There’s never been another songwriter quite like Tom Waits. After signing his first record deal in 1971 at the age of 21, Waits put out his masterful debut, Closing Time, in 1973. It wasn’t exactly a hit, but it did get the attention of those within the business and Waits spent the next few years putting out one strong record after another. Waits then slowly began to transform his sound from whiskey-soaked love songs to more adventurous, unpredictable tracks that incorporated a number of different genres and seemed to grow more and more primal and twisted the older he got. He continued to put out great music and, though he slowed down considerably in the late 90s, he’s still going strong after all these years.
Oh yeah, and he’s also an established actor, a two-time Grammy winner, an Academy Award nominee and a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Waits is a legend in every sense of the world.
In the past, I’ve looked at deep cuts—you know, the underappreciated songs, the one that get tragically lost in the shuffle—from the careers of Bob Dylan and the original Black Sabbath lineup. Because of his rather large discography and the consistently high quality of his work, Waits seemed like a logical next choice. So let’s do this thing!
- “(Meet Me in) Paradise Alley” – Paradise Alley original soundtrack (1978)
Before he hit it big with Rocky, Sylvester Stallone wrote the screenplay for a film called Paradise Alley. And after the success of Rocky, he turned around and made that screenplay into a film. Stallone directed Paradise Alley himself and, most importantly, he gave Waits his first acting gig as a local piano player. This, in turn, led to Waits getting two new compositions, “(Meet Me in) Paradise Alley” and “Annie’s Back in Town,” featured on the film’s soundtrack.
“(Meet Me in) Paradise Alley” isn’t all that different from other songs Waits was writing around this time, which is to say it features a lot of slow piano playing while he sings about lost love. But it’s a real gem, dang it, and about as deep as any deep cut from the man’s entire career. As he sings about leaving town “in a bottle of whiskey” and “waltzing tonight with the Statue of Liberty,” the strings come in strong, like the other bombastic ballads he was making around this same time, and the listener knows that only Waits could have pulled off such a great performance. “(Meet Me in) Paradise Alley” most certainly deserve your attention.
Fun fact: Besides the two Waits contributions, the Paradise Alley soundtrack also features singing performances from both Sylvester and Frank Stallone. Two singing Stallones, ladies and gentlemen! How can you not want to own a copy of this thing for yourself?
- “Mr. Siegal” – Heartattack and Vine (1980)
When I first started putting this piece together, I chose three different tracks from 1980’s Heartattack and Vine to spotlight: “On the Nickel,” “Mr. Siegal” and “Ruby’s Arms.” Heartattack and Vine has always been one of my favorite Waits albums, and other than “Jersey Girl”—which gained a lot of popularity thanks to Bruce Springsteen playing it live—the whole album seems largely unappreciated to me. Heartattack and Vine is a bridge of sorts between the two sides of Waits’ discography; it comes two years after the ballad-heavy Blue Valentine and three years before the sonic breakthrough of Swordfishtrombones, capturing both sides of the man’s art quite well.
I ultimately decided to go with “Mr. Siegal” because one could almost say it’s the beginning of Waits’ later, louder, bolder style. Where “Jersey Girl,” “On the Nickel” and “Ruby’s Arms” all found him still growling over lush arrangements one might find in a Disney film, “Mr. Siegal” is pure, dirty rock and roll from its very first moments. It also features some of my absolute favorite Waits lyrics. Here, dig the first two verses in their entirety:
I spent all my money in a Mexican whorehouse/
Across the street from a catholic church/
And then I wiped off my revolver/
And I buttoned up my burgundy shirt.
I shot the morning in the back with my red wings on/
I told the sun he’d better go back down/
And if I can find a book of matches/
I’m goin’ to burn this hotel down.
Fantastic, right? I never grow tired of this one. I read Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano a while back and as the protagonist’s life spiraled out of control while he was living in Mexico, I just kept hearing that first verse in my head over and over. That’s the kind of songwriter Waits is—with just a few lines, he can craft an image so real in your mind that it stays with you forever, even affecting how you embrace other works of art.
