Tuesday, February 27, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1111: Tom Waits

Welcome back to the Odyssey. I’ve got a lot to say about this next album so let’s get right to it.

Disc 1111 is… The Heart of Saturday Night
Artist: Tom Waits

Year of Release: 1974

What’s up with the Cover? Just another night on the town in what I think is…the forties? Much like Tom Waits’ music, this cover is hard to date but feels like it is from an earlier era. Regardless, we’ve all been this guy (or girl – pick one) out into the early hours trying to create some memories and maybe feeling the beginnings of a tension headache (or sore feet – pick one).

How I Came To Know It: I originally discovered Tom Waits through his debut album “Closing Time” but it took me a long time to dig deeper. Once I did, “The Heart of Saturday Night” was one of my early acquisitions, but I can’t remember why. The reason is lost in the mists of time.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 17 of Tom Waits’ studio albums which is most – but not all – of them (I previously sold “One from the Heart” after much hand-wringing.

“The Heart of Saturday Night” does pretty well amidst tough competition. I rank it 6th, bumping “Bad As Me”, “Bone Machine” and “Heartattack and Vine” all down one spot in the process. This is also the last of my Tom Waits’ albums waiting for review, so here’s a full recap.

  1. Mule Variations: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 970)
  2. Rain Dogs: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 619)
  3. Swordfishtrombone: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 149)
  4. Frank’s Wild Years: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 280)
  5. Closing Time: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 40)
  6. The Heart of Saturday Night: 4 stars (reviewed right here)
  7. Bad as Me: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 775)
  8. Bone Machine: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 183)
  9. Heartattack and Vine: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 346)
  10. Alice: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 1061)
  11. Blue Valentine: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 98)
  12. Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 445)
  13. Blood Money: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 235)
  14. Real Gone: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 852)
  15. Foreign Affairs: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 193)
  16. Small Change: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 349)
  17. One From the Heart: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 935)
  18. Nighthawks at the Diner: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 147)
I can’t remember why I kept “Nighthawks” but I’m going to check into that and maybe say goodbye to it as well. The rest are keepers.

Ratings: 4 stars

As a young man moving I moved from an isolated small town to a city. Not a big one, but big to me. I was always drawn to the energy a city takes on in the wee hours of the morning. When the sun first goes down the structure of the day tries for a few hours to keep order, but the longer the lamps are lit, the more a new set of rules establishes itself. It is dreamlike, mysterious and a little dangerous if you don’t let yourself sway to its rhythms, or if you sway too hard.

“The Heart of Saturday Night” is Tom Waits’ love song to night and the city. It feels like the backdrop to a detective novel, or maybe just an ode to all the people caught out in the pre-dawn.

Individually, the album has high points, but it is how Waits sets the album as a mood piece that is a greater triumph. He blends the easy listening style of Frank Sinatra (or maybe a drunken Dean Martin), late night lounge jazz and backstreet blues, bringing it all into one tent. He grounds it there with gravelly vocals that walk lazily in and off the beat with sandpaper grace.

The album begins as late night evenings often do, with a bold promise to hit the town and hit ‘er hard. Or as Waits sings on “New Coat of Paint”:

“Let's put a new coat of paint
On this lonesome old town
Set 'em up, we'll be knockin' 'em down
You wear a dress
Baby I'll wear a tie
We'll laugh at that old bloodshot moon
In that burgundy sky”

Spoiler alert: if the moon isn’t bloodshot yet, it is going to be before the night is over. Better still from “San Diego Serenade”:

“I never saw the mornin' 'til I stayed up all night
I never saw the sunshine 'til you turned out the light
I never saw my hometown until I stayed away too long
I never heard the melody until I needed the song”

Every time I hear Waits warble these beautiful lines I am taken back to the few times I’ve stayed up all night. Maybe I was watching some sporting event in another time zone, maybe I worked a night shift and was driving home or maybe I was just getting good and drunk. I can say that most of the times you do it, you remember it, and Waits brings it all back to you.

Whatever the case, Waits takes that moment and digs deeper, reminding us that big events happen in the moment, and you can’t fully imagine how they’ll go until you’re in them. Or as Waits sums it up:

“I never saw your heart 'til someone tried to steal it away
I never saw your tears until they rolled down your face.”

Waits’ night shifts through the various characters you might encounter in the dead of night. Folks at the bus station and truck drivers pulling a late shift both get their due.  “Shiver Me Timbers” is the song of a sailor bidding farewell to his loved ones, heading out at a strange hour because that’s when the wind and the tide were right. “Shiver Me Timbers” has become a phrase for mockery and bad pirate impressions, but Waits reclaims it and it gives you the shivers all over again, right down into the bones.

It isn’t all doom and gloom out on the town, though. “(Looking For)” the Heart of Saturday Night” is the ultimate drinking out weekend evening, with all the weariness of the week still hanging off our hero, he gets himself dressed up and hits the bar. The song has the buzz of pool halls, the feeling of having your arm around your girl and even a little melancholy after one too many – making everything seem so much more important.

That song comes at the end of the Side One and is bookended by the end of Side Two with “The Ghosts of Saturday Night (After Hours at Napoleone’s Pizza House)”. A couple of songs that need a little less title, but like a late night out, it is hard to follow a single plot line for too long.

Ghosts…” is all lounge piano and Waits crooning, as he gets down to the last people standing with the sun just around the corner. A solitary sailor “Who spends the facts of his life like small change on strangers” dreams of a waitress with “Maxwell House eyes
and marmalade thighs with scrambled yellow hair
.” That’s Waits reminding us if you’re still up it’s time for breakfast. The early risers are starting to rise, and the day isn’t here yet, but it is close; threatening to dampen down the magic and get about its business again.

The album starts with a playful energy. Through the middle trumpets flare up and restless bass lines flutter and pulse with the energy of the night owls prowling the streets about. By the end everyone is worn out and Waits lets a simple piano slowly trail off with the rising sun. Like a good night on the town, the album is a journey you don’t soon forget.

Best tracks: New Coat of Paint, San Diego Serenade, Shiver Me Timbers, (Looking For) The Heart of Saturday Night, The Ghosts of Saturday Night (After Hours at Napoleone’s Pizza House)

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