Looking Back at Tom Waits’ Asylum Years: ‘Closing Time,’ ‘The Heart of Saturday Night’, ‘Nighthawks at the Diner,’ ‘Small Change,’ ‘Foreign Affairs,’ ‘Blue Valentine, ‘Heart Attack & Vine’

Tom Waits’ first seven albums, originally released by Asylum Records through the 1970s, have been remastered and reissued on CD, vinyl, and digital this year. Here, we take a closer look at the first phase of this legendary artist’s career.

Closing Time (1973)

The modern and most popular perception of Tom Waits is of the wildly unconventional experimentalist who delivered a series of subversive ’80s masterpieces including Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs, which still stand among the finest albums ever recorded in the rock era. Other people may think of him as the sleazy, drunken bar-room observer, singing of the low-lifes, down-and-outs, prostitutes, and thieves that inhabited his seedy world of LA’s Tropicana Motel and its environs in the mid-to-late ’70s. 

But Waits started out as a surprisingly conventional singer-songwriter in the early ’70s, with little hint of the huge experimentation to come. His debut album, 1973’s Closing Time, still stands as one of his most melodic and attractive albums, and is a fascinating snapshot into Waits’ early days as a bar-room balladeer. 

As part of David Geffen’s new label Asylum Records, a haven for West Coast singer-songwriters, Waits already offered a darker side to the genre with his gravelly voice, drunken ballads, and occasionally sleazy lyrics. But Closing Time is so unlike some of his other albums that one may wonder at first whether it is actually Tom Waits (although his distinctive gravelly rasp is already beginning to get there), and sometimes his songs verge on a parody of the kind of music artists like Randy Newman were making at the time. That said, it is nevertheless an often brilliant album. 

Although Waits’ style and sound here doesn’t necessarily ooze originality, he injects the music with his own humorous edge, and you know that this is no ordinary sensitive singer-songwriter like many of his Asylum colleagues. All of the songs, including the overtly romantic ones, contain some edge and some black humour, and all the little in-jokes add up to create an interesting portrait of Waits’ barfly persona. 

Closing Time is home to some traditional, standard early ’70s mid-pace country rockers, but Waits’ melodies and performances drag them out of the middle of the road. “Ol’ 55,” for instance, is highly conventional compared to some of his later songs, yet is enticing and attractive; likewise, the romance of “I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You” and “Old Shoes (and Picture Postcards)” are conventional songs with memorable melodies, and they prove that not only could Tom Waits (later on) make music of deep originality, verve, and experimentation, but he could also be a traditional, tuneful singer-songwriter-crooner. 

Away from the mid-tempo country rockers, there are some songs owing much more to the realms of jazz and blues, like “Virginia Avenue,” the positively boozy “Midnight Lullaby,” and the upbeat, funky “Ice Cream Man.” And what about the desolate, spare “Lonely” and the stunning album highlight, the heartbreaking, illuminating “Martha,” a song of remarkable depth and beauty. 

Waits was adept at creating the music to match his evocative title, and these songs sound as if they could be performed by Waits and his intimate jazz band at a bar or club. Many songs are built on the minor keys, creating a drunken, slurred style, as on the likes of “Grapefruit Moon,” another melodic highlight. As a result, all of the songs seem of a piece and there isn’t the dazzling diversity of later Waits records – but that’s not the intention. These are boozy songs of love lost and sadness delivered often with grace and dignity; yes, it lacks the punch of later Waits albums, but there are very few of his albums in his extensive catalogue that match up to the melodic quality of this album. It is a strong, solid debut and a key singer-songwriter record of the ‘70s.

The Heart of Saturday Night (1974)

Waits’ second album, 1974’s The Heart of Saturday Night, still finds him in the guise of sensitive-ish barroom singer/songwriter/balladeer – but the lines are already blurred, and this album also acts as a crossover into his next phase as the sleazy bohemian barfly. 

Even at this early stage, after only one album, 1973’s well-crafted singer-songwriter landmark Closing Time, Waits was dipping his toes into the waters of jazz and blues music, imbuing his generic approach with a distinctly bohemian style. This is the first Tom Waits album where the cast of low-life characters first begins to come alive, but at the same time it also stays reasonably close to the blueprint established by the well-received debut. 

Still only 24, Waits sounds much older than his years. His voice is seemingly naturally gravely, but his diet of cigarettes and alcohol significantly aged his voice; however, his voice was not yet the gruff groan it soon became, and still could imbue melodies with requisite charm and verve. The melodies here are sometimes inventive but often not as immediately memorable as those on Closing Time. Nevertheless, the songs retain a welcome originality and sophistication.

