|Title: Tom Waits: America's youngest beatnik
Source: University of Washington Daily Newspaper (USA) February 1976, by Dave Gregor
Date: January 1976
Key words: St. Moritz Hotel, Dinah Shore Show, touring
|Source: University of Washington Daily Newspaper (USA) February 1976. Date: early 1976. Credits: photography by Dave Gregor|
Tom Waits: America's Youngest Beatnik
By D.L. Gregor(1)
It's 3:45 p.m. and phosphorescent rays of California-sun shoot into the musty bar like summer lightning. The St. Moritz Hotel on Sunset Boulevard(2) and Skid Road raconteur Tom Waits shuffles in for a waterin' - a kind of unofficial celebration for a party of one. Today is a milestone in Waits' performing career having just finished taping an appearance on the Dinah Shore Show(3) - his first network TV spot - and stealing the spotlight with his beatnik appearance and metropolitan double-talk.
If you've never heard of Tom Waits, that's all right with him. He'll get around to ya. His boozy music with 50's jazz overtones coupled with lyrics describing muscatel moons, Foster Grant car sales-men, nicotine clouds and melodramatic nocturnal scenes has a way of not showing up on Top-40 charts. It's too real for commercial radio stations. So to keep warm patty-melts in his stomach, Waits has spent most of his time since 1971 on the road - opening shows for people like Frank Zappa, Charlie Rich, Danny O'Keefe, Jerry Jeff Walker, Billy Preston and most recently Bonnie Raitt. And every time Tom sits down at Norm's for a pancake and eggs 69-cent special it's because a royalty check has come in from an Eagles, John Stewart, Tim Buckley or Bette Midler recording of one of his songs. That's the kind of star he is.
"I'm really no household word," Waits grumbles lightin' an Old Gold. "No household word at all, except in Philadelphia. Everywhere else I'm kind of a rumor in my own time... or a tumor in my own mind is a little closer to it."
Waits already has three classic LPs under his belt ("The Heart of Saturday Night," "Closing Time" and Nighthawks at the Diner") that are becoming collector's items due to his relative obscurity and growing popularity. Each vinyl work-of-art acts as a Polaroid snapshot capturing the pulse of contemporary American life in the tradition of early Beat poets. Ferlinghetti would be proud.
Tom Waits has been called a "street-corner Cole Porter," "Dylanesque" and a "hip Tom Cat," but America's youngest surviving beatnik talkin' straight from the pavement and bar-stools of life is more appropriate. And him appearing on the Dinah Shore Show was about as 'in character' as seeing Richard Milhous smoking a number at Rainbow. But the event was priceless.
Dressed in a black grungy narrow-lapeled suit, dirty white shirt open at the neck and a pencil-thin black tie knotted but not pulled tight, Waits sits backstage in the Blue room nervous and scared. At 26, he looks like an emaciated derelict whose tailor graduated from the Veterans' Thrift Shop School of Design. Six empty Coors bottles surround him and an ashtray full of Old Gold butts threatens to overflow. A television executive dressed in a sharp gray suit stares at Waits like he just saw something jump from his gamey wardrobe. Waits stares at the guestroom TV - listening to Joey Bishop announce that tomorrow will be his 35th wedding anniversary.
"Boy jumps right in, doesn't he?" Waits grumbles pulling on his beer and chewing on his thumb. His head bobbing like an apple dropped in water and fingers snappin' erratically, he yells "Ohhhh shit!" when his cue is given. He stuffs a full beer in his pocket and heads for the door.
"I don't think me going on the Dinah show is going to threaten what I do. You see, when you open in Missoula, Montana at a little club where you can spit in the front row without hitting anybody and 25 people show up on opening night all you got's a lot of bad jokes, after a while you just say, 'Look man I'm due.'"
Waits walks onto the set ("I wanted a street-light prop but these people wouldn't give me one"), sits down at his piano and sings an appropriate song for the occasion:
"warm beer and cold women, I just don't fit in
every joint I stumble into tonight
that's just how it's been
all those double knit strangers with
gin and vermouth and recycled stories
in naugahyde booths
with platinum blondes
and tobacco brunettes
I'll be drinkin' to forget you
lite another cigarette..."
"What I'm trying to do is be poignant and concerned and have some sort of social conscience and deal with the things that are real for me. I think a social conscience is a luxery when you find it and see it. "Even though a performance is a performance, I like to see a fine line between the entertainer and the entertainment. It's a lot easier to go onstage when you're authentic and you're trying to be real. I don't like anything that isn't real. "I've got hemerrhoids and a drinking problem, a girl in Philadelphia that wants to marry me and I smoke too much. But that's all personal stuff, The artists I don't enjoy are people that are like mr. Fabrication. People that are misrepresenting themselves and appealing to a mass audience and lowering the level of intergrity that most people look forward to in performers."
