Tag Archives: Small Change

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.

Advertisements

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.

MCDWOLF EC004

 

Traveler’s Song – Hem

Hem are a band whose music I care rather deeply about. I’ve written about them here, in a post that to my regret is one of least visited on my blog. But not only does their music move me more than that of probably any other contemporary record makers, its interesting to analyse on a formal level simply because of how it resists so many of the most pervasive modern writing and production tropes you find in pop, indie and mainstream rock music. So if you’ll permit me an indulgence, here’s another post on Hem. Go on, it’s my birthday on Tuesday; let me have this.

They’re a Brooklyn band dreaming of other, more pastoral locales: the folkist regions of Appalachia, the countrypolitan halls of Nashville, the brass band marches of New Orleans, and anywhere along the East Coast where an acoustic guitar and songwriter might have met.

Scott Elingburg in a popmatters.com review of Departure and Farewell

Swap East Coast for West Coast and that’s them exactly. On the whole, they’re more a country band than anything else, particularly on their two most well-known records (Rabbit Songs and Eveningland), but on Departure and Farewell they go back further into the history of American music, through early New Orleans jazz back to the songs of Stephen Foster, to a time before recorded music, a time of parlour songs on upright pianos. But whatever the musical form they work with on a song-to-song basis, what underpins their work is the group’s empathetic playing, the beautiful, clear-as-a-bell voice of Sally Elyson and the songwriting of Dan Messe.

Messe’s gift is for creating melodies that sound like they must always have existed. His tunes are simple and unshowy. They’re rhythmically orthodox and regular, with notes falling plainly on the strong beats. They’re built on simple chord changes of Cs and Gs and Ds and E minors. His lyrics, likewise, don’t aim to impress with wordplay and clever rhyme. Yet the emotional world he builds out of such stark materials is vast. He’s living proof of the maxim that it’s far easier to do complicated than it is to do the simple well.

There’s always been a little undertow of jazz in Hem’s sound, but the brass band/New Orleans thing really crept in on Departure and Farewell, to the point where Traveler’s Song sounds to the modern rock fan’s ear like nothing so much as mid-1970s Tom Waits. At the end of the intro, I always half expect Waits to begin growling “Well, I wish I was in New Orleans” (and am usually somewhat relieved that he doesn’t, which is strange given that I’d count Small Change among my very favourite albums). But Traveler’s Song and I Wish I Was in New Orleans definitely live in the same universe. And Waits would be proud to have written this.

A few months ago, I wrote a brief post on Professor Mitchell Morris’s The Persistence of Sentiment: Display of Feeling in Popular Music of the 1970s. In the hugely insightful introduction, Morris outlines his concept of the “modest song”. Discussing the differences between symphonic music, opera, art song and the other kinds of “high” music of the European classical tradition on the one hand and pop song on the other, he uses the term “modest songs” as a blanket term for the pop songs of the recorded-music era and the folk and parlour songs of the 19th century and earlier. It’s a term he uses in a purely descriptive way, not as a value judgement:

We have rarely known how to account for music that loves the quotidian because our methods have been based on aesthetic and moral preferences for the extraordinary, the original and the convention-breaking inspiration. Our commitment as music scholars has been the strongest, historically, to music that was never meant to be heard every day… The heroic gestures that fill out most of the “great works” in virtually any kind of canon are the ones that modest songs usually refuse – they must forgo too much “greatness” if they are to accomplish their principal goal of living with us instead of living against us in moral-aesthetic agon.

Hem exemplify Mitchell Morris’s concept of the “modest song”. Traveler’s Song is far more effective in its brevity – it can be listened to in precisely two minutes – than it would be if stretched out over several verses. As it is, it functions like that piercing insight you sometimes have, the one that comes to you as if from nowhere, clears your head, cuts through the fog and tells you, This is it. This is how you really feel.

Could any statement carry as much charge or cut deeper than “I miss my home and my family”? Certainly not in popular music, where the barest and potentially most powerful statement of all – I love you – has lost some of that power through sheer repetition. There’s no wailing, no emoting, the arrangement doesn’t go for the tearducts, but it gets to them anyway. It’s something they’ve managed again and again over the last 12 years.

Hem Walden

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)

Grapefruit Moon – Tom Waits

If you’re a Tom Waits fan who discovered the man’s work on any album from The Heart of Saturday Night onwards, chances are you don’t think much of Closing Time, Tom’s 1973 debut. Where’s the burlesque beat poetry? Where’s the grotesque carnival barker? Where’s the junkyard orchestra? Dammit, where’s the jazz?

The extent to which Closing Time represents the album Waits wanted to make remains debated. Producer Jerry Yester (alumnus of the New Christy Minstrels, the Modern Folk Quartet and the Lovin’ Spoonful, producer of Goodbye and Hello and Happy Sad) maintains that Waits got what he wanted and that it was not his job to impose a sound on the artist; Barney Hoskyns wrote in his Waits book that Yester’s vision of a fairly conventional acoustic singer-songwriter record was at odds with Waits’ desire for something jazzier and looser. The striking change from Closing Time to Saturday Night, achieved in just a year, suggests that Yester’s memories aren’t wholly accurate, but he wouldn’t be the first producer who’s been disingenuous about the extent to which he shaped a record.

Yet there are elements of Closing Time that are predictive of Waits’ later work. The muted trumpet on Midnight Lullaby, Little Trip to Heaven and Closing Time (the song); the chord structures (in the 1970s Tom Waits never met a ii-V-I he didn’t like); the general after-hours vibe; all of these point towards his early classic run of Saturday Night, Nighthawks at the Diner and Small Change.

As does one song above any other on Closing Time. No, it’s not Martha (I find Martha a little overpraised – the problem of a song that’s one side of a conversation is that the singer has to tell and can’t ever show, which only draws attention to the artifice of the device, as well as forcing lines into the singer’s mouth that would never be said in a real conversation). For me, the real classic Waits song on this record is Grapefruit Moon.

It’s the first song that really feels like a proper Tom Waits ballad, with the strings, the double bass and the sozzled sentimentality to prove it (and of course that ubiquitous ii-V-I turnaround). The tune feels like a Waits tune – ‘authentic’ is a problematic word to use in the context of Waits and his career so I won’t got that far. Let’s just say that he’s playing to his strengths with this song. He sounds more comfortable here than elsewhere.

The lyric’s a little too gauche and the vocal a little too unsure and unsteady to really qualify it as an out-and-out classic Waits ballad, but it’s reason enough that fans who may be put off Closing Time by the general Asylum-ness of Ol’ 55 and I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You should hear it. And it’d be a boring world if artists always got it right first time. We wouldn’t be able to go on a journey with them.

Image

Tom Waits, with cigarette and piano. Whiskey presumably somewhere nearby.