tom Waits songs to list every one, but I’ll leave you with my favorite. “Frank’s Wild Years.”
To get the latest news on Tom Waits or to pre-order his forthcoming photo book with Anton Corbijn visit tomwaits.com.
Tune in to DJ Michele Myers Friday nights at 9pm on KEXP 90.3FM Seattle, kexp.org. Music historian and producer, Michele’s made over 200 radio stories for KEXP Documentaries. She’s also written scripts, lesson plans and features forThe Smithsonian, Experience Music Project, the University of Washington and NPR.