With a voice like scotch – strong, single malt, peaty scotch- and music bordering on folk, rock, jazz and indie combining together to be the epitome of the alternative genre, Tom Waits is a music legend. Said to have inspired Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker, the trilby wearing, reclusive Californian musician has been active since the 70s and is still going strong. I still feel like a rookie myself after only fully appreciating him for three years but, to all those Tom Waits newbies out there, here is a quick trek through a playlist which incorporates (as best I can) the full spectrum of my favourite man.
Somewhere The one thing that is immediately identifiable in any Waits’ track is his voice. It isn’t just a scat jazz style voice, or just a mumbling growl, it is remarkably beautiful, and that is exhibited perfectly in a cover of the West Side Story song ‘Somewhere’ (perhaps the most moving version you’ll hear).
It seems only fitting to follow this with a, somewhat surprising, duet with Bette Midler on I Never Talk to Strangers.
But don’t feel too comfortable with Tom (he’s not one for that). His songs are never far from weird, so next is Kommienezuspad – a bizarre song whose sleeve notes contain the explanation ‘Fake German’.
Skipping a few, we get to Rain Dogs for the granddaddy of all Tom Waits records: a little bit of a hard listen for a stranger to him, but regarded by many fans as his best LP. Rain Dogs is a feat in musical originality.
Now for the religious section (as said by LODHO during their Tom Waits cover act at a London concert upon reaching these two tracks). Chocolate Jesus and Jesus Gonna Be Here, where he manages to border on gospel.
Moving back a little, we next reach an iconic track from Rain Dogs, Cemetery Polka which I defy you to dislike. Containing some of his strangest lyrics, ‘Uncle Bill will never leave a will, and the tumour is as big as an egg. He has a mistress, she’s Puerto Rican, and I heard she has a wooden leg,’ it is Tom at his stuttering, spluttering best.
Addressing his rumours and his media portrayals in What’s He Building In There, Waits narrates the speculations about a reclusive man who must be a murderer, must be a paedophile, must have something wrong with him because he’s all alone (echoing what Waits must have heard countless times about his own private media profile).
Another iconic Waits’ song, Heartattack and Vine, this is Waits’ voice at (in my opinion) its peak: gravelly, and grainy, soaked in bourbon, and yet howling and displaying massive range.
I cannot have a Tom Waits playlist without 9th and Hennepin. One of the most remarkable things about Waits is his capability to write fantastic lyric after fantastic lyric, even after a career spanning 16 studio albums. Possibly my favourite lyric in musical history is in this song (have you spotted, it yet?) “and the girl behind the counter has a tattooed tear, one for every year he’s away she said, such a crumbling beauty, ah there’s nothing wrong with her a hundred dollars won’t fix, but she has that razor sadness that only gets worse with the clang and the thunder of the Southern Pacific going by.” Followed by a close second for lyrics The Piano Has Been Drinking.
And it all ends by showing what Waits is underneath everything: a romantic. Martha is perhaps his first most well-known song appearing on his debut album, and exhibiting the softer side to Waits’ voice.
Don’t let the appreciation end there. I will not stop recommending Tom Waits to people (and have already sent this exact playlist to two close friends). Listen to the albums Closing Time, Rain Dogs, Bone Machine, andBad As Me and let the loving continue (and invest in a trilby hat that is ever so slightly too small for your head like the man himself).