Title: Tom Waits: Barroom Balladeer
Source: Time magazine (USA). Vol. 110, no. 22. November 28, 1977. Thanks to Kevin Molony for donating article
Date: November 28, 1977
Key words: Foreign Affairs, image, public image

Magazine front cover: Time magazine (USA). Vol. 110, no. 22. November 28, 1977

Accompanying pictures
Time magazine (USA). November 28, 1977. Photography by Gilbert Ortiz. Thanks to Kevin Molony for donating this scan
Time magazine (USA). November 28, 1977. Photography by Gilbert Ortiz. Thanks to Kevin Molony for donating this scan
Time magazine (USA). November 28, 1977. Photography by Gilbert Ortiz. Thanks to Kevin Molony for donating this scan


Tom Waits: Barroom Balladeer

A street-smart scuffler busts out of the back alleys

Tom Waits was growling. In a few hours he would be on a campus stage singing his songs and spieling his narrative jazz poetry to an audience of college kids. It was a trip he had made before. "I'd rather play a club with vomit all around me," he rasped, "than a clean little college with sassy little girls and guys with razor-cut hair and coke spoons around their necks. "

Now on tour to promote Foreign Affairs(1), his fifth album, Waits is playing fewer of the seedy nightclubs that have long been his backdrop as a performer and his inspiration as an artist. At 27, he is a street-smart scuffler who writes knowingly of dingy bars, all-night diners and down-and-outers on the make. Says he: "Life is picking up a girl with bad teeth, or getting to know one of those wild-eyed rummies down on Sixth Avenue."

To open his off-campus shows on the current tour, he has been hiring local strippers at each of his stops. They are a perfect prelude for the act that follows. When Waits finally takes the stage, an air of crushed cigarettes and damp napkins clings to him like lint. Beat-up pointed shoes, a greasy tie and baggy socks go just fine with his Salvation Army suit.

With a jazz trio providing his backup, he begins stitching together the blue collar bromides, raunchy puns and gritty street lingo that characterize his verse. "It's cold out there/ colder than a ticket taker's smile/ at the Ivar Theatre, on a Saturday night," he chants in a voice that sounds like a bad exhaust. The Ivar Theatre(2) is a two-bit Hollywood burlesque house where he has spent more than a few evenings.

Waits' specialty is the narrative tale. While a tenor sax begins some bluesy background, he lurches toward his microphone and growls his way into the urban back alleys. "Small Change got rained on with his own .38/ and his headstone's/ a gumball machine," he sings, recalling a shooting he once witnessed on New York's 23rd Street.

no more chewing gum
or baseball cards or
overcoats or dreams and
someone is hosing down the
and he's only in his teens

In jack & neal, he shifts gears to tell of a cross-country drive to California in the company of a nurse. It has all the gusty exhilaration of Kerouac's On the Road:

a redhead in a uniform will always
get you horny
with her hairnet and those white
shoes and a name tag and a
she drove like andy granatelli and
knew how to fix a flat

Waits' own street schooling began early. Born in Pomona, he was brought up in several Southern California cities after his parents, both teachers, were divorced. At 14, he began working the graveyard shift at a pizza house in National City(3), a San Diego suburb. "It was a tiny community," he likes to recall, "The main drag was a transvestite and the average age was deceased." Nightwork hampered his high school studies, but not his education. "I encountered a whole different element = people a lot older than me, pool hustlers and Mafioso types. I grew up real fast."

After dropping out of high school, he skipped through a series of jobs and eventually found work as a nightclub doorman. A self-described "private investigator" of the night, he began transcribing the common-man conversations he overheard, hoping to "forge it all into something meaningful and give it dignity."

By then he had started to read Charles Bukowski, the roustabout bard, and poet Delmore Schwartz, who died in a rundown hotel for transients in 1966. Waits has developed his own artistry beneath a muscatel exterior. "I have an image that has been cultivated, derived from the way I am, " he says. "I just try to steer a course between the pomp and the piss."

Critical acclaim, and there has been plenty, has not yet made him rich and famous. He still parks his brontosaurian 1954 Caddy behind West Hollywood's Tropicana(4) motel, a seedy tryst stop used as a setting for Andy Warhol's Heat. He keeps his piano in the kitchen. "I don't use the refrigerator," he wheezes, "and the stove is just a large cigarette lighter." His nocturnal meanderings have led to three "driving while intoxicated" arrests, and he was once nabbed while pinching cigarettes from parked cars. "Yeah, I've spent a couple of nights in the barbed wire hotel," he concedes, "All dressed up and no place to go."

If Waits' voice is a bit ragged for radio air play, his songs are not; the Eagles, Bette Midler and Jerry Jeff Walker have recorded his material. In January he will begin work on a Sylvester Stallone movie titled Paradise Alley. Waits will play a barfly named Mumbles and will compose original music for the film. Although he has given up staying in flophouses while on the road (his current band members, he explains, "aren't keen on my taste in accommodations"), success is not likely to change his style too much. "It's nice to have your own niche," he allows, "I got a signature now: I have my own turf."


(1) Tour to promote Foreign AffairsOctober 1977 - March 1978: promoting 'Foreign Affairs' (USA, Canada). Further reading: Performances

(2) The Ivar Theatre: further reading: The Ivar Theatre

(3) Pizza house in National City: further reading: Napoleone Pizza House

(4) West Hollywood's Tropicana: further reading: The Tropicana