Title: Tom Waits: Thursday Afternoon, Sober As A Judge
Source: Music World (USA) by Jeff Walker. June 1, 1973 
Date: probably late May 1973
Keywords: early career, Asylum, San Diego, Herb Cohen, touring 

Magazine front cover:"Music World" magazine. June, 1973. Photography by Kim Gottlieb.


Tom Waits: Thursday Afternoon, Sober As A Judge


It is sometimes extremely difficult to separate an artist from the trend he's involved in; even if there's only a single element that makes him a part of that trend. Tom Waits falls victim to that dilemma on two counts(1). He is a singer-songwriter, and he records for Asylum Records i.e. David Geffen and Elliott Roberts.

Why being an artist who happens to perform his own material has become at once a stigma and a fashion is really impossible to say. Forty years ago it was unheard of; composers peddled their songs to publishers, or possibly singers, and were never even encouraged to actually perform them except in the act of peddling. Those who did play their own songs were usually blues or folk singers, singing form the moment, or their souls, rather than from a constructed, written piece of work. A decade ago the Beatles and Beach Boys broke ground for groups by writing their own material, and Dylan, Donovan and Tim Hardin made varying degrees of history with their own recordings. But it wasn't really until James Taylor, Joni Mitchell an Neil Young began selling records that being a "singer-songwriter" became a full-fledged trend and thus began the process of cynicizing the publics' (and the press') response. The usual reaction to a new "singer-songwriter" has become cautious and skeptical; often justifiably so.

Oddly, though, this course in popular music has generally encompassed performers working within a folk or country framework. Tom Waits is among the first, and the most outstanding, to work almost exclusively within the context of a mellow jazz-blues. Tom's music is characterized by a moody, almost sullen but not self-pitying, atmosphere; a tinkling piano and muted trumpet underscoring his emotional output and a drawling delivery that draws the listener into his grasp.

Tom is also the first solo recording artist on Asylum (whose record has been released) to stray from the country-folk format that the label has become identified with. "I'm very glad I'm a departure for Asylum. I'm getting pretty sick of the country music thing. I went through it, wrote a lot of country songs and thought it was the answer to everything. But the way you say something in a song is really just that. A lot of great country songs say a lot of great things, but the format is so limited. Anyway, so much of it is really Los Angeles country music, which just isn't country, it's Laurel Canyon...It's very difficult to live a country frame of mind when you're living in L.A., so I just identify more with the sounds of the city. I'm really leaning towards jazz now, though I'm not a jazz musician by any stretch of the imagination."

Tom Waits spent the first half of his 23 years in the stony isolation of Whittier, Calif., "The Birthplace of the President". The following years were divided among homes around the San Diego area--Chula Vista, National City, El Cajon, La Mesa and Mission Beach. He played trumpet in the Robert E. Lee Elementary School band and eventually spent from 15 to 20 cooking at Napolean's Pizza House(2) in San Diego, listening to whatever happened to be on the juke box. The next stop was Mission Beach and a job at the Heritage(3), a folk to where besides the usual coffeehouse chores Tom built a working knowledge of guitar and piano.

Waits began composing four years ago, but the thought of selling his songs didn't come until two years later. He was then faced with the decision of what direction to take in going about the selling. San Diego didn't hold what he wanted. "San Diego musicians stay there and hope something is going to happen, but it never does. Nothing happens down there. You play in a rock band in high school and when you get out you end up playing in some swank club behind a girl singer or you stay in the rock band, play GI dances and get paid peanuts." But at the time L.A. didn't hold much either. "I came up as often as I could, but I didn't want to move here until something was happening. I just didn't want to wind up in a gas station."

During a year of coming to L.A. from San Diego once a month to play hoot night at the Troubadour(4) (up at 6 a.m., L.A. by 9:30, sit in front of the Troub. until 6 p.m., sign up, disappear, return at 9, wait your turn, play four tunes and go home) Herb Cohen heard Tom and signed him as a songwriter for Third Story Music. As is usual in such cases a tape of Tom performing five songs made the rounds of record company A&R departments. "We had a lot of nips at the line, but Asylum bit the hardest, so that's where we went.''

