Tom Waits: Before The Reinvention

Eight classic songs from his first decade.

Tom Waits, photo by Matt Mahurin

Ever since The Beatles went from mop-tops to Sgt. Pepper and beyond, great songwriter-artists have reinvented themselves artistically instead of making the same record over and over. Few of these transformations have been more dramatic than that of Tom Waits, who had already established a consistent, if evolving, character in songs, the hipster hobo piano playing-crooner of songs from the urban underbelly, always with jazzy, amazing melodies.

He made his debut in 1973 with the single of “Ol’ 55,” which was recorded also by an L.A. band at the time called The Eagles, about which little is known.

Then came Closing Time, his debut album, followed by a chain of masterpieces through the 1970s: The Heart of Saturday Night, Nighthawks at the Diner, Small Change, Foreign Affairs and Blue Valentines. In 1980 came Heartattack & Vine, followed by his beautiful song score for Coppola’s movie One From The Heart, the last we heard from the old Waits.

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The new old Waits emerged in 1983 with Swordfishtrombones, with new songs, sonics, instrumentation and more. An absolute masterpiece, the man on his own ground. And since then he was fully reinvented. As an artist he naturally felt the need to remove himself from the first go-round, that often drunk guy in the tattered suit and hat at the old piano. Not unlike Lennon, by leaving the group and declaring “I don’t believe in Beatles.”

But Lennon’s reinvention didn’t cause most fans to skip over all his songs before that. Yet with many fans of Waits it seems revisionist thinking has led them to dismiss the entire first decade of his work, as if it wasn’t great. It was greater than great. Eight gloriously rendered albums of beautiful, singular songwriting. Lyrically and melodically, these songs exist in a realm all their own. Connected by poignant, often complex pianist tunefulness with poetic lyrics somehow merging jazz, blues and Tin Pan Alley standards from the age of melody with Beat poetry, Bukowski, Lenny Bruce, all imbued with romance, sorrow, the streets of Hollywood and other urban squalor, all painted in drunken moonlight. He took us to parts of town we’d never seen before songs, always with beautiful, poignant melodies, somehow modern and nostalgic at the same time.

So to salute the first decade of songs from Waits, here are our favorite eight songs from the great first eight albums by Tom Waits.

1. “Martha,” from Closing Time, 1973.

And those were the days of roses
Poetry and prose and Martha
All I had was you and all you had was me
There was no tomorrows
We’d packed away our sorrows
And we saved them for a rainy day”

2. “Please Call Me Baby” from The Heart of Saturday Night, 1974.

“Please call me, baby
Wherever you are
It’s too cold to be out walking in the streets
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”

3. “Eggs and Sausage (In A Cadillac With Susan Michelson)” from Nighthawks at the Diner, 1975.

I was always kinda iiked to consider myself
Kind of a pioneer of the palette
A restauranteur, if you will
I’ve wined, dined, sipped and supped in some of the most
Demonstrably Bima-epitomable bistros 
In the Los Angles metropolitan region

Yeah, I’ve had strange looking patty melts at Norm’s
I’ve had dangerous veal cutlets at the Copper Penny
Where what you get is a breaded salsbury steak in a shake-n-bake
And topped with a provocative sauce of Velveeta and half & half
Smothered with Campbell’s tomato soup

See I have kinda of a uh…well I order my veal cutlet
Christ it left the plate and it walked down to the end of the counter
Waitress named Irene, she’s wearing those rhinestone glasses
With the little pearl thing clipped on the sweater
My veal cutlet come down, tried to beat the shit out of my cup of coffee
Coffee just wasn’t strong enough to defend itself

Nighthawks at the diner, Emma’s 49er
There’s a rendezvous of strangers around the coffee urn tonight
All the gypsy hacks, the insomniacs
Now the paper’s been read

Now the waitress said

Eggs and sausage and a side of toast
Coffee and a roll
Hash browns over easy
Chili in a bowl
With burgers and fries
What kind of pie?”

4. “Invitation To The Blues,” from Small Change, 1976

And you feel just like Cagney, she looks like Rita Hayworth
At the counter of the Schwab’s drugstore
You wonder if she might be single, she’s a loner and likes to mingle
Got to be patient, try and pick up a clue

She said how you gonna like ’em – over medium or scrambled?
You say anyway’s the only way, be careful not to gamble
On a guy with a suitcase and a ticket getting out of here
It’s a tired bus station and an old pair of shoes
This ain’t nothing but an invitation to the blues

5. “Never Talk To Strangers,” duet with Bette Midler
from Foreign Affairs, 1977

Yeah, and been around that block so many times
That we don’t notice
That we’re all just perfect strangers
As long as we ignore
That we all begin as strangers
Just before we find
We really aren’t strangers anymore

6. “Blue Valentines,” from Blue Valentines, 1978

…to send me blue valentines
Like half-forgotten dreams
Like a pebble in my shoe
As I walk these streets
And the ghost of your memory
Baby, it’s the thistle in the kiss
It’s the burglar that can break a rose’s neck

7. “Downtown” from Heartattack & Vine, 1980.

Red pants and the sugarman in the Temple Street gloom
Drinking Chivas Regal in a four dollar room
Just another dead soldier in a powder blue night
Sugarman says baby everything’s alright

Goin’ downtown
Goin’ down downtown.

8. “Broken Bicycles,” from the soundtrack to
One From The Heart, 1982

…somebody must have an orphanage for
All these things that nobody wants any more
September’s reminding July
It’s time to be saying good-bye
Summer is gone, Our love will remain
Like old broken bicycles out in the rain

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