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Famous Poet Friday ~ Tom Waits

Posted by Cutter on March 25, 2011 at 11:59 PM

In honor of his being inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of fame this year, I wanted to take this week and offer up big props to one of my major influences, Tom Waits. Waits is an actor, performance artist, poet, painter, photographer and character of massive proportions and if you are not already a fan please hit me up and I will make some recommendations. Waits and his wife Kathleen have written some of the most amazing lyrics of our generation and deserve a lot more props than I have space to give them. Check out this weeks poet, the indescribable Tom Waits.




Tom Waits is a gruff-voiced, big-hearted singer/pianist who is to songwriting what Charles Bukowski is to poetry, Jack Kerouac is to prose and Edward Hopper is to painting. A true original, Waits’ specializes in story-songs about all kinds of beautiful losers: nighthawks, boozers, grifters, drifters, dreamers, con men and other flotsam from the underbelly of American life. A canny street poet, he sings in a gravelly voice shaped early in his career by a predilection for unfiltered cigarettes and strong drinks. He’s given up drinking but the growl remains – sturdy, impassioned, hard-bitten, one-of-a-kind.


On the musical side, Wait’s mosaic of influences includes such source material as Chicago and Delta blues, German cabaret, parlor ballads, waltzes and polkas, beat poetry and pulp fiction, vaudeville, roadhouse rock, Rat Pack shtick and the avant-garde. He once described his approach to song construction as follows, claiming he was not kidding: "It's like gluing macaroni to a piece of cardboard and painting it gold, really." In a sense this is true since Waits, as one of America’s greatest living songwriters, takes the stuff of ordinary life and burnishes it into something with an odd kind of beauty.


In a scenario that could have come from one of his songs, Waits was born in the back of a taxicab in a hospital parking lot. He acquired his love of older music from his parents. Waits dropped out of high school to work at a pizza joint. His adolescent love of hitchhiking around the Southwest gave him a ground-level appreciation for cars, Americana and the native landscape. Fortified by Beat Generation literature, he would bring these interests to life in his songwriting.


As a fledgling songwriter and performer, he attracted attention at the competitive Monday “hoot nights” at Los Angeles’ Troubadour showcase club in the early Seventies. David Geffen signed the twenty-one-year-old Waits to his Asylum label. He debuted in 1973 with Closing Time, a folk-flavored album in which Waits’ gruff, idiosyncratic voice and raucous beat poetics were largely held in check. Yet these elements would roar to the forefront in his ensuring work.


Waits was a maverick, a trait he shared with Asylum label mate Warren Zevon. He was the antithesis of Seventies slickness, delivering tales of down-and-outers in a whiskey-soaked jowl. He cultivated the look of the barflies, jazzbos and nighthawks he profiled in song. Waits lived in seedy motels for much of the decade, settling on the Tropicana – a monument to faded glory in West Hollywood – as his favorite haunt. He even had a piano installed in the kitchen. His art and life seemed intertwined, as he evidently shared more than empathy with the characters he sang about.


Except for the drinking and smoking, that observation holds true even now. In a self-interview conducted to publicize his Alice and Blood Money releases in 2002, Waits offered this as his idea of heaven an earth: “Me and my wife on Route 66 with a pot of coffee, a cheap guitar, pawnshop tape recorder in a Motel 6, and a car that runs good parked right by the door.”


Waits was prolific during his time at Asylum. Working with producer Bones Howe, he followed Closing Time with six more albums by decade’s end: The Heart of Saturday Night (1974), Nighthawks at the Diner (1975), Small Change (1976), Foreign Affairs (1977), Blue Valentine (1978) and Heartattack and Vine (1980). Though his highest-charting Asylum album, the skid-row opus Spare Change, only reached #89, the Eagles’ cover of Waits’ “Ol’ 55” made the Top Twenty. All his Seventies releases were critical and cult-level successes, though not huge sellers.


