It ain’t easy thinking up something creative to say about a man who’s already claimed to have been born in the back of a taxi cab (lots of people fake their own deaths, but who fakes their birth?), to have the menu for Napoleone’s Pizza Parlor tattooed on his chest (“is that your nipple or the “o” in the word “anchovies?”), and to raise emus in his spare time as a tax write-off (Damnit, why didn’t I think of that!)
When in doubt, why not fall back on Sophocles? A good way to understand Waits’ long, strange career is by comparing it to the sphinx’s riddle in Oedipus the King. In the morning, it walked on four legs; at noon, on two legs; and in the evening, on three legs.
Tom Waits began his career as a boozy, bar-room crooner. Thus the four legs in the sphinx’s riddle belong to a piano; for example, the one that has supposedly been drinking in the song The Piano Has Been Drinking [Not Me] from the album “Small Change.”
Here’s a great story from the “Boozy Tom” era: during his first tour of England, Tom befriended a then-unknown Joe Strummer and promised to let him into his next concert for free. The only problem was that Tom, of coarse, was drunk at the time. When Joe shows up at the stagedoor the following evening, Tom has no idea who he is. What makes this story great is that, when summoned to the stagedoor, Tom is wearing nothing but a bathrobe. After a moment of vacant staring, he extracts a full pint of Guinness from one of his pockets, takes a long drink, and growls, “Sure, kid. C’mon in.”
Who hides pints of beer in their bathrobe? And why hasn’t this incident been immortalized in a song titled My Bathrobe Has Been Drinking [Not Me]?
Here’s my Big Three of early Tom Waits songs:
Lebron: Grapefruit Moon from “Closing Time.” This was the song that started it all. Supposedly, record company bigwig, Herb Cohen, was waiting in line for the john at The Troubadour when he first heard Waits perform this song. He liked the song so much that he decided to offer the singer a songwriting contract. I find it strangely fitting that Waits’ career technically began in the john.
D Wade: Eggs and Sausage from “Nighthawks at the Diner.” On the whole, Waits’ live albums are excellent; although, seldom are they actually recorded live. (What? You mean this album wasn’t really recorded at Raphael’s Silver Cloud Lounge?) From the album’s opening line – “Well, an inebriated ‘Good Evening’ to you all” – you know you’re in for a good time. On the album, Waits bounces between songs and lengthy spoken word introductions that include one-liners about cups of coffee that get the shit kicked out of them because they’re “just not strong enough to defend themselves,” asking yourself out on a date to someplace classy “like the Burrito King,” and being so “goddamn horny that the crack of dawn better be careful around me!”
Otherguy: Heartattack and Vine from the album of the same name. This track contains the classic Waitsian lyric: “There ain’t no devil, there’s just God when he’s drunk.” This album is the final hurrah for Boozy Tom. After recording it, Waits’ career enters a new phrase: no more booze, no more bathrobes. The major impetus for this career change was meeting Kathleen Brennan, who was destined to become Waits’ wife and collaborator. Brennan was a HUGE fan of acts like Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa. In a humorous coincidence, early in his career, Waits opened for Zappa, who was in the habit of referring to him as a “human rectal thermometer.” Before Waits went on stage, Frank would shout, “Go out there, Tom, and take the crowd’s temperature, will ‘ya?”
Mike Miller: Saving All My Love for You from “Heartattack and Vine.” Some wives hate their husband’s old girlfriends; others hate their husband’s old songs. According to Tom, every time Kathleen hears this song, she exclaims: “What is this bullshit?”