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Old 10-28-2021, 09:48 AM   #9 (permalink)
Trollheart
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So what do you do when you've had two pretty much whimpers of albums, that never bothered the charts and hardly spread your fame far and wide? Well, if you're Waits you record a double live album, in a studio, and use nothing off the previous two albums! Conceived as very much a jazz record that would capture the atmosphere of small jazz and beat clubs, Waits's third effort would feature entirely new material, plus one cover version, inviting a studio audience into a space where tables and drinks were set up, and encouraging background chatter and noise. It wouldn't win him any commercial plaudits, but it would be different and unique enough to secure him a place in the book 1001 albums you must hear before you die.

And in this case, take it from me, you must.

Nighthawks at the Diner (1975)

If there's one thing this incredible album demonstrates it's how much of a showman Waits is. Not only did he write all this new material and perform it almost without rehearsal (he wrote nothing down, making it a challenge for his band to learn it), but he sprinkles the music with amusing and clever anecdotes and introductions, many of which are almost as good as listening to the songs themselves. An invited audience to what became a sell-out show having first been warmed up by a performance by a stripper, Waits and the band take the stage, and give us an “Emotional Weather Report”.

Before that though, there's the opening intro, as the band keeps time behind him, Waits welcoming everyone to “Raphael's Silver Cloud Lounge”, although it is in fact The Record Plant Studios in LA. This seems to be the first real instance of what would become his classic drunken drawl, as he slightly slurs his words (though you can make out every one perfectly; this is just an act, a stage persona - isn't it?) as he goes on to tell us “I'm so goddamn horny the crack of dawn better watch out!” and how “You're gone three months and you come home, everything in your refrigerator's a science project!” When the song begins, it's pretty much a continuation of his opening monologue, as he slips in references to local spots, and sings (or really, speaks in rhythm) about ”Tornado warnings in effect before noon Sunday/ For the areas including/ The western region of my mental health/ And the northern portion of my ability/ To deal rationally with my /Disconcerted precarious emotional situation.”

Some very jazzy music underpins this, upright bass, trumpets and sax, and that sort of ticking percussion that you hear in these sort of clubs, the drummer seeming more to just be keeping time than actually playing. I guess it would be termed a jazz jam, maybe? It's more a slow blues intro then to “On a Foggy Night”, with another entertaining scene-setting by Waits as he takes us on “an improvisational adventure into the bowels of the metropolitan region.” There's not too much point in my recounting what he says here; you really need to hear this to get the proper atmosphere, and in fairness much if not all of it is very America-specific and quite dated in some cases - stuff about saving coupons off an “Old Gold”? The song then wanders along on a slow, lazy blues/jazz line as Waits meanders through the tune, slipping into monologue and then back to singing as he goes.

A hilarious resume of his eating experiences in local restaurants introduces the next song, as he drawls, to enormous and knowing applause, “I've had strange looking patty melts at Norms, I've had dangerous veal cutlets at The Copper Penny. I ordered my veal cutlet, Christ it walked off the plate and down to the end of the counter, tried to beat the shit out of my cup of coffee! Coffee just wasn't strong enough to defend itself!” The song then contains the title of the album as “Eggs and Sausage (In a Cadillac with Susan Michelson)" slides in from his monologue, the restaurant theme developing through the song. Another slow, bluesy style song with his easygoing vocal and some fine work on the piano too. Another standout then comes in “Better Off Without a Wife”, as he introduces it by saying it's “for anyone who's ever whistled this song (plays “The Wedding March”) then grins as he admits “Well maybe ya whistle it but ya lost the sheet music.” He then goes on to describe his ideal date: with himself. Hilarious.

The song is wonderful though. ”Sleepin' till the crack o' noon/ Been out howlin' at the moon/ Goin' out when I want to/ And comin' home when I please/ Don't have to ask permission/ If I wanna go out fishin'/ Never have to ask for the keys.” It rides along on a slow bouncy sort of honky-tonk rhythm on the piano as Waits croaks out the advantages to being single. This before he met Kathleen I assume. The first song on the album not to have an introduction, and the original intended title for the album, “Nighthawk Postcards (From Easy Street)” opens on a sliding walking bass line before Waits comes in with the vocal, something he calls himself an “inebriational travelogue”, the song again not so much sung as spoken, the images evoked of a city at night seen through the eyes of a drunk, as he says “You been drinking cleaning products all night, open to suggestions.” It's by far the longest track on the whole album, at eleven and a half minutes as he weaves his way through the nighttime streets, watching the denizens of the city as they scurry to and fro. Some great sax work again and a hypnotic bassline accompanies him as the song speeds up and slows down, Waits singing/talking about sailors, movie-goers and used car salesmen as he swaggers on down the rainsoaked avenues, “Using parking meters as walking sticks” and the band kicks into a bit of a boogie as he goes on his way.

