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Getting Into: Tom Waits

With Scarlett Johansson's album of Tom Waits covers, Anywhere I Lay My Head hitting stores today, some folks may be wondering: Who's this Tom Waits character, and why would someone like ScarJo want to cover a bunch of his songs?

Waits is one of the great American songwriters, but several of his best-known songs became famous only once covered by someone else. He penned "Downtown Train," but that song will forever be associated with Rod Stewart; same goes for "Jersey Girl" and Bruce Springsteen. Yet Waits is a distinctive (if quirky) singer in his own right, performing some of his songs in little more than a growl but occasionally revealing a tender side to his voice as well. He's prolific, and his catalog of 20 albums might seem daunting, so in this edition of Getting Into, I wanted to suggest some ways to get acquainted with Waits without feeling overwhelmed. Here's my guide:

Beginner: Mule Variations and The Heart of Saturday Night
Mule Variations was the first Waits album I owned, so I can vouch for its effectiveness at getting a new listener intrigued in his music. What's great about this 1999 recording (which won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album) is that it contains within its 16 tracks a big portion of the Waits spectrum. There's the sweet and tender ("Hold On"), the rockin' ("Big in Japan"), the growly ("Filipino Box Spring Hog") and the goofy ("Chocolate Jesus"). If you can find even one song to like, chances are you'll like other Waits material, too. The Heart of Saturday Night feels very different (for one thing, it's from 25 years earlier, so Waits' voice sounds significantly smoother), but it's a great showcase for Waits' songwriting, perfectly capturing the emotion of a jazzy Saturday night out on the town . . . followed by several long, lonely hours at a dive bar and a sad breakfast at a local greasy spoon.

For my intermediate and advanced selections, just


Intermediate: Rain Dogs, Small Change, and Bone Machine
Rain Dogs is one of the best-known Waits albums. Like Mule Variations, it covers a wide range of styles, from ballads to country music to straight-up pop — and there's even a polka! The 1985 album includes Waits' "Downtown Train," which Rod Stewart would later make into a top-10 hit; it also has "Anywhere I Lay My Head," the song from which Scarlett's album takes its name. Small Change again goes back to the jazzier feel of the early Waits era and has some of the funniest songs that may have ever been written about a drinking problem ("The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)"). And I recommend Bone Machine here largely because at this point, you'll be able to appreciate the hilarity of Waits' scratchy voice singing "I Don't Wanna Grow Up," which the Ramones later made famous.

Advanced: Waits' soundtrack albums, including One from the Heart, Night on Earth, and Alice; Orphans
One of the most intriguing things about Waits is his film work: He's appeared in several films by director Jim Jarmusch and written the soundtrack for another: Night on Earth. I've always been intrigued — and a little spooked — by Alice, a recording of songs Waits wrote as an opera inspired by Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. And Orphans, the newest release, is three discs of collected songs that never found a home on any of Waits' other projects.


