Tom Waits: Our Beat Storyteller, Part Two

Tom Waits: Our Beat Storyteller, Part Two

Written by WL Woodward

In the late 1960s Tom Waits decided he wanted a career in music because he couldn’t think of anything else he could be good at. I believe that to be a common story for musicians, maybe even lawyers. He was living in San Diego but the clubs were dead ends. He knew the scene was in Los Angeles, so he began taking the bus up to hooting sessions at the Troubadour.

We’ve probably all been to hoot nights. As soon as you learn more than two songs, you hang out at open mike nights to get your big break. That practically never happens, but what does happen is that you discover the nuances, frights and sweats of playing for an audience who couldn’t care less. You have to capture them.

Hoot night at the Troubadour meant taking a bus every Monday from San Diego to LA, getting off downtown and taking the local to West Hollywood. You arrived at 10 am to wait in line all day with a sax player tripping on acid, a mariachi band, and 13 girls with imitation Martin guitars waiting to become the next Joni Mitchell.

If you were lucky and early enough you’d get in to do maybe four songs. The Troubadour was already a club known to be a hotbed for talent, so the experience must have been nerve-wracking. But fortunately for Tom, the clientele, especially on Monday nights, fitted Waits’ persona. These were the old folkie/leftover Beats that would become a strong core of Waits’ retinue.

The Troubadour, still in operation today. The Troubadour, still in operation today.

Herb Cohen caught his act one night and signed him. Cohen was a personal manager and record producer who at different times managed Linda Ronstadt, Frank Zappa, Tim Buckley, and the Turtles. Funny. In my previous draft, Word’s spell correct changed “managed” to “mangled.” OK, maybe.

One of Cohen’s attempts was to send Waits on a Zappa tour. Apparently the audience reaction was…unkind. Waits would express that the best part of the tour was that he never starved because the audience kept throwing produce at him.

In 1972 Waits was back at the Troubadour. David Geffen came in and intended to stay for one song, loved it, and stayed for the set. Afterwards, Geffen approached Waits and offered him a record contract. Tom replied that he’d have to have his manager (Cohen) call him. Geffen knew Cohen and knew he had a record company, so he forgot the encounter.

To Geffen’s surprise, Cohen did call and offered Geffen a deal for Waits. The result was Waits’ first album, Closing Time on Asylum Records.

Jerry Yester from the Lovin’ Spoonful had heard a verson of Waits’ “Grapefruit Moon” and was floored by it. When an opportunity to produce Closing Time arose he snatched it.

The tracks featured a cleaner Waits voice than what would become gruff later.  We featured a link to “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You” in Part One of this story (Issue 139) Let’s do the song that impressed Cohen and Yester. The first got Waits signed to a record contract and the second resulted in his first album.


The title track was thrown together on a Sunday afternoon with guys they could find. Yester later related it was “one of those magical sessions that happens once in a great while” where no one wants to go home. They listened to it for three hours afterwards.

For all of you who only know Tom Waits for his bawdy barroom hooker tunes, here is 23-year-old Waits on his first album doing an instrumental with Jesse Ehrlich on cello, Árni Egilsson on bass and Tony Terran on trumpet, recording “Closing Time” live to tape.


Waits’ next, The Heart of Saturday Night (1974) evokes Sinatra’s work, and the picture on the front is an homage to In the Wee Small Hours. The critics panned the album but it went gold in the UK. Figures. The title track was purported to be an homage to one of Waits’ heroes, Jack Kerouac.

The album marks the debut of Bones Howe as producer, a collaboration that would continue as long as Waits recorded for Asylum.

Check out this lyric on “San Diego Serenade.”


This is “Diamonds On My Windshield.”


Second album and writing like dat. Ain’t right.

Touring for the album didn’t make life easier. Waits actually was billed at one point with Buffalo Bob and Howdy Doody, at which point Waits considered running over his agent with a tractor.

On the next turn around the sun Waits released Nighthawks at the Diner (1975). Waits and Howe wanted to record a live gig, but the logistics were hard since Waits usually did clubs solo. They rented the back room of the Record Plant, which had a large seating area and a glass booth for the recording equipment. The entire event was set up, with invited guests and assorted alcoholic encouragements. Four shows were planned for the last two days of July 1975, and were completely sold out.

Waits did a lot of set up banter for the songs, much of which was included in the final tracks. The recorded evidence shows Waits had really developed his stage persona, with a joking, rambling, Beat rhetoric that was reminiscent of a Charles Bukowski poem or a Lenny Bruce routine.


You have to love the band vamping during the monologues. Cool as an iceman’s handshake.

This one is Waits alone vamping while he tells a story about taking himself out on a date.