Examples of Waits’ deeper explorations into jazz come with the slinky opener “New Coat of Paint,” the swinging “Depot, Depot,” and vintage “Fumblin’ with the Blues,” which is a ’70s approach to a ’30s-style jazz/blues tune. Waits was, however, not done with his previous style, and recalls the songs of boozy love on “Drunk on the Moon” and also the heartbreak tunes of often doomed romance on “San Diego Serenade” and “Shiver Me Timbers,” which boast two of the album’s loveliest melodies. A new flourish is the addition of strings to enhance the romantic quality of the songs. 

Melodically, The Heart of Saturday Night is often quite vivid, with Waits showing a genuine command of jazz chops on “New Coat of Paint” and romantic singer-songwriter love ballads on the likes of “San Diego Serenade,” but it is probably the glorious, slow, heartfelt title track, “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night,” with muted country influences, that best exudes Waits’ earliest, most tuneful style. Sometimes, a song of such simplicity and clarity acts as an oasis in a plethora of similar jazz and blues-based songs, and it is a worthy centrepiece for the album. 

Lyrically, too, Waits consolidated the poetry he began to deliver on the debut. Alongside his tales of bohemian escapades and the colourful California nightlife, he delivers a spoken-word piece, “Diamonds on My Windshield,” which comes straight out of the Beat poetry era and finds Waits delivering such immortal lines as “there’s fifteen feet of snow in the east / and it’s colder than a well-digger’s ass.” Waits continued to grow in stature lyrically as his albums went on, and this spoken word-meets-double bass concoction is an early sign of the experimentation to come. 

As it is, The Heart of Saturday Night is an album as solid and interesting as its predecessor, with more emphasis on the jazz and blues styles than the countrified crooner of Closing Time. Waits still inhabits the barroom with his bohemian vignettes, though, and many of these songs sound like they do belong at the heart of Saturday night, in an obscure downtown cocktail club in a haze of smoke and dirty jokes. It was Waits’ first real step towards exploring this style, and he mastered it on subsequent albums. But this is an intriguing first draft and a solid listen in its own right.

Nighthawks at the Diner (1975)

This 74-minute epic acts as a prototype or reference point for the series of Tom Waits records that followed for the remainder of the ’70s. 

After Waits laced his bar-room crooner style with remarkable lyrics and jazz inflections on his first two albums Closing Time (1973) and The Heart of Saturday Night (1974), he essentially kissed goodbye to the sensitive style of old in favour of pursuing the sleazier, seedier, jazzier side to his artistry first glimpsed on The Heart of Saturday Night, which seemed to have one foot in both camps. 

There is a wealth of material on Nighthawks at the Diner, and much of it contains some good ideas, but there is too much material that sounds samey and textbook lounge jazz rather than pushing Waits to his limits. The best part of the album is undoubtedly Waits’ superb, wry, humorous lyrics, and he is obviously a fantastic entertainer and raconteur – musically, too, the cool, languid jazz ballads sound sophisticated and unconventional, but each song is rather on the long side and detracts from its strong points in the first place. It’s sprawling, and doesn’t always make its length work.

But this is not an album for refinement – it was recorded live over two days in July 1975 at a Los Angeles recording studio in front of an invited crowd, and as a result Waits gets loose and uneven – there is a lack of structure to the record, but this increases its entertainment value to a degree. Because it’s not a strictly “authentic” live album, some of the atmosphere, and indeed Waits’ possibly overdone sozzled persona, can appear somewhat disingenuous. But he’s undeniably witty and humorous, and it’s an entertaining listen. 

Most of the songs here are preceded by introductions (improvised or not) that are often even more entertaining and memorable than the songs themselves. An example is “Better Off Without a Wife,” where Waits openly talks about masturbating, or the wordy, brilliant openings to “On a Foggy Night” and “Eggs and Sausage (In a Cadillac with Susan Michelson).” Some of the pieces seem to drift into one another, but most have relatively direct melodic ideas – even if those melodies are sometimes not as crisply memorable as those on the first two records.

Waits reprises his earlier crooner style on “Nobody,” and many of the songs sound like looser, jazzier cousins of the late-night tanked-up world Waits inhabited on the previous records. He also moves into new territory, with lengthy pieces like “Nighthawk Postcards” and “Putnam County,” where his wordplay reaches dazzling heights. There is also a stripped, brilliant rendition of Red Sorvine’s “Big Joe and Phantom 309.” 

