Originally published in Melody Maker, June 21, 1975 and featured in Tom Waits on Tom Waits (Chicago Review Press, 2012)
NEW YORK—Looking as if he might have just hopped a freight train into town, Tom Waits settles into a booth at a cheap, noisy luncheonette. After stretching his legs across a bench intended for two people, he orders a beer, lights an Old Gold, and motions his companion into silence.
Over the sound of clanking glasses and silverware, the instrumental music on the speaker system is barely audible but Tom quickly identifies the tune and fills in its lyric: “Soon it’s gonna rain / I can feel it / Soon it’s gonna rain / I can tell / Soon it’s gonna rain . . .”
Tom leans back and takes a sip from the beer delivered during his impromptu performance. “This place is really the pits,” he says, smacking his lips and glancing contentedly around the dimly lit restaurant, “but I like it.”
Tom calls his two albums, Closing Time and The Heart of Saturday Night, his “diplomas,” explaining that “having a record out gets your foot in the door. You can’t play these fucking clubs without an album or two or three. And even then, you’re faced with a tremendous amount of competition.”
Though, as he himself puts it, Tom Waits “ain’t no household name,” he is doing quite well. His dark-toned ballads, which conjure up a Beat poet’s nighttime world of hookers, sailors, waitresses, and truckers, have been covered by Iain Matthews, Lee Hazlewood, Tim Buckley, and, most notably, the Eagles (who included his “Ol’ 55” in their bestselling album On the Border).
As an on-the-rise performer, Tom has encountered his share of instant friends and hangers-on; they apparently suit him no better than do large concerts or record company offices.
“You get a few breaks,” he says, guzzling what remains of his Budweiser, “and suddenly, everybody’s your pal, everybody’s asking you questions and people are shooting you full of self-confidence.
“But songwriting is a very solo effort. You just come to grips with your own creative imagination and work at it and it’s yours. You know what you’re proud of in what you do. You know where you are; you know how far you’ve come.”
He landed his first job in 1965, when he was 15. For four years, he cooked, washed dishes, and serviced toilets in a National City, California, pizza house. Then, all of a sudden, he began to switch jobs almost as frequently as he changed his clothes.
“I worked in a jewelry store,” he recalls. “Oh, I was a firefighter for a while, and drove an ice cream truck. Deliveryman, bartender, doorman at several clubs. You know, just hanging around, trying to pay the rent.”
While playing his version of What’s My Line?, Tom began to write songs on an old Gibson acoustic and to toy with the idea of pursuing a musical career. He performed at small nightspots in the San Diego area and then at L.A.’s Troubadour. On Monday evenings when that club opened its stage to all comers, Tom would take the 150-mile bus ride up from San Diego; after standing in line for several hours, he would be called onstage in time to do only a few numbers before catching a bus that would deliver him back home as the sun was coming up.
One night in 1972, Frank Zappa/Tim Buckley manager Herb Cohen heard Tom perform at the Troubadour. Impressed, Cohen added the singer to his client roster and helped him get a contract with Asylum. A little more than two years later, Tom no longer has to hassle with long bus rides or audition nights. With much of his time claimed by back-to-back engagements, he can afford to fly from gig to gig.
If his music at all reflects the changes in his lifestyle, it indicates a desire to ignore them. In his songs, Tom remains preoccupied with the way of life he experienced while working late nights at Napoleone’s Pizza House and roughing it on the job-go-round.
He also evidences a continuing fascination with the ephemeral ecstasies previously explored by such writers as Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Ray Charles, and Mose Allison.
Like the Beat poets whose readings were accompanied by unobtrusive jazz, Tom utilizes a simple, jazz-flavored instrumentation. On his albums, he plays a soft piano and is backed by a small, bass-dominated ensemble. Onstage, he performs solo, incorporating a minimum of music and sometimes, none at all.
“I’m doing spoken word now,” he explains over a second beer at the luncheonette. “I’m considered a songwriter so it’s something I gotta watch. But I’m getting tired of hearing myself sing and I like talking bits. I don’t call them poetry, ’cause there’s too many poets I admire; but they’re in an oral tradition. I call ’em ‘metropolitan double-talk.’”
Tom pulls a sheet of paper from his pocket, announcing, “This is called ‘Easy Street,’” then drops the paper and recites from memory.
Recitation over, Tom lights an Old Gold and leans back in a satisfied pose. In front of him on the Formica tabletop are an empty beer mug, a full ashtray, and a few sheets of paper containing his handwritten poems. Tom surveys the scene for a second and says that he has to be going.
You might think he was headed off to ride the freights, read poetry with Ginsberg in some all-night jazz club, or get drunk with Kerouac. But Tom has never ridden the freights; he doesn’t know Ginsberg; and Kerouac, of course, is dead.
Tom’s world is not the one he lives in but the one he reads about and imagines and describes in his songs and poetry. And his friends are not the publicists, writers, bookers, and club managers who now surround him but the Jack Kerouacs, Allen Ginsbergs, and Lenny Bruces who people his mind’s landscape.
Tom’s recollection of an article by Nat Hentoff seems to sum up the singer’s temporal displacement. “Hentoff was talking about the old days,” Tom explains, as he reaches in his pocket for change to leave the waiter. “He said he ran into Miles Davis on the street; he hadn’t seen him in several years and he was wondering how Davis would react to him ’cause they had been close before. He said they embraced and everything and Davis said, “We’re from another time, Nat, and we need our old friends.’”
Tom leaves the restaurant booth, pulls on his coat, and looks up reflectively. “We need our old friends,” he repeats. “It was just real touching, I thought.”