The Heart of Saturday Night – Tom Waits

We’re suffering through a heatwave over much of the UK at the moment. OK, I’m suffering through it. I find genuine heat in the UK tough to take. We’re not set up for it, with our non-air conditioned houses and public transport. In London at least, the heat lingers late into the night. It’s not the daytime temperatures I can’t take; it’s the nights where it never gets below 20 degrees. We’ve now had nearly two months of this and I’m about to turn into Michael Douglas in Falling Down.

But however much I hate it right at this moment, I know it could be worse. It’s not yet at 2003 levels, when we had the hottest temperatures ever recorded in the UK (38.5°C). That summer, having just taken my finals and waiting to graduate and figure out what the hell to do next, I was working as a labourer in the maintenance department of Westminster Cathedral and listening to Tom Waits’s mid- 1970s records. So despite Waits’s music being self-evidently best heard at night, I associate those Waits records with bright sunshine, hot pavements and torrents of sweat running down my back as I weed pavements, move office furniture and scrub bricks.

James McKean had got me into Waits 18 months previously via Small Change, so I was well familiar with that already. The records that really had my attention in the summer of 2003 were The Heart of Saturday Night and the new-to-me Nighthawks at the Diner. Nighthawks I’ve written about before here. It’s spotty, and the more song-based material can feel a little underwritten at times, but at its best it’s tremendous fun, and the looseness of the set gives Waits the opportunity to just explore the furthest reaches of his drunken-beatnik persona. The best tracks, Nighthawk Postcards and Spare Parts I (A Nocturnal Emission) are hilarious, riveting – full of dazzling wordplay, indelible imagery and surreal juxtapositions. Sure, Waits wasn’t inventing anything with this style of music or lyric writing, but he had become an expert practitioner of it, and he’s so charismatic that there’s a lot of joy in just hearing him do his thing. It’s never just about the writing with Waits; it’s just as much about the delivery, and the delivery is brilliant:

Well, it was a nickel after two. Yeah, it was a nickel after two
And in the cobalt steel-blue dream smoke
Why, it was the radio that groaned out the hit parade.
And the chalk squeaked and the floorboards creaked
And an Olympia sign winked through a torn yellow shade.
Old Jack Chance himself leaning up against a Wurlitzer,
Man, he was eyeballing out a five-ball combination shot.
Impossible, you say? Hard to believe?
Perhaps out of the realm of possibility?
Naaaah.

Cause he be stretching out long tawny fingers
Out across a cool green felt in a provocative golden gate,
He got a full-table railshot that’s no sweat.
And I leaned up against my banister,
I wandered over to the Wurlitzer and I punched A2…

The bridge between the rather earnest songs on Closing Time and this cinematic piece of scene setting is of course The Heart of Saturday Night. Waits’s second album saw him partner with Bones Howe for the first time and dive deeply into jazz. Closing Time has its virtues, and its share of strong material, but it didn’t represent Waits in his totality, the Tom Waits who loved Kerouac and Lord Buckley and who’d already debuted Diamonds on My Windshield as a poem was hardly evident at all.

Jerry Yester had produced Closing Time, but David Geffen (owner of Waits’s record label, Asylum) didn’t think Yester was the man to take on the next one, and that Waits needed someone with a deeper grounding in jazz. Geffen was friends with Bones Howe, who’d been making jazz records since the 1950s with the likes of Ornette Coleman, and had even edited recordings of Kerouac reading his poetry.

Howe assembled some heavy-duty players for what would become The Heart of Saturday Night – pianist Mike Melvoin had worked with Sinatra, Peggy Lee and the Beach Boys; tragic drummer Jim Gordon The Byrds, Derek & the Dominoes, Joe Cocker and George Harrison; bassist Jim Hughart played with Joe Pass, Duke Ellington and Chet Baker. Those were just the core players: the sessions also featured Arthur Richards, Tom Scott and Oscar Brashear.

From the off, Saturday Night is a more authentically jazzy record than Closing Time. Opener New Coat of Paint sees Waits finding his way towards the vocal style he’d become known for: more hoarse, and half an octave lower than on his debut, but not quite the full-on Louis Armstrong rasp he’d develop over the next two albums. The song itself has a New Orleansy quality that has as much R&B in it as jazz. Tracks two and four, San Diego Serenade and Shiver Me Timbers, are a slight return to Waits as San Diego folksinger, although his character sketches are more sure-footed than they’d been before.