Oh, and for the record: “On the Nickel” and “Ruby’s Arms” could have easily made this list and each one is worth seeking out. In the end, I just wanted works from a variety of albums and “Mr. Siegal” won out.
- “Blind Love” – Rain Dogs (1985)
I really tried to avoid choosing any songs from 1976’s Small Change, 1985’s Rain Dogs or 1992’s Bone Machine, arguably the three most well-known albums of Waits’ long career, but I just couldn’t do this list without putting a spotlight on “Blind Love,” the Keith Richards collaboration stealthly tucked away near the tail end of Rain Dogs. Of all the tracks from this album that people often praise—“Singapore,” “Clap Hands,” “Jockey Full of Bourbon,” “Tango till They’re Sore,” “Hang Down Your Heads,” “Time,” “Downtown Train” and “Anywhere I Lay My Head,” for starters—“Blind Love” just doesn’t quite seem to get the attention it deserves.
On the song, Waits and Richards (and, strangely enough, former Richard Hell & the Voidoids guitarist Robert Quine) really nail that ramshackle, punchdrunk country vibe, and there’s even a bit of fiddle thrown in for good measure. Now you’re gone, Waits sings, sounding like he’s already downed enough alcohol to kill a horse. And it’s hotels and whiskey and sad-luck dames/ And I don’t care if they miss me/ And I never remember their names. It’s a fantastic tune, one you could almost imagine Merle Haggard or Waylon Jennings writing if they spent a night out with the devil himself. I say almost, of course, because we all know there’s one man who could truly pull of a song like this one, and that’s Tom Waits.
(Side note: “That Feel” and “Last Leaf,” two other collaborations between Waits and Richards from over the years, are also worth seeking out. And there’s even footage of them recording “Last Leaf” on the Richards documentary from 2015, Under the Influence.)
- “Russian Dance” – The Black Rider (1993)
The Black Rider isn’t exactly an easy album to digest and it’s not something I’d recommend to someone new to Waits’ music. It includes songs he wrote for director Robert Wilson’s play of the same name, a play based on an old German folktale. The Black Rider finds Waits in full Bone Machine mode, clattering, stomping and screaming his way through one song after another. He does let up for the occasional ballad—and, as always, the slower moments are strong—but this is largely an album born out of chaos and mayhem. And I love it for all of those reasons!
“Russian Dance” is an instrumental that comes almost exactly halfway through The Black Rider. As one might imagine when they see its title, the song does sound as if a large group of people are dancing along to the music, and I tend to imagine them in traditional Russian outfits doing traditional Russian dances. Though it’s an instrumental, Waits does show up at one point, screaming above the music for just an instant. It’s as if he’s conducting the music with his trademark bark, and the overall effect is quite surreal as you listen to it unfold.
Ever since I first heard The Black Rider many years ago, “Russian Dance” has always stood out to me. There’s a magic to those strings and to all of that percussion that never gets old, no matter how many times I hear it. I just love this goddamn song.
- “Lucky Day” – Glitter and Doom Live (2009)
Glitter and Doom Live collected performances from Waits’ 2008 tour, even providing fans with an entire second disc full of nothing but stories he shared in between songs. The entire record is great, but the first track (“Lucinda/Ain’t Goin’ Down”) and the last track (“Lucky Day”) stand out as my two favorites. “Lucky Day” originally appeared on The Black Rider in two versions, and it’s a strong song, but not one I had really given a lot of thought to before Waits performed it as a part of this tour. But on that stage in 2008, he took “Lucky Day” to a whole other place, playing and singing it so beautifully that you can’t help but listen in awe. So don’t cry for me, he sings.
For I’m going away/ And I’ll be back some lucky day.
One reason Glitter and Doom Live is so near and dear to my heart is that I saw Waits in Dallas as a part of the tour. It was a night I’ll never forget, and my favorite memory from that performance is when he did a beautiful version of “Innocent When You Dream,” prompting everyone in the crowd to sing along at the very end. No recordings from that night in Dallas made the album, but that’s just fine; I’ll always have those memories from the night I stood just a few dozen feet from one of the greatest songwriters of all time.