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How Francis Ford Coppola changed Tom Waits’ entire career


In 1971, Tom Waits pulled up a pew behind a drunken piano in a Los Angeles jazz bar and weaved half-notes through the smoke-filled air like headlights in the fog. He prowled away with the sort of voice that could prise an oyster open from a country mile away, in part, because the little thing would be loathed not to catch a glimpse of the alluring numen up on stage. 

However, he was so truly singular that when he looked up from the heaving keys of the Steinway to see that the reaction was largely positive, he was so surprised he almost dropped his whisky. Had it actually slipped from his hand he may well have called it a day, but luckily for us, he managed to clutch it like a crucifix, and he has alchemically coaxed little wonders from the ether forevermore. 

He soon found himself signed to Asylum Records then fatefully lumbered with a creative soulmate in the form of the producer Bones Howe. What followed was a slew of sui generis piano-led masterpieces that coupled beat literature with his own tales stuck to the sticky carpets of diver-bars like wrappers to a pocket toffee — tales soon to be plucked up and lifted to firmament floating heights. 

Eight years in, a pivotal moment of diegesis in his unspooling career arose. The legendary director Francis Ford Coppola, who had previously been lauded for rather serious strait-laced epics in the form of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, wanted to satisfy a slightly surrealist muse for his latest film, One from the Heart. Thus, which better musician to turn to for the soundtrack than the mildly madcap man in a swaying fedora who sings songs of spirit-soaked souls in a pinch, a pickle or a rare patch of fleeting paradise.

It might not seem that way on the surface, but a soundtrack can often offer an artist a greater artistic license than a conventional album. When Tom Waits was handed the keys to the soundtrack of One From the Heart, he drove the thing into off-road terrain. For the glitzy tale of fracture relationships unravelling in wild ways in Las Vegas. This gaudy setting gave Waits the perfect chance to incorporate vaudeville into his work and the country clarity of Crystal Gayle for a mix of sandpaper and silk in very singular duets. 

This new style was much more like Lee Hazlewood run through the wringer of William S. Burroughs than anything that had gone before. And a lot more than a mere transition in sound was occurring in Waits life and creative output at the time. His new style was off-road and his then-record label, Elektra-Asylum were not prepared to catch him at a crossroads—they deemed his change in style disastrous and dropped him.

Unperturbed, Waits found creative reinvention in his wild wander into the evergreen fields of avant-garde freedom and he has not yet returned from that variegated wilderness, choosing instead to explore the bottomless depths of the demimonde’s twinkling majesty. This proved very fitting when it came to One from the Heart, which might not be remembered as a classic as much as it is remembered as a creative battleground.

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Waits was emboldened in his pursuit of a second chapter by Coppola himself who was once more warring with producers albeit not as dramatically as the hellfire production of Apocalypse Now. In short, Coppola told Waits ‘take it from one who knows, you have to trust your creative instinct and to hell with anybody else,’ I suspect that was advice that Waits was already adhering to. 

Thereafter, however, Waits seemed even more liberated than ever. His subsequent albums had a surrealist bent with a riotous mix of sound thrown into the cocktail shaker of his songs, and there were two huge reasons behind this barring the aforementioned creative reinvigoration. 

One from the Heart was the last album that Waits recorded with Bones Howe after a decade of collaboration. As the producer recalled: “He called me up and said, ‘Can we have a drink?’ He told me he realised one night that as he was writing a song, he found himself asking ‘If I write this, will Bones like it?’ I said to him that we were getting to be kind of like an old married couple. I said I don’t want to be the reason that an artist can’t create. It was time for him to find another producer. We shook hands and that was it. It was a great ride.”

And speaking of married couples, thanks to Coppola, Waits had a new muse. While working on the album at Wally Heider Studios in Hollywood, Waits waltzed in one day and swooned so hard for the employee Kathleen Brennan that his hat was almost finally wobbled off of his twisted head. Fortunately, it just about stayed on and sustained his mojo enough to ask her out on a date and later ask her to marry him. She said yes.

Finally, the cherry on top of this fateful layered trifle of life-changes and creative spirals came in the form of the Academy Awards nomination that Waits and co received for the original soundtrack. He might have been dropped by his record label, but this recognition shone a light on his new work and he revelled in that spotlight launching a second instalment in the unwinding song series of his ever fruitful career. 

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