Title: Sweet And Sour
Source: Newsweek magazine (USA), by Betsy Carter with Peter S. Greenberg. Transcription as published on Gary Tausch's Tom Waits Miscellania (kind permission Gary Tausch).
Date: published June 14, 1976
Keywords:Childhood, Bonnie Raitt

Magazine front cover: Newsweek magazine. June 14, 1976


Sweet And Sour


An inebriated good evening to you all,
Welcome to Raphael's Silver Cloud Lounge
Slip me a little crimson, Jimson
Gimme the lowdown, Brown
I want some scoop, Betty Boop
I'm on my way into town ...

Tom Waits is on a darkened stage. A single spotlight illuminates his seemingly wasted body. The cigarette he is smoking has burned down to his fingers while Waits scats his way through his jive repertoire. Wearing a baggy suit, a tattered wollen cap and yesterday's stubble, he looks more like a guest in a fleabag hotel than a rising new singer with three popular albums.

In a way, Waits isn't a singer at all: he talks a syncopated, stream-of-consciousness tour of the seamy side streets of America, backed by a soulful jazz quartet. All this has already won him a cult following in the music industry, and he has recently been playing to SRO audiences around the country and is currently attracting capacity crowds on his first European tour. "I've got a personality that an audience likes," he suggests, "I'm like the guy they knew - someone raggedy and irresponsible - who never really amounted to much but was always good for a few laughs. A victim, just a victim. But I don't mind the image."

Day Sleeper: Waits' sweet-and-sour serenades about eggs-over-easy and the lost American dream place him well beyond his 26 years. He is a middle class southern California kid who dropped out of the hippie generation: "The '60's weren't particularly exciting for me," says Waits, "I wasn't into sand castles and I didn't have any Jimi Hendrix posters on my wall. I didn't even have a black light." After high school in San Diego, he worked as a janitor, dishwasher and cook(1). "I would stay out all night," he remembers, "I loved it. I became a day sleeper."

At 19, Waits got hip to day sleepers' music - jazz. That's where he discovered Dizzy Gillespie, Mose Allison, the Beat poets and a broken-down piano that played only the black keys. "I soon taught myself to play everything in F sharp, and little by little I got to be all right." In 1972, Waits took his bluesy, boozy act to amateur night at Los Angeles' Troubadour Club and within a year he had gathered an impressive following, including Elton John, Bette Midler, and Joni Mitchell. When Bonnie Raitt went out on tour last year, she took Waits and his act along(2) - but he went out of his way to spend his nights in seedy flophouses. :Tom's a real original," says Raitt, "He's a window on a scene we never got close to. He's able to make all the double knits both tragic and romantic at the same time."

Naugahyde Booths: Waits' behaviour on the stage is just as anti-social. He ignores the audience, shuffles anxiously about, glares at the floor and lights up one cigarette after another.. Once the music starts, his right hand starts snapping while his left foot taps out the beat. Waits' word-clogged monologues about Naugahyde booths, truck stops and platinum blondes stumble from his lips almost unintelligibly. He whips up stories like a short order cook and laces them with a dash of adolescent humour and a sprinkling of word games ("I am a rumour in my own mind, a legend in my own time, a tumour in my own mind"). He flips open a beer, takes a few sips and slips the can into his jacket pocket. The foam dribbles down his leg onto the floor among the countless cigarette butts and crumpled pieces of paper.

This self-conscious, bowery bum persona only works to hide Waits' talent as an original writer with a unique mixture of blues and jazz in his music. Critics call his style affected and his poetry puerile ("A yellow biscuit of a buttery cueball moon rollin' maverick across an obsidian sky"). But Waits sees himself as the voice of everyman. "There's a common loneliness that just sprawls from coast to coast," he says, "It's like a common disjointed identity crisis. It's the dark, warm narcotic American night. I just hope I'm able to touch that feeling before I find myself one of these days double-parked on easy street." Right now, Waits is still on the way into town.

- Betsy Carter with Peter S. Greenberg in Los Angeles


(1) Dishwasher and cook: further reading: Napoleone Pizza House full story

(2) She took Waits and his act along: Waits and Raitt toured together October - November, 1975. Further reading: Performances.