Tom Waits Biography
Thomas Alan Waits (born December 7, 1949) is an American singer-songwriter, composer, and actor. Waits has a distinctive voice, described by one critic as sounding "like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months and then taken outside and run over with a car." With this trademark growl, his incorporation of pre-rock styles such as blues, jazz, and Vaudeville, and experimental tendencies verging on industrial music, Waits has built up a distinctive musical persona.
Lyrically, Waits's songs are known for atmospheric portrayals of bizarre, seedy characters and places, although he has also shown a penchant for more conventional and touching ballads. He has a cult following and has influenced subsequent songwriters, despite having little radio or music video support. His songs are best known to the general public in the form of cover versions by more visible artists—for example "Jersey Girl" performed by Bruce Springsteen, and "Downtown Train" performed by Rod Stewart. Although Waits's albums have met with mixed commercial success in his native United States, they have occasionally achieved gold album sales status in other countries. He has been nominated for a number of major music awards, and has won Grammy Awards for two albums.
Waits has also worked as a composer for movies and musical plays and as a supporting actor in films, including The Fisher King and Bram Stoker's Dracula. He has been nominated for an Academy Award for his soundtrack work.
Tom Waits was born in Pomona, California. His father was of Scottish-Irish descent and his mother of Norwegian descent. He was working as a doorman at the Heritage nightclub in San Diego in the early '70s, where artists of every genre performed. An avid fan of many writers and musicians, among them Bob Dylan, Lord Buckley, Hoagy Carmichael, Marty Robbins, Raymond Chandler, and Stephen Foster, Waits began developing his own idiosyncratic musical style, combining song and monologue.
After an interlude with the US Coast Guard he took his newly formed act to Monday nights at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, where musicians from all over stood in line all day to get the opportunity to perform on-stage that night. Shortly thereafter, in 1971, Waits began his recording career after he relocated to Los Angeles and signed to Asylum Records with Herb Cohen, who was also the manager of Frank Zappa. He was 21 years old.
After numerous abortive recording sessions, Waits's first record, the melancholic, country-tinged Closing Time was released (1973). While it received warm reviews, he did not gain widespread attention until his "Ol' 55" was recorded by his labelmates the Eagles in 1974 for their On the Border album.
He began touring and opening for such artists as Charlie Rich, Martha and the Vandellas and Frank Zappa. Waits gained increasing critical acclaim and a loyal cult audience with his subsequent albums.The Heart of Saturday Night, featuring the loping, classic, prime 1974 bar song, "Looking For the Heart of Saturday Night", which showcases Waits' distinctive, plucked, cowboy-ballad style of acoustic guitar playing, backed by a crying fretless bass and a sweet, weathered, pure vocal. The album revealed Waits's roots as a nightclub singer, with half-spoken and half-crooned ballads, often accompanied with a jazz backup band.
The 1975 album Nighthawks at the Diner, recorded in a studio with a small audience to capture the ambiance of a live show, captures this phase of his career, including the lengthy spoken interludes between songs that punctuated his live act. A highlight of this album, "Big Joe and Phantom 309", features his fine acoustic guitar playing. Regarding his music of this era, Waits reported that "I wasn't thrilled by Blue Cheer, so I found an alternative, even if it was Bing Crosby."
Small Change (1976), featuring famed drummer Shelly Manne, was more jazz influenced, and songs such as "The Piano Has Been Drinking" and "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart" cemented Waits's hard-living reputation, with a lyrical style that owed influence to Raymond Chandler and Charles Bukowski. Foreign Affairs (1977) and Blue Valentine (1978) were in a similar vein, but showed further refinement of his artistic voice. The song "Blue Valentines" features a desolate arrangement of solo electric guitar played by Ray Crawford and sung by Waits. It was around this time that Waits had a high-profile romantic relationship with Rickie Lee Jones (who appears on the sleeve art of the Foreign Affairs and Blue Valentine albums). Heartattack and Vine was released in 1980, with a developing sound which included both the balladeer tendencies (for example in "Jersey Girl"), and some rougher-edged rhythm and blues-style songs.
In August 1980, Waits married Kathleen Brennan, whom he had met on the set of One from the Heart. Brennan is regularly credited as co-author of many songs on his later albums, and Waits often cites her as a major influence on his work. She introduced him to the music of Captain Beefheart: despite having shared a manager with Beefheart in the 1970s, Waits says "I became more acquainted with him when I got married." Waits would later describe his relationship with Brennan as a paradigm shift in his musical development.
