He arrived in the wave of early-‘70s singer-songwriters who critics pounced upon as candidates for “the new Dylan”. Instead of the hyper-sensitive breed as demonstrated by James Taylor and Jackson Browne, these were loners with a gift for wordplay sounding way older than their years. The first album cover by Tom Waits, aptly titled Closing Time, depicts a barroom troubadour sporting a wild head of hair and jazzman’s Van Dyke. But unlike a certain fellow from New Jersey, who emerged around the same time, his journey would be along a decidedly less beaten path, well away from stadiums and hockey arenas.
“Ol’ ‘55”, which kicks off the album, would also kick off his career via a cover by labelmates The Eagles. It’s very simple on the surface, just a song about driving a car (like that guy from Jersey), but go a little deeper and it would seem the singer has just gotten laid. However, there’s a melancholy in the delivery, which will become more evident on “Grapefruit Moon” and “Rosie”, and undercuts the kiss-off in “Old Shoes (& Picture Postcards)”. “Lonely” is a minimalist rumination over some tearjerking chords, but the triumph of his songwriting comes in “Martha”, a phone call from a senior citizen to the girl he left behind forty years before.
Clearly his influences are not exactly contemporary. “Ice Cream Man” takes its cue from a jump-blues number, despite its celeste intro, and “Midnight Lullabye” evokes nursery rhyme imagery. The title track, an instrumental, needs no words to convey the emotion.
Indeed, most of the songs on Closing Time all sound like they could take place at 3 a.m. somewhere, where the bartenders, patrons and the piano player are all tired but not sleepy, knowing they don’t have to go home (if they have one) but they can’t stay here. “I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You” comes directly from the barstool, staring at a pretty face across a crowded room through each round of drinks. “Virginia Avenue” is just as glum, but “Little Trip To Heaven (On The Wings Of Your Love)” is one of the sweetest bride-and-groom-first-dance candidates we’ve ever heard.
Closing Time is great late-night listening as a whole, and individual songs work any time of day. However, it sounds very little like the man Tom Waits would become, though the elements on which he’d base his career are all in place.
Tom Waits Closing Time (1973)—4