The six similarities you don’t expect between David Bowie and Tom Waits

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It’s hard to think of two artists more different than David Bowie (English, born David Robert Jones in 1947) and Tom Waits (American, born Tom Alan Waits in 1949). If the former brings to mind transformation, sexual ambiguity, transvestitism, glamour, fashion, and megastardom, the latter refers instead to the storyteller of losers, the vagrant drunkard, the Beatnik poet, the avant-gardist, finally to the author of soundtracks and theatrical performances. And yet.

Yet, a less superficial analysis lets you highlight a number of affinities that you don’t expect. You see then that from the long apprendiceship to the unhappy choice of managers, from the surprising and sudden changes of musical route to the extraordinary eclecticism, from the protection of friends in artistic difficulty to the passion for William Burroughs, there are many similarities between the careers of two of the greatest entertainers of the last fifty years.


Both musicians had to work several years before gaining recognition for their talent. David Bowie released the first single, ‘Liza Jane’, in 1964, when he was seventeen years old and was part of a group called Davie Jones and the King Bees. The first album would have to wait two more years, during which the English artist would search in vain the success with The Manish Boys, as Davy Jones with The Lower Third, as David Bowie with The Buzz, and finally as David Bowie. He released the album David Bowie on May 26, 1967, the same day Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released. Unlike The Beatles’ masterpiece, Bowie’s record went unnoticed and David, despite the occasional hit of the ‘Space Oddity’ single, two years later, would have to wait until 1972 to achieve success and popularity thanks to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Tom Waits, for his part, when he began his career as a musician by publishing, at the age of twenty-four, his first album Closing Time (1973), it was already a decade that he was supporting himself by washing machines or by working as a janitor in restaurants, or as firefighter, a truck driver, a newspaper delivery guy, or a bartender. At the age of fifteen he used to write  parodies of famous songs whose lyrics he edited, while performing in several clubs and coffehouses in the San Diego area. When he later went on stage at The Heritage to fill in the holes in the programming, he played covers of the songs of Mississippi John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis. Moved to Los Angeles, Tom hung out at The Troubadour, where on an amateur night he was noticed by a professional rock manager, Herb Cohen, who became his agent and made him sign a contract with Elektra/Asylum.


If Waits would remain contractually linked to Cohen well beyond the end of the management agreement, and for years would  have to be content with the meagre royalties guaranteed by the contract he had signed in the years he made records for Elektra / Asylum (1973 – 1980), ‒ whereas only in 2018 the mastered re-edition of his first seven masterpieces would allow him to negotiate with the new record company, Anti- / Epitaph, more favorable conditions ‒, Bowie got the worst of it. Having finally achieved success in 1972, David relied on Tom Defries, who, thanks to the Mainman company and a new contract with RCA, made Bowie a global star.  However, he concealed that the terms of the agreement guaranteed his manager much higher revenues than those reserved to the singer, who with his share found himself having to bear all the costs of the setting up of the concerts. Bowie terminated the contract in 1975,  not without being forced to give Defries until 1997, when David became the 100% copyright owner of his albums, part of the royalties related to the rights of exploitation of the records.


There is no doubt that in the history of rock music Bowie has been the emblem of transformation. Not only did he impersonate numerous alter-egos on record covers, video clips, and shows, but he also loved to surprise audiences and critics with shocking artistic changes. If the seventies ‘changes’ were those of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Thin White Duke, and the conspicuous nonconformist theatricality, in the same decade the so-called Berlin trilogy turned dramatically towards avant-garde and synthetic sounds, codifying the styles of the so-called ‘new wave’. After the mainstream pop delirium of the eighties, there was the Tin Machine experience, with Bowie engaged as a simple member of an indie rock band, before he turned to the jungle and drum’n’bass productions of the nineties and released the last two masterpieces of the twenty-first century, which are a summa of  his aesthetics.

