Tom Waits, six years my elder by birth and four score ahead in attitude, tried his best to explain what being 20-something meant to him on the seven Elektra albums sampled on Used Songs: 1973-1980. From “Ol’ ’55,” the first cut on his debut platter and the seventh here, Waits connected to me directly. It was just ahead of dawn and–with something less than a clear head–I’d just started to negotiate my way home, listening to Waits sing:
Now the sun’s comin’ up
I’m riding with lady luck
Freeway cars and trucks
Stars beginning to fade
And I lead the parade.
Although Dylan, Leonard Cohen and–especially–the character-driven songs of Randy Newman all had their impact on Waits, it was Jack Kerouac that probably exerted the greatest influence; listen to “Wrong Side of the Road” if you disagree. Waits presented himself, despite his youth, as an unreconstructed beatnik. Most comfortable in front of jazz piano playing rhythm, brushes, bass, and maybe a horn, Waits growled, snarled and groaned his way through epic tales of late-night life that may have owed more to detective fiction and film noir than real experience. As suggested by the title of his double live album, Nighthawks at the Diner, Waits chose to celebrate the demimonde–the world of hookers, hustlers, drunks and after-hours dives.
Along with his contemporary, Bruce Springsteen, Waits brought to rock music a figure of literary romance: a creative artist/wise guy, a streetwise poet who could run the numbers without pad or pencil. And nowhere do these two worlds come together better than in Waits’ exquisite pool-hall odyssey, “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night.” Beer joints, cheesy pitchmen (“Step Right Up” makes a song out of come-ons and slogans), loneliness and coffee strong enough to climb out of the cup, march across the plate and beat the crap out of the unwary eggs deserve their Boswell, and found him in Waits during this glorious first segment of his varied career. 1980’s “Heartattack and Vine,” the first track on Used Songs, suggests his future path more fully developed on such Island releases as Swordfishtrombones and Bone Machine.
Used Songs: 1973-1980 includes 16 excellent Waits selections, a songwriter who could capture the teary-eyed magic of melancholy. Unfortunately, with seven albums to cull from, some of the magic remains underrepresented. For example, with only one cut from Nighthawks at the Diner, this set completely omits Waits’ wondrous monologues, recorded back when Spalding Gray was still trying to make it as a novelist and actor.