Music News

Happy Birthday, Tom Waits!

Thomas Alan "Tom" Waits, born December 7, 1949, is one of America's most distinctive and eclectic raconteurs, an artist who's known as a superior songwriter, an animated storyteller, an intuitive soundtrack composer, a roughshod singer, a versatile actor, and a man whose many guises have kept his devotees amazed, enthralled, and often bedazzled.

He's worked with Francis Ford Coppola and is married to screenwriter Kathleen Brennan, but his cinematic narratives and disheveled, discordant melodies make him unique in terms of his artistic expression. Bad as Me, Waits' latest album -- also his first all-new effort in seven years -- succinctly sums up his stylistic frenzy in 13 songs. His vocal runs the gamut from a harsh growl -- sounding for all the world like the unholy offspring of Captain Beefheart and Howlin' Wolf -- to an unhinged yelp or, just as often, a desperate plea for late-night reconciliation. It boasts blues, ballads, bebop, jazz, jump 'n' jive, and music that defies description, an integration of styles that has become his stock-in-trade throughout a career that spans nearly 40 years. During that time, Waits -- often with wife Brennan in tow -- has created one of the most imaginative and inventive musical franchises of the modern era.

Given that eclectic stance and a sound that would seem impossible to replicate, it's notable that Waits' work was still eagerly seized upon by a number of artists early on. Signed to Asylum Records, home to the Southern California's singer/songwriter vanguard that held sway in the post-'60s soft-rock era, his first album, Closing Time, was produced by Jerry Yester, a member of rock's old guard whose credits included a stint in the Lovin' Spoonful. That and the other albums that immediately followed -- The Heart of Saturday Night, Nighthawks at the Diner, and Small Change in particular -- showed his talent for detailing hard-luck heroes, battered barflies, and others who reside in the underbelly of society. Their songs proved perfect fodder for artists looking for the same kind of insight and expression. Here's a list of some of the more notable Waits re-dos: 

 • In 1973, the same year Waits released his first album, Tim Buckley recorded a cover version of one of its songs -- "Martha" -- for his album Sefronia. In the process, he became the first major artist to tap into Waits' catalog. 

• "Martha" was also covered by Meat Loaf for his 1996 album Welcome to the Neighborhood

• The Eagles brought Waits to the masses via their evocative take on his beautiful ballad "Ol' 55," which they included on the On the Border album. 

• Bruce Springsteen took "Jersey Girl," a song that was seemingly tailor-made for the Garden State's favorite son, and chose it as the live B-side for his 1984 hit single "Cover Me." He rewrote the lyric slightly, replacing a line about "whores on Eighth Avenue" with the line "the girls out on the avenue." He also added a verse that talked about taking "that little brat of yours and drop[ping] her off at your mom's." Waits later joined Springsteen onstage at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, where their performance was recorded and ultimately included as the closing track of Springsteen's 1986 box set Live/1975-85

• Rod Stewart gave Waits his biggest chart success with his 1989 cover of "Downtown Train," taking it to number one on the album rock and adult contemporary charts and to number three on Billboard's Hot 100. Stewart also received a Grammy nomination for his performance in the Best Male Pop Vocal category. The song was also significant in that it reunited Stewart with guitarist Jeff Beck, with whom he had played as part of the Jeff Beck Group in the late '60s. 

• "Downtown Train" was also covered by Mary Chapin Carpenter, Patty Smyth, Everything But the Girl and Bob Seger, who chose to hold his recording so as not to compete with Stewart's version. It was finally released as a single earlier this year and can now be found on Seger's new retrospective, Ultimate Hits: Rock and Roll Never Forgets

• Stewart also recorded Waits' song "Tom Traubert's Blues" for his albums Lead Vocalist and Unplugged... and Seated 

• Given the similarity in their singing styles, Screamin' Jay Hawkins seemed a perfect candidate to cover Waits' material, and his 1991 album, Black Music for White People, features two Waits compositions, "Heartattack & Vine" and "Ice Cream Man." (In 1993, Levi's used Hawkins' song for a commercial, resulting in a lawsuit and a subsequent full-page apology in Billboard.) 

• Tori Amos did a take of "Time," a track from Rain Dogs, on her 2001 album Strange Little Girls

• The late Solomon Burke recorded an unreleased Waits song called "Diamond in Your Mind" for his album Don't Give Up on Me

• The song "Trampled Rose," from Waits' album Real Gone, appeared on Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' critically acclaimed collaboration, Raising Sand

• In addition to these individual recordings, several artists have devoted entire albums to interpretations of Waits songs. John Hammond's Wicked Grin was released in 2001 and features Waits on several songs playing guitar and piano and providing backing vocals. Holly Cole's album Temptation is also composed entirely of Waits compositions, as is Scarlett Johansson's debut effort, Anywhere I Lay My Head

• Also of note are two tribute albums that find disparate groups of artists tackling Waits tunes. Step Right Up features the likes of Tindersticks, Pete Shelley, Violent Femmes, Alex Hilton, Archers of Loaf, Dave Alvin, and the Wedding Present. The album New Coat of Paint spotlights a lesser-known but no less eclectic array of interpreters, with Lydia Lunch, Lee Rocker, Eleni Mandell, and Neko Case being among the more prominent.

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Lee Zimmerman