Nighthawks at the Diner, a double album recorded live in the studio, captured Waits at his storytelling best. He continued to grow as a songwriter while generally sticking with a musical setup that created the aura of a smoke-filled, dimly lit nightclub. Waits’ piano and guttural voice were often accompanied by a muted trumpet or tenor sax, standup bass and a drummer using brushes. His mixture of beat poetry and small-combo jazz-blues on Nighthawks at the Diner and Small Change provided an alluring anodyne for those put off by Seventies rock’s slickness. One Waits’ best-known pieces from the Asylum years - “Step Right Up,” from Change - was a hoarse-voiced testimonial to life on the underside set to beat-jazz accompaniment. It was this performance that was mimicked, right down to Waits’ gravelly vocal tics, in a Doritos commercial. Waits successfully sued Frito-Lay in 1990 and was ultimately awarded $2.5 million in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court.


Waits’ underwent a major stylistic shift with Swordfishtrombones, released in 1983. It was his first for a new label, Island Records, where he would do some of his most adventurous work. Disregarding conventional song forms and commercial considerations, he embraced dissonance, impressionism, found sounds, obscure and forgotten instruments, bizarre recording techniques and an even more unfettered vocal delivery. This was the album, he’s said, on which he found his voice. This change in style coincided with his marriage at age thirty to Kathleen Brennan, a playwright and script editor who he met on the set of a movie. He’s since collaborated with her on every project he’s undertaken. "I was such a one-man show, very stuck in my ways," Waits told writer Sylvie Simmons. "She helped me rethink myself."


Much like the late Don Van Vliet (a.k.a. Captain Beefheart), of whom he is a professed admirer, Waits has aimed to create a new musical language or at least a compelling new dialect. He appreciates the primitivism of field recordings and the skewed perspectives of surrealist writers and artists and avant-garde musicians. These outsider approaches have continued to inform his recorded work since Swordfishtrombones’ breakthrough.


That landmark album was the first in an informal trilogy– followed by Rain Dogs and Frank’s Wild Years – that were sonically and stylistically linked by Waits’ newfound sense of adventure and thematically tied by the song “Frank’s Wild Years” (which Waits and Brennan would mount into a stage musical). This fruitful period in Waits’ career was capped with a tour documented by the Big Time film and album.


Waits’ first release of the Nineties, Bone Machine, continued on the same artfully prickly path, being his rawest and most harrowing work to date. This highly experimental release, ironically, won Waits the first Grammy of his career (for Best Alternative Music Album). After a six-year break between albums, during which he worked on musicals, operettas and movie projects, Waits returned with Mule Variations (1999), which now found him recording for the Anti/Epitaph label. It, too, earned him a Grammy, this time in the Best Contemporary Folk Album category.


Given the cinematic nature of his songs, it is not surprising Waits has made numerous soundtrack contributions (including songs for the films Dead Man Walking, Liberty Heights, Shrek 2 and The End of Violence) and composed film scores for the likes of Francis Ford Coppola. One of them, for Coppola’s 1982 film One from the Heart, won an Academy Award nomination. In 1993, Waits and Brennan wrote songs and music for an avant-garde “street opera” called The Black Rider, based on a German folk tale about a man who makes a deal with the devil in order to land the hand of the woman he loves. They composed words and music for two more cutting-edge musicals, Alice and Woyzeck, in ensuing years.


It’s a tribute to Waits’ writing talent that so many of his songs have been recorded by artists who usually compose their own material, including Bruce Springsteen (“Jersey Girl”;), Tim Buckley (“Martha”;), Johnny Cash (“Down There by the Train”;), Bob Seger (“16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six”;), T-Bone Burnett and Tori Amos (who each covered “Time”;), Steve Earle (“Way Down In the Hole”;), Sarah MacLachlan (“Ol’ 55”;), Norah Jones (“Long Way Home”;),Elvis Costello (“Innocent When You Dream”;), the Pogues (“Tom Traubert’s Blues”;) and Rod Stewart (“Downtown Train”;).


