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2011 Hall of Fame: Tom Waits: A Hip Enigma

Odd man out in L.A.'s '70s songwriter scene, now a category of one

March 11, 2011

By Mark Brown
Special to MSN Music

"In both his songs and his lazy, strolling piano playing, he parodies the lounge music sub-genre so perfectly that we wonder if he's putting us on or if he's for real, and it is his especial (CQ) triumph that in the end he has it both ways: He is able to deliver whole both the truth and the sham of the music."

That was Tom Waits' first appearance in Rolling Stone magazine, in a review of his debut album, "Closing Time." It showed the value of rock criticism, because in those 61 words, Stephen Holden captured the essence of the next four decades of Waits' mystique, a muse he has followed to this day and a gift that assured him legendary status in rock n' roll long before the Hall of Fame finally came knocking this year.

The review ran in the April 26, 1973, issue, alongside critiques of contemporaries including Hurricane Smith, Roy Buchanan and glowing reviews of Jim Croce's "Life and Times" and Dr. John's "In the Right Place" by Jon Landau, who would later become Bruce Springsteen's manager.

Also: View the Hall of Fame Inductees Gallery

Nineteen months later, Holden reviewed Waits' second album, "The Heart of Saturday Night," again as a brilliant slice of the singer's vision "booze, cigarettes and gasoline fuel his world of neon signs, gas stations, diners, bus depots, barmaids and sailors." Nailed it again.

Popularity didn't follow the critical acclaim. But in 1974, the Eagles recorded and released Waits' song "Ol' 55" and performed it regularly, bringing him more exposure than his albums would, but also earning the ire of its writer, who termed that version "antiseptic." Cover versions, however, would make Waits more money over the years than his own versions, with Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart and many more joining the Eagles in cherry-picking and commercializing his catalog (Bob Seger just released his own version of "Downtown Train," and it's also due to appear on an upcoming covers album).

Waits set his own rules and didn't play nice early on. He was due to take the stage in New Orleans one night when Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue invaded the stage and stole his set. A furious Waits unleashed his anger to Rolling Stone, castigating the "Rolling Blunder Revue" and calling out members by name with some blue language.

In the early days, mainstream radio was elusive, and Waits built a following with a number of live broadcasts from small clubs, garnering a dedicated following that was willing to follow wherever he'd go, be it theater, films, live shows or studio albums.

Despite Dylanesque tall tales of his early roots (no, he wasn't born in the back of a taxi), Waits, 61, had a somewhat normal upbringing. He was born in Southern California and now lives in Northern California wine country after stints in the seedier areas of San Diego, Los Angeles, Denver and New York.

Even the quirkiest of songwriters caught a break back in the day with a surprise breakout hit, be it history buff/wine connoisseur Al Stewart with "Year of the Cat" or genius Randy Newman popping up with an occasional "Short People." Waits never got that break, with albums that charted low and singles that didn't chart at all.

People were at the heart of nearly every song, from signature songs such as "The Heart of Saturday Night" to latter-day classics that flew under the radar. Fans consider his classics to be "Swordfishtrombones," "Rain Dogs" and "Bone Machine," albums that got away from traditional song structure and instrumentation, influencing the likes of T Bone Burnett and others in their own work.

His characters often appeared to have stepped out of Jack Kerouac or Charles Bukowski's fevered streets, with Waits adding cinematic detail in imagery by turns sardonic and spooky. That his onstage persona and so many of his imagined companions were out of step with the contemporary L.A. where he first gained notoriety only added to their filmic quality, so it's perhaps unsurprising that Waits found avid fans among filmmakers, starting with Francis Ford Coppola, who recruited Waits to write the original songs for Coppola's much-maligned experimental film musical, "One From the Heart," in 1980.

Although critics struggled with Coppola's efforts to reinvent romantic tropes in a reimagined Las Vegas, Waits' original song score notched an Oscar nomination. (It was during the shooting of the film that he met screenwriter Kathleen Brennan, his future wife, with whom he's collaborated on song lyrics, and whom he's cited as an influence on his subsequent work.) Cameos in several of Coppola's films led to a more substantial role in the director's vivid remake of "Dracula," as well as subsequent roles in films by Jim Jarmusch and Robert Dornhelm. Meanwhile, with his wife, he wrote an off-Broadway musical play, "Franks [stet] Wild Years," based on the spoken-word piece from "Swordfishtrombones."

That new theatrical dimension mirrored the more experimental textures of his records from the era, influenced by Captain Beefheart and Kurt Weill. That Waits was comfortable splicing theater and music from different cultures and eras was further illustrated by "The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets," in which he teamed with William S. Burroughs and director Robert Wilson to rework a German folk tale, "Der Freischütz," earlier memorialized in an opera by German Romantic composer Carl Maria von Weber. In its 1990 incarnation, Burroughs contributed the new book while Waits composed new music nodding pointedly toward Bertolt Brecht and Weill.

Fans have adapted to Waits' bursts of inspiration and long dry spells, both for his live shows and studio albums. Waits explained a bit about his method upon the release of 1999's "Mule Variations."

"It's like looking for your waitress. It gets like that with artists," he told Rolling Stone. "We are a product-oriented society. We want it now, and we want an abundance of it in reserve."

"Mule Variations" was a triumphant return to form, with tender songs such as "Hold On" (an ode to faith and fidelity) and "House Where Nobody Lives" (a heartbreaker about a home where faith and fidelity lost). Offsetting those, as usual, were quirky numbers such as "What's He Building?" That was followed by a flurry of work, including his 2006 three-CD release of leftovers, called "Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards," which contained outtakes, cover versions and throw-aways that other artists would kill to have written.

One wonders if such a career could happen now. The National Organization of Women might not appreciate early fan-favorite songs like "Pasties and a G-String," and PETA certainly would not appreciate the fate Carlos the blind Chihuahua suffered in "Frank's Wild Years." Not that Waits cares. He's happy to maintain his privacy near Petaluma, Calif. He explained to The Onion in 2002 that life is easier as a semi-recluse.

"It wards off strangers," he said. "It's like being a beekeeper.... If people are a little nervous about approaching you at the market, it's good. I'm not Chuckles the Clown. Or Bozo. I don't cut the ribbon at the opening of markets. I don't stand next to the mayor. Hit your baseball into my yard, and you'll never see it again. I just have a close circle of friends and loved ones the circle of trust, as they say."

In the same interview, he explained why he has protected his voice and songs so fervently over the years, successfully suing companies that appropriated his songs or even imitated his voice for commercial purposes. Artists these days kill for those opportunities, but Waits speaks of it with disdain.

"They're all high on crack. Let's just say it's a sore subject with me. I went to court over it, you know.... You know, you see a bathroom-tissue commercial, and you start hearing Let the Good Times Roll,' and the paper thing's rolling down the stairs. Why would anybody want to mortify and humiliate themselves? Well, it's just business, you know? The memory that you have and the association you have with that song can be co-opted. And a lot of people are really in it for the money. Period & when I hear it I just think, Oh, God, another one bites the dust.'"

Mark Brown is a veteran music journalist who was pop critic for the Rocky Mountain News until its demise. He is also a contributor to MSN's Reverb blog.

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