The Week That I Became a Fan of Tom Waits

It was a week ago that I officially delved into the wild, genius world of Tom Waits. God only knows what force it was that drove me toward his music (the influence of friends? or was it when I found out that my favorite movie house, the Museum of the Moving Image, will be showing Down by Law next month?). All I know is I’m now a fan and I’m so, so glad.

I started out by listening to all of The Heart of Saturday Night, Waits’ 1974 record which is ranked among the 500 greatest albums of all time by Rolling Stone. In a way it’s misleading to become too attached to this iteration of Waits’ voice since he would soon begin to sing in the guttural tones that have become his trademark (a style which is appealing but in varying degrees). Even so, “Fumblin’ with the Blues” is a highlight of a near-perfect album. I dig it.

“A Sweet Little Bullet from a Pretty Blue Gun,” which appeared on Waits’ 1978 album Blue Valentine, is performed here in concert. If jazz and blues are your cup(s) of tea, then you might love this sound. It seems to me that Tom Waits engenders extreme reactions from listeners: you might be obsessed with his gravel-throated rasp or you might think it’s the worst thing you ever heard. Your decision.

Tom Waits has been on “The Late Show” many times in the last thirty years but this is possibly my favorite appearance. Performing “Tango Till They’re Sore” and “Time” from Rain Dogs (1985), another of those “greatest albums of all time,” the songs are punctuated by a interview. You don’t often find musicians who are actually so engaging, even when being – dare I say it – weird. Embracing individuality, introversion, awkwardness: it works for Tom Waits. You can tell that David Letterman is a genuine fan.

Bonus (if you’re still hanging in there): “Temptation” from Franks Wild Years (1987). One Internet description: “like Prince with emphysema.” It’s very lounge lizard-y. As a music video from MTV’s golden age of Madonna and George Michael, Waits’ off-kilter, sort of bizarre musical choices stand out. It would take far too long for this one post to further explore the next half-century of Tom Waits’ discography, but feel free to go for it on your own. You’re not likely to find anyone else quite like him.

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