It's the sort of song that seems so directionless and abstract and improvisational that it could conceivably go on forever, or at least until Waits loses his voice, but it ends well and leads into another anecdote which flows into “Warm Beer and Cold Women”, where Waits returns to the country influences he explored on his debut album. It's a nice swaying ballad driven by piano as he sings about ”Platinum blondes and tobacco brunettes”, Pete Christlieb ripping off a fine sax solo, then “Putnam County” is another sort of improvisational trip through ... Christ I don't know. It's all very on-the-fly, seat-of-your-pants songwriting. But it's exceptionally entertaining. Into a blues shuffle then for “Spare parts (a nocturnal emission)" as Waits sets the scene: ”The dawn cracked hard like a pool cue/ And it weren't takin' no lip/ From the night before.” It's a finger-clickin', toe-tappin', hand-clappin' infectious beat and sax and bass drive it alone in a sort of a slowed-down “Diamonds On My Windshield” feel.

“Nobody” is an old-style Waits ballad with his hard-bitten twist on it, almost completely piano driven, and it's the shortest of the tracks on the album, bar the intros: just under three minutes. It leads into the only cover version, Tommy Faile's “Big Joe and Phantom 309”, with a short - very short - intro from Waits who declares “It's story time again!” Quite funny when he declares “Gonna tell ya a story about a truck driver” and one guy - one guy, probably a trucker himself - claps, hoping to start something off no doubt, but there are no takers. Hate that. Anyway, the song is credited to as I say Tommy Faile but Waits incorrectly says that it was Red Sovine that wrote it. Some quick research reveals that it was Sovine who had the hit all right, but it's Faile's song. Anyway it's the usual ghost-from-the-past-appears-to-help-stranger stories, set in a trucking concept. Cute, but a little predictable. It's for once not a piano song, but ticks along on some really nice acoustic guitar.

We end then on the outro, “Spare Parts II” as Waits thanks everyone for coming: “Woulda been strange if nobody had shown up!” There's the introduction of the band - perhaps odd, given that this is the end of the gig as it were, but then Waits always has been a maverick and does things his own way. And so comes to an end a pretty unique album, a singular experience and a hell of a hard album to review and get across to you all; I envy the lucky few who got to actually participate in this. Must have been a blast, and talk about immortality!

TRACK LISTING

1. Opening Intro
2. Emotional Weather Report
3. Intro
4. On a Foggy Night
5. Intro
6. Eggs and Sausage (In a Cadillac with Susan Michelson)
7. Intro
8. Better Off Without a Wife
9. Nighthawk Postcards (From Easy Street)
10. Intro
11. Warm Beer and Cold women
12. Intro
13. Putnam County
14. Spare Parts I (A Nocturnal Emission)
15. Nobody
16. Intro
17. Big Joe and Phantom 309
18. Spare Parts II and Closing

I never got to see Waits live (though I did give my brother a ticket to go when he couldn't afford it) but from the sounds of this album he must be one of the greatest entertainers to see onstage. His presence just radiates from the album and commands your attention. It's something that I again have to remark on, even though I've already said it, but to actually record a live album with completely new material is something I know of no other artist attempting. To think he had, at this point, a loyal enough fanbase that they would buy this album and listen to all-new tracks in a live setting is really something special. Hell, maybe they just came for the free beer, I don't know. Basically, it's like a new studio double album. But live. If you know what I mean.

If this hadn't cemented his position as a bona fide star, then the album that followed it would, though again the charts would know little of it and radio would always ignore him. No hit singles for Tom Waits, but then, that was not the world he inhabited.

And on balance, I think I prefer to live in his world.

Rating: 9.6/10
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