Tom Waits has managed to keep us guessing for nearly 50 years. As soon as you think you’ve got him nailed down, he sidesteps, morphing or elaborating his style so that it remains just beyond the boundary of the familiar. It is this that has kept me and so many others coming back to Waits time after time. He is at once an old friend and someone we will never truly know.
The best way of unravelling the enigma that is Tom Waits is to approach him as an artist with set eras. Like David Bowie, he has always been something of a cultural magpie, noticing shining things and melding them with his own musical foundations. In this way, Waits’ discography can be read as a document of his passage through music; one that traces his development as he adopts and subsequently prunes away various influences. From the Bob Dylan-esque balladeering of Closing Time to the harrowing freak-psych of Bone Machine, join us as we explore the continually mystifying style of Tom Waits.
Let’s begin with Closing Time, an album that owes as much to youthful optimism as it does to Beat literature. I don’t believe in fate, but Waits was bound to fall in love with the bohemian world depicted in the novels and poetry of Beat writers. Like Jack Kerouac’s charismatic antihero, Dean Moriarity in On The Road, Waits was born on the backseat of a moving car, something I’m sure he came to regard as validation of his adopted Bohemian status when he decided to leave his comfortable Californian suburb to bum around the west coast performing in smoke-filled bars.
Waits consciously bought the atmosphere of these clubs to Closing Time, blending the sultry romance of his troubadour status with the stream-of-consciousness, and highly confessional lyrical style he’d plucked from the writings of Alan Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski. However, the seeds of optimism at the core of Closing Time reveal an artist disguising his youthful idealism with the cynicism of men twice his age. Indeed, in ‘Martha’, Waits deliberately speaks from the perspective of an embittered old man to soften what is essentially a song about the life-altering power of love. Self-conscious decisions such as these helped Waits to create the aura of hard-won wisdom that continues to surround his work to this day.
Waits’ attempt at self-mythologisation would culminate in the formation of an alter-ego that would evolve over the course of his next few albums, eventually melding his own personality to the extent that it became impossible to separate the man from the myth. In The Heart of Saturday Night, for example, we see Waits fully embrace the half-rebel, half grumpy alcoholic persona he began developing with Closing Time. In this second studio album, released in 1974, we see him ditch the folk-balladeering for the oozing cool of rough-shod cocktail blues, a sound undoubtedly informed by his growing fascination with the seedy underbelly of American nightlife, something Waits himself was developing something of an imitate relationship with during this period. It’s albums like these that really point to the artifice of Waits’ stage persona. Indeed, many of his contemporaries point to The Heart of Saturday Night – with its talk of “Tight-slacked clad girls on the graveyard shift” – as an example of his obsession with developing a ‘down-and-out’ mystique, by which he idealised the concept of poverty without ever being in any real risk succumbing to it. By Blue Valentine, this obsession had reached its pinnacle, with a large chunk of Waits’ lyrical material fixating on the violent death of its characters.
However, Blue Valentine also marked a startling shift in Waits’ style, one that saw him blend the commercial jazz and blues-infused arrangments of his previous albums with an angular and technologically explorative edge. With 1980’s Heartattack and Vine, Waits offered up a selection of guitar-driven blues tracks that seemed to hark back to his earlier work but refused to conform to its relative propriety. This state of flux belies the influence not only of Waits’ score for Francis Ford Copolla’s Once More From the Heart but also of his relationship with Kathleen Brennan, one of the script editors who was working down the hall from Waits at the time. It would be Brennan who would encourage Waits to explore new musical shores and reintroduce him to avant-rock artists like Captain Beefheart. She is also credited as co-writer on many of Waits’ subsequent albums, including Alice, Real Gone and Blood Money and clearly made a huge impact on the increasingly mysterious and sometimes reclusive alter ego Waits developed over the next few years.
Indeed, while many fans were shocked by the sheer spikiness of Swordfishtrombones, it was albums such as these that rejuvenated his outsider image at a time when, thanks to his work with Copolla, he was at the height of his fame. “I thought it was a very brave move,” Elvis Costello said of the studio venture, “Because he had a totally complete persona based around this hipster thing he’d taken from Kerouac and Bukowski. I think I was envious, not so much of the music, but the ability to rewrite himself out of the corner he’d appeared to have backed himself into,” Costello concluded. The transmutation Costello was so jealous of owes a lot to Waits’ abandonment of many of the American influences that characterised his early work.
During this rebranding process, Waits seemed to throw out his fascination with Beat writers and New York jazz, and replace it with the avant-garde sensibilities of the European intellectual left. During this time, Waits became friends with the experimental composer Harry Parch, who made his own instruments out of everyday material. Waits’ decision to incorporate increasingly esoteric instruments such as the Marimba into his recordings belies Parch’s influence. This taste for avant-garde arrangements has continued to pervade Waits’ work ever since. With 1992’s Bone Machine, for example, Waits explored the musicality of the mechanical, offering up a selection of sparse, near-nihilistic grumble-core meditations on everything from the climate crisis (‘The Earth Dies Screaming’) to childhood (‘I Don’t Wanna Grow Up’). Waits’ focus on US political issues dominated his songwriting over the next decade or so, with Mule Variations, Woyzeck, and Real Gone seeing him continue to explore the outer-fringes of musical experimentalism with the occasional folk-tune or beat-box thrown in for good measure.
Today, it looks as though Waits has finally realised the persona he was faking all those years ago on Closing Time and The Heart of Saturday Night. After years of drinking, smoking, and experimenting, he seems like a man who’s lived one hell of a life. You can hear all the heartache and addiction and knowledge in his voice; a guttural growl that sounds as though it’s emerging from the very depths of the earth, but which has in fact been lovingly curated over a career spanning nearly 50 years.