Tom Waits, a relentless creative who has always been one to do things in his own unique style, has pioneered his own crooner-style sound that has transcended a number of different genres with consummate ease. Having achieved more success than he ever set out to make when starting as a hopeful jazz musician, Waits has provided his cult following with numerous joyous moments through his long career and, stepping back into the Far Out vault, we’re revisiting an appearance he made on the Mike Douglas show in 1976.
Waits had released four studio albums by the time of his appearance, a period in time which came off the back of the release of Small Change which was the best commercial performance by one of his albums until 1999 effort Mule Variations despite the former only landing at number 89 in the States.
To land a mainstream break this big, on one of the largest platforms available for an artist despite being still relatively unknown, was remarkable. The regular watchers of the Mike Douglas show continued to beg the question; how did Waits land this gig?
Well, it all comes down from the show director at the time Don Roy King, a man who had seen Waits perform in a Manhattan club a few years prior but had forgotten about the musician until a showrunner mentioned his name and King immediately remembered being blown away by Waits—who he then arranged to come on to the show as a guest.
King recalled the incident: “It was 1973. Reno Sweeney’s, a small club in Manhattan. ‘Tom Waits,’ the program said, the opening act for a lovely, thin-voiced flight attendant turned cabaret singer (turned flight attendant, I’ll bet). I couldn’t wait for him to drop the act, to see what he was really like, to hear how he really sounded. Well, song after song went by.
“Each rich and gutsy. Each with its own syncopated stutter-step of urban images and dark-side tales. Some were brash. Some were tender. All were captivating. The moods swung and flipped and flayed. But Tom never changed. He played the role straight through. He never looked at us. Never smoothed out the gravel. Never put out his cigarette. (He did balance it on his stool once when he sat down to play the piano.) The whole set as that derelict. A gutsy, shrewd act, I thought.”
He continued: “Fast forward. 1976. I was directing the Mike Douglas Show in Philadelphia. The name Tom Waits came up in a booking meeting. He had a new album, I think. A press release had been sent to our head booker. I was the only one on the staff who knew the name. ‘He’s great,’ I said, ‘the night I saw him he played this character on stage, sort of a beatnik street poet. Let’s give him a shot.’ We did.”
Waits was uncompromising in his interview which gave him an affability as you could feel he wasn’t putting this on for the cameras and it was just him providing an unflinching insight into who he is. There are several interesting facets to the interview as Douglas tries to work out exactly who the man sitting in front of him really is.
Douglas asks Waits what sort of artists he would count as influences, which drew the following list of names from the singer: “I like Mississippi John Hurt. I like Hubert Selby Junior. And I like Chuck E. Weiss. And I like eh Lord Buckley, Neal Cassady and Shearing, Symphony Sid. And I listen to Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer.”
You can feel that Waits just isn’t the typical star that would usually be perched on Douglas’ couch and the other guests didn’t know what to make of him one bit especially composer Marvin Hamlisch who looks completely befuddled by the singer-songwriter’s presence.
One of Douglas’ first questions to Waits was about his “strange image” and how he would describe what exactly he does, which evoked this poetic answer: “I don’t know, I’m perhaps a little bit of a curator. I’m a little bit of a curator and I do nocturnal, I kinda of travelogues, and that sort of thing. I’m an unemployed service station attendant most of the time. I’m just lucky, I’m a living and breathing example of success without college, is what it boils down to.”
Watch the confused star-studded celebrity guests and Mike Douglas try to wrap their heads around the enigma that is Tom Waits, below.