Tom Waits Biography

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Thomas Alan Waits, 7 December 1949, Pomona, California, USA. A gifted lyricist, composer, raconteur and actor, Waits has enjoyed a long and fruitful career. The son of teachers, his parents separated when he was 11, leaving Tom and his sisters to be raised by his mother in the San Diego suburb of National City. He left school to work at a local pizza house, a period later celebrated in the track ‘The Ghosts Of Saturday Night (After Hours At Napoleone’s Pizza House)’. Waits began performing in the late 60s, inspired by writers including Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski and a spell working as a doorman in a San Diego nightclub. Here he saw a miscellany of acts - string bands, comedians, country and western singers - and by absorbing portions of an attendant down-market patois, developed his nascent songwriting talent. Having appeared at the Los Angeles’ Troubador ‘Amateur Hoot Nights’, Waits was signed by manager Herb Cohen who in turn secured a recording contract with Asylum Records. 1973’s Closing Time revealed a still-unfocused performer, as yet unable to draw together the folk, blues and singer-songwriter elements vying for prominence. The album, which was produced by the Lovin’ Spoonful’s Jerry Yester, did contain ‘Ol’ 55’, later covered by the Eagles, and ‘Martha’, a poignant melodrama of a now-middle-aged man telephoning his first love from 40 years previously. The Heart Of Saturday Night was an altogether more accomplished set in which the artist blended characterizations drawn from diners, truckers and waitresses, sung in a razor-edged, rasping voice, and infused with beatnik prepossessions. Waits’ ability to paint vivid pictures of blue-collar American life was encapsulated in its haunting, melodic title track, ‘Diamonds On My Windshield’, and the aforementioned ‘The Ghosts Of Saturday Night’.

The 1975 album Nighthawks At The Diner and the following year’s Small Change closed the performer’s first era, where the dividing line between life and art grew increasingly blurred as Waits inhabited the flophouse life he sang about. He took up residence at the Tropicana Motel on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, collaborating with drinking buddy Chuck E. Weiss and embarking on an affair with fellow singer-songwriter Rickie Lee Jones. Small Change contained some of the most memorable songwriting of his career up to that point, with ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’, ‘Step Right Up’, ‘Jitterbug Boy’ and the title track resplendent in all their widescreen glory. Foreign Affairs unveiled a widening perspective and while the influence of Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg still inhabited his work - as celebrated in ‘Medley: Jack & Neal/California Here I Come’ - a duet with Bette Midler, ‘I Never Talk To Strangers’, provided the impetus for Waits’ later soundtrack work on One From The Heart. Waits’ 1978 release Blue Valentine was marked by its balance between lyrical ballads and up-front R&B, a contrast maintained on 1980’s Heartattack And Vine. A tough combo prevailed on half of the latter album’s content. Elsewhere, the composer’s gift for emotive melody flourished on ‘Ruby’s Arms’, ‘On The Nickel’ and ‘Jersey Girl’, later covered to great effect by Bruce Springsteen.

Despite it being a fine album, Heartattack And Vine marked the end of Waits’ term with both Cohen and Asylum. He was asked by Francis Ford Coppola to compose the soundtrack for the director’s Las Vegas set love story One From The Heart. Waits’ unlikely partnership with country singer Crystal Gayle was an artistic success, although both soundtrack and movie were resolutely misunderstood and ignored by the general public. Coppola also prompted Waits to expand his (until then) part-time acting career, employing the singer to great effect over the next two years in the movies The Outsiders, Rumblefish and Cotton Club.

The most important event in Waits’ life at this point was his whirlwind courtship of Coppola’s script editor Kathleen Brennan. The couple were married in August 1980 and, almost immediately, Waits began to move in a different artistic direction. Inspired by Brennan to explore new avenues Waits cast aside the drunken bohemian balladeer character he had inhabited, for better or worse, since the early 70s. He severed his relationship with long-term producer Bones Howe and, in 1983, signed a new recording contract with Island Records. Waits signalled his new musical direction with the radical Swordfishtrombones. Exotic instruments, sound textures and offbeat rhythms marked a content which owed more to Captain Beefheart and eccentric composer and instrument-builder Harry Partch than dowdy motel rooms. His penchant for an evocative ballad remained intact, however, with the hopelessly affecting ‘Johnsburg, Illinois’ (a love song for his new wife) and ‘Soldier’s Things’ among the finest songs of his career. Waits also came close to having a UK hit single with the evocative ‘In The Neighborhood’, complete with a stunning sepia video.

Waits followed up Swordfishtrombones with the exemplary Rain Dogs, which featured support from Keith Richards on ‘Big Black Mariah’. It also included ‘Downtown Train’, another in a series of romantic vignettes and later a hit for Rod Stewart. Waits’ next release, Frank’s Wild Years, comprised material drawn from a play written with Brennan and based on a song from Swordfishtrombones. The follow-up Big Time was the soundtrack to a concert film. Waits continued his cinematic career with roles in Candy Mountain and Cold Feet, and in 1989 made his theatrical debut in Demon Wine. The wonderful ‘Good Old World (Waltz)’ was the standout track from his 1992 soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s Night On Earth. His rhythmic experimentation came to fruition the same year on Bone Machine, which was for many critics his finest album since Swordfishtrombones. The following year’s The Black Rider featured music from Waits’ stage play of the same name, co-written with William Burroughs. Waits also collaborated with Brennan, director Robert Wilson and Hamburg’s Thalia Theatre on Alice, which enjoyed a brief eight week run.

Waits entered into litigation in 1993, objecting to the use of his ‘Heartattack And Vine’, with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ voice, for a Levi’s television advertisement. A grovelling public apology was made via the national music press from Levi’s in 1995. Similarly he has won other cases against his previous music publisher for other songs licensed for television advertising, notably ‘Step Right Up’, ‘Ruby’s Arms’ and ‘Opening Montage’/‘Once Upon A Town’. During this period Waits maintained a recording silence, settling in Northern California and concentrating on raising his family with Brennan, although he did make further movie appearances in Dracula, Short Cuts and Mystery Men.

Waits left Island Records in 1998, although his legacy was celebrated on the superb Beautiful Maladies compilation. After signing to independent label Epitaph Records, he released the rural blues inspired Mule Variations in April 1999. Astonishingly, the album broke into the UK Top 10 and won a Grammy Award in the USA. Waits’ subsequent work saw him delving further into theatre and film soundtracks. His collaborations with avant garde director Robert Wilson have been of particular note, and resulted in the release of two studio albums on the same day in May 2002, a remarkable feat given that they were both of excellent quality. The romantic Alice and the bitter Blood Money, inspired by Wilson’s readings of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books and Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck respectively, were two of Waits’ finest yet most challenging recordings. As with most of his recent work, the albums were co-written with Kathleen Brennan.

The duo’s 2004 collaboration, Real Gone, was a striking departure even by Waits’ standards. Largely eschewing piano and a rhythm section, Waits chose this point in his career to begin experimenting with human beatboxing. With his son Casey’s turntables also pitched into the mix, the effect added startling new layers to Waits’ trademark lyricism which touched on contemporary events on two of the album’s best tracks, ‘Sins Of My Father’ and ‘Day After Tomorrow’. The ambitious 56 track, 3-CD set Orphans, released in 2006, was not only a beautifully packaged set but contained over three hours of wide-ranging new and previously unheard material, with each CD having a theme; Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards. The collection restated Waits’ brilliance as a musical interpreter of the visual image. He has no rival.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.