Nighthawks at the Diner is, ultimately, not Tom Waits’ finest hour (and fourteen minutes) and is not the best introduction to his music. He further refined his barfly persona on a series of more direct and structured records that followed this one, but this epic double does have some merits of its own. Of the first three Waits albums, it’s the one where he feels most comfortable in his own skin, bantering with the audience and offering up his most entertaining lyrics yet, full of racy sexual innuendos. At 25, Waits’ voice was ragged and grizzly and he sounds much older than his years. At times the album descends into genre parody, and despite the entertainment value of Waits’ lyrics and performance, the music rarely lives up to the brilliant heights of the words. Waits refined this style further before changing direction, wisely and superbly, in the 1980s.

Small Change (1976)

For many, 1976’s Small Change is the crystallization of Tom Waits’ 1970s artistic persona, a record where all the various threads of his early style converge.

It’s a cohesive listen, and has an atmosphere all its own; where Closing Time and The Heart of Saturday Night laced a country-esque West Coast singer-songwriter vibe with jazz, and Nighthawks at the Diner upped the ante on the self-consciously humorous raconteur persona, Small Change is, yes, another evocation of the barfly persona but, unlike its predecessor, it is all about the songs rather than the singer.

This is immediately in evidence on the beautiful, lovelorn “Tom Traubert’s Blues,” which weaves “Waltzing Matilda” into its romantic melody, and the lush piano-and-strings arrangement, roughened by Waits’ gruff vocal, creates a stunning, enduring effect. It remains one of the key songs of his entire career.

The rest of the material is rarely quite as exquisite, but Small Change does offer up some real gems.  “I Wish I Was in New Orleans” is a nocturnal beauty, “Invitation to the Blues” is dark film noir jazz, and “The Piano Has Been Drinking” is the high point of Waits’ sloshed persona – genuinely funny, and quite touching.

“The One That Got Away” and “Small Change” exhibit his Beat affectations with varying degrees of success, but there are also two largely spoken-word jewels here: “Pasties and a G-string” is a sparse voice-and-drum piece laden with sexual innuendo (the aural realisation of the iconic album cover), while the immensely quotable “Step Right Up” is a weird, striking, brilliant proto-rap that fizzes and pops, and really came alive on stage.

This is one of the key records of Waits’ Asylum era.

Foreign Affairs (1977)

Tom Waits’ fifth LP, 1977’s Foreign Affairs, may just be the most criminally underrated of his career. As sharp and striking as a film noir, and as gripping as a crime novel, it’s one of the best places to hear the tales of the late-night world Waits inhabited and wrote about in the ’70s. It finds him at the peak of his Beat-inspired era; common wisdom is that this album’s predecessor Small Change is the finest example of the Beat-inspired boho wino persona, but Foreign Affairs has a unique atmosphere all its own.

Opening with the immediately engaging instrumental “Cinny’s Waltz,” a namecheck of Waits’ younger sister Cynthia, all nocturnal piano and strings, plus a glorious trumpet line from Jack Sheldon, it sets the scene perfectly for the late-night ballad “Muriel,” where Waits sings nostalgically of “one more burned out lamppost on Main Street” to one of his more engaging melodies of the period.

The brilliant duet with Bette Midler, “I Never Talk to Strangers,” follows, with Midler drawing on her acting prowess to step inside the character of the woman being chatted up by the Waits character’s “sad, sad repartee” in a bar. It was the song that turned Francis Ford Coppola on to using Waits for the One from the Heart soundtrack in 1980, and remains a high point of the album, a strong but strange lounge-jazz duet. The original first side of the vinyl LP closes with “Jack & Neal,” Waits’ premier immortalisation of his Beat heroes in an appropriately spare bass-heavy arrangement with Waits’ stirring spoken word, followed by the pretty “A Sight for Sore Eyes,” which was originally planned for inclusion on Small Change and impresses here with its attractive melody and direct verse-chorus structure.

The second side keeps up the high quality of the first with the near-nine-minute epic “Potter’s Field,” arguably Waits’ finest spoken-word piece of the era. It’s a noir story of a blind stool pigeon who barters for whiskey in exchange for information on a gangland crime, and is spoken by Waits in his best and most dramatic Beat voice. It really comes to life with Jim Hughart’s excellent bass, the use of (melo)dramatic trumpets and clarinets, and of course Bob Alcivar’s evocative orchestration which, while perhaps somewhat overblown, ramps up the intensity.

