With his Old Testament growl and dedication to clanging, wheezing instruments, Tom Waits's sound is unmistakable. His songs mix an imaginative sense of theatre with cool jazz, grizzled blues, and Tin Pan Alley. He's spent four decades advocating for all the lost souls who walk crooked streets while creating some of pop's most vivid moments.
Waits claims to have been born in a moving taxi. He grew up in San Diego, California, where he listened to Bing Crosby pop hits, Stephen Foster parlor songs, and George Gershwin classics. He also developed an intense admiration for, and identification with, Beat generation writers such as Jack Kerouac and those who followed in the On The Road author's footsteps, such as Charles Bukowski. As a teenager, Waits was living out of a car and working as a doorman at the L.A. nightclub the Heritage when he decided he should be performing. He began writing songs based on overheard snatches of conversation.
Waits made his initial impact at L.A.'s Troubadour club in 1969. Working solo, he merged humorous and rambling raps with his own tunes, singing with jazz improviser's savvy. He bet heavily on the power of eccentricity (Lord Buckley was an obvious role model). In 1972 he signed to Asylum Records, and created an enchanting debut produced by Jerry Yester. Though it sold poorly, one of its songs, "Ol' 55," was covered by label mates the Eagles on their On the Border. In 1973 Waits toured with a sax-bass-drums trio, often opening for Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. His second album, The Heart of Saturday Night, produced by Bones Howe, was a bit more focused and a bit more inspired. Critics heralded its heart-on-sleeve tendencies and it sold a bit better than the first.
By 1975 Waits and Howe decided to capture some of the freewheeling spiels that were central to his performances, and recorded the double-disc set Nighthawks at the Diner (Number 164, 1975) in front of a live audience. In London of 1976, he composed tunes for his next album, the overtly jazzy Small Change (Number 89, 1976). It cemented his beautiful loser persona — a guy who was always present at strip clubs, Bowery bars, and sidewalk bitch sessions. Waits took his jazz spiel to new heights with "Step Right Up," a carnival barker's crazed come-on and Foreign Affairs (Number 113, 1977) contained a duet with Bette Midler, "I Never Talk to Strangers," and on Blue Valentine (Number 181, 1978) Waits introduced electric guitar for the first time.
Waits appeared as a honky-tonk pianist in Sylvester Stallone's film Paradise Alley, in 1979. By this time, he was romantically involved with Rickie Lee Jones, who can be seen in the back cover photo of Valentine. They broke up in 1980. Waits wrote and recorded the title song for Ralph Waite's 1980 film about skid row, On the Nickel, and later recorded two songs for the 1985 documentary on Seattle street kids, Streetwise, as well as the soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch's 1992 film Night on Earth. In 1982 Waits' soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola's One From the Heart featured him in a number of duets with Crystal Gayle; the soundtrack was nominated for an Academy Award. Coppola cast Waits in several of his films, including Rumblefish, The Cotton Club, The Outsiders, and Bram Stoker's Dracula (in which Waits delivered a memorable turn as the fly-munching Renfield); he's also acted in Jarmusch's superb film Down by Law, the big-budget Ironweed with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, and Robert Altman's Short Cuts.
Heartattack and Vine (Number 96, 1980) had an R&B slant, and was Waits' best seller since Small Change. He was known and respected, but increasingly frustrated by the limitations of orthodox instrumentation. A change in labels also begot an overt change in sound. Waits had always enjoyed traveling left of center, but with Swordfishtrombones (#167, 1983) he dreamed up an approach that bordered on surreal. Goodbye piano, hello marimba, trombone, and kettle drum. Waits described it as "a junkyard orchestral deviation," while critics compared it to both Captain Beefheart and Kurt Weill. A new collaborator helped effect the change. Waits had had met writer Kathleen Brennan on the set of One From the Heart, and the two quickly fell in love. She was key to the singer's stylistic shift, encouraging the unorthodox at every turn.
Rain Dogs continued the experimental direction, with Waits occasionally singing through a megaphone; it included "Downtown Train," later a hit for Rod Stewart. (Other artists covering Waits tunes have included Bruce Springsteen with "Jersey Girl," Marianne Faithfull with "Strange Weather," Bob Seger with "Blind Love," and Dion with "Heart of Saturday Night." Both Canadian jazz vocalist Holly Cole and bluesman John Hammond have recorded a complete albums of Waits material.)
Frank's Wild Years was based on songs from a musical play Waits wrote with Brennan; first staged by Chicago's Steppenwolf Company, it was about a rough 'n' tumble lounge singer freezing to death on a park bench, recalling his life in hallucinatory fashion. The following Big Time was the soundtrack of a concert film-with-story that Waits produced himself.
In 1990 Waits won a lawsuit against snack food giant Frito Lay, which in 1988 had made a radio jingle closely modeled on Waits' singular growl on "Step Right Up." Waits, who had consistently refused to perform in any commercials, won $2.5 million in damages through a decision ultimately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The creativity of Waits' new instrumentation was a creative rebirth, and Waits made a point of pushing his ideas further and further. The clattering Bone Machine won a 1992 Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music album. The Black Rider, with its demented Weimar-cabaret stylings, was the score from a collaboration with avant-garde stage designer/director Robert Wilson and author William S. Burroughs. Waits and Wilson collaborated again on a 1993 update of Alice in Wonderland. The singer also guested on Bay Area postpunk/fusion band Primus' Sailing the Seas of Cheese, and on British composer Gavin Bryars' Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet, an unlikely 1994 U.K. hit in which Bryars orchestrated the "found" mumbling of a hymn by a London drunkard.
In 1999 Waits returned to the studio and the concert stage after a long absence. Mule Variations (Number 30), released on the punk label Epitaph, outsold his more recent major label efforts and preceded his first tour in a decade. It also won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. The following year, he collaborated with Wilson and Brennan on a Danish production of Georg Büchner's Woyzeck. In 2002, he released his two most recent Wilson collaborations — Alice and Blood Money on the Anti label. Both albums hark to the more tender and dramatic music of Swordfishtrombones. In 2004, he put out Real Gone, which utilizes vocals as percussion and was his first album that didn't have any piano on it at all. It also included a rare, politically direct song, "The Day After Tomorrow," sung from the point of view of a weary soldier.
In late 2006, Waits released a sprawling, three-disc box set of unreleased older songs along with a few new ones. Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards was split into one disc of rock- and blues-based songs, one of ballads and one of more experimental material. The set received rave reviews, and Waits became the third-ever musical guest on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" in November 2006 (previous musical guests were Tenacious D and the White Stripes). Waits spent 2008 crisscrossing the globe for his Gloom and Doom Tour, which lead to the 2009 album Glitter and Doom Live. From the jittery raunch of "Goin' Out West" ("I ain't no extra, baby, I'm a leading man") to the keen heartbreak of "Trampled Rose," he addressed his emotional spectrum with an obvious authority. Barney Hoskyns' biography, Lowside Of The Road: A Life of Tom Waits, was published in 2009 as well. Extensive and insightful, it will likely be considered the definitive overview of the singer's ever-evolving career.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Jim Macnie contributed to this article.
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