Tom Waits

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Tom Waits

Thomas Alan Waits (born December 7, 1949) is an American composer, singer, musician and actor.

One critical appraisal is that Waits possesses "one of the most distinctive voices in popular music" and is furthermore "at once a throwback and a visionary."[1] ( Primarily, Waits plays piano and guitar, but has performed on many other instruments.

When Waits is known at all to the general public, it is probably as the writer of "Downtown Train" (a hit for Rod Stewart), "Old '55" (a hit for The Eagles) and "Jersey Girl" (a hit for Bruce Springsteen), or for his occasional small roles in Hollywood films, like The Two Jakes, Mystery Men or Bram Stoker's Dracula.

To his devoted following, Waits is known as a writer of distinctive, compelling songs, which often resemble compressed short stories. His songs alternate between affecting ballads of love (whether the lost, unrequited or devoted varieties), and tales of freaks, oddballs and strange happenings.

With at best minimal radio or music video support, Waits' albums regularly reach gold or platinum sales status.


Early Career

Born in Pomona, California, Waits' recording career began in 1971, after he relocated to Los Angeles and signed with Herb Cohen, manager of Frank Zappa, among others.

After numerous abortive recording sessions, Waits first record, the melancholic, country-tinged Closing Time was issued in 1973. It received warm reviews, but he first gained national attention when his "Ol' 55" was recorded by The Eagles in 1974. The Heart of Saturday Night showed Waits' roots as a nightclub singer, half speaking and half crooning ballads, often with a jazz background.

The 1975 album Nighthawks at the Diner, recorded in a studio but with a small audience to capture the ambience of a live show, captures this phase of his career, including the lengthy spoken interludes between songs that punctuated his live act. Regarding his music during this era, Waits reported that "I wasn't thrilled by Blue Cheer, so I found an alternative, even if it was Bing Crosby."[2] (

Small Change (1976) (featuring famed drummer Shelly Manne) was jazzier still, and songs such as "The Piano Has Been Drinking" and "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart" cemented his hard living reputation, with a lyrical style pitched somewhere between Raymond Chandler and Charles Bukowski. Foreign Affairs (1977) and Blue Valentine (1978) were in a similar vein, but showed further refinement of his artistic voice.

1980 saw the release of Heartattack and Vine. Though not entirely unprecedented, the album's gritty rhythm and blues sound was different for Waits, and forshadowed the major changes in his music that would follow several years later. The same year, he began a long working relationship with Francis Ford Coppola, who asked Waits to provide music for his film One From The Heart. Waits tapped singer/songwriter Crystal Gayle as his vocal foil for the album. Waits began his acting career with his appearance in Coppola'sRumblefish. He starred in Jim Jarmusch's Down By Law in 1987, and has played supporting roles in films like The Outsiders, The Cotton Club and Dracula (as the Dracula's insane slave Renfield). He has worked with such directors as Jarmusch, Coppola, and Robert Altman.

In August 1980, Waits married Kathleen Brennan, whom he had met on the set of One from the Heart. Brennan is regularly credited as co-author of many songs on his later released albums, and is often cited by Waits as a major influence on his work.


Waits left Asylum Records for Island Records. 1983 saw the release of Swordfishtrombones, a record which marked a sharp turn in Waits' output, and which cemented his reputation as a visionary, steadfastly outside the mainstream. In many ways, Waits has carved out his own musical genre.

Aside from perhaps Captain Beefheart and some of Dr. John's early output, there was little precedent in popular music for Swordfishtrombones or its followups, Rain Dogs and Frank's Wild Years. The instrumentation and orchestration were often quite eclectic. Waits' self described "Junkyard Orchestra" included wheezing pump organs, clattering percussion (sometimes reminiscent of Harry Partch), bleary horn sections (often featuring Ralph Carney, and taking their cues from brass bands or soul music), nearly atonal guitar (perhaps best typified by Marc Ribot's contributions) and obsolete instruments (Waits is fond of a damaged chamberlin which he purchased from several surfers; recent albums have featured the little-used stroh violin.)

Along with a new instrumental approach, Waits gradually altered his singing style, sounding less like the late-night crooner of the 70s, instead adopting a number of techniques: A gravelly sound reminiscent of Howlin' Wolf and Captain Beefheart, a booming, feral bark, or a strained, nearly shrieking falsetto Waits jokingly describes as his Prince voice.

His songwriting shifted as well, becoming somewhat more abstract, and embracing a number of styles largely ignored in pop music, including primal blues, cabaret stylings, rhumbas, theatrical Kurt Weil-esque approaches, tangos, early country music, European folk music and Tin Pan Alley-era songs. He undertook a few nearly-spoken word pieces influenced by Ken Nordine's "word jazz" records of the 1950s. All of these different techniques are filtered through Waits' unique lens, however, and so rarely seem like a pastiche.

Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs and Frank's Wild Years were a trilogy of loose concept albums, following sailor Frank O'Brien, as he leaves the familiar comfort of home, sees the world, and returns. The last of these albums was also adapted as an off-Broadway musical co-written with Brennan. This was the first of several theatre collaborations Waits would undertake: with his wife, Waits wrote and performed in Big Time, a slightly surreal concert movie and soundtrack relased in 1988.


Waits appeared on Primus' 1991 album, Sailing the Seas of Cheese as the voice of "Tommy the Cat", which exposed him to a new audience in alternative rock.

Bone Machine was released in 1992. Critic Steve Huey calls it "Perhaps Tom Waits' most cohesive album ... a morbid, sinister nightmare, one that applied the quirks of his experimental '80s classics to stunningly evocative -- and often harrowing -- effect ... Waits' most affecting and powerful recording, even if it isn't his most accessible."[3] ( Bone Machine was awarded a Grammy. (Incidentally, "Bone Machine" was a song on The Pixies' earlier Surfer Rosa, though it's uncertain if Waits borrowed the term from the Pixies, or developed it independently.)

Waits wrote and conducted the music for Jarmusch's 1993 film A Night On Earth, which was released as an album. The Black Rider is the result of a theatrical collaboration between Waits, director Robert Wilson and writer William S. Burroughs.

Mule Variations was issued in 1999, and also won a Grammy. It was Waits' first release for Anti records.


Singer John Hammond's Wicked Grin was issued in 2001. Hammond and Waits are close friends, and the album is a collection of cover songs originally written by Waits, who appears on most songs (playing guitar, piano or offering backing vocals).

2001 also saw the release of trumpeter Dave Douglas's Witness; the 25-minute "Mahfouz" features Waits reading an excerpt from a work by Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz.

In 2002, Waits simultaneously released two albums, Alice and Blood Money. Both were the fruits of theatrical collaborations with Wilson; the former was originally intended as a musical play about Lewis Carroll.

Real Gone was released in 2004. In comparison with Waits' last few albums, it is rougher, angrier, and, in a first for Waits, political: the album-closing "The Day After Tomorrow" takes on the persona of a soldier in Iraq writing home that he is disillusioned with the war and is thankful to be leaving.


Waits has steadfastly refused to allow the use of his songs in commercials and has filed several lawsuits against advertisers who used his material without permission.

The first lawsuit was filed in 1988 against Frito Lay, and resulted in a US$2.6 million judgement in Waits' favor. Frito Lay had approached Waits to use one of his songs in an advertisement. Waits declined the offer, and Frito Lay hired a Waits soundalike to sing a jingle similar to Small Change's "Step Right Up," which is, ironically, a song Waits has called "an indictment of advertising." [4] ( ("Step Right Up" concludes with the lyric "What the large print giveth, the small print taketh away").

In 1993, Levi's used Screamin' Jay Hawkins's version of Waits's "Heartattack and Vine" in a commercial. Waits sued, and Levis agreed to cease all use of the song, and offered a full page apology in Billboard Magazine. [5] (

In 2000, Waits found himself in a situation similar to his earlier one with Frito-Lay: Audi approached him, asking to use "Innocent When You Dream" (from Frank's Wild Years) for a commercial broadcast in Spain. Waits declined, but the commercial ultimately featured music very similar to Waits' song. Waits undertook legal action, and a Spanish court recognized there had been a violation of Waits' moral rights, in addition to the infringement of copyright [6] ( The production company, Tandem Campany Guasch, was ordered to pay compensation to Waits through his Spanish publisher.

The Sons of Lee Marvin

Tom Waits has claimed on several occasions to being a member of the secret society, "The Sons of Lee Marvin", a group founded by Jarmusch in which all members bear a physical resemblence to actor Lee Marvin.


Major releases

Year Title Special Info
1973 Closing Time
1974 Heart of Saturday Night
1975 Nighthawks at the Diner recorded live for small audience
1976 Small Change
1977 Foreign Affairs
1978 Blue Valentine
1980 Heartattack and Vine
1982 One From the Heart Movie Soundtrack
1983 Swordfishtrombones
1985 Rain Dogs
1987 Frank's Wild Years
1988 Big Time Live CD, movie, video release
1992 Night on Earth Movie soundtrack
1992 Bone Machine Won a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album
1993 The Black Rider Collaboration w/ Wm. S. Burroughs
1999 Mule Variations Won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album
2002 Blood Money
2002 Alice
2004 Real Gone



Tribute albums



See also:


External links:

da:Tom Waits de:Tom Waits fr:Tom Waits nl:Tom Waits no:Tom Waits pl:Tom Waits fi:Tom Waits


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