In the 1980s, Tom Waits released four studio albums. The first, ‘Heartattack and Vine,’ was his final album on Asylum Records before switching over to Island Records. The album is starkly different from the three that followed it on the new label. In fact, those three records: ‘Swordfishtrombones,’ ‘Rain Dogs,’ and ‘Franks Wild Years,’ are so sonically intertwined, that their chemistry creates what is, undoubtedly, one of the finest trilogies of rock music. Let’s explore ten of his best efforts from the decade’s four albums in descending order.
# 10 – ‘Innocent When You Dream (78)’ – ‘Franks Wild Years’ – 1987
Oddly enough, we begin our journey into Tom Waits in the 80s with the last track of his final album of the decade. ‘Franks Wild Years,’ an hour-long jaunt through 17 wildly bizarre tunes, ends with the elegant ‘Innocent When You Dream (78).’ The ‘78’ denotes that Waits wanted the song to sound like you were spinning it on a 78 RPM record. Hence, the song sounds like it was recorded in 1945.
Thematically, ‘Innocent When You Dream’ has a beautiful optimism that ends the titular character’s journey in a rather unique way. ‘Franks Wild Years’ is a journey through sleazy strip clubs, bar-rooms, and the like. Waits’ gravelly voice is the predominant instrument, and the spine-tingling emotion in it is the catalyst to making tracks like ‘Innocent When You Dream’ so endearing.
It’s worth noting the track does appear twice on the album, debuting much earlier with a ‘barroom’ version. As you’d expect, the track sounds and feels like it was recorded by a bunch of drunkards in a bar at two in the morning. It’s a great waltz-like tune, but the finality of the ‘78’ treatment is unmatched.
# 9 – ‘Jersey Girl’ – ‘Heartattack and Vine’ – 1980
As aforementioned ‘Heartattack and Vine’ is starkly different than the trilogy of records it precedes. It still has fairly traditional compositional arrangements that centralize around guitars and pianos, whereas the latter albums explored vastly different sonic palettes. In this way, it’s probably fitting the album was his final on Asylum, because their offering wouldn’t have jived well with records like ‘Swordfishtrombones.’
‘Heartattack and Vine’ is a brilliant send-off to Waits’ 1970’s stylings. ‘Jersey Girl’ is probably the most notable song on the album – and for good reason. It’s a beautiful ballad. Chances are, however, that Bruce Springsteen introduced most listeners to the song. It’s been a staple of his live performances for many years.
It makes sense why Springsteen would latch onto ‘Jersey Girl,’ too. It has that summer evening boardwalk feel – like it was written in Asbury Park by Springsteen during his early career. There’s something special about the rawness of Waits’ original, though, especially since Springsteen has a penchant to jam an orchestra’s worth of instruments in his live (and studio) performances.
# 8 – ‘Blind Love’ – ‘Rain Dogs’ – 1985
‘Rain Dogs’ is the center of Waits’ 80s trilogy. To be blunt, it’s probably the strongest of the three, too, and perfectly epitomizes what he was trying to create during the era. ‘Rain Dogs’ is golden genius from beginning to end. ‘Blind Love’ is probably one of the most easily consumed tracks on the album – it’s a swooning love ballad with instrumentation similar to that of ‘Heartattack and Vine.’ That means it’s the oddball out on the album.
“Now you’re gone and it’s hotels and whiskey and sad luck dames… and I don’t care if they miss me; I never remember their names,” Waits croons in his pool of sadness as he pines for his lost love. “The only kind of love is stone blind love,” he declares, as he meanders through imagery of abandoned streets and darkened alleys.
# 7 – ‘Way Down In The Hole’ – ‘Franks Wild Years’ – 1987
“You gotta’ keep the devil way down in the hole,” Waits preaches in a gospel track on ‘Franks Wild Years.’ It’s a dark, moody blues song lathered in gospel influence with a crunchy guitar solo that sounds like its out of a late night Chicago blues club. The track is a superb example of Waits’ ability to command a track, completely and entirely, only with his voice. He is the main instrument. (Though guitar solos like that found on ‘Way Down In The Hole’ sure accent him nicely.)
In more contemporary culture, ‘Way Down In The Hole’ may be more recognizable because it was the theme to all the seasons of HBO’s excellent drama, ‘The Wire.’ Similar to Showtime’s use of ‘Little Boxes’ on ‘Weeds,’ the show elected to have a different artist perform the song each season. Waits’ original was on one of them, and the surrounding seasons had performances from Steve Earle, The Blind Boys of Alabama, and more.
# 6 – ‘Town With No Cheer’ – ‘Swordfishtrombones’ – 1983
‘Swordfishtrombones’ is the first of the previously mentioned ‘trilogy.’ It was Waits’ first self-produced album, and instead of having traditional instrumentation, the album is comprised of bagpipes, accordions, wacky percussion, and other instruments. Some critics argue that Waits’ style he created during this era was quintessentially American – a culmination of every facet of American music in a way nobody had previously attempted.