If you look at Waits’ career, however, you have to recognize that in his fifty years on the scene there have been changes so profound as to represent real grooves between one phase and the other of his artistic parable. The seven albums recorded for Asylum had given us the prototype of the piano singer, preferably accompanied by a jazz combo ready to weave harmonies, and producers inclined to arrangements inspired by the orchestrations of Cole Porter and George Gershwin. The lyrics told stories of lost loves, failures, loneliness, desperate sex, and  alcoholic stupor, Waits’ voice increasingly worn by whiskey and tobacco. Musically appealing but not an innovator, Waits, starting from Swordfishtrombones (1983), left his audience stunned, whereas he excited the critics, becoming a completely different musician: an experimenter of sounds, an avant-garde lover, a surprising interpreter of Kabarett à la Brecht. Still not satisfied, after a further change of label he took his sound research to extremes, and published for  Anti- / Epitaph radical and innovative when not cacophonous  albums such as Bone Machine and The Black Rider, consolidating his status of mass cult artist.


Both without a formal education, Waits and Bowie have shown in their careers that they could draw on the great musical and literary traditions of the twentieth century. If you talk about music, you can not avoid mentioning Erik Satie, the vaudeville, the music hall, Little Richard, Charlie Mingus, Elvis Presley, the Krautrock, Turkish and Polish folk music, Japanese pop, Philly Soul, jungle and free jazz for Bowie; Louis Armstrong, bebop, Johnny Mercer, Stephen Foster, Hoagy Carmichael, Nat “King” Cole, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Randy Newman, Mose Allison, James Brown, Rogers and Hammerstein, and Gershwin and Porter for Waits. Plus, for both, the music of Brecht and Weil and the model of Frank Sinatra. Icon of the entertainer par excellence, able to bring to the highest levels of popularity America’s jazz roots, Ol’ Blue Eyes became an icon and a paradigm, able as he was to reach the general public also through his acting career.

The acting career was actually frequented by both our heroes: more on the side of intriguing cameos for David, a real parallel career for Tom. In fact, if in the case of Bowie there was no lack of convincing acting evidence in films directed by celebrated directors ‒ you can mention, among others, The Man Who Fell to Earth by Nicolas Roeg, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence by Nagisa Oshima, and Absolute Beginners by Julien Temple ‒, often his roles have represented a divertissement that has allowed his fans to find one of the most famous faces of the global stardom camouflaged in one of its countless transformations (different is the case of his excellent theatre performance  in The Elephant Man).

The circumstances have instead allowed Waits to be involved since the beginning of his acting career in ambitious projects, directed by film masters such as Francis Ford Coppola (here we remember The Cotton Club and Bram Stoker’s Dracula), Jim Jarmusch (Down by Law), Hector Babenco (Ironweed), Robert Altman (Short Cuts), Terry Gilliam (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus), and the Coen brothers (The Ballad of Buster Cruggs). Waits has moreover a long and productive relationship with  theatre, for which he wrote, alone or with his wife Kathleen Brennan, words and music for Franks Wild Years (in which he also played the lead role) and the songs for The Black RiderAlice, and Woyzeck, all projects set up by director Robert Wilson, whereas Bowie built the entire Lazarus musical show with songs from his repertoire or written for the occasion, while in his career both the Diamond Dogs Tour and the Glass Spider Tour were in turn set up as a musical. Both artists have furthermore put their composing skills at the service of the seventh art: Waits wrote, among other things, the complete soundtrack of Coppola’s One from the Heart and that of Jarmusch’s Night on Earth. Bowie on his part composed several songs for Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners and for Jim Henson’s Labyrinth.


