Tom Waits for No Man
There are some families that institute a ‘swear jar’ in their homes. If anyone swears, they have to put a dollar in the jar. My friends Boots and Sparkle, with whom I have lunch every day, have threatened to do the same at our lunch table, but not for swear words. I don’t often use profanities; I leave that to my friend, Tammy (Hi Tammy). It’s only when I mention the following that I have to toss a few bucks into the jar as they collectively roll their eyes and say ‘here we go again’.
I love Tom Waits. My favorite song of all time is ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)‘. It is going to be on my Death CD (more on that another time). I learned to love Tom Waits the old-fashioned way — my older brother and sister listened to him and I heard his voice through the walls and it just whiskey-soaked into my system.
My friend Sparkle was in the car with her 9-year-old daughter when a Tom Waits song came on the satellite radio. It was “The Piano Has Been Drinking.” Sparkle’s daughter was horrified.
“Mommy,” she asked, “who ever told that man he could sing?”
Kids say the darnedest things.
Of course, that may not be the best song to introduce Tom Waits to a young listener and, fingers crossed, future fan. It is intentionally played off-key, although I can’t say the same thing about his voice. His voice in that song is how he sounds, all whiskey and cigarettes; Louis Armstrong with a sore throat.
In the late ‘70s, I saw Tom Waits and Leon Redbone with my friend Rob in the community theatre in Morristown, New Jersey. It’s not a big venue, but the place was sold out. Leon Redbone went on first. I was not a big Leon Redbone fan, so I just assumed he was the opening act for Waits. When Redbone finished, more than half the audience got up and left, not to return. I was surprised, to say the least.
This was 1978, and Waits was on tour for his album Blue Valentine, and the stage was set like an old gas stations per the back cover of the album; a couple of gas pumps stood behind the grand piano in the center of the stage. As Waits came out on stage, a very pretty blonde woman sat in the front row with a bouquet of roses. “Are those for me?” he quipped as she walked up to the front of the stage. He then reached down, took the roses in one hand and then cupped the woman’s breast with the other.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he said in his graveled-soaked voice as he retreated to the piano to play.
This was the only time I would see Tom Waits in concert. He sat at the piano, the perpetual cigarettes in the ashtray just above the piano keys — each devoured in two long draws; the ashes an accusatory grey finger that hovered in the air above the keys.
I do have a tentative connection to Tom Waits — a One-Degree of Separation, if you will.
After my sister, Diane, graduated college, she took a trip out to California. What she did next could be classified as stalking, but let’s just chalk it up to youthful adventure.
In the ‘70s, Waits lived at the Tropicana Hotel in West Hollywood, California (Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper and Rickie Lee Jones lived there also, at various times). My sister found out where he was living and walked up and knocked on his door. They hung out for the next few days. I think she stole some stuff from his apartment (I would). I distinctly remember seeing a page of typed song lyrics with pencil-marked corrections. Now you know why Waits never had that breakthrough top-forty hit; my sister stole it.
Back on the East Coast shortly after that, and before my sister moved to her apartment in Hoboken, she crashed on her friend Alicia’s couch; she lived in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. Waits was playing a concert in Jersey at that time and was staying at the Chelsea Hotel. Once again, they hung out for a few days while he was in town I don’t know if anything happened between the two of them, but family legend has it that Jersey Girl was written about my sister. Although it turns out Tom Waits’ wife is from Morristown, New Jersey (I wonder if she is the blonde from the concert?) I’m going to stick with the legend.
Now that I’ve written this, I guess I’ll need bring a few extra bucks to lunch for the ‘Waits Jar.’
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And for full disclosure, I took the title of this post from an Aquarian Magazine article (are they still around?) that I saw in the music store in the Brunswick Square Mall in the 1970s.