Tom Waits’ Nighthawks at the Diner – round-the-clock performance art


In my last article I mentioned that I wrote my dissertation for the American Studies MA on the work Tom Waits. It was called Images of Americana in the music of Tom Waits and it was meant as a tribute to this great musical mind who was instrumental in helping me acquire and then develop a taste for true music, meaning music as a form of art rather than merely entertainment. It was through Tom Waits that I learned to appreciate certain aspects of it that had never occurred to me before and it was by studying his biography and listening to or reading his interviews that I gained an understanding of the  process of creating music. I also learned to adapt and apply that process to my writing so it goes without saying that, on an intellectual level, I owe a lot to this man.

It seems only fair, thus, to dedicate this entry to one of his works, namely his 1975 live record Nighthawks at the Diner. While Nighthawks is not necessarily my favorite Tom Waits record (I still find it hard to choose a favorite to this day) it is one of the most unique records I have come across so far. Its mixture of live music and spoken-word interludes have done more to establish Waits’ early character and solidify his “act” than any of his other early recordings. The persona of a drunken vagrant that Waits created for himself and rarely ever slipped out of added enormous credibility to the coherent “universe” he established in his music, something that other musicians have tried but failed to accomplish at a level that is anywhere near that of Waits (and of course I`m not talking about record sales or appearances on  covers of teen magazines).

That being said, I`m going to make this a “special entry” in my blog, meaning that, instead of writing one I will post an excerpt from my dissertation exactly as I defended it (ardently) in front of the mighty committee (one of whom I managed to humiliate in the process by beating him in a Tom Waits trivia challenge in spite of his ambitious claim of being an infallible connoisseur of music – damn, I hope he reads this one day!). To his credit though, he did not abuse of his power to fail my ass and the dissertation was a success. So here it is, I hope you`ll enjoy it.

Nighthawks at the Diner was a live album, recorded in a manner which would simulate a performance in a small club, as Tom would interact with the audience and tell stories in between the songs, which would become as important in discussing the album as the songs themselves. The result resembled a stand-up comedy routine intermingled with music.

The first song is the comedic Emotional Weather Report, in which, as the name suggests, Waits compares his psychological and emotional state with a weather report:

and a line of thunderstorms was developing in the early morning/ ahead of a slow moving coldfront, cold blooded/ with tornado watches issued shortly before noon Sunday/ for the areas including the western region of my mental health/ and the northern portions of my ability to deal rationally with my disconcerted precarious emotional situation

The listener gets the impression that, in this collection of songs, the most important aspect is not that of the lyrics, nor the music, but the “mood”, the “feel” of the album. It is almost as if Nighthawks were even more “late night” than the Heart of Saturday Night. Somehow, listening to Nighthawks one gets the feeling that, if the events in The Heart of Saturday Night and Nighthawks happened in one single night, the events of Nighthawks would happen “later”. The music and the lyrics are mellower; they lack some of the vibe and energy of the previous album. If one were to compare these two albums to a late-night spree through the bars, the rhythm of the music and lyrics would be reminiscent of the very late hours, when it is almost morning and the night is almost coming to an end. The characters get more tired and laid-back in that alcohol-induced state that leads to melancholy. Yet somehow, at the same time, they are also driven to laughing for no apparent reason.

The main catalyst for this mood is none other than Waits himself. The persona that Tom Waits created during this particular period was central to experiencing his music. The character he built for himself was a living, breathing Tom Waits song. It was at this time that the newspapers started describing Waits in the most colorful of manners. For example, CREEM`s Clark Peterson writes, in an article entitled “The Slime Who Came in From The Cold”:

A pointy, black shoe kicks the motel door open, and in lurches something even the cat would refuse to drag in. It’s Tom Waits, looking like a stubble-chinned stumble bum who just traded a pint of blood for a pint of muscatel down at the plasma center. His attire – Frederick`s of Goodwill – is appropriately seedy on his meager frame. [1]