Another thing that Tom and David have in common is that they went to the rescue of artists they admired and who for some reason were in an artistic or personal impasse that had put their career at risk. Tom did it with Chuck E. Weiss, John Hammond and some others. Chuck was a good friend of Tom’s and played his jazz-blues in all the clubs of the Los Angeles area. Unfortunately, however, after an album released in 1981 without his permission and immediately withdrawn from the market, he had not published anything. To heal the injustice Tom, after dragging into the studio a hopeless Chuck, in 1998 co-produced Extremely Cool, in which he also played guitar and participated in the writing and interpretation of two songs, and thanks to which he managed to get Weiss a recording contract. Since then, Chuck E. Weiss’s career has resumed, so much so that in the new millennium he has recorded three new albums. In 2001 it was the turn of another old friend and collaborator, guitarist John Hammond, who  published with Tom’s production Wicked Grin, an anthology of Waits’ songs. The latter is in fact a musician who never flinched from participating in projects of artists he respected (Tin Hat Trio, C-Side, Petit Mal, Ute Lemper and Solomon Burke among others).

The same can be said of David Bowie, producer of the second solo album of his maestro Lou Reed, who after the end of the Velvet Underground experience really needed a friend who supported his artistic ambitions, reduced as he was to a maggot due to a serious addiction to heroin, and back from the commercial flop of his first solo album, which had unconvincedly presented some songs that had been written for VU. Supported by Mick Ronson, Bowie produced one of the seminal records of rock music, Transformer, which among many pearls also contains the now-classic ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, whose legendary bass line comes from Herbie Flowers’ idea to overdub the notes recorded with his electric bass with a double bass, an artifice that gives the rhythmic backbone of the song a sensual and amazing sound. Bowie conducted the same operation a few years later with his friend Iggy Pop, who in turn was back from the dissolution of The Stooges and in search of a solo career. Bowie came to his aid in the first place by mixing Raw Power by the Stooges and getting Iggy a recording contract, then writing with Pop himself and producing the excellent The Idiot and Lust for Life, finally accompanying him on the promotional tour as the band’s keyboardist. Other artists whose records Bowie edited or on whose albums he contributed playing or singing are, among others, Mott The Hopple, Mick Ronson and Dana Gillespie.


A further affinity between the two artists is the admiration for one of the icons of the beat generation, the American writer William Burroughs. Bowie was fascinated by the cut-up and fold-in techniques employed by Burroughs to write experimental novels such as the Nova Express trilogy, or to describe states of mental dissociation of certain characters, since the results obtained through those methods resembled the speeches of subjects with psychic disorders. The cut-up consisted of cutting out pieces of existing literary works, selecting stylistically meaningful words and phrases, and then pasting the selected parts to create new texts. The fold-in, on the other hand, required to move a page of one book near another book’s page after having folded them in half, and check whether the new phrases that were formed in this way possessed their own syntax and literary value. Bowie personally knew Burroughs and decided to adopt such avant-garde techniques to compose the lyrics of his songs. Result of this choice are the lyrics of Diamond Dogs (1974), but David continued to use it in the following decades, for example in 1.Outside (1995) and The Next Day (2013), coming to employ an app invented by computer scientist Ty Roberts, the Verbasizer.

Tom Waits is a big fan of the beat generation writers (Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs), and has always loved the poetic and narrative works produced by that group of authors. When, in 1988, theatrical director Rober Wilson asked him to score the musical part of a new version of an operetta inspired by the German legend Gespensterbuch that would become The Black Rider, whose lyrics would be written by one of his heroes, the icon William Burroughs, Tom could not escape it, and moved for a few months with the trusty Greg Cohen in Hamburg, where the play would debut, before continuing its performances in Vienna, Paris, Barcelona, Genoa, Amsterdam, and Berlin. A few years later, when it was staged in Brooklyn, Tom recorded an album with the songs he had written for the operetta, and in one of the them ‒  the old standard ’T’Ain’t No Sin’ ‒   the voice you hear is Burroughs’.

A style icon and a fashion forerunner the first, an as charming as surprising character in his transformation from singer of the subworld to cult artist of the avant-garde the second, David Bowie and Tom Waits have travelled different paths, although the aesthetics developed by the Thin White Duke in the Berlin trilogy and in records such as 1.Outside and the epilogue Blackstar represent undeniable forays into experimentation that somehow bring together also in the musical outcomes the parables of two of the greatest artists of the last half a century.

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