Tom Waits is odd man out at R&R Hall of Fame induction

On March 14, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio will hold its 26th annual induction ceremony, welcoming acts as diverse as shock rocker Alice Cooper, singer-songwriter Neil Diamond, New Orleans pianist Dr. John, and rock and soul pioneer Darlene Love into its venerable fold. While each has made an indelible mark on the face of American popular music, the odd man out in this years cast may just prove to be the most enduringly influential.

Tom Waits has been traveling his own musical highway since the release of his debut album, “Closing Time,” in 1973. Beginning his recording career as a Beat-influenced jazz aficionado, Waits would continue to expand his musical palette throughout the 70’s. From his orchestrated investigations of alcoholics and late night revelers in early songs such as “The Piano Has Been Drinking” and “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart,” through his increasingly theatrical tales of petty criminals and lovelorn prostitutes, Waits’ vision continued to roam into ever darker corners of the American psyche.

While gaining a considerable cult following over the course of seven years and six albums, Waits had grown increasingly frustrated with the moribund nature of his work. Interviews with from the late 70’s bear witness to a man ill at ease with the traditional trappings of jazz and the often staid arrangements forced on him by record company producers.

The title tune of his 1980 release, “Heartattack and Vine,” found him chaffing at the bit of his old hipster persona. With it’s stripped down, junkyard blues rumble, the song marked a clear turning point in both sound and attitude, an artistic gamble that would pay enormous returns in the near future.

Waits has often pointed to his marriage to screenwriter Kathleen Brennan in 1980 as a major turning point both personally and artistically, the stability of their relationship allowing him to find inspiration in Brennan’s eclectic record collection and the mental fortitude to amend his often dissolute lifestyle, which had begun to resemble some of the more wayward characters from his songbook.

Released in 1983, “Swordfishtrombone” was unlike anything Waits, or anyone else, had created previously. The album cover alone was a clear indication that a major paradigm shift had taken place: A shirtless Waits leans awkwardly against a bar, a single leopard skin print glove shoved into the waistband of his pants, a streak of rouge decorating his upturned cheek and a battered trombone teetering precariously by his side. He is joined by what appear to be two dwarves, sharply dressed and seemingly oblivious to Waits’ presence.

As odd as the cover is, it in no way prepares the listener for the music contained within. A discordant, spine-rattling mix of raw Delta blues, African percussion, spoken-word noir, pulp crime novels and mutant jazz, the record effectively exploded the constraints of modern popular music and sent it spiraling into the universe of sound and language that has come to characterize much of the most important music of the last 30 years.

From the cave dwelling protagonists of “Underground” to the pyrotechnically-inclined husband of “Frank’s Wild Years” and the mythic horn man of the title track, the album introduces a new kink in Waits’ exploration of the down and out freaks and hustlers of America, adding depth, imagination and, in the quite revelry of “Johnsburg, Illinois,” a new, unashamed romanticism to an already impressive repertoire.

The album served as a model for musical and lyrical themes Waits has continued to explore and expand on to this day. Drawing together a singular crew of jazz, avant garde, and rock musicians, the angular stealth and dark meditation of his best music is a melding of seemingly opposite impulses to an overarching vision that celebrates both the brutal reality and fantastic possibilities of our modern age.

Waits has taken his music to the stage only rarely, but the handful of tours he has presented over the decades have earned him the reputation of a showman beyond peer: part carnival barker, part shaman, with a hint of snake oil and vaudeville in his wry, ecstatic delivery.

Waits has also racked up an impressive list of starring and cameo appearances in feature films, from Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Outsiders” and “The Cotton Club” to his most recent starring role in “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.” Anyone looking for a quick course in Waits’ strangely compelling screen presence should take in his lead role in indie film legend Jim Jarmusch’s “Down By Law.”

Today, Waits stands as a sort of elder statesman to a generation of restless, forward-gazing musicians who have followed in his wake and drawn inspiration from his prodigious example. He serves as a winking, Mephistophelean guide to a musical and thematic underworld of his own creation, as the once-recognizable art form known as rock and roll continues to mutate and shape-shift across the early decades of the twenty-first century.


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