Sunday, 1 August 2010

Sunday Morning Coffee with Tom Waits

Another week, another show, another chance to enjoy  …. magic …. and Tom Waits fills today’s programme with his gravelly-voiced music. Don’t be put off by this description though: grab yourself a coffee, sit down, relax and let me give you a whistle-stop tour of Tom’s music.


Let’s talk about his voice first. Wikipedia says this,

“Waits has a distinctive voice, 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.”

I must admit that I turned away from his music the first time I heard his voice: his voice didn’t work; why did he sing?; voices like this don’t ‘appear’ in public …. but his does and very successfully. 

All I needed to do was to get over the shock of the voice.  Then I could listen and appreciate.


Enough of this.  Let’s have some music.

Never Let Go

This would be great regardless of who was singing but I actually believe Tom’s words.


Born in California in December 1949, a few weeks only before your brilliant presenter , Waits has achieved much much more …. but then again most have.  Wikipedia states,

‘Waits, who taught himself how to play the piano on a neighbor's instrument, often took trips to Mexico with his father, who taught Spanish; he would later say that he found his love of music during these trips through a Mexican ballad that was "probably a Ranchera, you know, on the car radio with my dad." ‘



Hold On

Another song replete with feeling and, just think, I walked away from this six months ago.

“Well, he gave her a dimestore watch
And a ring made from a spoon”

He knows how to get to a woman’s heart!


Wikipedia continues,

“Lyrically, Waits' songs frequently present atmospheric portrayals of grotesque, often seedy characters and places …”

Certainly this I can agree with.



Innocent When You Dream

The words are hardly necessary.  That seems a terrible thing to say but it’s just that the tune and the voice speak so clearly.



On the Nickel

In the introduction Waits says,

“This is uh... it's about downtown Los Angeles on 5th Street and... all the winos uh... affectionately refer to it as The Nickel. So this is kind of a hobo's lullaby.”

Despite the subject this is a very touching love song!


If you want to read a detailed critique of Waits you should read Miles Mathis at

My summary of Mathis’ claims is that Waits is straining too hard to be cool to let us see who he really is.  He is not a poet in the sense that Dylan or Leonard Cohen are and is loved by those who seek to be cool.  

He may be right …. but I like his music whatever he does or tries to do.  A simple criterion but that’s all I need.


We finish the first half with a song I featured earlier this year but it is so good that it deserves its place.

Goodnight Irene

This is from the quaintly named album “Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards”!

I first met this song with Ry Cooder but this version far surpasses Ry’s.  Sheer brilliance.


Five more songs yet.  Time for another coffee.  I’m getting mine now.

We restart with a very short song.

Take Me Home

This is a very simple eight line song but the effect is not simple at all.  I just re-listened to the song but, this time, with my eyes closed and the sound alone was pulling at my emotions.  There is something very basic -in the best possible sense -  in his music which enables it to twang me so.



Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis

Tom sees the essence of people and situations and, somehow, manages to transform and transfer this into his music.  This is a great gift.

I wasn’t sure about including this but  - yes – I made the right decision.


An interesting aspect of Waits is this:

“Waits has steadfastly refused to allow the use of his songs in commercials and has joked about other artists who do. ("If Michael Jackson wants to work for Pepsi, why doesn't he just get himself a suit and an office in their headquarters and be done with it?") He has filed several lawsuits against advertisers who used his material without permission. He has been quoted as saying, "Apparently, the highest compliment our culture grants artists nowadays is to be in an ad — ideally, naked and purring on the hood of a new car," he said in a statement, referring to the Mercury Cougar. "I have adamantly and repeatedly refused this dubious honor."
Waits filed his first lawsuit in 1988 against Frito-Lay. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed an award of $2.375-million in his favor (Waits v. Frito-Lay, 978 F. 2d 1093 (9th Cir. 1992)).[49] Frito-Lay had approached Waits to use one of his songs in an advertisement. Waits declined the offer, and Frito-Lay hired a Waits soundalike to sing a jingle similar to Small Change's "Step Right Up," which is, ironically, a song Waits has called "an indictment of advertising". Waits won the lawsuit, becoming one of the first artists to successfully sue a company for using an impersonator without permission.”



Ol’ 55

Been there, done it.  Dawn breaks on the drive home.  Didn’t have an “Ol’ ‘55” though:  mine was an Austin Maestro!



Downtown Train

One YouTube comment says:

“On a Rod Stewart DVD he says Tom Waits thanked him for recording this song because he was able to put a pool in his backyard for his kids”


For the first time in this series I find myself struggling, not with the music at all but unable to concentrate, unable to write sensibly.  Real life is intruding, filling my head.  I need to take a time out.  Fortunately you’ll not notice the difference in the show.


We reach the last song and what a song!

Tom Traubert’s Blues

The few bars intro grabbed me in a way few songs have: the song was a favourite before I’d heard a word.

And the words!  What on earth do they mean? 

Does it matter?

The song works at a very basic but intense level.

“And it's a battered old suitcase to a hotel someplace
And a wound that will never heal”

Such enormous pain described so eloquently and succinctly.


Well, that’s it for another week.  I hope you enjoyed your coffee and the music. 


Tom Waits is a poet.

Tom Waits touches in a way few are able.

Tom Waits, thank you!


Tune in again next week and thanks for listening.


  1. Sunday night tea it was for me, Calum.
    Having started the day with (almost) a pint of plain, it went on with Tom Waits and a mug of tea.
    Indeed, an August beginning.
    Thank you, the peace of the night and a serene Sunday.

  2. many thanks for another first class SMC*
    Waits is one of those 'love him or hate him' artists, there are no in betweens. He is a great songwriter as here with Trampled Rose (excellently covered by Plant/Krauss)

    He is also an old fashioned vaudeville style performer as you can see if you click Chocolate Jesus on the sidebar of the above video.

    Thank you again Calum and just for you here is the original of Goodnight Irene-

    SMC = sunday morning coffee :)

  3. Anyone who takes on Goodnight Irene has to be earthy and worthy of consideration.

    Thanks Calum.

  4. WOW! Calum...With this voice, I wish he would recite to me Dylan Thomas Do not go gentle into that good night.

    His Good Night Irene is phenomenal! Brought back to memory the one we sang (not with that drunken quality) to our Irène friend, in my Montreal youth theatrical-musical group...Only when we had absorbed enough wine of course!

    Poignant artist. To share with friends when they visit. Thanks, Calum!

  5. All You make my work even more worthwhile. Thanks.

  6. “Well, he gave her a dimestore watch
    And a ring made from a spoon”

    He knows how to get to a woman’s heart!

    I don't have a ring made from a spoon (or any other kind for that matter) but I was recently given a bracelet made from a one hundred year old silver fork, and it's beautiful, so maybe he does know the way to a woman's heart :-)

  7. Do you wear the bracelet on special occasions only or all the tine.

  8. Almost all the time :-)
    (though not when doing anything that might damage it or where it might get caught on things, like DIY or in the gym)