I first heard Tom Waits in the sixth form at school. My friend Debbie and I were starting to listen to stuff that wasn’t in the charts and she came into the study room one day and said “listen to this”. I can’t remember which song it was, nothing off this album, it was after his voice had been shot down even more. But I hadn’t heard anything like it. Growing up in a family that revered Frank Sinatra, all the swing guys, Bing Crosby and the musicals, the ability to sing and sing well was prized. The idea of singing like you’d just swallowed a brillo pad was new to me and anathema to them. I could just hear my father’s reaction in my mind as I listened.
I didn’t start listening to him a lot then. He stayed on the periphery for a few years. And then I met my husband and when we started seeing each other he lived in a house with 2 other men. The front room was full, overflowing with books and CDS. One night, Simon made dinner and asked me to pick something to play while we ate. I saw this lying on the table and put it on. It’s his first album, and one he’s since distanced himself from (I think).
I loved it though. I left the house the next morning and couldn’t face the idea of not having it with me so I took it. (After payday I went to Fopp, bought it and put it back so if James West or Duffy ever read this, I didn’t steal your Tom Waits, ok?)
It’s a run down, barfly, drinking till dawn album, full of regret and tinged with sadness. You can’t play it while it’s light or when you’re busy. You play it after 11pm on a Friday night when you’re knackered and have had the best part of a bottle of wine. The wine helps explain why you end up in tears at the end of ‘Martha’.
Waits is another storyteller. His later albums are inhabited by all sorts of characters but the bones for them were laid down in this album. You find yourself both charmed and repulsed by the wreckage of their lives, and his voice only highlights this. There’s dark humour here, a black delight running through each song.
But those are for later albums. This one’s less harsh, more downtrodden. Drunk but not yet face down in the gutter. That will come, inevitably.
P.S. Reading back, perhaps it was weird that we used this to soundtrack a romantic dinner?