Title: Tom Waits: Blues
Source: The New Yorker. December 27, 1976 by James Stevenson. Transcription as published in "Innocent When You Dream", edited by Mac Montandon (Thunder's Mouth Press, 2005)
Date: "My Father's Place" Roslyn, Long Island. December 1976
Keywords: childhood, influences, performing


Tom Waits: Blues


Tom Waits is a twenty-six-year-old composer and performer who looks like an urban scarecrow. He wears a ratty black cap pulled down over his left eye, a coat that is simultaneously too big and too small, paper thin pointy black shoes, and a couple of days' worth of beard. He appears to have slept in a barrel. His voice is a scabrous rasp, which can become - onstage - an effective instrument, with a wide range of color and feeling. His lyrics reflect a landscape that is bleak, lonely, contemporary: all-night diners; cheap hotels; truck stops; pool halls; strip joints; Continental Trailways buses; double knits; full table rail shots; jumper cables; Naugahyde luncheonette booths; Foster Grant wraparounds; hash browns over easy; glasspacks and overhead cams; dawn skies "the color of Pepto Bismol." His songs - mostly blues - are not everybody's cup of Instant Nestea, but they range from raunchy to beautiful. His fourth album, Small Change, recently appeared, and one song in it, called "Tom Traubert's Blues," is extraordinarily moving. We went out to Roslyn Long Island, early on a Friday night to see Waits perform at a club called My Father's Place(1).

It was next to an overpass of Northern Boulevard; with heavy traffic moving eastward above, it was a setting as melancholy as one of Waits's blues. The empty club was low ceilinged and black walled; chairs for about four hundred sat upside down on long, narrow tables under dull yellow lights. A man dollied cases of liquor by; a couple of waitresses at a table stacked with menus were writing in "Pizza $3.50" on each. On a stage in one corner, Waits and his band bass player, drummer, and sax were running a sound check, playing fragments of songs. Red and blue spotlights came on, went off. Waits was bent over the keyboard of the piano, a cigarette jiggling from his jaw. "There's no presence," the sax player complained into his mike. Waits, speaking into his mike, said, "Darken the sax." Men started putting the chairs on the floor: slam, crash, jangle. A spotlight cut across the room, hovered on the stage, went out. Waits stepped down from the stage. Because he was wearing black clothes in the dark club, only the small orange glow of his cigarette indicated his whereabouts.

The first show was a full house, and it went very well. Waits included one of his new songs, "Step Right Up," which is a high speed scat assemblage of unrelated sales pitches ("You too, can be the proud owner of the quality goes in before the name goes on ... year end clearance ... white sale ... smoke damaged furniture you can drive it away today ... never needs winding"), and did a couple of encores.

Between shows, we went down to a basement room and found Waits seated at a table having a beer. He is a private sort of person, older than his years; skinny, angular, and longfaced; reflective eyes in the shadow of his cap brim. He smiled and growled a pleasant greeting, and told us he was a highschool dropout from Los Angeles and San Diego. His parents were teachers. "When I was in school, I was in trouble a lot. Conflict with teachers. Malicious mischief I got no sympathy from my folks, being teachers themselves. I was wasted all day, because I worked in a restaurant(2) until four in the morning. I was dishwasher, waiter, cook, janitor, plumber - everything. They called me Speed O Flash. Sundays, I'd come in at 6 a.m. and wash, buff, and wax the floors. There was a good jukebox - played 'Cryin' Time' and 'I Can't Stop Loving You.' We had an old piano in our house, but I wouldn't go near it. Scared me. When I was about seventeen, they threw it away, and I put it in the garage. I was an investigator at the keyboard. I was curious about melody. If I wanted to learn a key, I'd write a melody in that key. I went to a predominantly black junior high school in San Diego(3), where the only music was black hit parade - James Brown, the Supremes, Wilson Pickett - but by then I'd had a lot of incongruous musical influences: jazz, Gershwin, Porter, Kern, Arlen, Carmichael, Mercer, Louis Armstrong, Stravinsky, Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt. During the height of rock and roll, I kept a low profile. I used to read Hubert Selby, Kerouac, Larry McMurtry, John Rechy, Nelson Algren. My reading now is mostly limited to menus and street signs. I liked comedians and storytellers: Wally Cox, Harry the Hipster, Rodney Dangerfield, Redd Foxx, Lord Buckley. I worked in a gas station, didn't do major repairs - Mrs. Ferguson would come in and want her tires rotated; kids want a dollar's worth; fill 'er up; ding, ding - and I worked in a jewelry store, drove delivery trucks, cabs, a Tropic ice-cream truck. Was a firefighter in a town near the Mexican border - brush fires, mostly. Drank coffee, played checkers, looked at Playboy, threw darts. Then I got a job as doorman at a night club in L.A.(4) and I listened to all the acts from the door. I heard bluegrass, comics, folk singers, string bands. At the same time. I was picking up people's conversations in all-night coffee shops - ambulance drivers, cabdrivers, street sweepers. I did research there as an evening curator, and I started writing gingerly. I thought at some point I'd like to forge it all into something meaningful, and give it dignity."

Around that time, Waits began performing. Audiences often made it clear that they couldn't stand him. "There were nights when it was like pulling teeth," he said. Now that is changing. Waits said, "The artist business is merchandise. I see it from the bowel now. One night off in two weeks. The problem with performing is it's repetitive, and unless I can come up with something new each night, I find it gruelling. Like I'm just a monkey on a stick. So I try to stretch out nightly, make something of it. And that's very valuable to me, and a lot of songs come out of that. My creative climate is relatively the same as it used to be. Maybe I keep my eyes open a little longer. I still love living in hotels. Transient hotels. I live in a nine dollar a night hotel in L.A., I know every flop in every town. Cheap hotels remind me of home a lot more than some sanitary protection place. They're a little more humane. They remember your name, too. If you get hungry at three A.M., you can go downstairs and the desk clerk will give you half his sandwich. They won't do that at a Hilton."


(1) At a club called My Father's Place: November 05, 1976 (Friday). My Father's Place: Roslyn Village, Long Island, New York/ USA. Opened by Travis Shook and The Club Wow. Further reading: Performances

(2) Because I worked in a restaurant: further reading: Napoleone Pizza House

(3) Junior high school in San Diego: Hilltop High School within the Sweetwater Union High School District, Chula Vista

(4) A job as doorman at a night club in L.A: further reading: The Heritage