Friday, January 7, 2011

Tom Waits 3: Nighthawks At The Diner

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


  1. Well, definitely some of your cups of tea ain't mine, and viceversa: while Pink Floyd's "The Wall" (among others of their albums) annoys me and bores me to death, I simply love "Together Through Life" and "Christmas In The Heart", specially the second one, and I love Bob's singing there too (why Waits or L. Armstrong or many old bluesmen get praise out of their cracked but so expressive voices and good ol' Bob doesn't is a mistery to me). Well, that's life. And the good news is we can discuss on that through your excellent blog.

    So be it. But with these Tom Waits reviews I'm starting to miss the point. I simply don't understand that a Waits connoisseur (I bet you are) can find "Closing Time" -a very good first one with some jewels, but also a bit tentative- a better album than "The Heart Of Saturday Night", which for me and for many people was and still is an instant classic. That Waits himself moved on and rejected this kind of sound and songs -and made even better records then, I'd admit it- doesn't mean it can be dismissed as lacklustre. It's brilliant, it's gorgeous. Of course you can disagree, but your arguments seem weak and somehow trite to me -the second album syndrome, too many ballads and blues based songs...-; and, for Christ sake, you rated it the same as "Empire Burlesque" or "When I Was Cruel", which are obvious missfires! (Probably you'd get tired of these endless rating comparisons & complains, but that's life too!).

    On "Nighthawks At The Diner" I can't argue very much: for someone whose first language is not English, is not an easy album to keep in with. Anyway, I love Tom Waits raspy voice so much that I find pleasure listening to him even if I miss many of the wordplay, like here.

    Salutes from Spain and happy New Year,

  2. Nacho, your comments are always worth reading. Having gone through a bunch of these now, I can fully understand why other "review sites" put up their own convoluted rating scales to justify why one person's "bad" album rates the same as someone else's "good" album. All I can say for Tom Waits is, the bigger picture should make things more apparent. I hope.

    "Heart Of Saturday Night" never did it for me, but others have. Hopefully my taste will become more clear as we proceed.

    ¡Prospero Año Nuevo, mi amigo!

  3. Thank you very much: your comments on your readers' comments are always worth reading too, always understanding and trying to illuminate things. That's why I keep coming, reading and commenting, too.

    I understand what you say about rating scales; it's not something I pay much attention to, if only for amusement, but sometimes those tiny numbers obscure the content of the review more than anything. It's inevitable, I guess. And, as I always have said, it's a matter of taste (and of mood, and even related to our own biographies and personalities). So please keep rating and writting as you do. (I'll keep agreeing and disagreeing, I promise).


  4. Hey Wardo,
    This is a great one. Personally, I've always wondered about that guy kneeling down in the bottom right corner. What's he building there?

    Also, to update your blogroll, we've got a new address at The Boat...

    All the best,