I’ve written before about my friend Brian and his penchant for filterless Lucky Strike cigarettes and shots of Bushmill’s Irish Whiskey. In trying to describe Brian to people who haven’t met him, I find it easier when I compare him to some of Tom Waits’ character sketches found in his early albums. I find that every time I listen to one of Waits’ Asylum albums from the seventies I am reminded of Brian. Nothing makes me want to light up a Lucky and down a shot with my buddy more than Small Change.
Small Change is Tom Waits’ fourth album and the centerpiece of his Asylum years. While his first album, Closing Time found him using a more traditional jazz vocal style, Small Change had Waits cementing his gravelly drunken scatman style that made him instantly recognizable. The album begins with one of Waits’ most famous songs, “Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)”. The string and piano composition is delicately beautiful and poignant behind Waits’ drunken tale in which he repeats the memorable `Waltzing Matilda’ refrains. Rod Stewart covered this song later and it wouldn’t be the first time he would borrow from Waits. The song is a classic of heartbreak and squalor and is a defining song for Waits’ unique style.
That song is followed up by the diametrically opposite “Step Right Up”, which became the title for the Waits tribute album. Waits takes on the role of sales barker to perfection in this song, combining a myriad of sales pitches for different products into one long scatting advertisement for some unnamed item. It can both `turn a sandwich into a banquet’ and `entertain visiting relatives’. The barker is another one of those street characters that Waits plays to perfection, delivering a scathing indictment on materialism and capitalism. The Violent Femmes ended up taking on this crazy mosaic of a song for the aforementioned tribute album.
“Jitterbug Boy” is even more of a drunken sob story than the first track and finds Waits scatting for the first time in the album. Tom even takes on more of a slurring vocal style, mimicking drunkenness to give the reverie filled narrator more of a realistic bent. In it, the narrator, another colorful street character, this time hanging out by the shoe-shine, tells an exaggerated story of his exploits and adventures. He’s been to old Ebbets Field to see the Brooklyn Dodgers, slept with Marilyn Monroe, fought Rocky Marciano, played pool against Minnesota Fats, and taught Mickey Mantle everything he knows. At the end of the song we are given more insight into the character when he speaks directly to us:
and so you ask me what I’m doing here
holding up a lamp post flippin’ this quarter,
trying to make up my mind and if it’s heads I’ll go to
Tennessee, and tails I’ll buy a drink
if it lands on the edge I’ll keep talking to you
“I Wish I Was in New Orleans (In the Ninth Ward)” marks the second time in the album, the first being “Jitterbug Boy’s” subtitle, that Waits references his friend Chuck E. Weiss. Weiss, a great performer in his own right, is now more known for Waits’ references as well as one by Rickie Lee Jones in “Chuck E.’s in Love” and for opening up the Viper Room with Johnny Depp. Waits and Weiss began a friendship of kindred souls in which they would not only hang out together in Hollywood, but also collaborate with on new material.
Waits takes the inebriated storyteller to another level with “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)”. Lyrics in the song are not only slurred but make no sense, much as someone who is beyond hammered. Inanimate object take on human action, much as in the title. “Invitation to the Blues” finds the street character falling for a waitress at a diner. Both the character and the waitress have been given an `invitation to the blues’, one with a ticket for a bus and a suitcase by his side, the other used to live the high life but was left for a socialite. These characters are much like ones you would find in a Jim Thompson noir novel. In Thompson’s world, they’d be one step away from hooking up and then pulling some kind of heist, not because they want to, but because they have no other options left.
“Pasties and a G-String (At the Two O’Clock Club)” is a similar song to “Step Right Up” in its stream of consciousness style. Backed only by a drum, Waits rattles off thoughts on strip clubs and scats his way through the burlesque culture. “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart (In Lowell)” features the line which sums up the philosophy of the alcoholic street characters that inhabit Waits’ world:
I don’t have a drinking problem
`cept when I can’t get a drink
Waits goes into more of a storyteller mode on “The One That Got Away”. It’s a method he’s used before and would perfect with “Frank’s Wild Years”. In a way, Small Change is a collection of short stories. One could shelve it alongside Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, and Jim Thompson for similar tales of road trips, drunken binges, and people on hard times. Small Change finds Tom Waits at the top of his game during his Asylum years. By creating tales of barhopping misanthropes that would be more at home in the thirties and forties, Waits carved himself a niche that straddled the genres of rock, jazz, scat, and written fiction. But be warned, by the end of the album, if you haven’t been itching for a Lucky Strike and a shot of Bushmills, there might be something wrong with you.
Charles Bukowski- Factotum
Jim Thompson- After Dark, My Sweet
Edward Hopper- Nighthawks