As Tom’s reputation grew, part of his early dues involved warming up for such people as Frank Zappa, who had about as much use for him as the audience did. But he did gain attention as something of a comedian, a raconteur, and a real character. So he recorded his next album live in the studio café-style, with a small audience of friends egging him on. (His producer says they had checkered tables with bowls of potato chips, and even had a stripper as the opening act.)
Nighthawks At The Diner presents his latest, Beat-inspired material in a relaxed setting that gives him and the band plenty of room to breathe. Several of the cuts are indexed as introductions to the successive songs, and in many cases they’re more entertaining than the songs themselves. As he sets up each performance, he spews a variety of hipster puns and wisecracks. (The best are those before “Eggs And Sausage”, where he describes the less-than-savory ingredients of the food in his beloved diners, and “Better Off Without A Wife”, a sly endorsement of solitude and self-pleasure.)
Sometimes the songs even live up to their introductions. In addition to the two mentioned above, “Emotional Weather Report” and “Warm Beer And Cold Women” offer hungover wordplay that in some cases you don’t “get” until he’s into his next line. The trouble is, it’s hard to keep up with him sometimes. As vivid as “Nighthawk Postcards (On Easy Street)” is, at eleven minutes of rambling prose that only rhymes on every other syllable it’s easy to be distracted. “Putnam County” is similarly dense, until you realize he’s describing a redneck bar in Tennessee, hundreds of miles away from seedy L.A.
Since he’s playing to a crowd, there aren’t any real tearjerkers like the ones on his first two albums, unless you count “Nobody”. The most surprising song is “Big Joe And Phantom 309”, an urban legend about a truck driver borrowed from Red Sovine and later appropriated by Pee-Wee Herman.
There’s a lot to take in on Nighthawks At The Diner, but for the most part it’s time well spent, since you can get something new out of the monologues—and even the actual songs—with each listen. He’d started to settle into his adopted role as the tipsy troubadour telling the truth from the wrong side of the tracks, shining a light on the other side of the Me Decade.
Tom Waits Nighthawks At The Diner (1975)—3