Tag Archives: The Heart of Saturday Night

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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The Songs from So Deep pantheon

Apologies for my somewhat odd posting schedule of late. I’ve been both pretty sick (chest infection) and hellishly busy (end of quarter), and have defaulted to writing about current preoccupations like British politics. I’m away this weekend, so won’t be back until next week now, but thought I’d leave you with what’s hopefully a fun one.

This blog has been running well over three years and in that time I’ve talked a lot about favourite songs and favourite albums, but without having put down a list in black and white.

So I thought I’d give it a try, and actually, it’s a tough exercise. The hardest thing is deciding how whether to include old favourites that you, if you’re honest, don’t listen to anymore. I’ve mentioned that Nirvana’s Nevermind was the album that inspired me to pick up a guitar and start playing, and in my teens I must have listened to it hundreds of times. But I’ve not sat down and listened to the whole thing as an album in a decade at least. I decided not to include it in favour of things that I still listen to regularly, but if the list were of albums that have meant the most to me, no question it would have to be in there.

Most of the records on my list I bought in my twenties. The one that’s newest, to me, is also the most recent, Hem’s Rabbit Songs, which I love for personal as well as musical reasons. The ones I’ve been listening to longest, Dust and Murmur, I first heard as a teenager in the 1990s, and I still hear new, fresh details in them each time I listen.

Top of the list, my two favourites, are Judee and Joni. I’ve written about both records here before. In fact, I’ve written about songs from most of these albums, if not the full albums themselves. Click on the links below for detailed thoughts.

  1. Judee Sill – Judee Sill
  2. The Hissing of Summer Lawns – Joni Mitchell
  3. Paul Simon – Paul Simon
  4. Good Old Boys – Randy Newman
  5. Murmur – R.E.M.
  6. Dust – Screaming Trees
  7. The Band – The Band
  8. Rabbit Songs – Hem
  9. The Heart of Saturday Night – Tom Waits
  10. Fred Neil – Fred Neil

The songs list is a bit less heavy on singer-songwriters and has more soul, funk and disco. For whatever reason, I’ve never found those musical forms as satisfying at album length, but maybe that’s down the road for me. Unsurprisingly, I’ve written about every single one of these here.

  1. Native New Yorker – Odyssey
  2. Didn’t I Blow Your Mind (This Time) – The Delfonics
  3. She’s Gone – Hall & Oates
  4. Silver Threads & Golden Needles – Fotheringay
  5. Stormy Weather – Nina Nastasia
  6. Tennessee Jed – Grateful Dead
  7. What You Won’t Do For Love – Bobby Caldwell
  8. What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye
  9. Someone to Watch Over Me – Blossom Dearie
  10. Rock With You – Michael Jackson

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

 

On the idea of feeling estranged from contemporary music

Depending on your vintage at some point in your life you’ll have been preciously horrified by what’s going on in your name by your generation and will have retreated to a point where old music means more to you than what’s on the radio or the papers. Way back when that implied a retreat from the present, a spurning of airwave and print and telly with a sense of horror at how little that was contemporary actually reflected or touched you.

This paragraph comes from a blog post by a writer called Neil Kulkarni, a name I remember from my long-ago youth (was it in Uncut or Kerrang? Damned if I can recall, unfortunately). The context of that quote is very, very different to anything I want to talk about, but it does feed into something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. I’ve written around the subject here a few times, and am going to do so again probably. It’s a huge subject for me, one that’s intimately bound up with every choice I make as a listener and as a musician (and I do feel myself, still, to be both – I’m no less prolific a writer than I ever have been, and I still work on records with other musicians), so I don’t know if it’s something I’m even capable of unpacking.

I remember when I felt the way that Kulkarni describes. I was, I guess, 21. I went to university at 18, and at that time was still a fan, primarily, of American rock and indie. I had some favourite older records but they were outliers. At university, living at the back of the now-demolished Goldsmid House (in a room overlooking the hell on earth that is Oxford Street) I met James McKean. James lived a couple of rooms along the corridor, sang way better than me and was considerably cooler. A fan of British guitar pop in his teens, he’d found his way back to artists like Van Morrison, Fred Neil and Tim Buckley, and was better versed in Mojo/Uncut canonical rock and pop bands, too.

Our influence on each other’s tastes wasn’t one-way, but, as an aspiring songwriter with an acoustic guitar and under no illusion that I could ever front a rock band, I was keener to learn about the sort of things he was interested in than vice versa.

Within a year, certainly within two, when we were living behind The George in Shadwell (this before it became a hipster’s paradise – when it was desolate six nights a week, only coming alive for Friday-evening karaoke, where the backing was provided by two gentlemen in their sixties playing live drums and organ and supplying harmonies best described as enthusiastic), I was in that place. The place of precious horror at the things my generation was listening to.

You can grow your own set of ears, left to yourself. I heard no radio, watched little TV, didn’t have that much spare cash for magazines and this was still fairly early days for me with the internet (we were a couple of years away from an internet connection seeming essential). I spent my time listening to Bob Dylan, The Band, Tim Hardin, John Martyn, Nick Drake, Neil Young, Fred Neil, Paul Simon, Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell, and relatively little time listening to anything modern. When I did, the music sounded completely wrong. I’d hear pop music and it was so dense, so loud and so flat that I simply couldn’t process it. It just bounced off me.

I remember vividly hearing Crazy in Love once in a shop when I was in the process of having my eyes tested. I’d had eye drops and was sent out to wait for 10 minutes or so while they dilated my pupils fully. Unable to focus on anything, disconcerted by the loss of one of my senses, hot and sweltering (this was 2003, the hottest summer in the UK since records began) and assaulted by this thing that purported to be music but that sounded nothing like music as I understood it, it took all the composure I had not to trash the place and run out the door screaming for the torture to stop. That is not an exaggeration. This music, made by people whose aesthetic norms were so opposite to mine, really was that foreign to me, living in my bubble of 1970s record production. I could find almost nothing in contemporary rock music that touched me or reflected how I felt, and nothing at all in pop. Sonically, it all repulsed me.

I still dislike the way modern records are made (on darker days, it seems like a lot of once-good record-makers, long since sucked into doing things the modern way simply to remain employed, would no longer be able to make a good-sounding album if Herbie Hancock walked in and suggested they cut a small-band jazz record live to 2-track at AIR Lyndhurst), but the Crazy in Love incident was in fact the high watermark of my estrangement from contemporary pop. I listen to the radio a lot more these days (most days) and hear a decent mix of old and new music.

Maybe these things go in cycles. Perhaps this poptimistic swing of the pendulum will be followed by one in the other direction, and I’ll rush back to the safety of my battered copies of Bleecker & MacDougal, For the Roses and The Heart of Saturday Night and I’ll once again feel the estrangement Kulkarni discusses in the piece I excerpted above.*

Waveform B&M
Fred Neil’s Bleecker & MacDougal sounds like this. We call it headroom.

Waveform EasyTiger
Ryan Adams’s Easy Tiger. Sonically typical 2000s singer-songwriter record. Headroom conspicuous by its absence. That loud section near the end (RMS -9.8 dBFS) is particularly horrible sounding – completely pancaked, with hundreds and hundreds of clipped samples

*Since you ask, it was a furious response to media hype over Peace’s 2013 debut album – an event which for all Kulkarni’s passionate despair, passed me by completely – and which I chanced upon during a random internet jaunt where every click took me further away from what I was researching in the first place. Just goes to show, really. The mainstream music press will make themselves look silly by throwing their support behind some hopeless act on a regular basis. Best to pay it no mind.