With the recent release of his first proper full length release since 2004, Bad as Me, I got to thinking about my somewhat tortured relationship with the enigmatic troubadour.
Appreciating Tom Waits is like drinking a six pack of beer for the first time. Your first taste is kind of bitter where over indulging can cause a violent reaction the likes of which you probably have not experienced since that god awful last episode of “Cheers”.
The chances of this first experience being a negative one increase exponentially especially if you’re Tom Waits de-flowering happened to be in the not so gentle arms of his Glitter and Gloom Live album that was recorded during his 2008 American and European tour where his unique blend of music and performance art was on full display.
Soon, after a couple more glasses of the used to be mysterious nectar, you realize you can’t understand a word he is saying, or singing, he is chanting some phrase in some language you can’t seem to understand that sounds like it is straight out of a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins Halloween song. Horns are honking, glass seems to be breaking everywhere, and you are left wondering if you are buzzed yet and you are only 4 songs into the album. The good news is that the beer doesn’t taste bitter anymore.
Obviously, if you are a sane person, it is time for you to take a hard stop and assess the situation, whereby you take the needle off the record and take personal inventory. The 4 beers that are left are crying out in despair and loneliness where they seem to be calling for a whiskey chaser to keep them company. Ever the peacemaker, you oblige by securing a bottle of Jameson’s finest and set the bottle next to his comrades and make the proper introductions.
Bolstered now with a renewed energy, along with some liquid encouragement, you are ready to forge ahead. After all, where would mankind be today if, when that certain Cavemen saw an egg plop out of the business end of a chicken, he had decided to run for the hills and go back to the safety of Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond and light beer instead of picking up that somewhat funky smelling object that had been so ceremoniously presented to him, and go exploring to see what wonderfully sweet goodness might be trapped inside. And you were sure, positive in fact, that inside that slept in suit, at the end of the glowing end of that cigarette and underneath that somewhat cock-eyed sitting pork pie hat, there was a certain genius inside, hidden within the mayhem.
And you found it in Tom Waits’ epic, career launching release “Closing Time”
But I digress.
As most aspiring artists did in their late teens and early twenties back in those days, Tom Waits spent a lot of time hanging out in the Bars, Pool Halls, Saloons, and Diners in the Mission Beach neighborhood in San Diego, California. Working as a bouncer in one of these joints, he would usually end up outside on the sidewalk talking to the regulars, listening to their stories and observing, always observing, all of the pimps, hustlers, nuns, and bums that he would encounter along the way and whom would come to inhabit the surrealistic “bar scene in star wars” like atmospheric village that would develop into the enigmatic persona of Tom Waits.
Using his lyrical observations along with open mike nights and after hours sessions, borrowing whatever upright piano he could find at 3:00 a.m., he began to write what would become “Closing Time” a muted in a good way, sometimes sparse affair that was produced by Jerry Yester formerly of the Lovin’ Spoonful with help from his first manager, David Geffen, who heard him during an open mike set at Doug Weston’s Troubadour in Los Angeles. Geffen singed him as the antidote mostly to the fair haired golden boys and girls on his Arista record label that included Jackson Browne, Judy Sill, Linda Ronstadt, The Eagles, and songwriter extraordinaire J.D. Souther.
The album cover itself is brilliant showing Tom at his cocktail worn after-hours best in his familiar half-slouch posture looking wistfully down at the ivories he has just finished tickling or is about to tickle.
The album starts with “Old ’55”, a song that was also around this time making the rounds as a hit for the Eagles. The song is one of the best and most user friendly in the Tom Waits canon and presents to us a Tom Waits in the embryonic stages of developing his full on bar-fly eccentric persona. Go back with any major artist and find the first cut on their first album that is essentially their introduction to the world, I don’t think you will find one any better than this one.
The stunningly beautiful “I Hope I Don’t Fall in Love with You” showcases his uncanny ability to mix a heart wrenching ballad with brilliant storytelling. This type of song craft would become his hallmark for the rest of his career.
Old Shoes (And Picture Postcards) could have been written and sung by Bob Dylan and the Band on their “Basement Tapes” album, it is that good. It was during this time period that Tom was known to walk around town with a harmonica around his neck, not to play it, he couldn’t play the darn thing, but to feel more like Bob Dylan.
The song “Martha” tells the story of person that appears to be down on his luck calling a former lover, Martha, after not speaking to her for 40 years, and asking to meet her for coffee. The song a poignant reminder of how fast time goes by is a stunning work of “Waitsian-Style” art.
With Tom Waits it is all about the lyrics, and the mood he creates. This intensely atmospheric writing style is on full display where the mood, tenor, and setting are quickly absorbed by the listener with the first few lines of the song “Rosie”, Tom Waits at his evocative best.
“Well I’m sitting on the window sill blowin’ my horn, nobody’s up except the moon and me and a lazy old tomcat on a midnight spree, all that you left me was a melody, Rosie why do you evade, Rosie how can I persuade?”
The song “Little Trip to Heaven ( On The Wings of Your Love)” with the muted trumpet and whispering piano chords is as achingly beautiful as the title implies and the closing one-two punch of “Grapefruit Moon” followed up with closing instrumental delicacy of “Closing Time” puts a nice glossy finish on a magnificent piece of art.
There is not a single mediocre or misplaced, song, sentence, or note on this stunning first album by this brilliant artist.
I think maybe, just maybe, this guy might just have a bright future ahead of him.
– Bernie Sparrow San Francisco, California USA
(Editor’s Note: Cheers was dead to me when Sam sold the bar and Kristie Alley took over running it!)
All songs written by Tom Waits.
- “Ol’ ’55″ – 3:58
- “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love with You” – 3:54
- “Virginia Avenue” – 3:10
- “Old Shoes (& Picture Postcards)” – 3:40
- “Midnight Lullaby” – 3:26
- “Martha” – 4:30
- “Rosie” – 4:03
- “Lonely” – 3:12
- “Ice Cream Man” – 3:05
- “Little Trip to Heaven (On the Wings of Your Love)” – 3:38
- “Grapefruit Moon” – 4:50
- “Closing Time” (instrumental) – 4:20
- Tom Waits – vocals, piano, celeste, guitar
- Shep Cooke – guitar, vocals (on “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love with You” and “Old Shoes”)
- Peter Klimes – guitar
- Bill Plummer – bass
- Delbert Bennett – trumpet
- John Seiter – drums, backing vocals
- Jesse Ehrlich – cello
- Tony Terran – trumpet (on “Closing Time”)
- Arni Egilsson – bass (on “Closing Time”)