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Friday, April 22, 2011

6. Tom Waits: Nighthawks At The Diner

Saying Tom Waits is a good storyteller is the equivalent of saying that Diego is pretty good with animals and zip lines. Waits is one of America's greatest singer-songwriters. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March of this year with his typical humor, stating, "They say I have no hits and that I'm difficult to work it's a bad thing."

We are currently enjoying the twilight of a career spanning over four decades, and there's tons of music to choose from, but I've chosen to highlight his 1975 double album, Nighthawks at the Diner. Recorded in front of an intimate studio audience, Nighthawks showcases Waits's storytelling prowess to its full extent. He is a wordsmith to the highest degree, paying such close attention to the details of everyday life. On Nighthawks, Waits spends the evening cracking jokes, singing his songs, and explaining the stories behind the songs. There are 18 tracks on the album, but seven of them are one to three minute introductions which is where he's free to entertain off the cuff (though, to be sure, much of the intros are rehearsed). For an hour and a half he dishes his stories stuffed with line after line of wonderfully explicit descriptions...employing metaphors, alliteration, personification, vivid verbs, you name it...if only my 4th grade writers could take a little trip down Waits Lane.

Take these quotes for example: On one's state of mind after a night out--"It's kind of around 2:30 in the morning...and you've been standing on the corner of 5th and Vermouth..." Or the simple movement of the moon--"...Looks like a yellow biscuit of a buttery cue ball moon rollin' maverick across an obsidian sky." The intro to "Eggs and Sausage" has Waits describing the food at some of the one and two star eating establishments he's frequented--"...[my] veal cutlet came down...tried to beat the s**t outta my cup o' coffee! ...Coffee just wasn't strong enough to defend itself!" Finally, in "Emotional Weather Report", Waits describes the state he's been in since she left him by saying, "Tornado warning issued for the western region of my mental health," and "...the extended outlook for an indefinite period of time 'til you come back to me, baby, is high tonight...low tomorrow...and precipitation is expected."

Side one and side two of the double album are superb...including "Emotional Weather Report", "Better Off Without A Wife", the eleven minute "Nighthawk Postcards", and the marvelous introductions that accompany the songs. The show does lull a bit after halftime, but he closes it out with the great story of "Big Joe And Phantom 309" (written by Tommy Faile and originally performed by Red Sovine in 1967...also, perhaps the influence for the character "Large Marge" in Pee Wee's Big Adventure?) and the five minute closing (where he bids farewell with the phrase "I gotta go see a man about a dog"). Here is a video of Waits performing "Eggs And Sausage" on the Mike Douglas show in 1976 courtesy of VH1. The video is long (9:30) because it includes the post-performance interview in which the chain-smoking Waits has some fun answering Douglas's questions...but young Tom seems pretty nervous as well. Enjoy.


  1. I wanna pull on your coat about something...hubba, hubba and ding ding ding...a beauty!

  2. I've never actually gotten through a whole Tom Waits song.....there I've said it. It's just something about his voice that makes me want to quit smoking before my voice goes straight past Harvey Fierstein directly into the Waits stage.

    I'd have to listen to it again to understand the lyrics, or am I getting it right by hearing him sing about a waitress listing a diner menu sounding very similar to a barker outside a strip club(don't ask me how I know that?) I think I liked the interview portion of the video more than the song. I love his quick wit.

    I've seen him in a bunch of different movies where he makes cameo appearances (he's my favorite Renfield) but never appreciated his singing voice. The way you describe the intros into his songs sounds right up my alley. Love the background stories. Perhaps I should look up some of his lyrics to get a better understanding of the man.

    Maybe its my sorely lacking vocabulary, but I love me a good wordsmith, always have. I wouldn't have previously invested any time in Tom Waits, but maybe you'll make a fan of me. Thanks for properly introducing me to this course crooner.

    Its such an admirable talent when an artist can take some small strings of an idea, mentally churn them around a bit, and weave a tapestry of innuendo into a song. Some of my favorite funny/clever songsters are Cole Porter, the Gershwin Bros., Burt Bacharach but I think my all-time favorite has got to be John Hiatt. But what do I know? I just make the donuts in this jernt!!!

  3. wife used to work for John Hiatt's sister. I don't think this album is my favorite, Diane, just the one that shows off his storytelling well. Try "Small Change" "Heartattack & Vine" or "Rain Dogs". I'd say those are my favorites.