guidelogo.gif[He doesn’t write them anymore — in fact, they aren’t even online anymore — but truth be known, it was my good friend Ben Wiser who inspired the original Idiot’s Guide series, via his impassioned, messy, and always entertaining Field Guides. He always wrote about artists I’d never bothered to investigate too deeply, or that I’d written off outright, and even when I knew I didn’t like whatever music he was writing about, he always had a way of making me want to go back and listen to it again.

Anyway, toward the end of ’05, I got a request from Eric at Theme Park Experience for a Tom Waits Guide. I love Waits’ early Asylum albums, but some of his stuff is beyond me, so although I’ve got all his records, that’s something I’d never write.

Luckily, though, one of Ben’s old Field Guides focused on Waits (and, actually, was my reason for going back and filling in the gaps in my own Waits collection). Through his kind permission, we re-christened it and republished it way back in ’06 — now here it is again. Enjoy!]

Closing Time (1973)
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Closing Time

Tom’s debut as the late night, honeythroated troubadour. He covers a lot of ground on this one. It’s amazing to think of this as a debut, I mean, it sounds like he’s been doing it for years. If a heart beats in your chest, “Martha” (download) and “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You” (download) will make you weep. The whole thing is a classic. Like a Capra film, it’s good for the holidays.

The Heart of Saturday Night (1974)
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The Heart of Saturday Night

Call it Closing Time Part II with more traces of rock and folk coming in with everything else. A classic in its own right — listen to “San Diego Serenade” (download) and “The Heart of Saturday Night” (download).

Nighthawks at the Diner (1975)
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Nighthawks at the Diner

A pretty cool document of Tom’s live set at the time. His folk/country tunes are the most memorable. Some great little anecdotes and jokes accompany the songs, but it’s not a release that I would deem essential:although the old trucker ghost story “Big
Joe and Phantom 309” (download) and “Better Off Without A Wife” (download) are pretty cool.

Small Change (1976)
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Small Change

Well, here we are: The closest thing we have to the great American novel set to music. Small Change is my favorite Tom Waits album, but don’t rush out and get it, there’s a lot to be said for the other ones.

No Á¢€” go get it, get it today Á¢€” and tonight you’ll be thanking me. This is the Citizen Kane of Tom’s albums. This was also the album where the gravelly voice came out in spades — listen to “Step Right Up” (download) and “Invitation to the Blues” (download):

Foreign Affairs (1977)
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Foreign Affairs

After the pomp and circumstance of Small Change, this album is a real mixed bag. It’s also very cinematic; it unfolds with tales of love gone wrong, gone away, gone awry, and just plain gone.

“I Never Talk to Strangers” (download) is a saccharine-sweet duet by Tom and Bette Midler and it’s just too cool. Some of the album feels like re-treads of the more epic parts of Small Change, but never quite gets to that greatness. However, “Burma-Shave” (download) is perhaps one of Tom’s best songs hands down — and one of the all-time best songs by anyone, ever.

Blue Valentine (1978)
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Blue Valentine

This bridges the Los Angeles and San Diego balladeering of the first two records, the St. Louis and New Orleans of Small Change with the New York and New Jersey of Blue Valentine. The beautiful losers that have filled Tom’s landscape before are less beautiful now and the stakes are higher.

This album contains four of my all-time favorite songs: “Blue Valentines” (download), Tom’s take on “Somewhere” from West Side Story, the moving autobiographical “Kentucky Avenue” (download), and the breakdown-inspiring “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis.”

Heartattack and Vine (1980)
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Heartattack and Vine

A lot of Tom’s songs remind me of all the great rock and roll protagonists Á¢€” Springsteen’s characters in his Scorcesian rock operas of Born to Run and The Wild, the innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle, the dealers, junkies, and street people that populate Lou Reed’s records, and all the young dudes, the morning after the gang fight, what becomes of the guy with the car and the girl and nothing left to lose, they all gravitate into the quiet introspection of Tom Waits’ narrative landscape of dreamers and drifters.

Heartattack and Vine brings us to the seediest spots on the rock and roll landscape. Only in the masterful “Jersey Girl” (download) is there any chance of redemption or hope. (And Springsteen would repay the favor when he included “Jersey Girl” on his live album; the royalty checks are still rolling in for Tom.) The rest are nestled in the shag carpet of run down hotel rooms, the cracks of the sidewalk, and empty bottles.