After leaving Asylum Records for Island Records, Waits released Swordfishtrombones in 1983, a record which marked a sharp turn in Waits's output, and which gave rise to his reputation as a musical maverick. The album advances all the musical experimentation of earlier recordings, including variations in instrumentation (e.g. the use of bagpipes in "Town with No Cheer" or the marimba on "Shore Leave") and vocalising (e.g. the spoken word monologue of "Frank's Wild Years" or the bark of "16 Shells from a Thirty Ought Six"), and much less of the traditional piano-and-strings ballad sound with which Waits had always previously balanced his recordings. Apart from Captain Beefheart and some of Dr. John's early output, there was little precedent in popular music for Swordfishtrombones or equally idiosyncratic albums, Rain Dogs (1985) and Franks Wild Years (1987).
Waits had earlier played either piano or guitar, but he began tiring of these instruments, saying, "Your hands are like dogs, going to the same places they've been. You have to be careful when playing is no longer in the mind but in the fingers, going to happy places. You have to break them of their habits or you don't explore, you only play what is confident and pleasing. I'm learning to break those habits by playing instruments I know absolutely nothing about, like a bassoon or a waterphone."
The instrumentation and orchestration in these and later albums were often quite eclectic. Waits's self-described "Junkyard Orchestra" included wheezing pump organs, clattering percussion (sometimes reminiscent of the music of Harry Partch), bleary horn sections (often featuring Ralph Carney playing in the style of brass bands or soul music), nearly atonal guitar (perhaps best typified by Marc Ribot's contributions) and obsolete instruments.
Along with a new instrumental approach, Waits gradually altered his singing style to sound less like the late-night crooner of the 70s, instead adopting a number of techniques: a gravelly sound reminiscent of Howlin' Wolf and Captain Beefheart, a booming, feral bark, or a strained, nearly shrieking falsetto Waits jokingly describes as his Prince voice. Tom Moon describes Waits's voice as a "broad-spectrum assault weapon".
His songwriting shifted as well, becoming somewhat more abstract and embracing a number of styles largely ignored in pop music, including primal blues, cabaret stylings, rhumbas, theatrical approaches in the style of Kurt Weill, tangos, early country music and European folk music, as well as the Tin Pan Alley-era songs that influenced his early output. He also recorded a few spoken word pieces influenced by Ken Nordine's "word jazz" records of the 1950s.
Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs and Franks Wild Years can retrospectively be seen as a trilogy of loose concept albums, following a sailor as he leaves the familiar comfort of home, sees the world, and returns. The last of these albums was also adapted as an off-Broadway musical, which Waits co-wrote with Brennan — and starred in, in a successful run at Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theater. This continued Waits' involvement in other artistic forms; he developed his acting career with several supporting roles, and a lead role in Jim Jarmusch's Down By Law in 1986 which also included several of Waits's songs in the soundtrack. Further theatre collaborations would follow, and with his wife Waits also wrote and performed in Big Time, a surreal concert movie and soundtrack released in 1988.
In 1990 Waits collaborated with photographer Sylvia Plachy. Her book, Sylvia Plachy's Unguided Tour includes a short Tom Waits record to accompany the photographs and text.
Waits appeared on Primus' 1991 album, Sailing the Seas of Cheese as the voice of "Tommy the Cat", which exposed him to a new audience in alternative rock. This was the first of several collaborations between Waits and the group; Les Claypool (Primus' singer, songwriter and bassist) would appear on several subsequent Waits releases. Waits wrote and conducted the music for Jim Jarmusch's 1991 film Night on Earth, which was released as an album the following year.
Bone Machine was released in 1992. The stark record featured a great deal of percussion and guitar (with little piano or sax), marking another change in Waits's sound. Critic Steve Huey calls it "perhaps Tom Waits' most cohesive album ... a morbid, sinister nightmare, one that applied the quirks of his experimental '80s classics to stunningly evocative – and often harrowing – effect ... Waits' most affecting and powerful recording, even if it isn't his most accessible." Bone Machine was awarded a Grammy in the Best Alternative Album category.
The Black Rider (1993) was the result of a theatrical collaboration between Waits, director Robert Wilson and writer William S. Burroughs.
