There’s a collective notion that there is still nothing quite as vulnerable as a debut album, especially an eponymous one. This romantic notion can be traced back to the very origins of popular music, where the artist practically begs the listener to believe the idea that “This music is me!” and that somehow the sounds herein are the culmination of a life lived so far, both in and out of music.
By the time Tom Waits released his debut album in 1973, nearly all of his male contemporaries already had or were about to go the eponymous route with their debuts: Neil Young, Randy Newman, John Prine, James Taylor, Steve Goodman, Jackson Browne, Tim Buckley, and Warren Zevon all did. In the decade prior, Bob Dylan had done it three times. Even Bruce Springsteen‘s debut, while maybe not bearing his name, belayed his contributing geography with Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. Interestingly, Waits’ female contemporaries were given the opportunity or the directive to give titles to their debuts: Joni Mitchell (Song to a Seagull), Linda Ronstadt (Hand Sown … Home Grown), and Carole King (Writer).
To think that Tom Waits and vulnerability were once acquainted with one another is now nearly impossible. It must have been on a short elevator ride, or maybe while the two of them were stuck on the bus together somewhere between San Diego and Los Angeles. The man has spent a half-century building a life and artistic career as a living, breathing, growling metamorph, dispensing cryptic details and downright lies about his personal life to biographers and journalists worldwide. Yet, his debut album, Closing Time, is the closest to traditional vulnerability that Waits has ever come, even without the eponymous title.
Closing Time’s cover shows him in a then familiar position at a time-worn piano with a short, full glass and even fuller ashtray. The clock on the wall reads 20 past three. Closing time is clearly near, or past, which over the next five decades will turn out to be the most appropriate description of Tom Waits’ music: closing time music. But the music contained here behind this cover couldn’t be farther from that later Waits music. At its core, Closing Time is a straight-ahead singer-songwriter, folk rock record unique to Waits’ discography, especially when considered next to his two immediate subsequent records, The Heart of Saturday Night and Nighthawks at the Diner. As it turned out, Closing Time would wind up being full of radio hits, albeit for other artists. Tim Buckley, Bette Midler, and Meat Loaf covered “Martha”. The Eagles took “Ol 55” for their third album, On the Border. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins fittingly grabbed “Ice Cream Man”, and perhaps the most prevalent song, “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love with You”, wound up on records by alternatively Hootie & The Blowfish, 10,000 Maniacs, and Jon Bon Jovi.
That none of these songs were hits when Waits sang them is exactly what makes Closing Time so damn interesting: how little shelf life these songs had in Tom Waits performances at the time and how bizarrely they fit into the larger Waits catalog now. The songs on Closing Time were old tunes for Waits even before he got a chance to record them, and over the next seven years, Waits would release six full-length albums. In David Fricke’s 1999 Rolling Stone article “The Resurrection of Tom Waits”, Waits says about that time: “I wasn’t very adventurous. Most people, when they start out, are much more adventurous. As they get older, they get more complacent. I started out complacent and got more adventurous….”
This sentiment gets at the real genius of Tom Waits: his eventual artistic trajectory fueled by an ever-seeking curiosity for rich, deeply terrestrial rhythms and exploration of lyrical narrative unrivaled by any other pop musician in the last 50 years. But even on Closing Time, at his most “complacent” as he put it and perhaps most vulnerable, the argument could be made that with his first release, Waits was already purposely creating and emphasizing himself as an elastic character rather than providing a revealing representation of self as many of his contemporaries were. There are no self-revelations in these songs, but a crooked ladder leads straight to the American soothsayer Waits would eventually become.
“Well, My Time Went So Quickly”
Go ahead and try to imagine Tom Waits as a young person, a child even. It’s not an easy feat, even with the assistance of these press photos and the fresh-faced vagabond staring right down the lens on the back of the liner notes. From the start, Waits tried to make old music, his voice singing the type of lived-in lyrics first found in Cole Porter tunes. The songs on Closing Time are chocked full of stars, the moon in its stages resembling various fruits throughout, and tom cats make several tears through the neighborhood. Waits was 23 when he recorded these songs and even younger when he wrote them. At one time, it is believed, he was even younger than that, but in true Waits fashion, those details are sketchy at best.
Here’s what we claim to know: Waits was born the middle child of a high school Spanish teacher father and a religious mother who split when he was ten. He moved with his mother to a San Diego suburb, fell in love with Ray Charles and James Brown records, and watched many episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and The Twilight Zone. He skipped the hippies, opting instead for the writers and musicians of his parents’ era: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. When he was about 15, he got a job at Napoleone’s Pizza House in the San Diego suburb of National City. According to their website, the man who hired Tom, Sal Crivello, still runs the place. A significant portion of their “About” section is dedicated to Waits. Crivello says, “(Tom) was shy at first, but I think that was just because he was young. He washed dishes and then became a cook. He was an excellent worker. He made good pizzas.”