Like a book of Bukowski short stories, each song paints a picture of the downtrodden that can only stay down. As the protagonist leaves behind his lover at the end of the album, the bittersweet “Ruby’s Arms” (download), he decides that maybe the only way to get up is to keep yourself down. The album also points to what was to come next: Tom’s lyrics, a rhyming, sing song of beat poignancy and sharp-as-a-tack verse.

Swordfishtrombones (1983)
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Like the Wizard of Oz going from black and white into color, Swordfishtrombones marked a drastic change from one world to another. Gone was the world of neon-light swizzle sticks and all-night diners, now Tom’s world opened up to all sorts of Boschian horrors and wonders.

Experimental jazz? Nah, too easy to call it something as simple as that.

Gone were the huge string sections, now strange percussion, Tim Burton-esque arrangements, sea shanties, vaudeville, torch songs, demented ragtime and blues. The album is as dense as its soundscape, only letting up the assault for the brief beautiful ballads of “Johnsburg, Illinois” (download) and the funeral dirge of “Soldier’s Things” (download). Swordfishtrombones is as drastic and vital a change as when Bob Dylan plugged in his first electric guitar.

Rain Dogs (1985)
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Rain Dogs

Rain Dogs picks up where Swordfishtrombones left off, in the same strange subterranean world, but it transforms into a dictionary of musical styles Á¢€” rock, jazz, polka, mambo, big band, R&B, blues, and even a tongue-in-cheek twanging country song, as well as the drunken gypsy pirate-sing alongs.

Rain Dogs is definitely one of my first picks for the desert island, and is one of my all-time favorite albums. It begins with the frantic pirate-recruiting anthem “Singapore” (download), sails out on an ominous sea and hits various ports of call along the way. “Downtown Train” became a big hit for Rod Stewart, but Tom’s version reigns supreme. “Ninth and Hennepin” is as creepy and evocative a song:well, technically speaking:

“Time” (download) will break your heart and everything else will seem strangely and comfortingly familliar.

Franks Wild Years (1987)
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Frank's Wild Years

Franks Wild Years completes the ‘trilogy’ of the previous two and it elaborates on the tale of “Frank” that originally appeared on Swordfishtrombones. It’s a concept album, or, rather, an Operachi Romantico in Two Acts. The album is better than morphine on a cloudy day and includes the beloved “Innocent When You Dream” (download) and the song that introduced me to Tom Waits: “Blow, Wind Blow” (download).

Big Time (1988)
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Big Time

A concert album of the concert film of the same name, Big Time includes two songs (“Falling Down” [download] and “Strange Weather” [download]) that do not appear on his other albums. “Strange Weather” was written for Marianne Faithful. Tom pulls out all the stops, a kalaidescopic visitation from the other side.

Bone Machine (1992)
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Bone Machine

Tom ushers in the ’90s with Bone Machine; “alterna-hungry” consumers were suddenly taking an interest in Tom and the album Á¢€” a mishmash of industrial jazz, screaming rock n’ roll, gospel, and every other trick in the bag, did quite well, so it wasn’t unusual to see Tom Waits on the Arsenio Hall show screaming “Goin’ out West” (download) through a megaphone before a stunned audience. “Jesus Gonna Be Here” (download) is another highlight.

Out-punks those Nirvana poseurs without even breaking a sweat. A classic for the ages — play it for your children.

The Black Rider (1993)
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The Black Rider

A big horrible noise, a nightmarish vision that even Lovecraft could not have concocted. A Frankenstein’s monster amped up and loaded, running loose in the streets, posessing the soul of Kurt Weil and taking no prisoners. Play this for the kids before bedtime, especially “The Briar and the Rose” (download) and “Lucky Day” (download).

Mule Variations (1999)
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Mule Variations

Tom reinvents himself as a family man, settles down, and records an album for legendary punk label Epitaph Á¢€” the result? A beautiful and noble collection of songs that is astounding. Noisy hip-hop inflected beats over here, creepy spoken word piece here, achingly beautiful piano ballads over here, tender cowboy poetry here. Tom becomes like the favorite uncle, regaling the listener with stories and reflections.

He’s at his most personal and intimate here. “Picture in a Frame” (download) and “Take It With Me” (download) are beautiful songs co-written with his wife Kathleen; alternately, “Georgia Lee,” a sobering tale of a local girl who was murdered, is handled with care and such compassion. The chorus of the song asks over and over: “Why wasn’t god watching? Why wasn’t god listening? Why wasn’t god there?” but his faith comes full circle with “Come On Up To the House,” which is a powerful a hymn as they come.

