I remember seeing Tom Waits perform live on Aussie TV back in the late 70s (?) doing Silent Night on The Don Lane Show whilst obviously under the influence and I was gob smacked. Who the hell was this guy? He was no Shirley Strachan or Marc Bolan that’s for sure. It was a few years before I really got into his music but its always been the early stuff – Small Change and Blue Valentine that I really enjoyed so this 2006 documentary about those early days was always going to grab my attention.
With interviews and asides from various colleagues including early producers/collaborators Jerry Yester and Dayton “Bones” Howe plus the usual rock critic/ biographer types who seem to spend most of their time being clever just to justify their high falutin’ pontificatin’ (I’m talking to you Andrew Mueller – what a git!) we get to see the early development and rise of the story teller, naïve child fool, character creator that Waits was back in the early 70s. In an era of guitar strumming singer/songwriter troubadours Waits was creating a beatnik styled, Kerouac influenced, bourbon guzzling, street wise character that was totally at odds with everything else that was going on at the time. Interesting to see how LA influenced both Waits and writer Charles Bukowski and how they both chose to cover the low road, the seedy back streets and working class lives around them rather than the whole Hollywood vibe of sunshine and beautiful people. And both made a mark that still resonates today.
Following Tom’s career through the early years as he developed his persona and his song writing skills we learn just how albums like Small Change, Blue Valentine and Heart Attack & Vine developed, how his voice and style changed and adapted and we get to watch the armchair critics with their dueling tongues and big words trying to justify their existence. I know the ‘rock critic’ is the standard rule of thumb in these sorts of docos but hell it woulda been nice to hear what some of Tom’s peers had to say about him or even some of his friends from that era. On the other hand at least Bono didn’t show up to tell us how Tom influenced U2 so that was one saving grace! It was interesting too to see how the alcohol abuse and the depths to which Waits was dragged to were just skimmed over. No deep and philosophical stuff here, just the facts ma’am, just the facts.
But the worse bit? We are constantly teased with snippets of live clips from the mid 70s that leave you wishing they’d left the critics dueling tongues behind and just given us more of the music. But hell that’s just a personal gripe, really they do cover a lot of ground in an hour and a half it’s purely that it woulda been nice to see more of the man himself instead of the talking heads telling us how good he is. We leave Tom just as he enters the freak/outsider/carny spiel of Rain Dogs and Swordfish Trombone – a new era, a new character and dare I get all rock critic on you – a lot more contrived and bled to death style (well, its 2008 and he’s still doing it)
For those who have discovered Waits more recently this is a nice way to find out where he began. For us older farts it’s a nice reminder of why we dug this far out cat in the first place.
- Mini Biographies of the “Expert critics”
- Bone Machine – Bones Howe on working with Tom Waits
- The Hardest Interactive Tom Waits Quiz in the World Eve