The Asylum Years: the beginning of Tom Waits’ story

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In the almost fifty years of his career, Tom Waits has over the past few decades made his name as one of the most original and versatile artists of our time. Singer, songwriter, poet, actor, comedian, author of theatrical works and soundtracks, his career as a musician can be easily divided into three distinct phases, in which a well recognizable change in poetics corresponds to a change not only of the record company but also of the collaborators.

Born in 1949 in Pomona, in the suburbs of Los Angeles, in the sixties Waits made ends meet by working as janitor, cook, dishwasher, courier, taxi driver and gas pump attendant, occasionally managing to perform in some club as a singer, especially since he started working as a porter at The Heritage, a small club in the San Diego metropolitan area that hosted folk, blues, jazz and country concerts.

When it came his turn to appear on stage, Tom accompanied at the piano compositions whose lyrics were inspired by the life of the marginalized, by the defeated by life, by those in short that the ruthless American system labels as loosers. Far from the pop aesthetics and not interested in prostituting his talent, Waits revealed himself immediately as an original author, able to extract from the limited extent of his hoarse voice tones that were both bitter and romantic. He was also an extraordinary entertainer, able to season his set with funny and surreal stories through which he easily got in touch with the audience.

When, in search of a more exciting nightlife than that of San Diego, he moved to Los Angeles to perform his songs in its many nightclubs, in early 1971 he happened to be invited on the stage of an amateur night, the “Hoot Night” at the Troubadour. By chance, in the audience there was also the manager of Frank Zappa, Fred Neil, Captain Beefheart and Linda Rondstadt: Herb Cohen. He immediately noticed Waits’exceptional talent, became his agent that very night, and had him sign a contract with Elektra / Asylum the following year. The debut would be the splendid Closing Time (1973), a collection of songs that perfectly represents the Waits of the early seventies and from which develop both the aesthetics and the poetics that would characterize all the albums recorded for David Geffen’s label: The Heart of Saturday Night (1974), Nighthawks at the Diner (1975), Small Change (1976), Foreign Affairs (1977), Blue Valentine (1978), and Heartattack and Vine (1980).

If Closing Time was produced by Jerry Yester, Dayton Burr “Bones” Howe was responsible for the sound of the following seven albums. What the first three or four records of the so-called Asylum Years have in common, however, is the character created by the artist of Pomona: a sort of hobo, a beatnik, a bohemian. In order to perfect the likelihood of the character he would take for years onto albums’ covers, into television studios and onto the stages of the clubs, Tom actually lived the life of a drunk à la Bukowski, regularly frequenting squalid and smoky dives and sleeping where it happened. If during his tour the record company had booked a room at the Holiday Inn, Waits canceled the reservation and moved to a dump.

The themes of his songs have to do with stories of unhappy love and shattered dreams, with loneliness, marginalization and the most desperate nostalgia; but also with stories of reciprocated love and exuberant sex. The music was an acoustic folk-jazz that album after album was enriched with blues and rock sounds, more sophisticated arrangements and solutions that were gradually less linked to a folk ballad’s pattern, i.e. they were not always chosen to enhance the melodic aspect of the songs. The concerts saw Waits, usually sitting at the piano, alone or accompanied by an acoustic combo, entertaining the audience with funny stories seemingly disconnected from his repertoire. A sort of Stand-up comedian that unraveled the unlikely tangle of  his character’s misadventures, a character that Tom refined further through interviews and television appearances.

Despite the growing popularity and the increasingly eye-catching shows, Waits found himself at the end of the seventies with the feeling of having completed a cycle. He felt imprisoned in the character he had created and wanted to produce something different and to work with new collaborators, without continuing to do what the audience and the critics expected from him. So, in 1980 he immediately accepted Francis Ford Coppola’s proposal to compose the songs that would be part of the film One from the Heart, a work that kept him busy for more than a year and a half. During that period, Tom first found the time to fall in love with Kathleen Brennan, since then his wife and constant artistic collaborator, then he managed to make in haste and fury the seventh studio album produced by “Bones” Howe: Heartattack and Vine. After completing the two projects, he decided to separate his own path from that of his manager Herb Cohen, to no longer work with Howe, and also to change his record company. The first season of his musical career ended here.

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