This is a good starting point, because it’s a good blend of everything Tom has done in the past and it’s all done well.

Alice (2002)
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Originally recorded in 1992, Alice is also another theatrical work, but a much more accessible one. The title track (download) evokes the jazzy masterpieces of “Burma Shave” and “Blue Valentine.” The rest of the album is a real mixed bag, with some instrumental pieces, sea shanties, call and holler blues, and a couple heart-rending ballads. Try “Fish and Bird” (download).

Blood Money (2002)
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Blood Money

If Mule Variations found Tom as the laid-back and comfortable family man, Blood Money brings him back to the sonic apocalypse of Bone Machine, but this time Tom is like the grim reaper standing on a pile of scrap metal surveying the damage. The ship taken at the beginning of Rain Dogs has wrecked on the rocky coast of a strange land and the natives are definitely hostile.

“God’s Away on Business” (download) and “Starving in the Belly of a Whale” (download) sound like prehistoric hardcore songs played on sticks and stones. In all, it is a challenging and strangely beautiful album. Check it out.

Real Gone (2004)
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Real Gone

“I am not fighting for justice. I’m not fighting for freedom,” confesses the protagonist in Real Gone‘s moving anti-war treatise “Day After Tomorrow” (download). It may be a return to Tom’s grand sentimentalist days as a Californian singer/songwriter, but as always, “Don’t Go Into That Barn” (download). Tom’s son Casey X. Waits steps into the line-up on this one, along with buddies Les Claypool and Marc Ribot, and makes it a family affair. I’m sure he’s proud of his old man. While it’s not as breath-taking or soul-stealing as some other entries in Tom’s catalogue, its as fine a record as any.

Miscellaneous Releases

Bounced Checks
A looooong out of print LP from 1981 of some of Tom’s ‘best of so far.’ Includes some alternate versions of songs and some live stuff. Good luck finding it:

The Early Years Vol. 1 and 2

The Early Years Vol. 1

The Early Years Vol. 2

Volume 1 is Tom’s early 70’s acoustic demos. His voice is young and smooth and amazingly different than what he sounded like in four short years. It really has that early 70’s LA singer/songwriter vibe throughout and if you’ve ever listened to some early Randy Newman or Linda Rondstadt, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Volume 2 is early versions of what would become the first two albums.

Night on Earth (1992)
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The soundtrack to the Jim Jarmusch film:it’s mostly instrumental, but the song “Back in the Good Old World” (download) is worth the price alone.

The Asylum Years
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The Asylum Years

A nice compilation of his ’70s material, another good starting point.

Beautiful Maladies
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Beautiful Maladies - The Island Years

A best-of compiling everything from Swordfishtrombones to The Black Rider. Get this and Asylum Years and you’re on your way!

Used Songs
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Yet another compilation of the ’70s output.

An Anthology of Tom Waits
Another long out of print best-of collection — only available on LP or cassette.

One From the Heart (1982)
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One from the Heart

The soundtrack to the ill-fated Francis Ford Coppola film. It’s Tom Waits and *gasp* Crystal Gayle!!! Actually it’s a pretty good album. Tom wrote all the songs and her singing isn’t all that bad.

Only the best of the best — if you find ’em, check ’em out.

The Alice bootleg includes a lot more songs; a lot of full-cast recordings of songs from the play can be found.

Black Rider
Many Black Rider on-stage recordings are out there, but be wary of sound quality. Most of the recordings I have heard have sucked.

Cold Beer on a Hot Night
Legendary recording of an Australian gig live in 1979. The version of “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” here is worth seeking this out. Tom sings “Silent Night,” no shit.

Downtown Blues
A 1974 and 1975 show, Tom is at his most drunken here. Worth finding, paying for, and naming your first born after, just for the “Swanson” story.

Drunk on the Moon and A Nickel’s Worth of Dreams
Drunk on the Moon is alot of the same material as A Nickel’s Worth:, but the sound quality eats shit. By any means, find “A Nickel’s Worth of Dreams”; it’s an amazing collection that features a comedy bit with Martin Mull, the legendary “Paradise Alley” sessions Á¢€” two songs Tom never released on an official album, “Annie’s Back in Town” and “Meet Me in Paradise Alley” Á¢€” and they are among his greatest songs ever. Also features Tom live on the Dinah Shore show.

About the Author

Ben Wiser

Test of the Boomerang is an in-depth exploration of some of the best material found on the Live Music Archive.

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