December 7: Tom Waits

Tom+WaitsTom Waits, one of the 20th century’s greatest singer-songwriters turns 65 today. Waits is a musician with a unique style and sensibility. Music critic Daniel Durchholz has said that Waits’ distinctive gravelly voice sounds “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” However, although he has what some might call a limited voice, it’s a voice that Waits is able to use incredibly effectively as a performer to elicit a wide variety of emotions.

The best point of comparison for Waits’ songwriting is his contemporary Bruce Springsteen. Both write songs for and about brokenhearted romantics and the common men trying to find their way in the world. It should be no surprise that Springsteen covered Waits’ gorgeous ballad “Jersey Girl.” In fact, he’s even invited Waits onstage to perform it with him a few times. However, Waits goes a bit further than the Boss, by exploring more of the fringe elements of society.

Waits’ songs give voice to characters like asad drunk at the end of the bar, a man trying to reconnect with an old flame forty years later, a desperate try anything salesman, a 21 year old soldier praying he makes it home alive, a hooker writing a Christmas card to a former client, crazed street preachers, pirates heading for Singapore and even the Devil himself.

Additionally, over his career, Waits has tapped into a wide range of styles. His first few records mixed country and jazz influences, while his 80s and 90s output went in more experimental directions with avant-garde influences and rhythms drawn from around the world. On some of his most recent albums, he’s even thrown in some beat boxing. Of course, through the years, his songwriting has stayed consistently strong.

Of course, as he is a brilliant songwriter, many singers have covered his songs and made them hits, but few people can sing them like Waits can. Take for instance, one of the most famous covers of a Waits song, Rod Stewart’s version of “Downtown Train.”  Waits’ original features him playing the role of a street singer who’s fallen for a woman he barely knows. There’s a sense of desperation in his voice as he asks “Will I see you tonight on a downtown train?”, hoping against hope that he might run into her. Stewart’s cover is a little too polished and the overdone production turns the romantic tango ballad into a glittering but empty anthem. Although Stewart belts out the title verse, he doesn’t seem too worried about the answer, asking “Will I see you tonight…?” with the level of  uncertainty of one casually asking a friend “Wanna grab a drink?”

So, today, put on some real deal Tom Waits music. Start off with the early jazzier stuff, and as the night gets weirder put on Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs. And what shall we drink while listening to Tom Waits? Well, I took inspiration from his Latin noir song “Jockey Full Of Bourbon” off of Rain Dogs and found a cocktail (made with bourbon, naturally) called the Jockey Club. It’s a fascinating twist on the Manhattan that adds a bit of Maraschino liqueur, a liqueur made from the slightly sour marasca cherry, to the mix.

Jockey Club

  • 1 1/2 ounces Bourbon
  • 1 ounce Sweet Vermouth
  • 1/4 ounce Maraschino Liqueur

Tomorrow: Television’s most famous pregnancy.


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