What other songwriter but Tom Waits could claim to have been covered by both the Eagles (“Ol’ 55”;) and the Ramones (“I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”;)? His songs have also been covered by Screaming Jay Hawkins (whose voice is as unbridled as Waits’ own), Solomon Burke, Marianne Faithfull, the Neville Brothers, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, and the Blind Boys of Alabama. All of this establishes beyond the shadow of a doubt that Tom Waits is a songwriter’s songwriter – and, as VH1 declared him, “one of the most influential artists of all time.”


Waits has continued to offer bold, audacious, cutting-edge work in the new millennium. In 2002, he simultaneously issued the CDs Alice and Blood Money. Both were based on material he’d written for a European stage musical. The subject of Alice was writer Lewis Carroll (author of Alice in Wonderland and other fanciful works), while Blood Money consisted of material he’d written for Woyzeck, a Kafkaesque production relating the sordid tale of a German soldier driven to madness and murder.

The single disc Real Gone (2004) notably featured Waits’ first overtly political songs, the antiwar broadsides “The Day After Tomorrow” and “Hoist That Rag.” In 2006, Waits delivered a three-disc, 54-song masterwork (with a 94-page booklet) entitled Orphans. Its discs were subtitled Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards. Waits closed out a particularly prolific and ambitious decade with a double-disc concert set, Glitter and Doom Live.


There’s no question that Tom Waits has become a warts-and-all American institution – and that he has done so on his own terms. Moreover, he’s comfortable with the idea of his work’s worth, durability and permanence.


“It’s nice to think that when you’re making your music and bring it out, someone’s going to pick it up,” he reflected in a 1998 interview with LA Weekly. “And who knows when or where? I listen to stuff that’s fifty years old or older than that and bring it into myself. And so you are in a way having communion and fellowship with folks you have yet to meet, who will someday hopefully bring your record home and put it on and bring it together with the sounds that they hear in their own head.”





I Wish I Was in New Orleans


Well, I wish I was in New Orleans, I can see it in my dreams,

Arm-in-arm down Burgundy, a bottle and my friends and me


Hoist up a few tall cool ones, play some pool and listen

To that tenor saxophone calling me home

And I can hear the band begin "When the Saints Go Marching In",

And by the whiskers on my chin, New Orleans, I'll be there


I'll drink you under the table, be red-nosed, go for walks,

The old haunts what I wants is red beans and rice

And wear the dress I like so well, and meet me at the old saloon,

Make sure that there's a Dixie moon, New Orleans, I'll be there


And deal the cards roll the dice, if it ain't that old Chuck E. Weiss,

And Claiborne Avenue, me and you Sam Jones and all


And I wish I was in New Orleans, 'cause I can see it in my dreams,

Arm-in-arm down Burgundy, a bottle and my friends and me

New Orleans, I'll be there






Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis


hey Charley I'm pregnant

and living on 9-th street

right above a dirty bookstore

off cuclid avenue

and I stopped taking dope

and I quit drinking whiskey

and my old man plays the trombone

and works out at the track.


and he says that he loves me

even though its not his baby

and he says that he'll raise him up

like he would his own son

and he gave me a ring

that was worn by his mother

and he takes me out dancin

every saturday nite.


and hey Charley I think about you

everytime I pass a fillin' station

on account of all the grease

you used to wear in your hair

and I still have that record

of little anthony & the imperials

but someone stole my record player

how do you like that?


hey Charley I almost went crazy

after mario got busted

so I went back to omaha to

live with my folks

but everyone I used to know

was either dead or in prison

so I came back in minneapolis

this time I think I'm gonna stay.


hey Charley I think I'm happy

for the first time since my accident

and I wish I had all the money

that we used to spend on dope

I'd buy me a used car lot

and I wouldn't sell any of em

I'd just drive a different car

every day dependin on how

I feel.


hey Charley

for chrissakes

do you want to know

the truth of it?

I don't have a husband

he don't play the trombone

and I need to borrow money

to pay this lawyer

and Charley, hey

I'll be eligible for parole

come valentines day.





