When the idea was first pitched for this “Beginner’s Guide” segment here at the Vault, the green light was given to cover artists that aren’t part of the metal scene (even far from it), as long as they have “metal cred.” And there it was. My opportunity to finally drool all over the internet about my favorite musician of all time, Mr. Tom Waits.
He’s a man that would need his very own edition of the thesaurus to describe: an Edward Hopper painting covered in dust, barbed-wire being pulled through a megaphone, the exact opposite of beauty, grace, and Ms. United States. To put it lightly, there is no one true way to describe Tom Waits, and I would argue that his discography is amongst the most daunting to break into.
But fear not, Vault Hunters! I’m here to give you a crash course on this crusty crooner. There’s a lot to cover, as his career has seen an unbelievable progression from being the smooth purveyor of drunken piano ballads to one of the most influential and bizarre experimental artists in music. Waits probably wouldn’t give a good goddamn what kind of cred he’s earned, metal or not, but he’s certainly earned it nonetheless. So for those of you that have yet to jump into the man’s work, consider this your nudge off the diving board. Here is a playlist of songs that I think are essential Tom Waits.
1. “Semi Suite” (The Heart of Saturday Night – 1974)
I think a lot of people love smooth jazz, but don’t actually know a damn thing about the scene besides a few of the big names. That’s me through and through, and that’s why I’m glad I have Tom Waits’ early career to give me that dependable fix when needed. From his second album, “Semi Suite” perfectly captures the warm, romantic noir-side of Waits’ output. You can drop the needle on these songs during your family’s Christmas gathering without causing an offensive commotion.
2. “Step Right Up” (Small Change – 1976)
Have I mentioned yet that Tom Waits is a masterful lyricist? No one can match the insanely dark and morbid pictures that his words paint in some of his later work. Likewise, no one can match his fun, eccentric sense of humor either, and “Step Right Up” is a great example of this. We’ll never know what he’s selling in this song, but we’d all be lying if we said we didn’t want one. Pay close enough attention to Waits’ lyrics and you’ll do an equal amount of laughing as you will shuddering.
3. “Whistlin’ Past The Graveyard” (Blue Valentine – 1978)
Uh oh, he’s getting weirder guys. This song is pure fun and has to be on this list. If any of you were underwhelmed by Danny Elfman’s “The Remains of the Day” from The Corpse Bride, here’s one to cleanse your disappointed ear pallette. I don’t care how kvlt you think you are, “Whistlin’ Past The Graveyard” will get your foot tappin’.
4. “Downtown” (Heartattack and Vine – 1980)
Heartattack and Vine was the last album Waits released on Asylum Records, and the first album that gave a subtle glimpse into the new direction he would take his music. It was released shortly after Tom Waits married his wife of now 38 years, Kathleen Brennan, who is widely regarded as the driving force behind Tom’s experimental side. Heartattack and Vine can be best summed up with “Downtown.” Bluesy, jazzy rock and roll with an aggressive bite and an eccentric kiss.
5. “Swordfishtrombone” (Swordfishtrombones – 1983)
If I had to narrow this list down to one song, it would be this one. Swordfishtrombones is the first record that Waits released on Island Records, the label that would come to house some of his most prolific albums. This album finally gave sound to a persona that had only since been hinted at through his uncomfortable television interviews and oddball deliveries of seemingly normal songs during his live performances. This began what I like to call the Second Wave of Waits, where his experimentation and seedy storytelling narratives took front stage.
6. “Singapore” (Rain Dogs – 1985)
We’ve now reached the point where even if you don’t listen to Waits, you’ll probably at least recognize the album covers. Rain Dogs is arguably Tom Waits’ most famous album, more so than Mule Variations or Bone Machine I would argue. This record is just one creepy classic after another, so I might as well just give you the opening track from it and let you go on from there. “Singapore” perfectly encapsulates Tom’s mischievous side and makes you wonder just how many lives this guy has actually led.
7. “Goin’ Out West – Tulsa – 06/25/08” (Glitter and Doom Live – 2009)
I’m pretty picky with live albums, as I know a lot of other people are. However, if there is one artist that can make live albums absolutely necessary listens, it’s Waits. He’s very well known for his grisly stage performances and for doing his live songs drastically different than the studio versions. Originally off his 1992 album Bone Machine, this live version of “Goin’ Out West” is by far the best version, and one of Tom’s most gnarly, badass offerings.
8. “Big in Japan” (Mule Variations – 1999)
You may remember Beth from The Walking Dead sing “Hold On” from this album, and sometimes I wonder if the entirety of that show was spawned from the aesthetic concept of Mule Variations. It’s swampy, industrial, creepy as all hell and covered in rust. Like Rain Dogs, this 1999 album is just one great after another. The opening track “Big in Japan” has the weight of a brick wall and the humor of a used tire salesman, and it only gets better from there.
9. “Misery Is The River Of The World” (Blood Money – 2002)
2002’s Blood Money saw Tom go full morbid carnival barker, and “Misery Is The River Of The World” is up there with some of his darkest tracks, many of which can be found on this album. Any moments of sweetness you can find on this album are completely overwhelmed by the overall despair that drips from every record groove here. Hey Tom….you ok?
10. “Long Way Home” (Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards – 2006)
I’m about to throw you into the deep end, so I figured I’d slow things down a bit just to give you one last relaxing moment in the kiddie pool beforehand. Orphans can sometimes be glossed over because of it’s taxing length and the fact that it’s essentially a collection of b-sides and rarities, but hey man, it’s all still great! “Long Way Home” is one of those Tom Waits ballads that you have to search for, but that makes finding it that much sweeter. Kick off your Doc Martins and just take in a folky love song every once in awhile, ya animals.
11. “Don’t Go Into That Barn” (Real Gone – 2004)
Real Gone is a criminally underrated album. Tom Waits’ grimy spookiness is on full display here, and “Don’t Go Into That Barn” is like a slug shot to your sanity. Percussion takes the form of any rusty, metal object Waits could find, and that includes the hoarse “oohs” and “aahs” that he punches out. This song is just one of many clanking wrenches in a bent, tin bucket. Disclaimer: unfortunately, Spotify has replaced the original mix of this album with a cleaner, more polished, and sometimes drastically different mix. To get Real Gone how Real Gone should be, you’ll have to hunt down the original version.
12. “Hell Broke Luce” (Bad As Me – 2011)
This is the track you’re looking for. This is the track we’ve been building to. This is the track The Punisher beat four thugs to death with a sledgehammer to. This is the track that will tickle your metal fancy, because by god, this track is metal as fuck. Bad As Me has plenty of bangers on it such as “Satisfied” and “Bad As Me,” but “Hell Broke Luce” took everything Waits has ever done to another level. It’s just plain mean, with F-bombs, machine gun fire, electric guitars, boozy horns, and one of the gruffest vocal performances this side of no-man’s land. I believe everything about Tom Waits gives him his so-called “metal cred,” but nowhere is it more glaringly obvious than on this track.