Waits played around San Diego, particularly the Heritage, a coffee house where he also worked as a doorman. Most of his sets were Dylan covers, parodies of country songs, with a few of his early songs tucked in between, including “Ol’ 55” and “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You”. At some point, Waits started taking the bus to Los Angeles and getting on stage at the Troubadour’s Monday Hootenanny. In a 1979 Rolling Stone piece, Eve Babitz, an author, visual artist, and a regular at the Troubadour described a night at the club at the time like this: “Gram Parsons and Mike Clarke [of the Byrds] drinking champagne and Wild Turkey, or Arlo Guthrie falling in love with one of the waitresses…Janis Joplin would sit in her nightgown with a pink boa, all by herself, drinking…Van Morrison glowered in corners and Randy Newman was all innocence and myopia.”
Unknown performers were given a chance to play four songs. Herb Cohen, the independent record executive and then-manager of Linda Ronstadt, Frank Zappa, Tim Buckley, and Odetta, first saw Waits there. He signed Waits to a publishing and a recording contract. A few months later, David Geffen, co-founder of Asylum Records, found Waits playing at The Troubadour. He got a hold of Cohen, and the pair agreed to release Waits’ debut through Asylum Records with Jerry Yester producing.
It took just ten days to get Closing Time’s 12 tracks recorded, and on 6 March 1973, it was released.
“The Days of Roses“
Closing Time’s tracklist was composed with the vinyl record format in mind. The first half presents Waits as yet another ace folkie. With the second side, apart from “Rosie”, Waits transforms into a straight-up jazznik, complete with muffled horns and a “Grapefruit Moon”. This stylistic shift between the sides of the record was the result of more than Waits’ vision. In The Many Lives of Tom Waits, Patrick Humphries writes that “while Waits had a jazz, piano-led album clearly in mind; Yester, with his background, inevitably veered more towards a florid, folk spectrum.” In an interview with Zig Zag magazine several years after the album was released, Waits said, “We were pulling against each other…If he had his way, we would have made a more folk-based album, and I wanted to hear upright bass and muted trumpet… so that made it a little uneven.”
To his point, all of the famous songs covered by other musicians are sequestered to the first side. When his first greatest hits album came out in 1984, only three tracks from Closing Time made it, and they all come from the first side. From “Ol’ 55” to “Martha”, Closing Time is an open-and-shut songwriter’s pitchbook, one who is working comfortably and confidently in familiar forms and with archetypal subjects: cars as large as barges, almost barstool lovers, and breakup artists who utter phrases like “Goodbye, so long, the road calls me dear.” In his Pitchfork review of Waits’ first seven records, Stephen M. Deusner writes that Closing Time features some of Waits’ “most composed songs, the ones that hew closest to popular forms and structures. That’s not a criticism; this is just one melodic, highly structured mode that made these songs coverable by folk singers and shitty country-rock bands.” Easy accessibility is not an often used description when looking at Waits’ discography, but the first side of Closing Time is as easily accessible as Waits has ever been. And that was precisely the problem.
In his book Swordfishtrombones for the 33 ⅓ series, David Smay writes: “Nobody in 1974 would’ve put money on Tom Waits’s career being the one that would be producing vital work in the 21st century. He was too nostalgic, too sentimental, too hokey in his beatnickery, his voice was too limited. Even the most generous projection of Tom’s career from 1974 would probably include a hedge against a likely terminus in either cirrhosis or throat cancer. The smart money would’ve been on Joni Mitchell or Randy Newman.” Thinking about Waits as having a limited voice now is pure comedy, but there isn’t much on Closing Time to suggest otherwise. Smay goes on to say that Waits “benefited from the odd boomlet of vintage pop nostalgia the music industry produced between 1972 and 1974”, listing releases by Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, Dan Hicks, and even Dr. John to prove his point. But even on his debut, Waits clearly wasn’t interested solely in pursuing Newman’s dark, sardonic humor or Nilsson’s ironic and playful wit.
Newman is probably the closest contemporary to what Waits, or Yester, was after with Closing Time. Waits has long touted him as an early influence. It’s hard not to hear some of Newman’s syrupy “Marie” from Good Old Boys in Waits’ “Martha”. In true form for the time, the song begins with an appeal to an operator. From there, it unwinds a wistful memory of young love from two people who grew up to live separate lives. Patrick Humphries says that “‘Martha’ is a testament to Waits’ incongruous wish to be born old. This is the 24-year-old’s pitch at gaining admittance to the basement where the parents of his school friends hunkered down in Bermuda shorts, yakking over highballs to a wallpaper feast of unbroken Sinatra.” Waits had sentimental down from the start, learning early in his performing life that busted-up pianos in smoky bars always got the blue notes right.
