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Favourite albums - Tom Waits

“Writing songs is like capturing birds without killing them. Sometimes you end up with nothing but a mouthful of feathers.” Tom Waits

About 10 years ago I listened to Tom Waits’ album Raindogs. I hated it. I didn’t understand it. Why was he growling so much? What on earth was he singing about? Why were there horns? Why was someone hitting the percussion so hard? It was incomprehensible to me.

A couple of years later, I read an article about his second album, The Heart of Saturday Night which interested me. I’d been listening to some Frank Sinatra, and I hadn’t realised Waits was a Sinatra fan. As soon as I played New Coat of Paint, I was captivated. Having been such a Waits sceptic, The Heart of Saturday Night soon became one of my favourite albums.

Having grown up reading Kerouac and Ginsberg, Waits shared the Beat aspiration to be a “writer of the common people”. The record’s producer, ‘Bones’ Howe, originally thought Waits was just “trying to be Bob Dylan.” But he liked the jazz tinge to the songs, and thankfully he agreed to work on the record.

I like Waits’ description of how he “attempted to scoop up a few diamonds of this magic” that he saw around him on Saturday nights, to create smoky, bluesy, jazz influenced ballads. The album tells the stories of people hanging out in late night city bars and diners. I love level of detail in Waits’ poetic lyrics “is it the crack of the pool balls, neons buzzin, telephone’s ringing it’s your second cousin, and the barmaid is smilin’ from the corner of her eye, magic of the melancholy tear in your eye”. It lifts the songs from being standard tales of drunkenness and excess to intricate stories of late-night city life.

Listening to these songs, I can just imagine Waits sitting at the piano at some lock-in in a dingy bar, a bottle of whiskey by his side, relaying his stories of long nights and failed romances. The title track was written as Waits was cruising down Hollywood Boulevard with the traffic sounds effects recorded on his tape recorder as he wandered out onto Cahuenga Boulevard. He was describing a city that he was familiar with. He was a “night reporter”.

There are some really touching moments of romance and disappointment on this record too, particularly in the nostalgic New Coat of Paint (“all our scribbled love dreams are lost or thrown away, here amidst the shuffle of an overflowing day” – my favourite line on the record) and the tender Please Call Me Baby (“we do crazy things when we’re wounded, everyone’s a bit insane, I don’t want you catching your death of cold out walking in the rain”). I love Waits’ vocal performance on this record: yes, it’s dry and rasping (one reviewer described him as sounding like “a drunken hobo arguing with a deli owner over the price of a bowl of soup”), but he was actually singing relatively sweetly here, compared with the hoarse snarling that can be found on some his later work.

I’ve listened to some of Waits’ later work more recently, and some of the songs, like Clap Hands from Raindogs, have really grown on me. They’re interesting. But there’s something about the less idiosyncratic The Heart of Darkness that really appeals to me. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of hearing Waits’ beautifully gloomy tales of city life.

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