Tom Waits 101: A Guide to His Music
Recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Tom Waits turns 62 today (Dec. 7). While we have no idea how Tom will spend the big day -- the notoriously publicity-shy singer is the last person in the world we'd expect to share his plans -- we thought it would be a good time to go over some of the highlights of his career. We'll examine what makes him so beloved by his devoted fans, and which records to seek out (and avoid) if you want to increase your level of Waits knowledge, regardless of where you stand right now. So without further pomp and circumstance, here's our introductory guide to the music of Tom Waits:
The first thing that stands out about Tom Waits is undoubtedly his voice -- which, as he recently put it, is often described as the sound of someone who “growls about booze and gargles with nails and screws.” Beyond that, of course, it's his music that people know, although probably not his own versions of it. Waits' most famous songs likely are best known for how others sing them: the Eagles' take on 'Ol' '55,' 'Downtown Train' belted out by Rod Stewart or 'Jersey Girl' (from 'Heart Attack and Vine') as performed by Bruce Springsteen. He steadily releases critically acclaimed, fan beloved albums on his own, and occasionally acts in movies such as the 1986 cult classic 'Down By Law.'
After getting his start with albums like 1973's 'Closing Time,' where he portrayed as a jazzy throwback piano crooner performing the after-hours nightclub circuit, Waits took a sharp left turn on 1983's 'Swordfishtrombone.' That album first displayed his penchant for everything from abstract sonic experimentalism to down-and-dirty blues. His albums since then have been glorious grab bags, as Waits constantly reinvents himself while continuing to stay true to the classic songwriting that first put him on the map.
Often considered by both casual fans and obsessives to be his masterpiece, 1985's 'Rain Dogs,' as Henk Tack of Waits news site The Eyeball Kid says, "shows what Waits is capable of, both lyrically and musically, and whilst it looks beyond the trodden paths, it isn't too 'difficult' (i.e. it won't scare people off -which might be the case with something like 'Franks Wild Year.')"
Ask a dozen Waits fans their favorite album and you'll easily get 13 different answers. That said, 'Swordfishtrombone,' the sound of a career reinvented, is a frequent mention. His first with longtime collaborator (and wife) Kathleen Brennan, the disc introduces a surrealist approach to songwriting, an intentionally lo-fi recording aesthetic and a penchant for peculiar instrumentation, from bagpipes, marimbas and harmonium to horns, banjo and junkyard percussion. Add in Rolling Stone Keith Richards on a handful of tracks and what do you get? An unabashed classic. (For his part, Tack also suggests 2002's 'Alice,' "a little-know treasure filled with raw poetry.")
Newbies looking for an introduction to Tom Waits should look no further than 'Beautiful Maladies,' a compilation that was released in 1998 but collects the gems from his 10-year run on Island Records, from 'Swordfishtrombone' through 1993's 'The Black Rider.' It's not definitive or career-spanning by any means, but with 23 tracks selected by Waits himself, it's hard to go wrong with the cream of the crop from discs like 'Franks Wild Years,' the live 'Big Time' and the Grammy-winning 'Bone Machine.' Another effort worth exploring, as suggested by Tack, is 2006's 'Orphans,' a collection of obscure songs that are pretty hard to find otherwise, put together on three CD's each with some sort of "theme" ('Brawlers,' 'Bawlers' and 'Bastards').
We're not alone in our love of 1992's 'Bone Machine,' which took home a Best Alternative Music Album Grammy Award and features a slew of guest musicians, including Los Lobos' David Hidalgo, Primus' Les Claypool and the triumphant return of Keith Richards. A primal slab of post-apocalyptic rock and dissonant, skeletal blues, 'Bone' is once again perhaps better known for the covers it inspired, including 'I Don't Wanna Grow Up' from punk legends the Ramones and 'Goin' Out West' by stoner-rock outfit Queens of the Stone Age.
If you can't get past Waits' gruff, sandpapered voice, forget it: you're automatically not going to be able to sit through two-thirds of his catalog. Beyond that, naysayers tend to call some of his earlier stuff, like the 'Early Years' collections or even 1978's 'Blue Valentine' sentimentally schmaltzy. On the flipside, his later stuff is sometimes labeled either obnoxiously abrasive or pandering to NPR-approved weirdness.
Speaking of not sitting right, we can't quite get through the entirety of 1993's 'The Black Rider,' Waits' musical accompaniment to the theatrical production of the same name put together by stage director Robert Wilson and co-written by beat hero William S. Burroughs. On paper it's the work of an avant-garde dream team, but in execution, an uneven affair that tends to get bogged down by extravagance and pretension. It's not all bad -- and some of it is downright brilliant -- but overall it's definitely not his strongest work. Tack puts the finger on 2004's 'Real Gone' - "To my ears an experiment gone awry. But some fans think that's his best."
'Bad as Me,' Waits' first studio album of all-new material in seven years, dropped in October to widespread critical acclaim. Touching on many aspects of his career, 'Bad' features an impressive cast of backing musicians and showcases the seasoned tunesmith at the height of his powers, with that infamous voice shining through in full force. No Wave guitar virtuoso Marc Ribot lays down thick licks on the self-titled first single, a frenetic, Delta-fueled stomper full of attitude and trademark Waitsian nonsense.
What's next for Tom Waits? As always, the future is wide open. After a long period of avoiding the lure of the road, the last decade has seen Waits pleasantly surprise fans with a handful of sporadic though all-too-brief tours: a European jaunt following 2004's 'Real Gone,' a Midwestern swing in advance of 2006's three-disc 'Orphans' collection and a 2008 summer jaunt documented on the live 'Glitter and Doom' set. Ask Waits himself what the future holds and he's likely tell you dinner and a movie with Kathleen, but fans definitely have their fingers crossed for another tour.