An article in Newsweek featured the following description:

Wearing a baggy suit, a tattered woolen cap, and yesterday`s stubble, he looks more like a guest in a fleabag hotel than a rising new singer with three popular albums. [2]

James Stevenson of The New Yorker introduced the singer and composer as follows:

Tom Waits is a twenty-six-year-old composer and performer who looks like an urban scarecrow. He wears a ratty black cap pulled down over his left eye, a coat that is simultaneously too big and too small, paper-thin pointy black shoes, and a couple of days` worth of beard. He appears to have slept in a barrel. His voice is a scabrous rasp which can become – onstage – an effective instrument, with a wide range of color and feeling. His lyrics reflect a landscape that is bleak, lonely, contemporary: all-night diners; cheap hotels; truck stops; pool halls; strip joints; Continental trailways buses; double-knits, full-table rail shots; jumper cables; Naugahyde luncheonette booths; Foster Grant wraparounds; hash browns over easy; glass pack and overhead camsdawn skies “the color of Pepto-Bismol.”[3]

It was such articles that helped shape the image of Tom Waits that one cannot help but think he must have wanted, especially when he made statements such as:

I was born in the back seat of a yellow cab in Murphy Hospital parking lot. I had to pay a buck eighty-five on the meter to move. I didn’t have my trousers on yet and I left my money in my other pants.[4]

This was Tom Waits, never giving a straight answer, turning everything into a joke, seeming slightly buzzed or flat out drunk most of the time he interacted with anyone from the media. This was not only the topic he wrote about in his music, it also seemed to be his constant way of life, day in and day out. This overlapping made everything all the more fascinating and created this myth surrounding Waits’ life. In Lowside of the Road, A Life of Tom Waits biographer Barney Hoskyns presents some fascinating intel from Mike Melvoin, keyboard player on both Nighthawks and Saturday Night, regarding the character that Tom had constructed in order to express his art:

Mike Melvoin saw Waits’ persona not as a dissimulation but as round-the-clock performance art, the medium through which [Tom] had chosen to express himself. “I thought of Tom as a professional poet who was in character, ”Melvoin says. “He needed to be thought of as the character. It`s where you and your body and your personal experience are the artifact. The question was, ‘How far are you willing to go with the jacket? How tight are you prepared to wear it?’”[5]

Tom Waits was never more “in character” than on Nighthawks At the Diner, in which the listener is taken on inebriated rides through what could be any American city late at night – feeling tired, cold and confused, much like a drunkard trying to return home:

Yeah, you check out the street and it looks like there’s kind of a…

Kind of a blur drizzle down the plate glass

And as a neon swizzle stick is stirrin’ up the sultry night air

Looks like a yellow biscuit of a buttery cue ball moon

Rollin’ maverick across an obsidian sky

And as the buses go groanin’ and wheezin’

Down on the corner I’m freezin’

On a restless boulevard at a midnight road

But Christ, I got my lips around a bottle
and I got my foot on the throttle and I’m standin’ on the corner
Standin’ on the corner like a just got in town jasper
I’m on a street corner with a gasper
Lookin’ for some kind of a Cheshire billboard grin
Stroking a goateed chin
Using parking meters as walking sticks
Yeah, on the inebriated stroll
With my eyelids propped open at half mast[6]

In a cavalcade of street slang, with an attention to detail characteristic only of the truest of alcoholics, Tom Waits, in the guise of a late-night-hobo-drunkard, takes the listener on an aimless walk up and down the streets of a nameless town, as lost and passively confused as the rain dogs he would sing about years later. Once the walk is finished, when fatigue and a beaten despair call for a halt, this all-American drunken character that shows up in almost all of the songs stumbles inside the all-American bar that shows up in almost all of the songs. This typical Tom Waits location, usually a sleazy diner, is home to the cast of characters that have become a brand of this musician`s narrative, all with their share of skeletons in the closet, and all probably as desperate and maladjusted as the main character himself.

