IT WAS 6 p.m. when we breezed into a hash house near Love Field for our low-rent rendezvous with songwriter Tom Waits. There he was, alone and suitably seedy, presiding over a plate of medium-scrambled, which he said was breakfast.
Waits wears the gutter around him like a cloak. He is 26. The wrinkled tweed jacket is right off the Goodwill rack, as are the dingy scarf and newsboy cap. This is his uniform, onstage and off. He said it was not an act. He also said he once worked as a labor organizer in a maternity ward and that he was wearing Hank Williams boots.
“I like bars,” he said. “I’m in bars anyway most of the time so I might as well be performing in them.
“Before I dropped out of high school I was a juvenile delinquent. Yeah, that’s what they called it back then, remember?”
Waits talked in the same nervous rasp that is his trademark on record. It is a distinctive vocal quality he attributes to “general self-abuse on a regular basis.”
He bobbed and nodded in the booth as though wired to Charlie Parker’s saxophone. He kept his head down, deflecting questions like a weary prize fighter.
“I’m success without college,” he said, quoting a lyric in one of his new songs. “I worked regular jobs before this – cabdriver, cook, mechanic. This is better than wages.”
You would think money would not be a problem ever since the Eagles recorded “Ol’ `55,” Waits’ hummable, lyrically inventive automotive hymn to a romantic sleepover on their On the Border album and released it as the B-side single to “Best of My Love.” A standard of rock radio stations, it remains atypical of his work. Many of his songs could be described as bebop jazz with lyrics and snatches of cocktail piano thrown in.
He recorded his own, more exuberant version of “Ol’ `55” on his debut LP for Asylum, Closing Time. With the recent release of a new album, Small Change, he now has four to his credit, earning notice for the musical company he keeps, covering songs by George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Mose Allison and Herman Hupfeld – not the sort of composers showing up much these days in the track listings of aspiring L.A. pop stars. But they seem to be the touchstones in Waits’ oeuvre.
On Small Change we hear a riff from Hupfeld’s “As Time Goes By,” calling up the image of Humphrey Bogart amid the seamy landscape of Waits’ own songs like “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart,” “Pasties & a G-String” and “The Piano Has Been Drinking.”
Onstage Sunday and Monday nights at Faces, Waits played from Small Change and showed himself to be a skillful entertainer, drawing attentive enthusiasm from capacity crowds who normally don’t sit still for anyone. One minute he scatted like Louis Armstrong, the next he delivered one-liners like Rodney Dangerfield. Backed by a lounge band he called “The Nocturnal Emissions,” he acted out stories of boozers, prostitutes and bus stations in a growling vibrato, in modes often closer to poetry than popular song. Especially in his more recent work there is an unmistakable similarity to the sound of the Beat poets who often read their celebrations of American bohemia to a background of tenor sax, string bass and light percussion during the ’50s and early ’60s.
The lyrical influence is there, clear as a wino’s conscience, but Waits will hear nothing of it, says he doesn’t like poetry, doesn’t like poets. Though he admits to liking writers Mickey Spillane and Nelson Algren, he says he mostly reads “menus and the sports page.”
How did he feel about the Eagles turning “Ol’ `55” into a radio hit?
“I hated it,” he said.
“I don’t like any of that stuff,” he said, referring to Southern California country rock. “It’s too simple, too repetitive.”
He has found the music business very difficult to deal with in general. “The whole thing of the artist as merchandising commodity. I meet these promo men and they talk in a different language. They use terms like ‘units’ and ‘markets’ and ‘the Midwestern blitz.’ It makes me want to wretch. Sometimes I’d rather be pumping gas somewhere.”
Our interview, barely begun, was almost over. Before he got up to leave, Waits said that there “were nights when he enjoyed performing and others when he didn’t. Sometimes it fed his creative juices, allowing him to “stretch out” onstage. Writing he accomplished in manic surges. The songs for Small Change were composed in just two weeks. “It left me a nervous wreck,” he said.
“Small Change,” the title song, is about a murder on 42nd Street. “It was the first time I ever covered a homicide,” he said, straight, like a character in a hard-boiled detective novel. He jammed the cigarette back into his mouth, threw the scarf over his shoulder and walked out into the neon twilight, possibly on his way to an appointment with some bargain scotch.
Dallas Times Herald 1976