With Closing Time, released in 1973, Tom Waits staked out a rock & roll gutter all his own, gruffly crooning beat-poet tales of drifters over R&B and jazz-tinged accompaniment. With the 1983 release Swordfishtrombones, his vocals turned more ragged, his songwriting more eclectic and his orchestrations more "junkyard."
His noisome world was never so beautiful as on his tenth album, Rain Dogs — his first self-production and the first time he recorded in his new hometown of New York City. The album is "a little more developed and more ethnic feeling," he said at the time. "Kind of an interaction between Appalachia and Nigeria."
The title, Waits said, referred to the fact that "dogs in the rain lose their way home, [because] after it rains, every place they peed on has been washed out.... They go to sleep thinking the world is one way, and they wake up and somebody moved the furniture."
The cover photo depicts a prostitute comforting a sailor who looks disconcertingly like Waits. From the first clanking strains of "Singapore" ("We're all as mad as hatters here") to the closing New Orleans-style spiritual, "Anywhere I Lay My Head," the nineteen songs on Rain Dogs are peopled by such lost souls.
"Tango Till They're Sore" was written about a friend who jumped out of a window; "9th & Hennepin" recalled the time Waits was stuck in the middle of a pimp war at a Minneapolis doughnut shop. But for the most part, while writing songs for Rain Dogs, Waits said he "was thinking of the guy going back to Philadelphia from Manhattan on the Metroliner with the New York Times, looking out the window in New York as he pulls out of the station, imagining all the terrible things he doesn't have to be a part of."
Despite impressive walk-ons from Keith Richards, Robert Quine and John Lurie, it was the band Waits patched together that bravely followed him down every skanky alley. Guitarist Marc Robot lent his oddball twang to "Jockey Full of Bourbon" and the title cut; bassist Larry Taylor provided an ominous underpinning; and percussionist Michael Blair filled in the gaps with marimba, bowed saw, parade drum and anything that wasn't nailed down.
"If I couldn't get the right sound out of the drum set," Waits said, "we'd get a chest of drawers in the bathroom and hit it real hard with a two-by-four." In that way, he explained, "the sounds become your own."