It’s the third and fifth tracks, though, that really serve notice that The Heart of Saturday Night is an evolution from his debut. Semi Suite, a woozy late-night shuffle with a sleepy horn riff, sees Waits’s delivery get overtly jazz-influenced for the first time on record (check how he plays with the melody during the line “his trou-sers are hang-ing on the chair”), while Diamonds on My Wind is a poem Waits had written a few years earlier recited over a walking bass line from Jim Hughart and an agile, uptempo shuffle from Jim Gordon.

Side one ends with the title track. It’s sometimes hard to hear The Heart of Saturday Night with fresh ears, so often (and so poorly) has it been covered in the last 15 years or so. It remains a lovely, touchingly optimistic song, though. In his twenties, Waits often appeared to want to be older, so this simple and rather naive exploration of the great American Saturday night (which feels much more like a small-town experience than an LA one) stands out all the more.

Side two is, if anything, even better. Fumbling with the Blues, as Waits biographer Barney Hoskyns points out, sounds like a standard of the St James Infirmary school, but it’s also another piece of Waitsian self-mythology: he’s “a pool-shooting shimmy-shyster”, known by name to all the bartenders. Please Call Me, Baby is the album’s great ballad. While it’s always a risk to read Waits’s lyrics as autobiographical, it does seem to have had as its genesis a row between Waits and a former girlfriend who took an extra shift at work without telling Waits she’d be late home, which led to him waiting up all night worrying. What makes the song great, though, is how Waits takes that feeling and universalises it.

Tom Waits’s 1970s records have a way of taking mundane features of city life and making them sound impossibly cool, bohemian and exciting. Depot, Depot, built on the laziest of shuffle-feel horn riffs, manages to do this even for a bus station. I loved, still love, the playfulness of Waits’ delivery, the pleasure he takes in the sounds of the words. Drunk on the Moon and The Ghosts of Saturday Night are like two sides of the same coin. Drunk on the Moon is a postcard from the middle of a night’s revelries. The moment in the middle of the song when the band just takes off in double time is one of the album’s loveliest passages.

The album ends with The Ghosts of Saturday Night, another spoken-word piece, pointing the way to similar works on Nighthawks at the Diner and Small Change. Like so many of Waits’s mid-1970s songs, it’s set in a late-night eatery. The difference is that this time it’s the one he himself had worked in, Napoleone’s Pizza House in San Diego (Napoleone’s would appear again in I Can’t Wait to Get off Work from Small Change, in which Waits namechecks the owners, Joe Sardo and Sal Crivello). Waits’s eye for detail, and his ability to conjure a living, breathing city from just a few characters, is hugely impressive:

A cab combs the snake, tryin’ to rake in that last night’s fare
And a solitary sailor, who spends the facts of his life like small change on strangers
Paws his inside peacoat pocket for a welcome 25 cents
And the last bent butt from a package of Kents
As he dreams of a waitress with Maxwell House eyes
And marmalade thighs with scrambled yellow hair
Her rhinestone-studded moniker says “Irene”
As she wipes the wisps of dishwater blonde from her eyes.
The Texaco beacon burns on.
The steel-belted attendant with a Ring and Valve Special cryin’
“Fill ‘er up and check that oil.
You know it could be your distributor and it could be your coil.”

It’s easy to look at this song and Diamonds on My Windshield and recognise in them the ideas that Waits would pursue further in the next few years. But The Heart of Saturday Night is more than just a signpost towards achievements to come. Taken on its own terms, it’s one of the strongest collections of songs that Waits ever put out. Perhaps with the exception of Shiver Me Timbers, there’s not a weak song on it. Indeed, there was a time I’d have pointed to it as my favourite album by anyone ever. If you’re a Waits agnostic, it’s definitely a record to check out. It’s great in its own right, and it’s a good way into his mid-seventies work.

While you’re here, can I trouble you to listen to this? It’s my new EP, available now (that’s NOW) from Bandcamp, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Google Play, Apple Music, and wherever you stream/download your music.

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