Mule Variations was issued in 1999, and also won a Grammy, though to give an idea of how impossible it is to classify Waits' music, he was nominated simultaneously for Best Contemporary Folk Album (which he won) and Best Male Rock Vocal Performance–both different from the genre for which he won his previous Grammy. It was Waits's first release for Anti Records, and his first to feature a turntablist, though, predictably, the instrument is used in an offbeat manner. The album was also his highest-charting album in the US, reaching #30.
Singer John P. Hammond's Wicked Grin was issued in 2001. Hammond and Waits are close friends, and the album is a collection of cover songs, originally written by Waits, who appears on most songs (playing guitar, piano or offering backing vocals). There is also a version of the traditional hymn "I Know I've Been Changed", which Hammond and Waits perform as a duet.
In 2002, Waits simultaneously released two albums, Alice and Blood Money. Both were based on theatrical collaborations with Robert Wilson, the former originally intended as a musical play about Lewis Carroll and the latter an interpretation of Georg Büchner's unfinished Woyzeck. The two albums revisit the tango, Tin Pan Alley, and spoken word influences of Swordfishtrombones, while the lyrics are both profoundly cynical and melancholy, as the titles "Misery is the River of the World" and "No One Knows I'm Gone" make clear.
Waits has steadfastly refused to allow the use of his songs in commercials and has criticized other artists who do. ("If Michael Jackson wants to work for Pepsi, why doesn't he just get himself a suit and an office in their headquarters and be done with it.") He has filed several lawsuits against advertisers who used his material without permission. He has been quoted, "Apparently the highest compliment our culture grants artists nowadays is to be in an ad — ideally naked and purring on the hood of a new car," he said in a statement, referring to Mercury-Lincoln's "Cougar" automobile. "I have adamantly and repeatedly refused this dubious honor."
Waits has often switched to smaller independent record companies over the years: he signed to Asylum Records before they were bought out by Elektra Records and Warner Bros. During his time with Island Records, that label expanded from a small company to a music industry giant; he then signed to Anti Records, a division of Epitaph Records.
Waits's first lawsuit was filed in 1988 against Frito Lay, and resulted in a US$2.6 million judgement in his favor. Frito Lay had approached Waits to use one of his songs in an advertisement. Waits declined the offer, and Frito Lay hired a Waits soundalike to sing a jingle similar to Small Change's "Step Right Up", which is, ironically, a song Waits has called "an indictment of advertising." Waits won the lawsuit, becoming the first artist to successfully sue a company for using an impersonator without permission.
In 1993, Levi's used Screamin' Jay Hawkins's version of Waits's "Heartattack and Vine" in a commercial. Waits sued, and Levi's agreed to cease all use of the song, and offered a full page apology in Billboard Magazine.
In 2000, Waits found himself in a situation similar to his earlier one with Frito-Lay: Audi approached him, asking to use "Innocent When You Dream" (from Franks Wild Years) for a commercial broadcast in Spain. Waits declined, but the commercial ultimately featured music very similar to that song. Waits undertook legal action, and a Spanish court recognized that there had been a violation of Waits's moral rights, in addition to the infringement of copyright. The production company, Tandem Campany Guasch, was ordered to pay compensation to Waits through his Spanish publisher.
In 2005, Waits sued Adam Opel AG, claiming that, after having failed to sign him to sing in their Scandinavian commercials, they had hired a sound-alike singer.
Oddly, despite Waits' adamant opposition to the use of his music in advertisements, over the course of his career his song lyrics have mentioned over fifty different brand-name products and corporations, including almost every major American automaker, several brands of cigarettes and whiskey, Texaco, Shell, Coca Cola, Velveeta, Pepto-Bismol, Maybelline, Prince Matchabelli, Estee Lauder, Pierre Cardin, Stetson, Trailways, Purina, Popsicle, Kool Aid, Cracker Jacks, Abba Zabba, Almond Joy, and several others. In fact, apart from theater pieces and film soundtracks, every Tom Waits album contains at least one mention of a brand name.
Waits has also had lawsuits against offenders outside of the music industry. He was arrested in 1977 outside of Duke's Tropicana Coffee Shop in Los Angeles. Waits and a friend were trying to stop some men from bullying other patrons at the hangout. Unbeknownst to Waits and his companion, the men were plainclothed police and Waits and his friend were taken into custody and charged with disturbing the peace. The jury found Waits not guilty, and he took the police department to court and was eventually rewarded $7,500 for his troubles.