Join The Conversation
eveday eveday 9 years
I love him! Every time I think there are people like Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears having successful musical careers :sick:, I'm thankful that people like Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen still make good music.
juju4 juju4 9 years
Mule Variations is great. I love how his unique voice expresses such emotional honesty. His slower songs on that album tend to make me cry.
everythingsfine everythingsfine 9 years
May I suggest this place: to start getting into Tom Waits? You get everything, from his early to recent period.
elisabetha elisabetha 9 years
i think "night hawks at the dinner", was his best.!!!!
anniekim anniekim 9 years
Rain Dogs was the 1st Waits album I fell for--just couldn't get that record off the turntable. My mom advice is--Closing Time. I listen to it often with my kids (ages 2 & 4.) Much better than the Wiggles.
specialed specialed 9 years
I have been a Waits fan since 1975. Interesting fact: during the 1980's Tom won a 10 million dollar lawsuit against a chip manufacturer that imitated his distinctive voice in a television commercial without his approval. Interesting fact #2: When I was a NYC cabdriver during the 80's I once had Tom's wife as a fare in my cab. I asked her if - considering the nature & authenticity of Tom's songs - Tom is a good father/family man. She told me that he is.
galenolsonrn galenolsonrn 9 years
colew's right, no place in the Waits scheme for celluliod crap. Tom has won SEVERAL lawsuits related to people impersonating or using his material for commercial pop garbage. Money wuz donated to charity though..
blucat3 blucat3 9 years
Looking for the Heart of Saturday Night . Ruby's Arms . Nighthawks at The Diner. Blue Valentine . Christmas Card from A Hooker in Minneapolis. Mr Tom Waits has written some of the most beautiful songs ever. Don't confuse his newer experimental sounds with the searing beauty of his earlier works and don't discount them because they are older . Discover the early Tom Waits and treat yourself to song writing genius . And once you get used to his gravelly voice you may enjoy that too. I do.
lonesome-13 lonesome-13 9 years
Alright folks. We have "Foreign Affairs" from '77. A lot of mellow lounge tunes with a 3-4 piece band. Includes a tribute to Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady along with a duet with Bette Midler. Burma Shave works on so many levels. An album for an evening with a lady and some Gin & Tonics with a wrinkled suit on and a broken heel on your ladies' right foot. "Early Years Vol. 2" Ahhhh, I don't really know what to say. This album just never sticks with me for very long. As for "Early Years Vol. 1", that thing is awesome. "Heartattack & Vine" is a good cross between the lounge he was leaving and the tribal rhumbas and mambas and such he was heading into. Very solid album. "Frank's Wild Years" tells a story of Uncle Frank. Hardcore fans already know this album so you newbies be wary of this album until you can stomach the lounge and the tribal rhumbas. "Closing Time" is his first and has the classic "Ol' '55" on it. Has a nice version of Ice Cream Man along with Virginia Avenue. Strictly acoustic guitar and piano with upright bass and some drums. "Real Gone" I find to be one of my favorites. Has a feel of being lost in a field during the Civil War. Aggressive. As always, lyrically strong and musically strong. He is the Gershwin of our time in a modern vaudville. See him live and you will never forget it. I saw him in Louisville for the "Orphans" tour and "WOW" is all I can say. "The Black Rider" is an opera written with William S Burroughs. Presented in a carnival format. Picture Tom Waits calling to you to come into the tent and see the freaks for a nickel. Add William S Burroughs and you have the album. Outstanding. If you can like "Big Time" then you are a Waits fan. Another great album. This is a live album and Waits can narrate like no other. "Blood Money is similar to "Alice" in the moods of the songs. "Blue Valentine" is another one that does not stay with me as a whole but there are some classics on it. "Whistlin' Past The Graveyard" would be my fave off this one. And finally, "Nighthawks At The Diner" has got to be the most entertaining album because of the narration. It is a live album while still in the piano phase and not assorted noises. This album just rules because of "Emotional Weather Report" if not for anything else. Hope that helps any of you newbies. Good things, C.
colewsmith colewsmith 9 years
Anyone that uses "ScarJo" should stick to crappy pop culture and not bother with Tom Waits. Ever.
sarahmuffinpants sarahmuffinpants 9 years
I have always loved Tom Waits. I love the Bone Machine era the most. This new Scarlett Johanssen album was a terrible disappointment. Tom Waits has an amazing quality to his voice, this album is completely vanilla and devoid of any charm at all.
johnnytiu johnnytiu 9 years
Good list. I love Tom Waits, and no matter what mood I'm in, there's an album of his that fits it. I should offer a correction; "Heart of Saturday Night" (perhaps my favorite Waits album) was in 1974, making it 25 years before 1999's "Mule Variations," not 15 years. I know the correction may sound a bit pretentious, but 25 years difference between Waits albums is quite HUGE compared to what he was doing 15 years before "Mule Variations." (Think "Rain Dogs" and "Swordfish Trombones," which were much less acceptable and much less likely to win Grammys.)
monkeylimepie monkeylimepie 9 years
Oh! How I love my Waitsie. My beautiful husband just got us tickets to see him in June. I love that man. Both of them. Sigh....
hayworthgilda hayworthgilda 9 years
great post! spread the Tom Waits love!
bluesarahlou bluesarahlou 9 years
My dad is really into Tom Waits and he's been trying to get me to like him for years. Kittyink I think you're right, either you love Tom Waits or you hate him.
jdeprima jdeprima 9 years
What, no love for Frank's Wild Years? That's the album that made me a fan, way back when I was 14 (eek, 20 years ago). It's weird and theatrical but has such beautiful moments. It puts Mule Variations to shame.
SugarCat SugarCat 9 years
I've been wanting to try and get into him for years, but I never think to pick his stuff up when I'm out. One of these years!
kittyink kittyink 9 years
Great list! I love Tom Waits and it's hard to get other people into him (I don't think there's any middle of the road fans).
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