Tom Waits is an American singer/songwriter, composer and actor. He posesses one of the most distinctive voices in music; described by critic Daniel Durchholz as sounding "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." With this trademark growl, his fusing of music styles such as blues, jazz, rock, folk and vaudeville, his experimental tendencies, wit and charisma, Waits has built up a distinctive musical persona.
Waits began recording and performing in the late 60's/early 70's. In 1972, Waits attracted the attention of manager Herb Cohen, who also handled Frank Zappa, and got him into the studio to record some demo tracks. The resulting material was later released as "The Early Years Vols. 1 & 2" on the Bizarre/Straight label (owned by Zappa and Cohen). Waits' formal recording debut came with "Closing Time" (1973) on Asylum Records. This album contained the track "Ol' 55," which was covered by labelmates The Eagles on their "On the Border" album. The bulk of his early material was in the classic singer songwriter vein - reminiscent of other artists of the period like Randy Newman and Jackson Browne. What made Waits stand out, even in this early period, was his lyrical content and delivery. The focus was on desperate, lowlife characters and he delivered his music with a persona that seemed to embody the same lifestyle - a befuddled, heartbroken, bohemian hobo, ripped from the pages of a beat novel or noir fiction. He attracted critical acclaim and a cult audience for his subsequent albums, "The Heart of Saturday Night" (1974), "Nighthawks at the Diner" (1975), "Small Change" (1976), "Foreign Affairs" (1977), and "Blue Valentine" (1978). His music and persona proved highly cinematic, and he soon launched parallel careers as an actor and movie score composer. He wrote songs for and appeared in "Paradise Alley" (1978) and was hired by director Francis Coppola to write the music for "One from the Heart" (1982). The movie was a comercial failiure, but the score, which featured duets with Crystal Gayle, earned Waits an Academy Award nomination. While working on that project, Waits met and married playwright Kathleen Brennan, who also became a regular songwriting collaborator in subsequent years.
From the '80s onwards, Waits' work became increasingly theatrical and experimental. "Heart Attack and Vine" (1980), his final album for Asylum, proved to be a transitional album, where he began to reach beyond the lush orchestral scores and began to embrace a sound that was rawer and more avant-garde. Drawing inspiration from every music genre imaginable, from blues and jazz to country and folk, he ended up creating a sound akin to Captain Beefheart playing Kurt Weill in a Dada-ist madman's workshop. Waits never left behind his love of bittersweet balladry though and his trademark lyrical dexterity and wit was always present. Indeed, moving to Island Records proved to be both a sonic and career rebirth for Waits. His first album for the label, "Swordfishtrombones" (1983), found him experimenting with horns and percussion and using unusual recording techniques. In the same year, he appeared in Coppola's "Rumble Fish" and "The Outsiders". The following year, he worked with Coppola again on the movie "The Cotton Club". In 1985, he released "Rain Dogs"; sonicly very similar to "Swordfishtrombones", but perhaps even more experimental. This album featured the track "Downtown Train", which later became a hit for Rod Stewart. In 1986, he took a lead role in Jim Jarmusch's "Down By Law" and made his theatrical debut with Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in "Frank's Wild Years", a musical he had written with his wife, Kathleen Brennan. An album based on the play was released in 1987. The album features the track "Down in the Hole", which some may recognise as the theme to the hit TV show "The Wire". In 1988, he released a film and soundtrack album of one of his concert performances, "Big Time". Sadly, this superb concert film remains unreleased on DVD.
His work for the theater continued in 1990 when Waits partnered with opera director Robert Wilson and beat novelist William Burroughs and staged "The Black Rider" in Hamburg, Germany. An album of the same name, featuring songs from the show was released in 1993. In 1992, he collaborated with Jim Jarmusch once more, this time scoring his film "Night on Earth". This same year also saw the release of the album "Bone Machine", which won a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album. In that year, he worked with Coppala once again, appearing in the film "Bram Stoker's Dracula" as Renfield. He also returned to Hamburg for the staging of his second collaboration with Robert Wilson, "Alice", a musical based on Alice Lidell, the real life inspiration for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.
After a 7 year break from recording, which saw him leave Island Records, Waits finally returned in 1999 with a new album, "Mule Variations", which was released on Epitaph records. The album continued the junkyard sound he had been nurturing and refining since the mid 80's, but it introduced a more rural, backwoods folk/blues feel. The record was a critical success, winning a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk album. A small US tour followed the albums release, but Waits jumped right back into the studio and began working on not one but two new albums. Spring 2002 saw the release of "Alice" and "Blood Money", released on Anti Records. "Alice" featured songs from the musical that Waits and Robert Wilson had written some years earlier. "Blood Money" consisted of songs from a third Wilson/Waits collaboration, staged in Denmark in 2000. The project was a loose adaptation of the play "Woyzeck", originally written by German poet Georg Buchner in 1837.
Waits returned to the recording studio and issued "Real Gone" in 2004. The album marked a large departure for him, in that it contained no keyboards, focusing only on stringed instruments and percussion. Because of this, the album has a very loose, skeletal, hand-crafted feel. The album also features Waits's son, Casey, on drums, percussion and turntables. 2006 saw the release of "Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards" a 3 disc box set of rare and previously unreleased tracks, B sides, soundtrack songs and new material, which proved a real treat for his dedicated fans.
In the summer of 2008, Tom embarked on the Glitter and Doom Tour, which saw him play dates across the USA and Europe. Recordings from this tour were released as "Glitter and Doom Live" in late 2009. Following the tour, Tom once again returned to acting, appearing in Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" (2009) and in "The Book of Eli" (2010).
I first became fully aware of Tom Waits in the early 90's. I knew of him before then - I'd seen him acting in a few movies - but it was a video of his I saw on MTV which really caught my attention. The song was "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" from his 1992 album "Bone Machine". There was Tom, playing a miniature guitar on a tiny stage under a table, then he was dressed as the devil, riding around on a little bicycle. I loved the video, I loved the song, and I knew I … more