“Burma Shave” could well be the album’s high point, with Waits exchanging the gruff growl he picked up for Small Change for a comparatively gentle croon. It’s just Waits and piano for the most part, and remarkably keeps the listener’s attention for the entire six minutes even without any structural shifts. It’s a haunting melody and a haunting tale of two youngsters leaving a town for the promise of a better and more exciting life, only to be killed in a car accident. Waits revised the song for his late ’70s live shows, transforming it into a spoken-word piece complemented by the music from the Gershwin standard “Summertime.” That version certainly has its merits, but this original LP cut is superb.

The album heads to a close with the throwaway but entertaining “Barber Shop,” which has a light jazz/R&B bent and a super-fast delivery, while “Foreign Affair” ends proceedings on a suitably melodic and interesting note, with Waits playing for laughs with his wordy lyric: “When travelling abroad in the continental style, it’s my belief one must attempt to be discreet, and subsequently bear in mind your transient position allows you a perspective that’s unique.” 

Commonly regarded as the weakest of his Asylum era output, Foreign Affairs deserves a lot more recognition as a collection of some of Waits’ most unfairly neglected material. “Muriel” and “Burma Shave” are superb noir ballads, while “Potter’s Field” is the creme de la creme of the Tom Waits Beat phase. There are engaging pop melodies (“A Sight for Sore Eyes”) and successful forays into lounge-jazz (“I Never Talk to Strangers”) amid the funky, spare R&B infusions (“Jack & Neal,” “Barber Shop”) and romantic travelogues (“Foreign Affair.”) It never feels like Waits is playing at his persona here; it feels all real. Conceived as a “black-and-white movie” type record, Foreign Affairs more than succeeds and, more than any other Tom Waits record, demands (re)-investigation.

Blue Valentine (1978)

Blue Valentine, recorded in Hollywood in the summer of 1978, has both a romance and an edge to it that marks it out as one of Waits’ most successful records of the period. It moves his sound on, strikingly, forgoing the piano balladeering in favor of harder-edged R&B-inspired cuts. The musical palette draws more on bass, guitars, and tenor sax, and the songs are often more rhythmic and bluesy.

“Romeo is Bleeding” and the slow, languorous groove of “$29.00” are the most obvious R&B-inspired compositions, while the up-tempo, slinky, suave rhythm of “Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard” is an instant classic, with its payoff line, “I never told the truth so I can never tell a lie.”

Waits also goes sparse on the ghostly blues groove of “A Sweet Little Bullet from a Pretty Blue Gun” and indeed the melancholy, nocturnal closer “Blue Valentines,” which features just Waits, in one of his most heartfelt vocal performances, singing over a quiet bed of slow electric guitar. Nowhere is this haunting sparseness better captured than on the stunning “Red Shoes by the Drugstore,” a hypnotic, spare groove that emphasizes the power of Waits’ lyric.

His lyrics are in full poetic flight on Blue Valentine, and he doesn’t entirely trade in his piano. Indeed, the piano songs on this record are some of his career-best. Following the nostalgic opener “Somewhere,” originally from West Side Story, there is the evergreen heartbreaker “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis,” which has more of a gospel flavor, and the magnificent “Kentucky Avenue,” an emotive, beautiful childhood snapshot.

There’s definitely a case for Blue Valentine being the pinnacle of Waits’ Asylum achievements, and it expertly bridges his barfly bohemian past with the harder R&B flavours of his future. It’s a dusky, late-night gem.

Heartattack and Vine (1980)

Disillusioned, disappointed, and trapped in his image as the boho wino barfly, Tom Waits left Los Angeles for the “new urban landscape” of New York City in January 1980 to find a new sound and a new source of inspiration. He spent almost five months in his new locale, where he was contacted by Francis Ford Coppola to work on the soundtrack of his new film One from the Heart, and it was that project that ironically lured Waits back to the LA he had left after an eight-year residency.

Waits took a month off from the soundtrack project in June and July 1980 to record his first album of new material in two years. The resulting Heartattack and Vine took the blues and R&B bent of 1978’s predecessor Blue Valentine and infused it with a harder-edged rock sound that saw Waits taking small but notable steps away from the sound and image he had cultivated in the mid-’70s. Yes, the lyrics still referenced that seedy LA underworld of pimps, hookers, and murderers, but musically at least half of the songs were subtle new directions for the 30-year-old now on his seventh LP for Asylum.

Originally scheduled for release in late 1979 as Lucky Streak – with sessions that never materialised – Waits kept the original idea of including more forceful numbers with raucous vocal delivery. Waits quit smoking in 1980 and his voice, particularly on the album’s softer material, bears a light touch absent from some of his immediately preceding material. The gruff growl that emerged in force on 1976’s Small Change, replacing the comparatively sweet tone of the first two records, had now grown into a full-throated bluesy gospel shout that suited this R&B/rock material far better.

