Do you remember the first song that turned your head to one of your very favourite artists? A top ten act (of all time) for me is the venerable Tom Waits. Damn I love that crazy bastards noises. The very first time I heard his voice is very similar to the Courtney Barnett story I posted a few days ago. It was a ‘stop the world’ moment. I had already heard Heart Attack & Vine the song. It was covered by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in a commercial for jeans. Tom hadn’t signed off on his composition being used in a commercial and a legal battle ensued. This got it in the music press. And to me via the radio one day. What a wild world we lived in in the early 90’s. Some coked up Ad Executive plays fast and loose with their due diligence and I get Tom Waits gifted to me out of the bargain.
Then I learned Rod Stewart’s mega hit Downtown Train from a couple of years earlier was a Tom song too. And one of the tracks on The Old Man’s The Eagles live album he played all the time. The songs started coming out of the woodwork. A Soldiers Things by Paul Young was actually originally by Tom (I had a girlfriend in High School who loved Paul Young so I’d heard it a lot). Back in my glam rock headbanger days I’d owned a record by a hair metal band called Bulletboys that had a version of Hang On St. Christopher on it. Who was this guy?
I have a mental image of amplifiers on tiny wheels being kicked along a New Orleans street as the riff is played thanks to a mixed up memory of the Levi’s ad with Screamin’ Jay and a Joe Satriani video that somehow got associated in my subconscious. But it’s the sweaty, tired sloppy delivery of the lyrics that blew me away.
“Liar Liar with your pants on fire, praaumm steee mmmeer on the telephone wire, gamblers reevaluate along the dotted line, never recognize yourself on heart attack and vine”
The guitarist never bums a note. The drummer never misses a beat, but you get the impression they’re all full of cheap whiskey and sweating bad Ju-Ju from every pore none the less. The slow crawl stops. Tom proclaims some more jailhouse/outhouse/poorhouse wisdom from the back of his throat like he hasn’t the energy to spit the phlegm out onto the street and it rolls on.
“Doctor, lawyer, beggar man thief, Billy Joe remarkable looks on in disbelief, If you wanna taste the madness you’ll have to wait in line, probably see someone you know on Heart Attack & Vine”
Oh. I wanted to taste the madness. When it all stopped a bar or two after that for an isolated parp from a tenor sax I was a ruined boy. All hope of going back was gone. I had seen the darkness and I was seduced by it.
“Slarrhurg ah china white, shorty barreled punk, don’t you know there ain’t no devil, that’s just God when he’s drunk”
I looked at it like this, I needed to hear this incredible voice do these songs I already knew. I need to hear him do it even if I knew nothing about him. So I bought Heart Attack and Vine and it is a fine traditional blues rock album. Big on the emotion. Tears diluting the beers. It features another blind stagger of a tune in the blusteria that is Mister Siegal. Another personal favourite.
“I shot the morning in the back, with my red wings on, I told the sun he’d better go back down and if I can find a book of matches I’m goin’ to burn this hotel down”
The album also has Ruby’s Arms, On The Nickel, Saving All My Love For You, Downtown and Jersey Girl. I’ts a nine track album. Songs covered by so many artists have sprung from the well of Mr Waits illicit drinking hole. As I discovered his discography one record after another so too seemed to the entire history of recorded music around me. Just bought a copy of Closing Time? Here’s Meatloaf doing Martha. Finally got around to checking out Bone Machine? Your Ramones are covering him now. Blue Valentine? How about The Wedding Present doing Red Shoes By The Drug Store? Nora Jones hit Long Way Home? That’s a Tom Waits song. I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You by Barbara Streisand. Broken Bicycles. Way Down In The Hole, The Piano Has Been Drinking, Ice Cream Man, The Heart Of Saturday Night. It’s possible to come to them knowing all these songs as standards.
I can’t take credit for it but the best description I ever heard for Tom Waits and his music came from the real life guy Royston. I based the character Uncle Vernon on him in Rock And Roll Valhalla. He described Waits as “David Bowie for the perpetually hungover”.
After posting so many of his songs already it’s only fitting he get in the final chart run down too. And why not with the two songs that started an obsession? Heart Attack And Vine and Mr Siegal made me an instant fan.
“You got to tell me brave captain, why are the wicked so strong? How do the angels get to sleep when the devil leaves the porchlight on?”