The main thing I want to do on this blog is write about music I love. There may be a couple of bands and musicians I love more than Tom Waits, but not many.
I'll try to give novitiates a good road map to getting into him and I'll try to define the 5 or 6 musical veins/personas he has as a singer/songwriter. But, more than anything, I just want to pick my Favorite 50 Tom Waits songs in a solid playlist. Right there, the fact that I had a hard time culling a list of all-time favorites down to 50 songs (and had some hard cuts) is a great sign of what an incredible career he's had and how much music he's given us.
Yes, the voice. Some people can't get into Tom Waits just because of the gravelly voice. There's not much that can be helped with that. I should have loved The Smiths but Morrisey's voice just occupied a frequency which hits my ear horribly. If the singer's voice isn't pleasant to you, it's a real uphill climb to get into a band.
I imagine that people who don't like Tom's voice feel like they're implicitly told that they "should" like Tom Waits. There is no "should" in music listening. If you don't enjoy something, don't keep trying. Life is too short.
That said, I do have an entry strategy below in the "Live Albums" section.
The 6 Modes of Tom Waits
One way to break down the Waits catalog is to think of the different strains of songs. I don't want to use the word "templates" because that implies that his songwriting is formulaic. Quite the opposite, he's one of the most original songwriters you'll find, he's getting away with experiments that nobody else in music pulls off.
Anyway, here are five distinctly different lanes of Tom Waits songs that I've concocted:
From the get-go, a lot of Waits songs are about losers, drunks and troublemakers - with a clear love of Beat poets like Kerouac. Appropriately, there's a ton of these songs that are a jazz combo, or Tom playing solo like he's the piano player in a Skid Row bar. A lot of the most noteworthy part of his early career are ones like: "Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis", "Jack & Neal / California, Here I Come", "New Coat Of Paint", etc.
Though T.W. really widened his palette in the early 80's, the Beat poems over cool piano still happen from time to time, like "Alice". "Frank's Wild Years", or 'Table Top Joe".
Even though you might picture Tom Waits as the mad scientist from some of his later period music or his film appearances, his most noteworthy successes in early years were ballads like "Ol' 55" (which I got to cover on accordion backing up my friend Sierra West at the Museum of Making Music), "The Heart Of Saturday Night" or "Jersey Girl".
When Tom exploded creatively with Swordfishtrombones, he certainly didn't retire from ballads. I was tempted to make a separate playlist of killer ballads like "Time", "A Little Rain", "Soldier's Things", "Georgia Lee", "Picture In A Frame", "Johnsburg, Illinois". These are some of the most beautiful, sentimental songs I've ever heard. It's a shame if his gruff voice keeps you from experiencing these.
Wild Circus Ringmaster
The conventional wisdom on Waits' career is that he was one thing up to 1980 and then it all blew open starting with his records for Island Records. I absolutely co-sign this theory. It's arguable that those three consecutive albums (Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs and Frank's Wild Years) are one of the great stretches of creative output in my lifetime. That seems like a nutty statement, but I think it's true.
A big part of this explosion where the circus-like instrumentation and deranged ringmaster persona. Explore this vein with: "Tango Til They're Sore", "Make It Rain", "Swordfishtrombones ", "Goin' Out West", "Circus", "The Part That You Throw Away", "God's Away On Business", "Lucinda".
Here's a tip: If a Tom Waits song is in 3/4 time, then there's a strong chance he's singing about a circus freak.
Crazy Spiritual Singer
If you've been to Bruce Springsteen concerts, there are huge chunks of the show where it feels like you're at a Baptist revival show. Tom Waits has a battery of songs that are the grittier but none-the-less inspirational.
"Down In The Hole", "Jesus Gonna Be Here", "Down, Down, Down", "Dirt In The Ground", "Lucky Day", "Come On Up To The House" would all be sung in a church I'd love to attend every week.
One thing that was totally up for grabs post 1980 for Tom Waits was the question of what instruments would be used on each song. It wasn't piano on every song because he plays piano. The instruments were chosen based on the material; and when the material was getting weirder, so were the instruments like non-traditional objects as percussion.
Check out the ways these songs used their instruments and how they give you something you haven't quite ever heard before: "Gun Street Girl" (banjo), "Innocent When You Dream" (squeeze-box), "Make It Rain" (chamberlain), "Chicago" (baritone sax as rhythm instrument),
Vaguely Latin Lounge Music
When Waits and wife Kathleen Brennan moved to NYC around 1980, he got to know a lot of great artists like Jim Jarmusch but another important musical development was his friendship with musician John Lurie (watch his Painting With John HBO show) and living in Spanish Harlem. He started making some really cool Latin sounding blues with fuzzy guitars.
I think his songs "Gin Soaked Boy", "Jockey Full Of Bourbon", "Big In Japan", "Big Black Mariah", "Walking Spanish" define this genre.
Since this post is getting long, we’re going to stretch it into a two-parter concluding next week. We’re keeping you in suspense for both our suggestion for how newbies can finally get into Tom Waits music and our Top 50 long with defences of the Top 10.