Tom Waits at 70: Happy Birthday to an American Original
“A gentleman is someone who can play the accordion, but doesn’t.” – Tom Waits
Considering how Tom Waits’ entire existence has been steeped in enigmatic lore and storytelling-as-subterfuge, one key aspect of his off-kilter appeal is surprisingly easy to pinpoint: the fact that, for the first decade of his career, he behaved as if he were 30 years older. Waits, who turned 70 on December 7, 2019, emerged as a scuffling 24-year-old singer-songwriter who hit the stage as a battered, bitterly funny jazz raconteur. Accompanying himself on piano or guitar, he spun tales both outrageous and wholly believable, all of them set in an era inhabited by broken antiheroes à la Henry Gondorff and Pat Hobby. A place at the crossroads of music, literature and performance art was where Tom Waits, a beat poet without a permanent beat, plied his trade.
Yet since 1983’s Swordfishtrombones, Waits — which, he once claimed, was what his mother called him — has followed a very different path. Released sporadically (at best), his inscrutable subsequent albums reveal a songwriter still redrawing his creative perimeter. And this sense of exploration, of restlessness, has made him seem decades younger than his years. You can’t turn back the clock, but Tom Waits seems to have confused time sufficiently so that it leaves him alone to figure things out.
Similar to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, Waits was not raised in the world that his early characters inhabit. He grew up not-poor in Southern California, at a time when that state was bursting at its seams with possibilities — none of which he felt suited him. Even so, he set up shop in San Diego’s burgeoning folk scene in the early ’70s.
Back then, record labels were looking for anyone who could turn a phrase and hold a tune, and in Waits’ fortuitous case, it was David Geffen who was doing the looking. He signed Waits to Asylum Records, which released the songwriter’s debut album, the wryly titled Closing Time, in 1973. Waits toured relentlessly and, like many other prominent American artists, established a foothold in Europe before returning to the U.S. During the ’70s and early ’80s, he had a strong multi-album run that cemented his cult following: The Heart of Saturday Night, Small Change, Foreign Affairs, Blue Valentine and Heartattack and Vine followed one another in fairly rapid succession. His classic live album, 1975’s Nighthawks at the Diner, captures the mood and the moment beautifully, and remains an all-time favorite among Waits aficionados.
During the first act of his career, he wrote in both first and third person with equal dexterity, often using deadpan humor to soften his eccentric characters’ edges. His memorable 1977 duet with Bette Midler, “I Never Talk to Strangers,” for example, finds two lonely people killing time at a cocktail lounge by deconstructing each other’s façades. After Midler observes, “Your life’s a dime-store novel/This town is full of guys like you/And you’re looking for someone to take the place of her,” all Waits can say in his defense is “You must be reading my mail.”
Still, one wonders how much the dry-witted troubadour persona Waits created began to stifle him. Swordfishtrombones set him on his way to develop a darker, more dissonant sound and a more suspicious protagonist, though his narrative brilliance never truly left. He had something of a hit with “Downtown Train,” off Swordfishtrombones’ essential follow-up, Rain Dogs, and the song later became a major hit for Rod Stewart.
His scenery had shifted from a smoky lounge to a junkyard, and from Chandler’s Los Angeles to Bruce Wayne’s Gotham City. His growling voice tucked itself inside distortion. The genial tramp from early in his career was dead and buried, leaving a hauntingly present ghost. When he sang, “What’s he building in there?” on his 1999 album Mule Variations, he could have been referring to himself.
But here’s the thing about Tom Waits: He never delivered a subpar album, he never neglected his art to chase money — as a matter of fact, he has spent nearly five decades honing the most underwhelming get-rich-quick scheme in entertainment history — and he never ran alongside the culture car, trying to catch up. Normally, artists of his age and caliber find a creative pocket and ride it out until the applause stops.
Since his most recent studio album, Bad as Me, was released in 2011, he’s laid low. He still occasionally pops up to play a song or two at a benefit, in between acting gigs and whatever else he and his longtime creative partner and wife, Kathleen Brennan, are cooking up. As an actor who has gained favor with such great directors as Terry Gilliam, Francis Ford Coppola, Jim Jarmusch and the Coen brothers, his abilities have continued to deepen. Whatever Waits puts his name on is unmistakably his.
There are too many memorable anecdotes that underscore why Tom Waits is held in such high regard, and why we’re lucky he’s still out there breaking rocks for us. Here’s one:
In 2015, as a guest on Late Night With David Letterman, Waits ambled onstage for his appearance to find a comedy bit underway, with Dave handcuffed to actor George Clooney. He looked at them, and before they could explain, he began rummaging through his pockets. “I usually have a key on me,” he said earnestly.
The beauty of Tom Waits is that there isn’t a person alive who can say with absolute certainty whether or not he’s joking.
Tony Gervino is TIDAL’s executive vice president and editor-in-chief of programming and editorial. He was previously editor-in-chief at Billboard, and has written for the New York Times and the Times Magazine, among other publications.
Photo: Waits in Los Angeles in February 1972. Credit: Ed Caraeff/Getty Images.
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