Having finished his only musical endeavor for the show, Waits gave the enthusiastic audience a nod and took his place on the celebrity couch - smoking like a Buick in need of a ring job.
"I don't mind doin' the show," Waits told a friend backstage, "but please don't let them just let me sit out there like a vegetable or somethun'."
Tom's manager Herb Cohen(4) (Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Tim Buckley and Alice Cooper) yells in the Blue room, "now he has to talk!!" But after three years together, Cohen isn't worried.
"I first met Tom under strange circumstances," Cohen reflects. "I was on my way to the toilet, from the front door of the Troubadour Club, and Tom was singing. I guess I heard him for about 20 seconds and that was all the time I needed."
The next day Waits signed a song-writing contract and had $300 in his pocket. Dinah Shore - in charge of celebrity flag-waving - wasn't about to let Waits' self-mocking character slide by unscathed. She jumped right in with 'probing' questions about his touring with Buffalo Bob and the Howdy Doody Review, his new album "Nighthawks at the Diner," and the nature of his love life.
"Ah... well... you see," he muttered in his drainpipe voice, "I only go out with divorced waitresses and women who've had hysterectomies and that's about the size of it."
The audience roared but Ms. Shore and her guests Joey Bishop, James Coco and Bert Convy didn't know whether he was serious or just telling the truth. But Joey Bishop didn't waste any time. He laughed and said, Waits is "a singing Lee Marvin." Waits, batting a thousand rapped out a staccato burst of... emotional investments and romantic dividends while neon swizzle sticks stirred up an obsidian sky and busses groan and wheeze... in response to a question he'd obviously forgotten. Then he added that John Denver's records were "only good for keeping the dust off your Garrard turntable." Bishop couldn't handle the loss of limelight. He stood up and said, "Tom, I hope I don't offend you, but folks (speaking to the camera) this fellow is the star of tomorrow."
"You consolidate, you coagulate, you masturbate, you beef-up when you try and be involved in a weird salad on a panel like that. You've got to jump in when they give you a chance. If you don't, Joe Bishop is going to chase you around the room with a fucking tire-iron. "The people that are watching that program are watching it for companionship. They're in a fucking hotel room in Detroit looking for a cigarette and it's a Thursday afternoon at 3:30 and their brother-in-law works at a sporting goods store in Amarillo, Texas and his wife just ran off with a Chinaman last seen heading for Billings, Montana in a GMC pickup with a bunch of Toro mowers in the back and this guy is comin' for a job interview at a one-hour Martinizing affair."
Tom was no ball-of-fire when he showed up for the taping, after being out all night crashing an olive and martini art unveiling in nearby Venice - one of his childhood haunts. But even in his boozed-out condition, Waits walked away with the show upstaging the top talk show circuit-riders with his jazzman look and barroom vernacular. It was refreshing compared to the usual lineup of has-beens, never-will-bes and unemployed animal acts that talk shows usually feature.
"At first I felt a little like an intruder," mumbled Waits sitting in his naugahyde nook in the Moritz's Ski Room, "kind of a misfit mutational subsidiary of something they didn't understand. "I thought to myself it would be nice to go out there in front of 30 million people and be hotter than a fresh-fucked fox in a forest fire - slicker than a schoolmarm's leg - but I went out there a little frightened and nervous. Everybody on that program has a thoroughbred pedigree sort of position. They've definitely quit their day jobs. "But on a program like that you become a caricature of yourself. I've been traveling for about four years and I've played in mental institutions and rehabilitation hospitals and golf-course lounges and Hell's Angels' bars and coffee houses where they serve nothing but cocoa, and after that you don't get a little bitter you get desperate. Because I don't think I could go back to drivin' a cab."
Born and raised in Los Angeles(5), Waits thrives in shabby metropolitan bar and greasy-spoon cafes gathering material for his "nocturnal emissions." Doesn't like the word poetry. He's got them half-asleep eyes that let him sneak into people's late-night fogginess as they down their fifth Jack Daniels and water. He sees them all. The gypsy hacks, the insomniacs, the barkers, the bilkers and the Interstate riggers. The ladies they catch his eye too. They be hustlin' and bustlin' and spinnin' their tales, and ol' Tom just buries his head and writes it like mail. Those checkerboard slacks and worn-out raps turn into firewood for the blaze he sings to the crowds.
