Skip to main content

Tom Waits

Tom Waits (AP Photo via Marketwired)

Tom Waits (AP Photo via Marketwired)

by

The terrain traveled by Tom Waits is riddled with dreamers and the schemers, fractured beauties, snake oil salesmen, two-bit criminals and that guy who sleeps in his car parked in an alley. His mostly sad and forlorn songs can also be cautiously optimistic and hopeful—even humorous. Regardless of the emotions they evoked, one thing is certain: his songs are always packed with ingenious wit and clever wordplay.

In the years that followed the arrival of Bob Dylan in the early '60s, a steady stream of folk-inspired singer-songwriters dotted the popular music landscape. Some of these artists remained close to the pre-Dylan folk traditions instigated by iconic figures like Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly, while others, inevitably, were instrumental in developing numerous song-driven sub genres. California of the very late '60s and early '70s was a fertile hotbed for developing songwriters and it was also the home turf of Waits, who would become a music genre all by himself.

Waits was born on December 7, 1949 in Pomona, California. He was inspired by Dylan as well as Beat Generation writers like Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac. However, as he honed his craft, Waits would also feed off of a potpourri of far-flung influences: Frank Sinatra-reminiscent saloon songs, the writings of Charles Bukowski, the folk-inspired piano jazz of Mose Allison, word-jazz impresario Ken Nordine, blues powerhouse Howlin’ Wolf, German composer Kurt Weill and even his contemporary, Captain Beefheart.

Waits cut his teeth in the San Diego folk scene before relocating to Los Angeles. He was signed to a publishing contract by Herb Cohen, a record company executive, and eventually invited by David Geffen to join the Asylum Records roster of artists. From the '70s into the early 80s, Waits’s seven albums for Asylum Records cemented his reputation as a gravel-voiced troubadour who told alcohol-soaked stories and narrated songs, with his weary croak, that dealt with the down-and-out and the marginalized.

For six of his seven Asylum albums, Waits worked with producer Bones Howe. (Waits’ debut album, 1973’s Closing Time, was produced by Jerry Yester, formerly of the New Christy Minstrels, the Modern Folk Quartet and the Lovin’ Spoonful.) With each album, Waits gradually moved away from the simple, nightclub-based piano ballads, to sentimental late-night jazz performed with small combos. As the '70s progressed, the bourbon and cigarette smoke increasingly permeated the grooves of his albums, and by his final Asylum album, 1980’s Heartattack And Vine, Waits introduced a grittier, electric vibe.

Once the '80s set in, Waits was ready for a change. Things began falling into place when his contract with Asylum Records ended. Roughly at the same time, he was approached by film director Francis Ford Coppola to write music for an upcoming film, "One From the Heart." Although the eventual 1982 soundtrack, produced by Howe, was similar to what Waits had been doing five years earlier, the experience of writing it was invaluable. It featured both Waits and Crystal Gayle performing songs that Waits wrote.

While he was composing for "One From the Heart," Waits met his future wife and collaborator, Kathleen Brennan. They were married in the summer of 1980 and Brennan proved to be a major inspiration for Waits, who embraced a fresh approach to his songwriting and recording. His songs become less reliant on character studies and moods, as it had been with his Asylum catalog, and he incorporated more varied imagery for an expanded range of subjects.

Sonically, his music was completely overhauled. Songs became richer, more complex, and much noisier. Waits achieved this “junkyard assortment of sounds,” as Jon Pareles described it in 2002 for the New York Times, through the use of unique instrumentation, which could mean a lead pipe, calliope, and electric guitar in one song and a treated piano in the next. Waits avoided some of the more traditional music elements that were part of the basic core of his Asylum work and revamped his vocal style too. He adopted a rougher, ragged, and occasionally intensified guttural quality.

At Brennan's suggestion, Waits produced himself for the first time, signed a new deal with Island Records and revealed his radical new direction with Swordfishtrombones, released in 1983. That album marked the beginning of a new era for Waits—plus his work in motion pictures was picking up. He made appearances in dozens of movies, including “Rumble Fish” (1983), “The Outsiders” (1983), “The Cotton Club” (1984), “Down By Law” (1986), “Ironweed” (1987), “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992), and “Short Cuts” (1993). In 2018, he appared in the Robert Redford film “The Old Man And The Gun."

He would also provide music for scores of films beyond “One From The Heart," including his 1988 concert film “Big Time,” which was released as a live album of the same name, and Jim Jarmusch's “Night On Earth” (1991).

By the early '90s, Swordfishtrombones became a jumping off point for Waits’ music as he became more adventurous. His masterful 1985 release Rain Dogs, was followed by Franks Wild Years. Subtitled “Un Operachi Romantico In Two Acts,” the 1987 album featured the music to a theater production.

The darker imagery and percussion heavy blues-rock of 1992’s Bone Machine was a tougher benchmark in Waits’ music and he was unafraid to drift towards occasional inaccessibility. His wild musical stew embraced elements of vaudeville and Weill's legacy. The Black Rider, released in 1993, featured studio versions of songs Waits wrote for the Robert Wilson-directed play of the same name, co-written by Burroughs.

In 1992, Waits would release two albums simultaneously that would feature music from additional stage productions directed by Wilson: Alice, from the play of the same name, and Blood Money, from Woyzeck. Waits’ most recent album, Bad As Me, was released in 2011.

A musician of endless vision, invention, and reinvention, Waits's artistry is multi-dimensional. He seamlessly marries various forms of popular music with adventurous subgenres. He's a storyteller who brings a cinematic quality to his work that suits both film and theatre. Most of all, Waits has dictated the soundtrack to many lonely and inebriated late nights spent with a broken heart and an empty wallet at the corner bar.

He has told the stories of the old, single guy who lives alone at the end of the road and howls at the moon. But he has also celebrated the beauty of a loved one or the magic of a kiss offered on a bustling street in Germany. The world of Tom Waits is a world all its own—and it's why he's one of our FUV Essentials.

Listen

#FUVEssentials: Tom Waits (Spotify playlist compiled by FUV's Darren DeVivo)

WATCH