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Tom Waits, All-Night Rambler

A past-midnight drive with insomnia's best pal

January 30, 1975
tom waits 1975
Tom Waits in Los Angeles, circa 1975.
Richard Creamer/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES—A diamond mist sticks to my windshield as irrepressible night cat Tom Waits and I take off on a deserted Santa Monica Boulevard in my '69 Chevy.

It's 3:15 a.m., we have no direction, and – as Waits would say – it's colder than a well-digger's ass.

This has been an important night for Waits and he's not through with it yet. A couple of hours earlier, he had finished his first engagement at the Troubadour, and the songwriter/poet singer/actor had done well. Owner Doug Weston had just told him so in the alley as we were leaving. He wants Waits back soon.

The three days had been a real challenge for Waits, who's to the seamy side of city life what John Denver is to Rocky Mountain High. As opening act to Little Feat, he was playing before houses mostly unfamiliar with his bluesy, boozy world of muscatel moons, naugahyde bars, cruising Oldsmobiles and used car salesmen with Purina checkerboard slacks.

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Tom Waits

Waits educated the crowd soon enough. Looking like an emaciated Skid Row refugee in a rumpled black suit and undone greasy tie, he would do a wino shuffle to the microphone and open each set with the jazzy talker, "Diamonds on My Windshield" – a Kerouac-style ode to freeway driving which he delivered in a jiver's slur, snapping his fingers on his right hand and waving his constant Old Gold in his left. After performing several songs off his two excellent Asylum albums, Closing Time and The Heart of Saturday Night, on the piano, he would return centerstage. "Easy Street," a barrage of metropolitan double talk would follow:

"There's some kind of a blur drizzle down the plate glass and the neon swizzle stick is stirring up the sultry night air. And the buttery biscuit of a cueball moon, it's rolling maverick across an obsidian sky. And the buses are grroooaaning and wheeezing down on a corner and I'm freeeezing on Restless Boulevard. . . ."*    

"I'll always be a night owl and I'll never move to some cabin in Colorado," Waits says as we camp down on Sunset in a Copper Skillet, an orange naugahyde coffee shop with a planter of plastic flowers in our booth--Waits's kind of place. It's four o'clock now and Waits's young face with his jazzman's goatee looks more drawn than usual, and a shock of his dirty blond hair, uncovered by the cap he wears onstage, is hanging over a part of his forehead. He talks earnestly and articulately.

"Yeah, the moon beats the hell out of the sun. There's something illusionary about the night. If we were sitting here in the afternoon looking out that window you wouldn't be able to see the reflection of the kitchen and the cook. And you wouldn't know what's in that parking lot across the street. So your imagination is working overtime.

*Easy Street by Tom Waits ©1974, Fifth Floor Music Inc.

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