"all my friends are married
every Tom & Dick and Harry
you must be strong
to go it alone
here's to the bachelors
and the bowery bums
and those who feel that they're the ones
that are better off without a wife..."
"I'm strange I guess. As strange as anyone else. All depends on what your 'criteeer' for normal is. Most artists are a little eccentric and I'll admit to that. "The people that I admire are people like Stephen Foster, Lenny Bruce, George Gershwin, Oscar Levant, Charles Bukowski, Ernie Kovaks, Joe Pine and... Good entertainers, performers and songwriters that I believe in keep one foot in the street. "I don't wanna be 'set up' and stop hustling and stop writing and being upset or concerned. I don't want to move into a new tax bracket."
Waits stretches back in his booth and takes a long pull off his cold beer like a hungry baby on pabulum. A small drop of ale lands in his week-old beard and he gently wipes it clean - cleaner than his beatnik cap that is slowly turning from light to dark brown from hair oil and car grease. The blues and jazz run through Waits' blood like Mad Dog 20 circulates through winos. I mean, he's got the feelin' stronger than a bitch in heat. It seeps from his pores and into his finger-snappin' and freeway-drivin' scat like it was genetic. ("I always wanted to be in Jet Magazine"). His growly voice transfers the smell of stale beer, loneliness, humor and pretention found in the heart of saturday night in a way that makes Satchmo sound like a eunuch. And still after three albums, there is no end in sight to his oxidized cityscapes. He's currently working on a fresh batch of street vignettes for an album called "Pasties and a G-string(6) and the continuing saga of Cheater-Slicks and Baby Moons."
"The pressure is very hard to cope with sometimes. But the way I look at it, is that I quit my day-job and what I'm doing beats the shit out of wages. There was a time when I said to myself, 'I'd give my left nut to be doin' something other than working behind a goddamn register in a hobby shop. And now I'm doin' it. All I'm concerned about is continuing to write."
(1) David Gregor (2010): "...For my last two years in the journalism program at the University of Washington, I wrote for the Entertainment Section of UW Daily Newspaper. I had a piece in most every issue from a photo essay, jazz review, rock concert, an interview with a visiting musician to any event with some entertainment value. During my winter break in 1976, I accepted an invitation from an artist's manager in L.A. to visit the southland and spend a week meeting and interviewing some of his clients. His roster of talent included Stevie Wonder, Frank Zappa and a rising talent named Tom Waits. Tom's third album Nighthawks at the Diner had recently been released on the heels of The Heart of Saturday Night. I loved both efforts and jumped at the opportunity to spend some time with the singer with the gravelly voice. The result was a long piece in the February issue of The Daily (...). I spent time with Mr. Waits on two occasions: he invited me to join him for a taping of his appearance on the Dinah Shore Show and then I met him in a bar on Hollywood Blvd where we just talked one-on-one. No attitude, no entourage, no handlers, no bullshit. Just a breath of fresh air". (Source: Deja Blooze blogspot, December 9, 2010)
(2) The St. Moritz Hotel on Sunset Boulevard: "...And a Dracula moon in a black disguise was making its way back to its pre-paid room at the St. Moritz Hotel" (Nighthawk postcards, 1975), "...Costello was the champion at the St. Moritz Hotel" (The one that got away, 1976). George Duke: "...Ladies and gentlemen, direct from the St. Moritz Hotel on the Sunset Strip, a friend of ours from Los Angeles, Mister Tom Waits! Sodden and wistful as he might be. How are you doing, buddy? Your beard's getting very good. He holds the distinction of being the only person at the St. Moritz Hotel in Los Angeles able to room next to Ray Collins for longer than three weeks at a time." (Source: Mothers of Invention show at the Orpheum Theatre, Boston, November 9, 1974).
(3) Appearance on the Dinah Shore Show: January 13, 1976 (aired February 3, 1976). Tom Waits (1976): "...I must admit that I hoisted up six tall cool ones in the back with the stage crew, before I actually went out into the limelight, and I got to sing one song and sit on the panel...She had a good personality. It was a little awkward I must admit. I was at the end of the couch....but they talked to me, they tolerated me..." (Source: unidentified BBC Interview, 1976).
(4) Tom's manager Herb Cohen: Waits' manager from 1971 to 1982. Further reading: Copyright.
(5) Born and raised in Los Angeles: Waits was born in Pomona/ CA and raised in San Diego. After he had settled in Los Angeles (summer 1971) he would often claim being born there.
(6) An album called "Pasties and a G-string..: which would turn out to become the album Small Change (with the song Pasties and a G-string), recorded July 1976 and released September 1976.