Split between five R&B numbers and four ballads, Heartattack and Vine keeps the interest of the listener precisely through the alternation between the two styles. Opening with the swaggering blues of “Heartattack and Vine,” which finds ‘Big John’ Thomassie using sticks on a Tom Waits album rather than the brushes of the past, the album gets off to a flying start as Waits recasts the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street as the dangerous “Heartattack and Vine,” where Waits sings of pedal pushers, thieves, and cocaine against a backdrop of some of the best R&B he ever wrote.

The instrumental “In Shades” is gloriously sleazy, with Ronnie Barron’s Hammond B-3 organ and Roland Bautista’s electric guitar the stars of the show. “Downtown” features Waits’ shoutiest vocal of his career yet, a first-take of another swaggering R&B/rock hybrid. The memorable mambo beat in “‘Til the Money Runs Out” provides one of the record’s most hypnotic riffs, as well as some of Waits’ most evocative lyrics: “Can’t you hear the thunder, someone stole my watch / I sold a quart of blood and bought a half a pint of Scotch.” The last of the R&B rockers is the New Orleans barroom shuffle of “Mr. Siegal,” with perfect bluesy vocal delivery and phrasing, and also a perfect replica of the Los Angeles version of the New Orleans sound. It’s also the home to one of the most memorable lines of the album: “How do the angels get to sleep when the Devil leaves the porch light on?”

The ballads are also, pleasingly, of high quality. “Saving All My Love For You” is sentimental in the way that a lot of great Tom Waits ballads are, but the image of paying “$15 for a prostitute with too much make-up and a broken shoe” is hardly sentimental fare. Originally slated for 1977’s underrated Foreign Affairs, the song, complete with Bob Alcivar’s string arrangement, finds a welcome home here. The album’s most famous number, “Jersey Girl,” casts Waits in the Springsteen arena rock role brilliantly and goes to show how diverse his songwriting truly was. The multi-syllabic words, complex lyrics, and winning humor that can be found on records like Nighthawks at the Diner or Small Change take a back seat for a straightforward and highly effective love song. Going for a Drifters sound, the song, which echoes Ben E King’s “Spanish Harlem,” even finds Waits doing his best “sha-la-la.”

“On the Nickel” is a beauty, a fine lullaby Waits wrote for Ralph Waite’s 1979 film-documentary of the same name, the story of the reunion of two friends who formed their bond on LA’s Skid Row some years before. Waits shows a real empathy and sympathy for “all the little boys” who end up in poverty in downtown LA, and the song joins the ranks of Waits’ best ballads. The closing “Ruby’s Arms,” like “Jersey Girl,” reunites Waits with Closing Time and Small Change collaborator Jerry Yester on string arrangement duties, also incorporating Salvation Army horns in a precursor of what was to come on 1983’s Swordfishtrombones. The song finds Waits saying goodbye to a lover, but of course one could interpret it as also saying goodbye to a complete way of life after meeting and marrying Kathleen Brennan in the summer of 1980 as he was working on the album. Waits has said that the song was a visualization of a man making his departure before dawn, but it could also be read as the defining song about the end of his two-year relationship with Rickie Lee Jones. He sings, “you’ll find another soldier,” and “I’ll never kiss your lips again, or break your heart” to one of his prettiest melodies and arrangements. Tom Waits is all over Rickie Lee Jones’ 1981 masterpiece Pirates, and it seems that she may be the Ruby he sings about here.

Waits’ attempts to move forward with his sound and move away from the popular image of himself gathered pace with Heartattack and Vine. The seeds were there on Blue Valentine and while Heartattack and Vine features its share of emotional ballads, it finds Waits continuing his onward trajectory. The soundtrack to One from the Heart, which Waits continued work on in 1980 and into 1981, was a strange step backwards but Waits understandably did not want to pass up that opportunity. Heartattack and Vine represents a sort of closure for Waits as the first part of his career ended – his association with Asylum soon came to a close, his life as a bachelor living in the Tropicana Motel came to an end as he settled down with Brennan, and even his long-time working relationship with producer Bones Howe was reaching its climax. But while it is “The End” in some ways, there are some exciting new developments in the Tom Waits sound here and it’s one of his best Asylum-era records.

After this, Waits took a complete volte-face and in 1982 recorded the music for what was to become the seminal Swordfishtrombones – a new era was just about to begin…

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