Nighthawks at the Diner/Small Change – Tom Waits

An inebriated good evening to you all. Welcome to Raphael’s Silver Cloud Lounge.

Tom Waits, Opening Intro, Nighthawks at the Diner

It’s somewhat predictable, I suppose, that when I’m in the middle of a recording project I tend to listen to music in an even more drily analytical way than normal, and that I become fascinated by the technical details of recorded music.

I’m once again in the middle of a little spate of recording – working on my own stuff, some finer details of James McKean’s next album, and the beginning stages of some songs with Sumner – so my mind turns to the minutiae of recording processes again. I’m also in the middle of a little Tom Waits binge, having put a CD of some favourite Waits stuff together for Mel, who (like me) loves The Heart of Saturday Night but (unlike me) hasn’t heard too much outside that, or been too keen on what she’s heard. In particular, I’ve been thinking about Nighthawks at the Diner and Small Change, the two albums that came after Saturday Night and which, taken with it, make up the crucial three records of Waits’s 1970s career.

The two albums see Waits diving further into his persona as hard-drinking nighthawk, with a humour that grows increasingly dark and suffocating during Small Change. It’s a pretty hard-going album for one that contains so many belly laughs (and if you don’t find nine-tenths of Step Right Up, The Piano has been Drinking and Pasties and a G-String hilarious, Tom Waits is probably just not for you): Tom Traubert’s Blues and (while a much less successful song) Bad Liver and a Broken Heart constitute a pretty heavy pair of emotional statements, all the more impressive when you read on the sleeve that Small Change was recorded live to 2-track.

If this doesn’t mean much to you, let me explain. Records, since the 1950s, are customarily multi-tracked. Whether recording to 4-, 8-, 16- or 24-track tape or to a computer, multi-track recording allows you independent control of the elements that are recorded. Say you’re recording a band to 16-track tape and you want to get a live basic track and do no bouncing. You might set up 6 mics for the drums, one each for guitar and bass amps, two on a piano and one for, I dunno, saxophone, and you’ve used 11 tracks of your allotted 16, leaving you five open tracks for vocal overdubs and maybe a solo or some percussion. Then you mix down the recording to another tape machine, this time a 2-track machine, creating the final mix in the process. What Waits and producer Bones Howe were doing was collapsing all of this into one process. Waits, his piano, band and orchestra, all in one room, all miked up, but printed to 2-track tape there and then (the two tracks referred to here being the left and right tracks of stereo) rather than at a later date. This was old-school recording – the take had to be nailed when played or the clunkers would be audible in the finished version, unless you had a very similar take from which you could edit in the necessary parts, which is difficult to do seamlessly, particularly on live-performance takes. That Waits was able to nail whole takes of emotional, lyrically complex material live in a room with a band and orchestra says a lot about his skill as a performer, and a lot about the trust that he and Bones Howe had in each other. Small Change, then, for all the questions the listener might have about the ‘reality’ of the Tom Waits persona and vocal style, is musically speaking exactly what it appears to be. What you’re hearing is what happened.

In contrast, Nighthawks at the Diner, the live record that preceded it, isn’t quite what it appears. It’s a high-concept, highly produced studio concoction. ‘Raphael’s Silver Cloud Lounge’ was in fact a studio in the Record Plant, done up with tables and a bar for the occasion, the punters friends of Waits and his manager Herb Cohen. The band included Jim Hughart (also on Small Change) on bass and Mike Melvoin (the father of Wendy Melvoin, of Wendy and Lisa, and the late Jonathan Melvoin, the keyboard player who died of a heroin overdose while touring with the Smashing Pumpkins) on piano. The record was recorded over two nights, two ‘shows’ per session, the best performances making it to the record. At its best it’s a really fun album – the intros are very funny (often more compelling than the songs they’re introducing), and the set-pieces, Nighthawk Postcards and Spare Parts I, are the absolute best examples of Waits’s small-band-jazz-plus-beat-poetry thing. But as a whole it’s too long, and the songs with tunes don’t really have tunes, not like Tom Traubert’s Blues has a tune, say. If your patience for Waits is limited, or you’re too busy to hear both, get Small Change and let Nighthawks alone if you must, but you’ll be missing out on Nighthawk Postcards’ uproarious used-car-salesman bit, and that’d be your loss.

So Nighthawks is somewhat less a live album than it appears to be, and Small Change somewhat more. Never trust a record producer is today’s moral, I think.

Image

Bones Howe’s set-up diagram for Nighthawks (reprinted from Sound on Sound)

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3 thoughts on “Nighthawks at the Diner/Small Change – Tom Waits

  1. James McKean

    I was listening to some Waits this weekend too, albeit Mule Variations. I’m really don’t remember if I’ve ever heard Nighthawks. I think you’ve probably played me bits.

    The Piano… was the first Tom Waits I ever heard. Must have been 15 or so; Josh Goldacre (let’s stick his full name in in case he ever googles himself!) played it to me.

    I think Small Change was the first album of his I bought, as well, but I don’t remember for sure. Perhaps it was his debut (which I still never listen to) I got first…

    Reply
  2. Pingback: songs from so deep

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