“I Thought That I Knew All That There Was To”
In the crowded lineup of singer-songwriters of the time, there was one other of his contemporaries that Waits was often compared to: Bruce Springsteen. “Longtime Waits fans may howl at this comparison, but the likely audience for (Waits’ second album) The Heart of Saturday Night, when it came out in 1974, probably already owned Piano Man and Bruce Springsteen’s The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle,” David Smay writes in Swordfishtrombones. “All three men were born in 1949. Like Joel, Tom was marketed as a tough but tender piano balladeer with a talent for Tin Pan alley melodies. Like Springsteen, Tom was sold as a rough but romantic street poet with a pronounced Dylan influence.”
Most of the press at the time painted Waits as a tweed cap beatnik character two decades late. Springsteen, however, was presented as some kind of juggernaut, a blue-collar rocker whose bonafides were bone-deep, and most importantly at the time, authentic. While Waits was shown as a lone chronicler writing old songs at the local dive, Springsteen was given the title of the “new Dylan” spreading the message straight from New Jersey. Eventually, Springsteen would give Waits a nod and a hand, both professionally and financially, by covering “Jersey Girl”. But by that point, the Tom Waits, who had recorded Closing Time, had been gone a long time.
There are points in the second half of Closing Time, apart from “Rosie”, that feel unquestionably unfinished, particularly “Lonely”. “Little Trip to Heaven (On the Wings of Your Love) feels like an overwrought musical number to a play that was poorly reviewed. But even in these moments, that elusive character of Tom Waits, the one he’s been perfecting for the last 50 years, begins to emerge. “Ice Cream Man” certainly feels like the newest song written for the album, a track much closer to the work that Waits would release on his next two albums: The Heart of Saturday Night and Nighthawks at the Diner. It’s the rare uptempo number, thick with innuendo and a steady drum beat. Based on what came after, this is the type of record that Waits had wanted to make all along.
The title track closes the record as Waits plays an instrumental mood piece that might be the most inspired music on the album. (Listen to the Heartattack and Vine track “In Shades” to hear the spiritual sequel.) Here we find Waits as a restrained bandleader. He’s sentimental, sure, nostalgic for that twilight time when everything is still large and possible. Reportedly the last song recorded for the album, it feels like this was Waits stepping forward and away from these songs without even a single word of goodbye.
For all of its shortcomings, the second half of Closing Time at least feels like a young artist taking chances, even if that young artist is trying to sound impossibly old. The irony is that now, five decades later, it is equally impossible to imagine Waits singing any of these songs. While many of his remaining contemporaries have built careers on their debuts or featured those songs in their live sets for decades, Waits seems to have forgotten them almost as soon as the record came out. By now, there has been too much musical exploration and too much artistic ingenuity for him to finally revisit this material as the wise man he was always trying to portray. (To amend a line from Mule Variations’ “Black Market Baby”, “He’s a diamond that wants to stay coal.”)
Time and specifically time spent in America has finally made Tom Waits into the character that he always wanted to be. From the outset of his recording career, Waits’ music couldn’t be genre-bound, and the man couldn’t find a reason to fit himself fully into an interview. So he made himself up, over and over again, and he made up a new kind of music, too. Closing Time is an important document not because of its made-for-radio first side or the piano prose that comprises the second half. No, Closing Time serves as the “Swim at Your Own Risk” sign hanging above the Waits’ musical swimming pool. There’s a whole world waiting beneath that water. Just don’t trust the lifeguard to pull you back out again.
Avery Gregurich is a writer living and working in Marengo, Iowa. He was raised next to the Mississippi River and has never strayed far from it. More of his work can be found at averygregurich.com.
Sara Williams is an artist currently living in Iowa. She spends all of her free time happily distracted by the state’s waterways, timbers, farms, and fields. To see more of her artwork, visit tenacioustimbers.com.
Eve Babitz, I Used to Be Charming: The Rest of Eve Babitz, NYRB Classics, 8 October 2019
David Fricke, “The Resurrection of Tom Waits”, Rolling Stone, 24 June 1999
Patrick Humphries, The Many Lives of Tom Waits, Omnibus Press, 2007
David Smay, Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones (33 1/3), 15 December 2007
Stephen M. Deusner, Review: Tom Waits’ Asylum Records, Pitchfork, 24 March 2018
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