Tom Waits has always been bound to the city of New York. Even in his early days loafing around the nightclubs of Los Angeles, his evolving stage persona belied a fascination with the city’s rich literary heritage – specifically the beat poets and writers who had managed to transfigure this still-young city from an industrial rat-trap into an urban anti-Eden, every apartment and dingy nightclub of which held the possibility of enlightenment or, if not that, a night on the hard liquor.
The city’s musical history also called out to Waits. From his small apartment in Silver Lake, L.A, he cast his rod over the wide bulk of the North American continent, reeling in the folk sound of Greenwich Village greats such as Bob Dylan and Dave Van Rank. At the same time, he found himself increasingly drawn in by the modal jazz sound that had evolved in New York’s subterranean venues, where the likes of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Chet Baker, and Bill Evans had spent years honing their cryptic, tobacco-laced style.
Throughout the 1970s, Waits and New York continued their long-distance romance, with the singer stopping by at regular intervals for tour dates and residencies at the likes of the Reno Sweeney nightclub. It wasn’t until 1984, shortly after the release of Swordfishtrombones, that Waits finally decided to replace the oranges and sunshine of California for the urban sprawl of New York. When asked about why he’d decided to leave the west coast, Waits joked that he’d moved “for the peace and quiet, you know”.
In reality, New York offered little in the way of peace and quiet. What it did offer was an infinite inspiration. For Wait, walking around New York was like running along a never-ending conveyer belt of kaleidoscopic images, all thrown together in a swirl of noise and life and colour. “New York Forces you to be in endless surreal situations,” Waits said in 1988. “Where the gun-metal Mercedes pulls up into the puddle of blood, and out steps the 25- karat, blonde transvestite with the two-dollar wristwatch. It’s always setting you off balance”.
This land of juxtapositions proved to be an incredibly fruitful plain for which Waits to graze on – inspiring him to write some of his most innovative and unusual work. Here, we’ve sorted through this discography to bring you a journey through New York-based on the lyrics of Tom Waits. You can use it as a roadmap if you want, or you can visit the sites at random. So, where to begin…
New York through the lyrics of Tom Waits:
“Steam, steam a hundred bad dreams / Goin’ up to Harlem with a pistol in his jeans.” – ‘Clap Hands’ from Rain Dogs
Our journey starts in Harlem, upper Manhattan’s infamous musical melting pot. This neighbourhood, nestled alongside the Hudson River, inspired Waits not once but twice, with both 1993’s ‘The Black Rider’ and 1985’s Clap Hand’s making reference to this complex and historically impoverished district.
But despite its complicated past, Harlem has birthed or contributed to some of the most important artistic movements in American history, including but not limited to both the Harlem Renaissance and hip-hop. Its role as an incubator of great American music began around the time of the First World War when what had once been a predominantly white neighbourhood occupied by Jewish and Italian migrants saw Black Americans from the deep south, Caribbean expatriates, and Puerto Ricans relocate to the district. By 1920, it was the cultural epicentre of America.
“By Saturday night I’ll be in central park.” – ‘Fish In The Jailhouse’ from Orphans
From Harlem, we make our way down Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd towards the north gate entrance of Central Park. In ‘Fish In The Jailhouse’ this majestic 3.4km park comes to symbolise the freedom so sought after by Waits’ fictional prison inmate Peoria Johnson, who tells his buddy: “I can break out of any old jail you know/ the bars are iron the walls are stone/ all I need me is an old fish bone”.
As one of the only sizable areas in New York that aren’t studded with apartments, it’s no wonder Peoria equates the open pastures of Central park with liberty. The ground on which the park is built is naturally boggy, making it completely undesirable for the city’s early property tycoons, who eventually gave in to local aristocrats’ calls for a lavish park to rival those in London. In realising this vision, New York officials displaced around 1,600 poor residents, mostly Irish pig farmers, Italian workmen, and German gardeners, who once lived in shanties on the site. The city’s most stable African-American community, Seneca Village, was also destroyed, leaving countless families without a home.
“He’s not conventionally handsome / He’ll never be tall / He said ‘all you got to do is book me into Carnegie Hall’.” – ‘Eyeball Kid’ from Mule Variations
Weaving a line past the reservoir, across the Great Lawn, past Strawberry Fields and, finally, over the Gapstow Bridge, we find ourselves thrown out of the tranquillity of Central Park and back in the hubbub of the big smoke. Soon, we’re stood opposite the tobacco-brown walls of Carnegie Hall, with countless taxi’s forming a roaring stream of yellow between us and it.
The famous concert venue – which has hosted performances by everyone from Tchaikovsky to Bob Dylan – is referenced in Wait’s Mule Variations single ‘Eyeball Kid’. According to Waits, The carnival character described in that song serves as a metaphor for showbusiness and “the dysfunction that goes along with it”. Carnegie Hall has had its fair share of dysfunctionality Indeed, its namesake founder Andrew Carnegie was responsible for some shoddy repairs on the South Fork Dam that led to the Johnstown Flood, which killed 2,209 people in 1881.
“The piano is firewood / Times Square is a dream / Lay down together / In the cold cold ground.” – ‘Cold Cold Ground’ from Big Time
There are few locations in New York that evoke the hustle and bustle of ‘the Big Apple’ quite like Times Square. In countless films, it serves as the backdrop for that archetypal ‘I’ve finally made it’ moment. But, in Waits’ ‘Cold Cold Ground‘ this commercial intersection and tourist destination serves a very different purpose.
In that song, Wait’s drowns us in archaic imagery drawn from America’s past. The advertising light show that is Times Square stands in stark contrast to the images of “ribbon in the willow and a tire swing rope,” creating a strange sense of nostalgia. Indeed, in 1987, Waits said his song is “Just kind of a harkening back to earlier times; a romantic song thinking about home, and all that”.
Cinema 14, 133 3rd Avenue
“Well they spill out of the Cinema 14 To that drag bar down the block.” – ‘Union Square’ from Rain Dogs
As we move downtown, the tourists begin to slip away and we find ourselves somewhere that’s beginning to feel like the ‘real’ New York — and it’s not always pretty. Once nestled between Union Square Park and Stuyessavant Square Park, Cinema 14 was a popular gay porn cinema in the 1970s and ’80s. In ‘Union Square ‘Waits invites us into New York’s seedy underbelly as he paints a lurid picture of one hedonistic night in downtown Manhattan
Cinema 14 first opened its doors in 1972. For nearly two decades it was one of the most popular gay porn houses in downtown Manhattan. However, on September 30th, 1988, it became the first movie theatre in the city to be closed by the city of New York Health Department as part of their efforts to stop the spread of AIDs.
“Here’s to the bachelors and the Bowery bums / Those who feel that they’re the ones / That are better off without a wife.” – ‘Better Off Without A Wife’ from Nighthawks At The Diner
Following the churn of traffic making its way down 3rd Avenue, we cut a trail towards Bowery. This neighbourhood in the southern portion of Manhattan gets a shoutout in Waits’ Nighthawks At The Diner track ‘Better Off without A Wife’, in which a nameless narrator bemoans how all his friends are married. Isolated by his desire to “go it alone”, our speaker celebrates the “Bowery bums”, making reference to the district’s former vagrant population
Indeed, from the 1940s until the late 1970s, Bowery was regarded as New York’s skid row, its cardboard city – populated by the homeless and the intoxicated. But since the 1980s, Bowery has been in a near-constant state of redevelopment. Today, high-rise condos and modern art galleries stand where flophouses and drinking dens once stood.