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How Tom Waits' wife revolutionised his musical style


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 sonic headlights in the fog. He prowled away with the sort of voice that could prise open an oyster 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 as an inch of ash hung from the cigarette somehow defying gravity and balancing between his lips. Had the sacred beverage 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 been coaxing 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 unique 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 floating heights amid Waits’ own wildly imagined firmament.

Eight years into his musical exploration of the outskirts of society in a somewhat professional capacity, a rather radical change of style arrived. In 1982, Waits produced the soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola’s film One From The Heart. His then-record label, Elektra-Asylum, deemed his change in style disastrous and dropped him. He was picked up by Island Records and, as if to rub it in on his former label, he produced three more experimental pieces and they were all greeted with rightful acclaim. 

Behind this change was one giant inspiration. 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.

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“Kathleen was the first person who convinced me that you can take James White and the Blacks, and Elmer Bernstein and Leadbelly – folks that could never be on the bill together – and that they could be on the bill together in you,” Waits once said when discussing how much of a force she was for his creative output that followed. “You take your dad’s army uniform and your mom’s Easter hat and your brother’s motorcycle and your sister’s purse and stitch them all together and try to make something meaningful out of it.”

Albums like Rain Dogs reaped the rewards of this creative impetus as Kathleen encouraged a new wild license. The records that followed were frenzied and full of so many artistic influences that they ultimately resulted in something so singular that it could only be described as Waits-ian. And what’s more, the pair have remained mutual muses ever since they first me and fell in love.