Although definitely a part of the Asylum recording family, Tom is still managed by Herb Cohen, not Geffen-Roberts--a rarity, but not unheard of. That distinction does however contribute to some professional separation from the rest of Asylum's artists, most of whom "are related musically. They all know each other well and do their business at Asylum. When I go to the "office", it's to Third Story. As a label though, I'm very glad to be with them. David Geffen does a lot for his artists. He gets very excited about them. It's not just signing somebody's life away, he's personally interested in them. In the record industry most labels have a huge amount of artists; each has their biggies and their hopefuls. But Asylum is still small; each artist is treated like one."

About to leave on his first national tour(5), Tom is anxious for he creative fodder the experience will give him and is raving about the band accompanying him. Bob Webb on bass, Rich Felts on trumpet and John Forsha on guitar--none of whom play on the record, but all of whom "just get better and better". The music will emphasize piano ("the most neglected and misused instrument around") and trumpet ("I really don't play it that well, and don't at all in public, but I find that writing with the trumpet is very easy. It helps to pick out notes on: just to be able to sit down and pick out a melody line that you can sing.") and mood. Tom will limit himself to his own material. He doesn't feel it's his place to interpret another composer's song, though he does hope he will be, particularly by Bonnie Raitt or Bette Midler whom he considers, "the finest interpreters" now performing.

At any rate, Tom Waits has definitely avoided that unwanted job at a gas station. Los Angeles has, however, made its mark on Tom in two other ways. His tattoo, fresh from a downtown parlor, of a heart and flowers and space for a name to be added when the right one comes along. "Thursday afternoon, sober as a judge and yes, it hurts. But if it hurt too much nobody would get them." And his rather ramshackle abode behind a liquor store in Silverlake--filled with books, magazines and dirty dishes.

As Tom speaks, sitting on an old dusty armchair in the midst of this all too familiar squalor, with one cat asleep on his lap and another on mine, all those years of city-living at its worst wash over me. The thought strikes me that Tom has it a bit backwards; you're supposed to pay your dues before you start to make it. But then, he is only 23 and his life up to now does seem to have been void of too much dues paying, at least on any great traumatic levels. Tom's demeanor is certainly not cocky or over-confident, but one senses the possibility that he feels it all did happen too easily and he's just not ready to start living 'the Good Life'. There is still too much creative potential in being down and out.

Tom's unique blend of boyish enthusiasm-innocence and practiced barroom cynicism is sometimes deceptive, but he's never defensive or apologetic about the breaks he has gotten. Tom sees his music as original and valid: he honestly feels he's got a lifetime of musical ideas within him and the earlier he gets started the better. After all, life starts when you're born, not when you're ready for it.




(1) Tom Waits falls victim...: "That summer Waits was interviewed by Jeff Walker for the free magazine Music World. "He was so open." Walker recalls, "We talked about music and jazz and beat poetry. He picked up a trumpet and played a little riff on that. We loved him. "Waits, says Walker was smarting from a tattoo he'd just had done in a downtown parlour. "Thursday afternoon, sober as a judge," he said of the heart and flowers design. "And yes, it hurts." As Jeff and his photographer girlfriend Kim Gottlieb drove home to Laurel Canyon, they decided to make Waits the cover star of the June issue. "Because we were a free magazine, we didn't have to put somebody well known on the cover," says Gottlieb. "We could afford to take somebody that not too many people knew and put them on the cover." Adds Walker, "We went away and said to ourselves, 'This is going to be an important record and this guy's going to be an important artist.' You felt really privileged to be meeting him." Walker saw Waits' boho-beatnik act as a conscious assertion of identity. "It seemed to me this was all very deliberate, pushing the boundaries and genres that he had come out of," he says. "But he was fairly forthcoming. He wasn't holding back or mysterious." (Source: Jeff Walker interview March 15, 2007 as quoted in “Lowside Of The Road: A Life Of Tom Waits" by Barney Hoskyns. Faber/ Broadway, 2009)

(2) Napolean's Pizza Housefurther reading Napoleone Pizza House

(3) The Heritage: further reading: The Heritage Coffeehouse

(4) The Troubadour: further reading: The Troubadour

(5) About to leave on his first national tour: first tour promoting Closing Time (April 1973 - June 1973). Further reading: Performances