Asylum Years

1 May


I picked up this 1986 Tom Waits compilation (plus a bunch of others)  for just £1.99 a pop when the Our Price music chain closed down in the early 2000’s. It was cheap because it lacked its jewel case and inlays – just in the shop’s cardboard sleeve.

It’s a collection of 14 tracks taken from Mr Waits’ recordings for the Asylum label between 1973 and 1980 and I like it – although I’ve never been tempted to go and see him in concert.  I always enjoyed his lyically rich performances when he appeared on Whistle Test and other TV or when they were heard on radio – but the overall persona and world  is so distinctively American.  It’s a retro feel, inspired by Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting  Nighthawks (indeed Waits’ live album from 1975 was called ‘Nighthawks at the Diner’). This is a slightly exotic, film-noir, urban world without sunlight, reeking of bourbon and  cigar smoke and inhabited by lonely, transient romantics trying to convince themselves and others that they ‘coulda been a contender’ over the sound of a jazz piano!  This is an interesting landscape to visit once in a while as a tourist but a bit too far from my life in the UK to inhabit for long with any conviction!

Still, it’s a showcase for Tom Waits’ distinctive gravelly growl and fine songwriting skills of which my favourites are ‘Small Change’ (probably the song that introduced me to to him), ‘Grapefruit Moon’, ‘Martha’ and ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues. In addition there’s a great duet (I Never Talk To Strangers’) with Bette Midler and a remarkably effective take of the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim song ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story.

It’s the only Tom Waits album in my collection – but I’m open to suggestions for what to try next.


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