Nighthawks had moderate success, topping at No.164 on the Billboard Top 200. However, Waits was not enjoying touring and first started trying to get into films at this point. He lost out to David Carradine for a film about Woody Guthrie, but later did have critical acclaim in Sylvester Stallone’s Paradise Alley.

Waits was booked for a series of dates in Europe which revitalized him. The European press loved his style, his stories and his seemingly endless string of one-liners. At the same time, Waits was enthralled with telling these stories to a rapt audience of journalists. Everyone was having a ball.

After that tour, Tom had worked up material for a new album and a new direction in some ways. Small Change (1976) hit a little harder at the underbelly of life on skid row. The album starts out with “Tom Traubert’s Blues,” which he still uses to close shows. In it Waits tells of being stranded and penniless in a foreign country.

Howe tells of getting a phone call from Waits in the middle of the night to tell him of this new song Waits had written. Bones recalls:

“He said the most wonderful thing about writing that song. He called me up and said, ‘I went down to skid row, and I bought a pint of rye in a brown paper bag. Yeah, hunkered down, drank the pint of rye, went home, threw up and wrote ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues.’” Then he said, ‘You know, every guy down there, everyone I spoke to, a woman put him there.’”

A lyric note here: “Matilda” is Australian slang for “backpack,” and “Waltzing Matilda” means being on the road. I’ll bet you didn’t know dat sh*t.


The album is full of masterpieces, and is a favorite of many including my son Dean. But life on the road was hitting Waits hard as he was drinking more and more and eating badly. He himself looked back and said he was sick all the time. He had a line about the road, “There’s a lifestyle that’s there before you arrive, and you get introduced to it. It’s unavoidable.”


Small Change, with a jazz ensemble that included Shelley Manne on drums, was more successful, topping at  number 89 on Billboard, but it dropped off the charts completely two weeks later.

The success of the album helped him fund a real touring band, the Nocturnal Emissions, which he took on the road to the US, Germany, Holland and Japan.

Foreign Affairs, released in 1977, was imagined to be a film noir direction with more stories of life on the dark side, including an ode to Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac blasting and boozing around the country, and a spoken piece about a blind alcoholic snitch in a piece called “Potter’s Field.”


Raymond Chandler is lurking in the background somewhere.

The album had a tough time on the market, but in the meantime, Waits had met and recorded with Bette Midler. The Divine Miss M did a duet with Tom, and she used the song again on a release of her own. This song, “I Never Talk to Strangers,” has been described as a sequel to “Hope I Don’t Fall in Love With You” from Closing Time.


By 1978 Waits had started hanging out with his sometimes friend/sometimes girlfriend Rickie Lee Jones, and she enjoyed when he did show tunes. He used “Somewhere” from West Side Story to open his sixth album, Blue Valentine. Meanwhile, Waits continued and accelerated the hard-edge detective themes here.


‘Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard.” An old concept resurrected.


“I never told the truth so I could never tell a lie.” Yeah.

Halfway through Blue Valentine he disbanded the Nocturnal Emissions and re-formed around some more-standard musicians like George Duke, which set up Heartattack and Vine (1980). Waits had met his future bride, Kathleen Brennan, who helped clean him up and got him motivated. He’d moved out of the Tropicana hotel, a notorious musicians’ dive hangout where he’d been living previously, and into the RCA Records studio, where he pushed himself to perfect the album, sometimes writing a song every night so that the band would have something to work on in the morning.

The result is my favorite of his. A great deal of that love comes from this being the first Waits album I bought, but in researching all his albums for this series I’m throwing down the gauntlet. My peerless readers, the power of these songs outlines an artist that has brought brilliance to the back door.

Waits says the name of the title track came when he was sitting in a bar on Hollywood and Vine. I think I know this bar. A woman walked in with old clothes and a cane. Waits could tell she was flushed. She walked up to the bartender and told him she thought she was having a heart attack. He told her to take her troubles outside. And a song title was born.


The production value of this entire album is gorgeous and, in my view, a real departure from his earlier works. There’s a bit more polish, with tasty backing musicians used without disturbing the disturbing nature of Waits.

“On the Nickel” is a song about street boys running from home. I included a live version as an example of Waits’ continuing ability to show power in a solo performance. His soul crawls into yours and pries open hatch doors you didn’t know were there.


Another album of masterpieces. Even among the craziness of songs like “Downtown” and “Mr. Siegel,” you still get the heartbreak of “Ruby’s Arms, which I believe to be his best love song and one of my favorite love songs by anybody.


“And if you don’t get my letter, then you know that I’m in jail.” Shiver me timbers.

This last will have my son rolling his eyes because I play this every chance I get. One of my favorite Waits lyrics, it’s especially relevant here because he wrote it for Kathleen, who was from Jersey. We’ll be talking a lot about them and their future in the next installment.


I’ll leave you with a piece of advice. Never recognize yourself on Hollywood and Vine.

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