Happy birthday, you gin soaked boy.
When you see a guy alone in a dingy bar, smoking an unfiltered cigarette, with his hat pulled down low, drinking whiskey like a fish, you think one of two things: “Better stay clear of that guy” or “I wonder what his story is.”
That’s how I imagine Tom Waits, looking worn out, deep in thought, and I would definitely wonder.
He’s the epitome of a cool guy and he’s intimidating as all hell. He even seemed to scare Iggy Pop in the indie film Coffee and Cigarettes. In the scene Iggy Pop stammers and tries to appease Waits, while Waits keeps his cool and calls them the “coffee and cigarette generation.”
However, even with his tough guy demeanor and gritty vocals that make you think of a spoon gracefully and melodically being churned about in a garbage disposal, he may also be the sappiest guy in the entire world.
His debut album Closing Time from 1973 is a collection of singer-songwriter songs that is totally unique to most of his discography. It’s slow, soaked in emotion and heartbreaking, with a little country twang to it that leaves the listener with a lingering feeling of the blues.
Yet, it wasn’t Closing Time that brought me to tears (I’m a little tougher than that).
By his sophomore album The Heart of Saturday Night (1974) he had already evolved into a dirtier sound. His raspy voice was just starting to get its signature edge and his music gained that speakeasy jazz feeling to it. His songs here are still heart wrenching, but the swingable melodies distract you from the dread.
After that he had several albums that picked up an eerie circus vibe that created a cult-like fan base that eventually exploded into pop culture. For example, Rain Dogs (1985) and Mule Variations (1999) went Gold in the U.S., but albums like Foreign Affairs (1977) and Swordfishtrombones (1983) only got recognition from the fans—making him well known, but still cool enough to be considered underground.
I was born in 1992, so I was able to get all of these albums at once and have my own phases through them all. But it wasn’t until I found Blood Money (2002) when I was 17 that I decided Tom Waits may be a good man that’s just hard to find.
Two thousand-ten was a tough year for me. I was experiencing a death of a close family member and going through my first real heartbreak all at once. Being the tough cookie I was, however, I tried my best to keep my cool on the outside—nothing was able to break me.
However, one day in the car with my parents they put on “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” the last track in Blood Money—several minutes later I busted into tears.
By Blood Money, Waits’ raspy voice was in full-throttle. His music was still on the tough guy side with its sideshow act edge, including most of the tracks on Blood Money. Yet, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” exposes a unique kind of dark emotion that I didn’t even know existed and still don’t have a word for to this day.
I still feel a swell of emotion gather in my throat when I hear that song now, and even people I’ve shared it with express a strong reaction. It’s just one of those songs that caters to any sort of pain you have inside of you.
After Blood Money, Waits started to experiment with his vocals and melodies. For example, Real Gone’s (2004) first track, “Top of The Hill,” starts with beatboxing and Waits singing into what sounds like an old–timey mic and records being scratched in the background. Sounds weird, but it’s actually pretty good.
His latest studio album, his seventeenth, was released in 2011 entitled Bad As Me. It’s the perfect compilation of Waits’ evolution. Some songs take a more singer-songwriter route, while others get down and dirty with a bluesy feel and some still have experimentation sprinkled in with different instruments and vocal abilities throughout.
This past October Waits announced a series of six remastered albums that includes the likes of Blood Money, Bad As Me, Real Gone and other popular ones. He also intends to remaster Orphans to be released in the New Year.
At 68 years old, Tom Waits is still a total badass and killer musician—but I’ll never forget the time he made me cry and I realized he’s actually the softest, mushiest person in the world. If you look back at all his lyrics, you’ll get it.