Title: Waits: The Great White Hope
Source: MelodyMaker. October 4, 1975 by Steve Lake. Thanks to Ken Langford for donating scans
Date: New York/ USA., September 16-20, 1975. Published: October 4, 1975
Keywords: Reno Sweeneys. Al Cohn, Visions Of Cody, writing

Magazine front cover: MelodyMaker. October 4, 1975

Accompanying picture
Asylum promo picture. Date: ca. 1974/ 1975. Credits: Michael Ochs archives


Waits: The Great White Hope

By Steve Lake in New York

This is an old diner on the funky end of 8th Avenue, hung with grease stained cardboard plaques that say things like "Hamburg + french fries + coleslaw = 95c" or "Try our soup of the day. Different soup daily 20c."

Green tiled walls and green chipped Formica work-bench type counter tops, the dreary uniformity of colour broken by hulking and battered aluminium urns.

Tom Waits feels at home. Most of the... uh... clientele here are earthy working men, burly constructing crew workers, truck drivers, and the odd derelict, most of these red nosed and grimy and sporting the standard wino trim - three days of stubble, what remains of heads of hair ancjhored down to scabbed scalps by months, years of sweat and dirt.

Nobody here realises they're dining with the great left-field hope of the David Geffen empire. Yes sir, from the team that gave you the Eagles, Joni Mitchell, the Souther Hillman Furay Band, and even (for a while) Bob Dylan - Elektra/ Asylum Records presents ... (fanfare of trumpets)... Tom Waits!

Tom Waits is the worst dressed man I ever saw. Impossibly crumpled, three-sizes-too-big, dark grey suit, collar liberally sprinkled with dandruff, columinous torn T-shirt decorated with axle-grease thumb prints and a flat cap with grimy brim of which has been all but rubbed away by generations of usage. From underneath, straw coloured curls protrude, crowning a drained and pallid face. Bloodshot eyes, hollow cheeks and a whispy goatee.

Although reluctant to admit it, Waits has consciously styled his artistic and personal development along the lines laid down in the Fifties by the so-called Beat Generation - taking as his model writers like Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and particularly Jack Kerouac.

And never mind that virtually all the writers involved in that very loose movement ultimately disowned their hobo on-the-road years, Waits is passionately commited to the spirit of the Fifties and all that it entailed.

In the grand Beat tradition, Waits sits in seedy luncheonettes and crowded bars writing down conversations that he hears around him, and later turns these into songs.

And the Kerouac influence makes itself manifest in these songs in more than just general terms. Why, the very title of Waits' second album "The Heart Of Saturday Night" is in direct reference to a passage from Kerouac's book Visions Of Cody, and the theme of the whole album is essentially little more than an elaboration, albeit articulate, on this self-same passage, (Pages 80 through 85 in the McGraw Hill paperback edition, if you want to check it out for yourselves.)

And, when it came to selecting a Fifties style back-up trio for his New York appearance at the swanky Reno Sweeneys Club(1), who should Waits choose to front such a band but tenorist Al Cohn(2), who just happens to be the saxophonist who worked with - you guessed it - ol' Jack Dulouz Kerouac himself on a 1960 jazz/poetry album called "Blues/ Haikus".

To be sure, then pianist/ guitarist/ singer/ raconteur Tom Waits walks that most perilous of lines between idolisation on the one hand and downright plagiarism on the other.

But what does Waits have that's his own? you ask. Well, Kerouac never actually wrote songs as such, of course, and thus, unlike Waits, never got his material recorded by the Eagles, Bette Midler, Ian Matthews, Lee Hazelwood and Tim Buckley - to name but five. Not that Waits likes any of the cover versions overmuch.

"The Eagles made 'Ol' '55' really antiseptic, y'know, and that song's on juke boxes everywhere now. When I hear those songs and the real essence doesn't come across, I figure that maybe the songs just ain't strong enough."

This lack of conviction in his songwriting ability has made Waits lean progressively more and more heavily (on stage) on his words.