‘Town With No Cheer’ is a surreal, carnival-like track stashed in the middle of ‘Swordfishtrombones.’ As its name does allude to, it’s a pretty depressing tune that conjures imagery of a small, desolate town with… well, no cheer. The instrumentation is completely jaw-dropping in its brevity, and the final moments of the song are unbelievably stunning.
# 5 – ‘Singapore – ‘Rain Dogs’ – 1985
Returning to ‘Rain Dogs,’ one would be remiss if they didn’t include mention of its opening song, ‘Singapore.’ The eerie, pirate-inspired tune is the perfect opener to ‘Rain Dogs.’ Scattered New Orleans style brass sections accentuate a particularly gravelly Waits backed by some of the most eccentric percussion ever recorded.
‘Singapore’ doesn’t play around. It punches the listener in the face with its harshness at the start of ‘Rain Dogs.’ It sets the tone for the album, and there were probably a lot of confused record-buyers when they dropped the needle and were met with ‘Singapore.’ The track is a statement: Tom Waits had found, and mastered, his very unique sound.
# 4 – ‘Jockey Full Of Bourbon’ – ‘Rain Dogs’ – 1985
‘Jockey Full Of Bourbon’ has a distinct flair to it, that on ‘Rain Dogs,’ only deepens the intrigue of the album’s experience. It has an island feel to it, perhaps reminiscent of Cuban music. There’s more to it than that, though, since there’s also a jazzy New Orleans vibe, and a lead guitar that sounds like something Del Shannon would have written.
It’s a dark song that continues the thematic ‘lost and confused’ feeling that ‘Rain Dogs’ has. “Hey little bird, fly away home – your house is on fire and your children are alone,” the chorus, is actually a throwback to an old nursery rhyme. It’s little things like that that lend credence to the aforementioned critics arguing the Americana nature of ‘Rain Dogs.’ It’s a time capsule of our culture, even in small ways like the usage of nursery rhymes.
# 3 – ‘Hang Down Your Head’ – ‘Rain Dogs’ – 1985
The third song on this list is the final pick from ‘Rain Dogs.’ ‘Hang Down Your Head’ was the first song on a Tom Waits release that included a writing credit from Kathleen Brennan, the woman he married in 1980. After ‘Rain Dogs,’ her credit would appear more frequently in Waits’ studio albums, perhaps peaking with her invaluable contributions to ‘Mule Variations’ in the 90s.
‘Hang Down Your Head’ is lyrically simplistic. Tom Waits doesn’t have to sing much to make the song poignant. The story, about a man leaving after his love found another, feels simultaneously old and new, as if Waits is singing a song over a hundred years old, but also written yesterday.
# 2 – ‘Heartattack and Vine’ – ‘Heartattack and Vine’ – 1980
As this list began with Waits’ final effort of the decade, it makes sense to touch on his remarkable foray into the 1980s. The title track and opening of ‘Heartattack and Vine’ is a magnificent blues track completely drowned in distorted and fuzzy electric guitar. It’s foot-stomping, it’s epic, and it harnesses some of Waits’ best bluesy lyricism.
“Doctor, lawyer, beggar, man, thief, Philly Joe remarkable looks on in disbelief. If you want a taste of madness, you’ll have to wait in line. You’ll probably see someone you know on Heartattack and Vine.”
At one point, Waits even muses that there isn’t even a devil, it’s just God when he’s drunk. The world of Tom Waits is unlike anything else, and ‘Heartattack and Vine’ is look into its wonder.
# 1 – ‘In The Neighborhood’ – ‘Swordfishtrombones’ – 1983
Tom Waits’ work throughout the 80s, as heavily mentioned here, is an attempt to encapsulate a generation and era of Americans. His trilogy of records from ‘Swordfishtrombones’ to ‘Franks Wild Years’ are a moving tribute to his view of America as he penned his songs in a dark basement in Manhattan. That’s why ‘In The Neighborhood’ may be the best song he wrote during the era. Its observational quality of its surrounding is piercing.
As its title suggests, ‘In The Neighborhood’ is an observation of an American neighborhood. Annoying construction and delivery trucks, funerals and weddings, busted properties that landlords had forsaken, and newspapers soaring down the street used as sleeping bags for the homeless the night before.
Its subject matter, out of its own context, seems mundane. It’s a testament to Waits’ poetry, though, because his culmination of these observations is a work of art. It’s a timeless song; a perfect microcosm of his larger endeavors throughout the three albums he toiled on throughout most of the 80s. ‘In The Neighborhood’ is an American classic, honing in on the elements of everyday life in fascinating poetic beauty.
Photo by By Gut (Anna Wittenberg) – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tom_Waits_Praha_2008.jpg, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20003485