Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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WAITS, Tom

(b 7 Dec. '49, Pomona CA) Singer, songwriter, actor with whispery tobacco-stained voice; began with interest in '50s beatniks, claimed to have slept through the '60s, specialized in off-beat portraits of the flotsam and jetsam of bars and motels, slowly rose from cabaret cult to a larger cult without working too hard at it. Began accompanying himself at the piano in LA '69, signed by Frank Zappa's manager '72, first LP Closing Time '73 incl. 'Ol' 55', covered by the Eagles (album later on Elektra CD with something called Vol. 2 on Bizarre-Straight). The Heart Of Saturday Night '74 was more assured, with archetypal Waits vignettes 'Shiver Me Timbers', 'Diamonds On My Windshield' and the title track. Two-disc live Nighthawks At The Diner '76 was exemplary souvenir of Waits as raconteur with jazz roots; Small Change '76 regarded as his best yet, with wry 'The Piano Has Been Drinking', wistful title track, majestic 'Tom Traubert's Blues'; Foreign Affairs '77 incl. duet with Bette Midler on 'I Never Talk To Strangers', also epics 'Burma Shave', 'Potter's Field'. By now he was in danger of becoming an articulate anachronism, success taking him out of the milieu he portrayed, but his humour and apparent lack of pretence saved him. Blue Valentine '78 was lacklustre by his standards; Heartattack And Vine '80 back on form, incl. 'Jersey Girl', covered by Bruce Springsteen. Bounced Checks '81 was adequate best-of, incl. some alternate takes.

He had acted in Sylvester Stallone's Paradise Alley '78; Francis Ford Coppola heard the duet with Midler, cast him in One From The Heart '82: Midler wasn't available and his highly praised soundtrack saw him duetting successfully with the apparently incongruous Crystal Gayle, good songs incl. 'Little Boy Blue', 'Old Boyfriends', 'Broken Bicycles'. The Asylum Years '84 was an excellent compilation in UK; different Anthology on Elektra in USA; he'd switched to Island for Swordfishtrombone '83, a staccato work full of experiments, but also vintage 'In The Neighborhood', 'Soldier's Things' (covered by Paul Young); Rain Dogs '85 was a further bold step, featuring Keith Richards. Coppola cast him in Rumblefish and The Cotton Club; first major role in Down By Law '86; meanwhile he co-wrote his first play with his wife Kathleen Brennan: Frank's Wild Years, from the song of that title on Swordfishtrombone, with a dozen new songs was premired mid-'86 in Chicago, about a failed entertainer on a park bench ('Remember me? I ordered the blonde, the Firebird ... Somebody's made a terrible mistake'), album on Island '87, live Big Time '88 from the tour. Appeared in film Ironweed '87 with Jack Nicholson, the '30s atmosphere of novel by William Kennedy suiting them both. Further albums were Bone Machine '92 with Richards, The Black Rider '93 (stage musical with William Burroughs).