"If I can't find a melody to hang the words on to, I just don't worry about it. I do it anyway, without music. I got a thing on my upcoming album called 'Spare Parts', which is a thing I wrote but in the final analysis it's a solo effort, it's something you do by yourself and nobody can really tell anybody else how to do it.

"It starts off as a vicarious sort of thrill. Through somebody else's work you get the feeling that you could do something like that, but then later you find out how very difficult it actually is to do something meaningful."

And for tom Waits, his most "meaningful" effort to date is his new album - a live double album recorded, paradoxically, in the studios. To get the necessary nightclubatmosphere, Tom moved tables and chairs into his favourite studio, opened a bar and invited his friends along. The record is called 'Nighthawks At The Diner".

"It's probably the newness of it that makes me like it the most. I don't know - I never play my old records, so it's difficult to be objective. There's a new thing I've done called 'Eggs And Sausage' which I'm really pleased with, and another one called 'Warm Beer And Cold Women'... oh and there's one called 'Putnam County' which is a little vignette about a naugahide town in Kentucky...

"I've always found it awkward to adjust to the studio - that knowledge that you've got the same facilities as any other artist at your disposal - you can go in and make a great album or you can go in and suck raw eggs."

At Reno Sweeney's Tom Waits looks absurdly incongruous. The t-shirt has been replaced by a white more conventional variety and a skinny lifeless necktie is knotted about halfway down his chest. But otherwise it's the same sad suit and cap and peeling chisel toe shoes.

Reno Sweeney's, you should understand, is what London's Biba's Rainbow Room is supposed to be, stylised eleganza.

Al Cohn pushes his tenor through a few genteel paces, blinking owlishly behind his spectacles. Come to think of it, he hasn't changed much since the Fifties either. He's still sounding like a bluesier synthesis of Lester Young and Charlie Parker: not an unhealthy combination, let it be said.

But Cohn doesn't get enough room to move. This is Tom Waits' show and the music is secondary to the imagery. Unobtrusive background music, that's all that's required of one of the most important tenorists of the post war years, a guy on a par with Zoot Sims and Stan Getz. Which isn't to knock Waits necessarily - the jazz poetry fusions throughout history have usually transpired in the music losing out, relegated to a backseat role.

And tom waits is babbling. "Under the circumcision this is pretty prophylactic," he blurts at one point to more titters, and later I think I hear him cram a couple of stanzas from Kerouac's "Mexico City Blues" into the proceedings, but I can't be sure, and nobody else seems to notice. Seems we can't avoid talking about Kerouac. I prevail on him to explain the roots of this obsession.

"I'm interested in the style mainly. Before I found Kerouac I was kinda groping for something to hang on to, stylistically.

"I was kinda lost in the Sixties. Y'know I kinda slept in the Sixties. Knowing I wanted to do something creative, not knowing how or where to do it."

Living in California Waits remained immune to the celebrated San Francisco music explotion.

"I thought it was a waste of time, I knew it was going to consume itself pretty rapidly. I was more interested in the early beginnings of that scene than I was in its progress.

"I didn't go to San Francisco until the whole love and flowers bit was all over, and when I did go I was looking for the City Lights Bookstore and the ghost Jack Kerouac.

"Writing is a much more easy business to discuss," he croaks, "than to actually get down and do it yourself. You can talk for days about how you write or where you write or how you like the room or what you write about."


(1) Appearance at the swanky Reno Sweeneys Club: Paradise Room at the Reno Sweeney. New York/ USA September 16 to 20, 1975. Further reading: Performances

(2) Al Cohn: "And Al Cohn sharin' this apartment with a telephone pole" (Pasties & a G-string, 1976). Alvin Gilbert Cohn. Born: Brooklyn, NY, November 24 1925 - Died: February 15 1988. American arranger, composer and jazz saxofonist. Also played on Jack Kerouac's "Blues and Haikus", 1960