Warm Beer and Cold Women and Eggs and Sausage both serve to describe the dismal shelters of the reluctant passer-by, who just does not fit in:

It’s warm beer and cold women, no I just don’t fit in

Every joint I stumbled into tonight, that’s just how it’s been

All these double-knit strangers with gin and vermouth

And recycled stories, in the naugahyde booths

And the platinum blondes and tobacco brunettes

I’ll just be drinkin’ to forget you, I light another cigarette

Ironically, although the character feels as though he did not fit in and, consequently, feels repelled by the “double-knit strangers with gin and vermouth and recycled stories” that he unavoidably encounters in all the late night purgatories he ends up in, it is clear to the objective viewer that the character is himself part of the ensemble cast that illustrates these late-night American hangouts. He is in no way different from all the other nighthawks, who all probably feel the same way he does: stuck together, simultaneously attracted and repelled by the inebriated urban scenery they have become part of:

Nighthawks at the diner of Emma’s 49’er

There’s a rendezvous of strangers around the coffee urn tonight

All the gypsy hacks and the insomniacs

Now the paper’s been read, now the waitress said

Eggs and sausage and a side of toast
Coffee and a roll, hash browns over easy
Chile in a bowl with burgers and fries
What kind of pie? Yeah…

It’s a graveyard charade, it’s a late shift masquerade

And it’s two for a quarter, dime for a dance

Woolworth rhinestone diamond earrings and a sideway’s glance

Now the register rings, now the waitress sings

Eggs and sausage and a side of toast

Coffee and a roll, hash browns over easy

Chile in a bowl with burgers and fries

What kind of pie? Yeah

Now well, the classified section offers no direction

It’s a cold caffeine in a nicotine cloud

Now the touch of your fingers lingers burning in my memory

I’ve been 86’ed from your scheme

Now I’m in a melodramatic nocturnal scene

Now I’m a refugee from a disconcerted affair

Now the lead pipe morning falls, now the waitress calls

Eggs and sausage, another side of toast

Coffee and a roll, hash browns over easy

Chile in a bowl with burgers and fries

Now what kind of pie?

A la mode if you will

Just come in and join the crowd

Had some time to kill, yeah

You see, I just come in to join the crowd

Had some time to kill

Just come in to join the crowd

Cause I had some time to kill

The last lines, which repeat themselves almost hypnotically, invite the listener to come join all the other lost souls in this “melodramatic nocturnal scene”, all convincing themselves they have “some time to kill” rather than face the fact that this “graveyard charade” has, in fact, become their nightly rhythm, the core of their existence.

An important leitmotiv – both in the music and, apparently, the life of Tom Waits at that time – was alcohol consumption. Alcohol was the fuel on which the engine of his made-up, almost self-parodying character would function. The fumes of alcohol provided the haze through which the character, the eternal bum-narrator of most of Tom’s songs would perceive his late-night-early-morning environment. Sometimes mentioned directly – especially in his monologues and interactions with the crowd, but also in his lyrics, other times alluded to via slang, jokes, alcohol-related images of places or activities, this character-supporting substance was a spectral presence in Waits’ early music, as essential to it as the night, the urban landscape and the voice. An article in Los Angeles Times Magazine claimed:

An apparently healthy young man, a vigorous performer, Waits works hard to display the visual attributes of a guy on the back end of a drunk-and-disorderly arrest.

His clothing, at best, borders on the nondescript. As a sartorial statement, it crosses that frontier between optimism and delusion. […] Sporting a fedora of the kind associated less with the stalking of vanished missionaries and more with the likes of Hoagy Carmichael, he carries his head low, in the manner of the chronically self-effacing. […]

His appearance reinforces that image of him so often painted in the press – the Damon Runyon of downtown Los Angeles, mired in a landscape strewn with the working parts of his music, “hobos, prostitutes, people in trouble, the negative machinery I create to motivate myself.” It is an image that his audience has come to embrace. It is not, he admits, an entirely accurate one.

