Today, Rhino is issuing 180-gram vinyl editions of Tom Waits’ first four albums: Closing Time (1973), The Heart of Saturday Night(1974), Nighthawks at the Diner (1975), and Small Change (1976). If you’re a full-on fetish-item collector, you can order them now in limited-edition red vinyl—red like my eyes when I think of what I did to myself in the name of Waits-emulation.
I hear these albums everywhere I go. They’ve influenced the Pogues’ all-seeing whiskey ballads as well as the erudite and heartsick Americana of Lucinda Williams, Ryan Adams, and Ray LaMontagne. There’s a lot of early Tom Waits in Jack White: a pure fondness for things (Cadillacs, microphones, urinals) as they should be. The roadside, booze-and-speed-fueled holy-fool mayhem of the Hold Steady’s early lyrics are very Waits.
They all do the trick when you want to make drinking, smoking, taking drugs, staying up all night, and getting into trouble while dressed like some sainted tramp appear somehow salutary. And maybe it is. We can blame Waits for our bad livers and broken hearts, but we should also credit him for being some kind of one-man preservation society. It’s the power of early Waits that makes the bars, diners, gas stations, and ditches that we all frequent (not to mention the actors, writers, and rockers we love) a bit more poetic.
Still, these four records should probably come with cigarette-style warning labels: The Tom Waits reissue will turn you into a beautiful loser.