KLRU photo by Scott Newton

Tom Waits

PHOTOS

Tom Waits, looking like a grown-up Dead End Kid and spinning out stories of the sordid side of city life, is without equal as a chronicler of small-timers and the urban world they live in. No one can create a mood of the nightlife like Waits, as he did on Austin City Limits in 1978.

Veins of blues, jazz and folk run through the music of Waits, but it is his unique use of words that makes this 28-year-old California native stand apart from any other artist. First inspired by Beat generation writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, Waits uses words and their sound like other musicians use an instrument — to create colors and moods as well as tell a story. He’s been doing that since he decided, while working as a doorman at a small Los Angeles club, to begin performing.

“I listened to all kinds of music there,” Waits said. “From rock to jazz to folk to anything else that happened to walk in. One night I saw a local guy onstage playing his own material, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I began writing down people’s conversations as they sat around the bar. When I put them together, I found some music hiding in there.”

After appearing at audition nights at the Troubadour Club in Los Angeles, Waits met a sponsor who agreed to support the struggling performer while he honed his craft. Landing a recording contract in 1972, Waits went through a series of abortive starts, trying to make a name for himself in a business that seemed to have little use for his talents.

Following a second album release, Waits opened up his use of language and injected more defined musical edges into his songs. His singing also matured, and as he opened shows for headlining acts, Waits slowly became known as less an oddity and more an artist with a different approach to singing and songwriting.

His onstage performances now include a confident Waits strutting across the stage, backed by a four-piece jazz-inflected band, using a series of props to dramatize the characters and action of the songs. Waits once wholeheartedly agreed with the maxim, “Truth is stranger than fiction,” and with his ability to capture and detail the feel of America’s underside, his songs go a long way in backing up that belief.

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Tom Waits official site