“When you have a certain geography that becomes associated with you,” he explains, “people dream you into it. They develop their own ideas about who you are and what you do, and you can only control a certain amount of that.”[7]

Bobi Thomas, a former girlfriend of Tom’s declared:

He really created a persona for himself on stage. […] He never really was a big drinker when we hung out but the persona he created had a flask of whiskey in his pocket at all times. I think he intuitively knew that the element of ‘show’ was more than half of the game. [8]

As to creating an alcoholic persona to present on stage, Tom Waits stated:

The fact is that everybody who starts doing this to a certain extent develops some kind of persona or an image in order to survive […] It`s much safer to approach this with some kind of persona , because if it`s not a ventriloquist act, if it`s just you, then it`s really scary.[9]

Whether or not this image was, indeed, just a “ventriloquist act” is debatable. There have been conflicting stories about this particular aspect of Waits’ life. While one reporter claims to have spent several hours in the singer’s company, during which he had never seen him consume a single drop of alcohol, only to then stagger, stumble and ramble on stage as if he had been drinking heavily the entire evening, there are others, such as writer David McGee, a friend of Waits’, who claim his “ventriloquist act” might have started to interfere with his life. Referring to the time around which Nighthawks was released, McGee says:

There was a decided change in him – a restlessness, an agitated energy, almost like he couldn`t sit still even when he knew he needed to. He looked unhealthy, too, and when I inquired about his physical condition he admitted he needed to back off the drinking, which by now had become hard liquor instead of beer.[10]

Backing up McGee’s claim is Tom Waits himself, giving a more direct statement about that period, which seems to contradict his earlier ventriloquist-act/persona explanation:

I really became a character in my own story […] I`d go out at night, get drunk, fall asleep underneath a car. Come home with leaves in my hair, grease on the side of my face, stumble into the kitchen, bang my head on the piano and somehow chronicle my own demise and the parade of horribles that lived next door.[11]

Mimicking what could conceivably be the effect of prolonged inebriated exposure to a late-night lifestyle or even that of pathological alcoholism on the human body and the course such a lifestyle would take, Tom’s music reacted in an almost physiological manner: the songs themselves seemed to take on many of the features of a worn-out alcoholic’s behavior. In his earlier albums, the topic of alcohol was used mostly for comic effect, adding much humor to Waits’ onstage behavior and to the lyrics of his songs, spicing everything up with a welcome touch of incoherence, ramblings about bars, strip-joints, eggs and sausage. This is also the time at which his famous “frontal lobotomy” statement[12] and many similar ones appeared.

Yet, in 1976, Waits released Small Change. His music was about to take an unexpected turn.

[1] Clarke Peterson, “The Slime Who Came in From the Cold”, CREEM, March 1978

[2] Betsy Carter with Peter S. Greenberg, “Sweet and Sour”, Newsweek, June 14, 1976

[3] James Stevenson, “Blues”, The New Yorker, December 27 1976

[4] Peter O`Brien, “Watch Out For Sixteen-Year-Old Girls Wearing Bell Bottoms Who Are Running Away From Home And Have a Lot of Blue Oyster Cult Records Under Their Arm” ZigZag, July 1976

[5] Hoskyns, Barney, Lowside of the Road. A life of Tom Waits, London, 2009 (p. 109)

[6] Nighthawk Postcards (From Easy Street)

[7] Robert Sabbag, “Tom Waits Makes Good: Rock`s Scavanger Songwriter Has Become a Legend in His Own Spare Time”, Los Angeles Times Magazine, February 22, 1987

[8] Hoskyns, Barney, Lowside of the Road. A life of Tom Waits, London, 2009 (p. 75)

[9] Ibid. (p. 176)

[10] Ibid (p. 142)

[11]  Ibid (p. 177)

[12] I`d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy

1 comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: