Tom Waits for no man

 

It has always seemed appropriate that Tom Waits was born in the back of a taxi in a Los Angeles car park, the only surprise being that it has never cropped up in one of his lyrics. The wilfully dysfunctional chronicler of all that is seamy, sordid and beautifully sad, Waits digs deeper than most and uncovers implausibly wretched situations that have served as a soundtrack for the emotionally bruised and bemused. Even away from the cliched late-night/whiskey-sodden/cigarette-cloaked atmospheres he so deftly conjures up, there's a radiance and a warmth to his music that is as edifying as it is entertaining.

Always armed with the same hard luck stories - cheap wine-drinking hobos, heartbroken waitresses, junkie hookers and maudlin barflies - his jazz'n'blues-inflected ballads have always worked as a blissful counterpoint to the happy, clappy Stars'n'Stripes joyful excesses of his contemporaries. And if it all seems a bit too unrelentingly gloomy at times, remember that - like Leonard Cohen and Morrissey - his humour is of the subtle and sardonic variety.

You can only really appreciate the full extent of his ability when you hear a sad old cabaret artist like Rod Stewart trying to cover his songs (Downtown Train and Tom Traubert's Blues, in Rodney's pitiful case) or when you realise that the very best of Bruce Springsteen's work - take a listen to Racing In The Street off Darkness On The Edge Of Town - seems like a valiant attempt at imitation. And on the subject of Waits cover versions, Springsteen's Jersey Girl is the only one to pass muster.

The release of Beautiful Maladies, a 23track collection of his best work on the Island label (selected by the artist himself) is a bitter-sweet affair in that it includes some of the prime cuts off albums like Swordfishtrombones and Franks Wild Years, but also signifies that Waits has been boxing below his weight for the past decade and hasn't done anything to rival his earlier, and far better, work on the Asylum label. Way back at the time of his debut album, Closing Time (1973), Waits had set out his stall as the musical wing of the Beat Generation - citing Kerouac, Bukowski and the late, great Lenny Bruce as his primary influences. He soon, though, fell victim to the cult of self-myth: interviewees would find him slumped in the gutter with a whisky bottle in one hand and a book of poetry in the other, and he was regularly slung out of clubs that he was supposed to be playing in. The Piano Has Been Drinking, Not Me was as jokingly autobiographical as it got and even if he was going through a rather pitiful Brendan Behan-type sojourn, the songs from this period - including Martha, I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You, Shiver Me Timbers, Small Change and Tom Traubert's Blues - have rarely been rivalled in terms of sheer emotive expression. His time with the Asylum label (which is collected on the compilation The Asylum Years) finished with the wondrous Heartattack and Vine album (1980), after which he linked up with Francis Ford Coppola to write songs for the latter's One From The Heart film. He went on to notch up cameo appearances in Rumblefish and The Cotton Club and to play a lead role in Jim Jarmusch's Down By Law. On the musical side of things, he embarked on an adventurous trilogy of records that still divides his fans and critics alike: either Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs and Frank's Wild Years were the perfect crystallisation of his way with words and music, or they were patchy and obscure. The choice is yours. Waits himself said of his changed musical direction: "I now feel it's important to separate yourself as a writer from who you actually are. I realise a guy who writes murder mysteries doesn't have to be a murderer".

It's all been very quiet since he left the Island label a few years ago, but there have been two high-profile sightings of him in the law courts: he sued over an ad for Dorito's Corn Chips which used a Waits impersonator, and sued again when Levi's used one of his songs in an ad campaign without prior permission. He won substantial amounts of money each time. Once a regular on the live circuit, he only pops up for charity benefits these days and, ever the unpredictable, his last live gig was a benefit concert for the owner of his local video store. Very Waitsian. And there was another idiosyncratic moment last week when he announced that he had signed a new record deal - with a Californian hardcore punk label called Epitaph. There's still a few chapters left in the book.

Beautiful Maladies - The Island Years is available on the Island/Polygram label. There's also a more than competent biography out called Small Change by Patrick Humphries.