I’d heard about Tom Waits’ music for years before I picked up a copy of his Asylum anthology on vinyl. I was about 18 years old in my first year at Michigan State University. I’d read the book Written in My Soul: Conversations with Rock’s Great Songwriters by Bill Flanagan. The interview with Tom is a highlight of that amazing read and I grabbed that record and took it home and played it as soon as I got back to my room at my Mom and Dad’s place where I was staying for the summer before sophomore year back at State.
Here’s the thing: I mostly hated the record. I put it back in its sleeve and didn’t listen again. I was taken by surprise by some of producer Bones’ Howe’s love for jazz instrumentation and even lush string sections. The arrangements on Tom’s early records were particularly challenging for me as it would be a few more years before I discovered Thelonius Monk and took my lifelong deep dive into jazz. I also have to admit that when I heard Tom’s voice for the very first time I thought it was a joke. It was so extremely rough and ragged that it seemed almost like a theatrical affectation — and it actually is to an extent. I hated anything that even flirted with artifice back then so I wrote the whole thing off.
As I remember it took a full year before I came across that album back in my room at my Mom and Dad’s place and thought I’d go ahead and give it another spin. That time was different. I loved the whole thing and didn’t stop playing it, and Tom is definitely on my songwriting Mount Rushmore next to Dylan as one of our best and most unique lyricists.
Here’s a great BBC doc, Tom Waits: Tales from a Cracked Jukebox. Here’s Aquarium Drunkard on the film:
Tom Waits is an inherently American artist. Over the past four decades, Waits’ eccentric boho brew of junkyard scat, jazz, gutter blues, tin-pan alley excursions and avant-garde cabaret have howled into the ether and reverberated back again…transfigured into something wholly his own. One day we will interview the man, dipping into all of the above – but until then, this; the BBC’s 2017 documentary on Waits by filmmaker James Maycock…