Recounting after-hours antics in his smoky, whiskey-soaked voice, Tom Waits has garnered a cult following since the mid-1970s for his singular crooning style and carnivalesque sound. The eclectic artist combines song and monologue, illuminating the gritty underbelly of after dark with glittering poetry and pizzazz. He makes an easy transition between music and movies, composing films for major directors such as Jim Jarmusch and Francis Ford Coppola, and appearing alongside the likes of Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. The showman also lends his dramatic flair to theatre productions, whether on stage or behind the scenes.
Notes from underground
Thomas Alan Waits was born in southern California. As a child, he developed a love for music while on road trips to Mexico with his father, listening to traditional Ranchera tunes on the car radio. In the early 1970s, Waits began working as a doorman at the Heritage Coffeehouse (now The Liars' Club) in San Diego, where he had his first paid gig.
In 1971, after moving to Los Angeles, he was signed by Frank Zappa's manager, Herb Cohen. The following year, the musician recorded a series of demos - including several songs for which he would become known - that were later issued as The Early Years, Volume One (1991) and Volume Two (1993).
In 1973, Waits released his formal debut, Closing Time, incorporating jazz, funk and folk. The album received positive reviews, but it gained greater recognition after Tim Buckley and the Eagles covered two of its singles. The 1974 follow-up, The Heart of Saturday Night, cemented Waits reputation as a rousing raconteur, painting seedy scenes of down and out characters from modern fables in his characteristically gravelly baritone.
The following year, he moved into the famed Tropicana Motel on Santa Monica Boulevard, where he lived until late 1979. For his 1976 double album Nighthawks at the Diner, Waits set up a nightclub in the studio to recreate the atmosphere of a live show and enhance his monologue sequences between songs.
The life of an entertainer was starting to take its toll, however, and he started drinking heavily during that period. Small Change, Waits's fourth album, describes his bouts with the bottle in songs such as The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) and Bad Liver and a Broken Heart. It made Billboard's Top 100, thrusting the singer into the media spotlight.
After an extensive tour of the United States and Europe, Waits released Blue Valentine in 1978, going electric on most tracks and imbuing a blues sound and melancholy air befitting of the album's title. The musician's penchant for theatrics led to his acting debut that same year in the Sylvester Stallone film Paradise Alley, for which Waits also contributed to the soundtrack. The venture marked the beginning of another career for the eccentric showman.
In 1982, Waits was asked by famed director Francis Ford Coppola to compose the soundtrack to his film One from the Heart, which earned the musician an Academy Award nomination. The project also had personal gains: While on set Waits met - and later married - playwright Kathleen Brennan. Around that time, he gave up drinking, smoking and drugs, disassociating himself from his fabled "professional drunk" image.
The previous year, Waits appeared at the Festival alongside saxophonist Teddy Edwards and double bassist Greg Cohen, impressing local newspaper La Presse with his performance: "Sombrous and stylized, thin as a rail and casting shadows of Charlie Chaplin spliced with some old alley cat, Tom Waits reveals himself as a master of the form."
In 1983, the artist changed his manager, producer and record label (from Asylum to Island) and released Swordfishtrombones. The experimental album was a departure from his usual piano and strings arrangements, focusing instead on horns, bass and percussion, as well as bringing unconventional instruments such as the bagpipe and the organ into the mix. The follow-up, Rain Dogs, continued his exploration of new sounds and songwriting subjects to the widespread approval of music critics.
While his music career underwent a renaissance, Waits made his theatrical debut in 1986 at the Steppenwolf Theatre, performing the lead in Frank's Wild Years, a play he co-wrote with Brennan. He released a recording based on the play in 1987, but didn't put out another studio album for five years. It was worth the wait: Bone Machine won him the Grammy for Best Alternative Album.
After an absence from recording due to an abundance of theatre and film projects, Waits released the retrospective Beautiful Maladies in 1998. His follow-up, Mule Variations (1999) was awarded the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album and nominated for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance - a testament to his genre defying style.
New sonic realm
In 2004, Waits released his first non-theatrical studio album in five years, Real Gone, which features the artist beat-boxing on the opening track, backed by his son on turntables. Doing away with the piano - his signature instrument - Waits entered a new sonic realm.
A concert album, Glitter and Doom Live came out at the end of 2009, as did the Orphans compilation, a seven-LP boxset featuring six new recordings. Bad as Me followed two years later.