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Book Review: The Lyrics of Tom Waits – The Early Years by Tom Waits

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A troubadour tanked on hard liquor, hunched over an upright piano in a smoky bar, laments over some romantic long shot or the one that got away. He sings short stories, setting dingy late-night scenes littered with misfits and streetwise women to music. These tales of the downtrodden, written not with contempt but with genuine empathy, are the work of Tom Waits.

Published by Ecco Press, a new anthology culls the expression and poetry from roughly the first decade of this maverick artist’s career in The Lyrics of Tom Waits – The Early Years. Specifically, the material collected here covers the period between Waits’ 1973 debut, Closing Time, through 1980’s Heartattack And Vine. Also included are his lyrics from the 1982 soundtrack of One From The Heart as well as those from both volumes of The Early Years, albums that comprise songs written before his proper debut.

On their respective albums, these songs represent a symbiosis of words and music, yet, on the page, the lyrics exhibit intrinsic qualities that merit singular analysis and appreciation. Much like his literary influences — particularly Kerouac, Burroughs, and Bukowski — Waits demonstrates a fluid cadence in his verse, especially in this era of his writing. Lyrics to “Step Right Up” and “Small Change (Got Rained On With His Own .38),” for instance, read like Beat vernacular, their meter manifested through free-flowing lines and cumulative stanzas.

Waits’ literary sensibilities not only extend to his poetic phrasing, but also to the narrative arrangement of his lyrics. The stories told in songs like “Tom Traubert’s Blues” and “Ruby’s Arms” contain as much character and thematic development as a work of short fiction. Depictions of third-shift slaves, drug pushers, sex peddlers, innocent victims, and derelicts who dream unfold as well on the page as they do in song.

The Lyrics of Tom Waits – The Early Years brilliantly draws attention to an aspect of this iconoclast’s craft that deserves recognition. During this seminal era of his career, Waits blurred the line between life and art to an indistinguishable extent. In many ways, Waits personified his characters, which not only added to his distinctive music’s appeal, but also forged his legend – one that endures to this day. The lyrics collected within this anthology are the integral manuscripts of that music.

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About Donald Gibson

Donald Gibson is the publisher of www.writeonmusic.com and a freelance music journalist whose byline has appeared in such publications as No Depression, Spinner, The Seattle Post Intelligencer, Cinema Sentries, Blinded by Sound, and Blogcritics, where he was the Senior Music Editor (2011-2012) and Assistant Music Editor (2008-2011). He has interviewed and profiled such artists as Tony Bennett, Lucinda Williams, Jakob Dylan, Allen Toussaint, Boz Scaggs, Johnny Marr, Charli XCX, Justin Hayward (The Moody Blues), Susanna Hoffs, Bruce Hornsby, Delbert McClinton, Jonny Lang, Alan Parsons, Bill Frisell, Rickie Lee Jones, Christina Perri, Don Felder (The Eagles), Jimmy Webb, Katie Melua, and Buddy Guy, among many others.
  • Brandy

    Wow, great review. Tom Waits is one of the greats, and your words really describe him and his lyrics.

    I saw him perform live in Minneapolis, back in the 1980s. “9th & Hennepin” got a big cheer. 🙂

  • More recently, Waits has said something to the effect that if he was living the life of his early lyrics now, he’d be dead.