Tom Waits is a veteran singer-songwriter whose voice is a combination of sidewalk preacher, carnival barker, beat poet, and barstool philosopher. I first heard of Waits in the 80s when he was known as the guy with the crazy, gravely voice. But then I heard the track “Innocent When You Dream” on a compilation album and fell in love with the heartfelt beauty underneath what sounded like a drunk guy crooning at a bar. I got the album Franks Wild Years and it remains one of my all time favorites, and I’ve checked in and out on Waits’ career over the years. This is the first time I’ve listened to all of Waits’ catalog from beginning to most current, and let me tell you it’s not easy to listen to all that Waits’ music back-to-back-to-back, although it is a worthwhile exercise.
Tom Waits’ career can be summed up into three basic eras:
- 1970s – Waits was a little more eccentric than his contemporaries, but listening to his early recordings and he seems to fit in with the singer-songwriters of the era. You might even imagine an alternate universe where his career followed the paths of the likes of James Taylor, Elton John, or Randy Newman. His trademark gravely voice didn’t even make its debut until the third album, and in the seventies it was more of an homage to Louis Armstrong or Doctor John as Waits recorded jazz and blues tinged tunes.
- 1980s – This decade marked the emergence of the iconic Waits’ style, verging between lost recordings of American and avant guarde music with unusual instrumentation and tunings. The decade is marked by the trilogy of albums he’s most remembered for: Swordfishtrombones (1983), Rain Dogs (1985), and Franks Wild Years (1987).
- 1992 to present – While Waits’ music in this period remains experimental by the standards of contemporary popular music, and inspiration for “alternative music,” it doesn’t vary much from the template he established in the 1980s. Similarly, while 1990s and 2000s recordings include numerous gems and good albums overall, Waits is own worst enemy as a producer in that he allows the albums to be bloated with excess tracks that should be judiciously trimmed. In short, don’t do what I did and listen to everything, but definitely seek out the good stuff.
Tom Waits hasn’t released anything new since 2011 or toured since 2008, but hopefully he has some songs left in him and there will be another Tom Waits era to look back on in the future.
Five Favorite Albums
- Closing Time (1973) – definitely one of the great all-time debut albums, and the first three tracks are a strong start to any album.
- Rain Dogs (1985) – Waits’ masterpiece and one of the great albums of the 1980s.
- Franks Wild Years (1987) – the soundtrack to a play I’ve never seen, it remains a sentimental favorite
- Bone Machine (1992) – Waits charges into the 1990s showing the alt-rockers how things are done with haunting lyrics and aural soundscape
- Blood Money (2002) – these are songs from another play, but also reflect the misanthropy and pessimism of the post-Sept. 11th world under George W. Bush
Twenty-Five Favorite Songs
1. “Ol’ 55”
2. “I Hope I Don’t Fall in Love With You”
3. “Virginia Avenue”
4. “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) (An Evening with Pete King)”
5. “Jersey Girl”
6. “16 Shells from A Thirty-Ought-Six”
7. “In the Neighbourhood”
8. “Jockey Full of Bourbon”
9. “Hang Down Your Head”
10. “Downtown Train”
11. “Hang on St. Christopher”
12. “Innocent When You Dream (Barroom)”
13. “Yesterday is Here”
14. “Way Down in the Hole”
15. “Cold Cold Ground”
16. “Jesus Gonna Be Here”
17. “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”
18. “T’ Ain’t No Sin”
19. “Hold On”
20. “House Where Nobody Lives”
21. “Misery is the River of the World”
22. “God’s Away on Business”
23. “Flowers Grave”
24. “Hoist That Rag”