Sunday, December 6, 2009
Tom WAITS – Nighthawks At The Diner 1975
I always have a tough time deciding which half of Tom Waits I like better: the early, sarcastic alcoholic quasi-beat-poet rambler, or the insane, growling old man. After listening to this record many times, I came to decide that if all of his pre-Swordfishtrombones sounded like this in the studio, I'd sway over to the early side in something less than a heartbeat. Take away the live setting, and put Tom and his four accompanists into a studio to do all those old tunes without the string arrangements, and there's some stuff that you didn't realize could achieve any higher quality. While some of his early albums definitely aim (low) at the "smoky lounge" sound that edges on jazz, but Nighthawks at the Diner is his bullseye.
The songs are nothing short of beautiful in their arrangements. Nothing gets quite to the "Step Right Up" caliber, so you can sit back with your ankle on your other knee, your buddies around the table, and let the coffee and cigarettes flow. Most of the words center around inebriated loneliness: a state of mind in which you want the intangible idea of company, but you're too drunk and burned out to do anything about it other than go down to the bar and have a few, wallowing in the bittersweet status. You get the impression that Tom is taking a really sad, down-and-out life and making awesome jokes/wordplay about it, to the point where your first reaction is to laugh, and second is to (while still laughing) really feel sorry for the guy. I mean, "Emotional Weather Report" is a classically funny song (almost all of them are), with lines like ...tornado watches issued shortly before noon Sunday, for the areas including the western region of my mental health, and the northern portions of my ability to deal rationally with my disconcerted precarious emotional situation... It's cold out there! It's the personification of a weatherman, as you can assume, and this is innately funny because he's talking about a human being, (and here comes my big but) but you know what he's talking about. He's depressed, and he's leading you in laughing about it.
Imagery has always been Tom Waits's major strong point. How many times have you heard him rattle off "your" location at "the corner of" two random streets, the names of which could never be anything but street names? How many times have you heard the perfect similes and metaphors to describe how a woman looks? You get the cars, the bars, the cigarettes, the diners, the hopeless little towns, you get it all right down to the funniest detail. The song that bears the album's namesake lyric, "Eggs and Sausage" is a very good example of this, including its hilarious intro, in which he utters my favorite Tom Waits quip: The veal cutlet crawled over to beat the shit out of my cup of coffee...but the coffee just wasn't strong enough to defend itself. The only thing this album is missing is the number of human crossbreed characters.
Overall, Tom Waits is a poet. His are the long, rambling lyrics that you can imagine spoken instead of sung, behind a tinny microphone in a hole in the wall on the other end of town, getting drunker with each stanza. Nighthawks at the Diner is largely a comedic venture in a very poetic sense. He doesn't get you with slapstick jokes, but with wordplay and ironies. Even in his saddest songs like "Warm Beer and Cold Women," there are still things in there to make you laugh at how abysmally bleak a human life can carelessly get. I think it's the saddest album one can put on to enjoy objectively, as opposed to putting on a depressing clump of songs to make you feel better about the shit that you're in. Why not laugh at the dopey clown who's already wearing a sloshed smile for all his pathetic late nights?
One song, though, is a branch in a different direction. "Big Joe and Phantom 309" is Tom's urban legend, where the main character isn't a drunk, isn't alone in a gutter, doesn't take himself out to dinner and take advantage of himself in a scene with a magazine. He's just out drifting when a kindly trucker named Big Joe pauses to pick him up and take him down the road a while, telling tales and the way of life from his lonely point of view. Upon reaching the truck stop, though, the owner tells the narrator that Big Joe died ten years prior. Instead of a spooky ghost story for the road, this one has Big Joe swerving off the road and jackknifing in order to not hit a bus full of children. Beautiful song.
And finally, man he hired some hot jazz musicians.
Waits's sense of humor shines on this album, delivered almost as a stand-up comedy act (with jazz quartet, of course). His hilarious comentary and recitations provoke some genuine belly-laughs (I doubled over in spots). Yet his lyrics retain the beautiful artistry that he has become known for.
The songs vary from the hilarous ("Better Off Without a Wife") to the mysterious (his rendition of Red Sovine's "Phantom 309") to the beautifully tragic ("Putnam County"). He offers up tributes to love ("Nobody") and tributes to barrooms ("Warm Beer and Cold Women"). Throughout, Waits banters with the crowd, which becomes a staple of his performance on here--his chatter with the audience actually becomes part of the music on the album. The result is a comedy album that isn't comedy, a jazz album that isn't jazz...but whatever it is, it's absolutely brilliant.
A1 (Opening intro) 2:57
A2 Emotional Weather Report 3:47
A3 (Intro) 2:16
A4 On a Foggy Night 3:48
A5 (Intro) 1:53
A6 Eggs and Sausage (In a Cadillac With Susan Michelson) 4:19
B1 (Intro) 3:02
B2 Better Off Without a Wife 3:59
B3 Nighthawk Postcards (From Easy Street) 11:29
C1 (Intro) 0:56
C2 Warm Beer and Cold Women 5:21
C3 (Intro) 0:47
C4 Putnam County 7:35
C5 Spare Parts I (A Nocturnal Emission) 6:25
D1 Nobody 2:50
D2 (Intro) 0:41
D3 Big Joe and Phantom 309 6:28
D4 Spare Parts II and Closing 5:13