Filipino Box Spring Hog


Well I hung on to Mary's stump

I danced with a soldier's glee

With a rum soaked crook

And a big fat laugh

I spent my last dollar on thee

I saw Bill Bones, gave him a yell

Kehoe spiked the nog

With a chain link fence

And a scrap iron jaw

Cookin up a Filipino Box Spring hog

Spider rolled in from

Hollister Burn

With a one-eyed stolen Mare

Donned himself with chicken fat

Sawin on a jaw bone violin there

Kathleen was sittin down

In little reds recovery room

In her criminal underwear bra

I was naked to the waist

With my fierce black hound

And I'm cookin up a Filipino Box Spring Hog

Cookin up a Filipino Box Spring Hog

Cookin up a Filipino Box Spring Hog


Dig a big pit in a dirt alley road

Fill it with madrone and bay

Stinks like hell

And the neighbors complain

Don't give a hoot what they say

Slap that hog

Gotta roll em over twice

Baste him with a sweeping broom

You gotta swat them flies

And chain up the dogs

Cookin up a Filipino Box Spring Hog

Cookin up a Filipino Box Spring Hog


Rattle snake piccata with grapes and figs

Old brown Betty with a yellow wig

Tain't the mince meat filagree

And it ain't the turkey neck stew

And it ain't them bruleed

Okra seeds though she

Made them especially for you

Worse won a prize for her

Bottom black pie

The beans got to thrown to the dogs

Jaheseus Christ I can always

Make room when they're

Cookin up a Filipino Box Spring Hog

Cookin up a Filipino Box Spring Hog

Cookin up a Filipino Box Spring Hog


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Reply Shadow Wolfe
9:14 PM on March 29, 2011 
HE is the shit. Plain and simple. He wrote poetry and worse.. he wrote it to go through and through our souls.. and he is amazing

Good choice
Reply barbara
5:47 PM on March 27, 2011 
Excellent choice!
Reply MrDaMan
9:30 AM on March 26, 2011 
Ahh a poet that I know and like, this is the piece that still to this day tickles my imagination... and his voice, delivery the whole schitck is like a hypnotic fascination.
Cool choice Cutter

The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)
(Tom Waits)

The piano has been drinking, my necktie is asleep
And the combo went back to New York, the jukebox has to take a leak
And the carpet needs a haircut, and the spotlight looks like a prison break
Cause the telephone's out of cigarettes, and the balcony is on the make(2)
And the piano has been drinking
The piano has been drinking, and the menus are all freezing
And the light man's blind in one eye and he can't see out of the other
And the piano tuner's got a hearing aid, and he showed up with his mother
And the piano has been drinking
The piano has been drinking
As the bouncer(3) is a sumo wrestler, cream-puff(4) Casper Milktoast(5)
And the owner is a mental midget with the IQ of a fence post
Cause the piano has been drinking
The piano has been drinking
And you can't find your waitress with a Geiger counter
And she hates you and your friends and you just can't get served without her
And the box-office is drooling, and the bar stools are on fire
And the newspapers were fooling, and the ashtrays have retired
Cause the piano has been drinking
The piano has been drinking
The piano has been drinking
not me
not me
not me
not me
Reply MoonCookee
11:47 PM on March 25, 2011 
Brother I promise we will spin the sounds of this sage when we get together. This is real life "for True." Some try to live life on life's terms but he calls life on its shit. He lights the human where people only see circumstance and judge motivations. I can honestly say that I have been changed by everything he ahs done even if by creating new automatic associations. Thank you Brother i love yo for even one more reason. Thank you.
Reply Tammy Hendrix
8:52 PM on March 25, 2011 
Seems the worn and rough always have the best stories to tell. Waits has many, never failing to educate as well as entertain. A life truly spent living. I sometimes envy that total freedom he embraces so comfortably.

Love the poetry you selected. Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis broke my heart.

Cutter darlin, you da man! ;) Great feature, as meaty as the man himself. Thank you.