Tag Archives: live to 2-track

Clap Hands – Tom Waits

Tom Waits was an early signing to David Geffen’s first label, Asylum, but they didn’t quite know what to do with him. For his debut album, Closing Time, they paired him with producer Jerry Yester, a former member of the Modern Folk Quartet and the Lovin’ Spoonful. Yester, it’s said, emphasised the folk and country elements of his music at the expense of the jazz (he has been accused of doing the same thing to Tim Buckley, with the story being that Buckley made Happy Sad the record it is over Yester’s objections). Closing Time was, then, a pretty pallid singer-songwriter record of the sort that were ten a penny in the early seventies, only a couple of songs – notably Grapefruit Moon – standing out as a cut above.

Waits’s second album The Heart of Saturday Night, recorded and produced by jazz veteran Bones Howe, was the breakthrough, the first recognisable Tom Waits album – the late-night feel, the beatnik persona, the double bass and muted trumpet, the beat poetry, and – crucially – the sly sense of humour all in place. A very strong album that still provides material for modern jazz singers (that said, I don’t need to hear another version of the title track, thanks very much), Saturday Night remains highly rated but was arguably eclipsed by Small Change, his fourth album from two years later.

His voice now more gravelly than ever (Louis Armstrong with laryngitis), Waits recorded the whole album live to 2-track tape, no overdubs – the old-fashioned way. Waits’s whole mission, it seemed, was to be in a 1940s movie, a small-time loser who coulda been a contender, complete with hat, trenchcoat, battered suit and bottle of whiskey. The problem was that although it marked him out from his Canyon Cowboy contemporaries, even in 1976 that persona was more than a little clichéd. Certainly it was leading him into a creative cul-de-sac. He lived the part so completely that he was dangerously close to coming apart: drinking too much, sleeping too little and constantly finding himself in places he shouldn’t have been with people it would have been wiser to avoid.

His songs seemed to know more about the dangers of alcoholism than he did, and it wasn’t until a year or so after he wrote Bad Liver and a Broken Heart and The Piano Has Been Drinking that he got himself clean and sober. At that point he started to move away from the extremes of that beatnik persona, spending a few years in an artistic holding pattern before re-emerging in a New York on a new label and with a new character – the disconcerting carny complete with junkyard orchestra – and eventually his second great masterwork, Rain Dogs.

Yes, Rain Dogs. Swordfishtrombones may have been his first album in his new style, but Rain Dogs is the better one, taking all the ideas suggested by Swordfish and developing them, taking them to the obvious conclusion. Swordfish tracks including Underground, Shore Leave and the title song make it clear that a suffering marimba is going to be a key part of Waits’s new sound world, but it’s Clap Hands from Rain Dogs that’s Waits’s marimba masterwork.

The arrangement is a simple one: Waits on acoustic guitar, Marc Ribot on electric lead, Tony Garnier on double bass and Michael Blair, Stephen Hodges and Bobby Previte on marimbas and various drums and percussion. Percussion instruments both found and exotic were the crucial instruments in Waits’s world in the 1980s, and few instruments are given traditional r contemporary treatments (the overtly 1980s-sounding electric guitars on Downtown Train come are shocking in their conventionality in the context of Rain Dogs – much as I like the song, I’m not sure it belongs on the album).

Lyrically, too, Clap Hands employs a simple trick. It takes the chanted nursery-rhyme vocal rhythm (and some of the lines verbatim) of The Clapping Song and refracts them through Waits’s surrealist sensibility, always resolving on the song’s title:

Sane, sane, they’re all insane
The fireman’s blind, the conductor’s lame
A Cincinnati jacket and a sad luck dame
Hanging out the window with a bottle full of rain
Clap hands, clap hands

Shine, shine a Roosevelt dime
All the way to Baltimore and runnin’ out of time
Salvation Army seemed to wind up in the hole
They all went to heaven in a little row boat
Clap hands, clap hands

If you find yourself one day in a waking nightmare world where nothing makes sense and see some children out on the street corner skipping rope, Clap Hands is the song they’ll be singing. It’s a crucial text in Tom Waits’s post-1970s work. If you respond to this – if you like the percussion, the skronky guitars and the black humour – Waits will likely be a big deal for you.

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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.

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