Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Tom Waits 13: The Early Years

There had been something of a lull since “the Island trilogy”, during which Our Hero made a few movies and started some lawsuits but produced precious little music. Meanwhile, his first manager reactivated his old Bizarre label and started licensing things via Rhino Records. That’s how two CDs of early recordings by Tom Waits, which predated even Closing Time, managed to sneak into reputable shops before the artist turned his attorneys on the case like so many rabid dogs. (It may well have been one of the few cases he’s lost, as the music is still in print today.)
These are not all demos, as might be imagined. There’s a band on some of the tracks, but time has lost their names. At this point (1971), he’s sticking to guitar half the time and staying within the confines of the real folk blues. That’s where otherwise lost-to-the ages songs like “Goin’ Down Slow”, “Rockin’ Chair” and “Poncho’s Lament” fit. “Had Me A Girl” was obviously designed to make people in the coffeehouses chuckle, as would the more pointed “I’m Your Late Night Evening Prostitute”, a fairly accurate portrait of the average entertainer.
For familiar fans, it’s interesting to hear “Ice Cream Man” taken at its slower pace, while “Virginia Ave.” and “Midnight Lullabye” come fully formed. The version of “Little Trip To Heaven” is even lovelier than the “official” take, even considering the whistled solo. Historians will gravitate towards the first appearance of a protagonist named Frank, but this is more than likely coincidental. And proof that he was ahead of his time comes in the form of “Looks Like I’m Up Shit Creek Again”.

Whoever compiled these collections put the best tracks on the first volume, as the follow-up, while obviously dictated by sales, grasps at straws. This is illustrated by the preponderance of more familiar song titles. That said, it’s doubtful anyone will gravitate towards these versions of “Ol’ ‘55” or “I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You”. “Shiver Me Timbers” hasn’t yet gained the melancholy so heavy. “Mockin’ Bird” has promise, but can’t get past the first two lines. But “So It Goes” puts him firmly in the realm of other New Dylans of the John Prine cloth, and “Diamonds On My Windshield” shows his grasp of beatnik music at this primitive phase. And the appearance of a solo acoustic “Blue Skies” only makes us wish the lush B-side was more readily available.
Taken together, the two volumes of The Early Years provide an alternate view of Tom Waits, showing where he came from. Perhaps he finds these preliminary sketches to be embarrassing—neither are listed on his official website—but really, there’s been a lot worse stuff magnetted to refrigerators over the years.

Tom Waits The Early Years Volume One (1991)—3
Tom Waits The Early Years Vol. 2 (1993)—

1 comment:

  1. I bought volume 2 of this set when it came out, and i specifically got it because I heard this version of Ol' 55 on the radio. And I like it better, dammit!

    It's amazing to hear Tom's voice before the whiskey & cigarettes took hold. He could almost pass for John Denver.