The next few months sees Tom Waits’ current label, Anti, start a multi-format reissue campaign of all of his albums that were originally released on the Elektra / Asylum labels, a period which spans his 1973 debut, Closing Time, through to 1980’s Heartattack & Vine.
The vinyl reissue of Closing Time spearheads the re-releases on 9 March, with all seven albums being available on streaming services the same day, all the albums reissued on CD on 23 March, and the other vinyl editions being released as 2018 progresses.
On hearing this news, we here at Backseat Mafia knew that this would be the ideal moment to seek out Sam Pay and Martin Zaltz Austwick, the hosts of the award-winning Song by Song Podcast, for a chat on the forthcoming reissue campaign, Tom Waits’ wider career, and the very reason behind their podcast’s existence.
The Song by Song Podcast has been going since September 2015, reviewing every track on every album released by Tom Waits in chronological order. Whatever possessed you to take on such an immense task?
Martin: I’d been listening to two podcasts – The Worst Idea Of All Time, in which the hosts pick a (bad) movie and watch and review it every week for a year – and Cane and Rinse, an in depth discussion of old and new video games. I wanted to do a show where I talked about something I loved every week, whilst simultaneously it being a ridiculous and masochistic commitment.
Sam: A lot of it for me was the chance to discuss music in some kind of structured way. I’ve spent a lot of my life talking to smart people about art, music, film etc, and while Waits is a fascinating topic by himself, he’s also a great spine to hang bigger discussions around. Plus getting to do a project with Martin sounded like fun. It was either this or form a They Might Be Giants cover band…
After Tom Waits debut, Closing Time, he seemed to go in a completely different direction, embracing beat-poetry, jazz and blues influences. Do you feel that Waits might have struggled to reach an audience if he had kept going down the same stylistic route as his first album?
M: A lot of people prefer that album! I think with Closing Time, there’s a specific sound that comes from producer Jerry Yester pushing in a more country-rock direction. I think it would have found an audience (people enjoy The Eagles) but it doesn’t seem very close to what Tom Waits is good at.
S: I like the idea of the “alternate universe Tom Waits” who stayed in LA, or didn’t change styles, or has great success in musical theatre, or became a big movie star, or, or, or… he’s an interesting thought experiment. He’s had a kind of portfolio career, and I’m sure most of his fans have a favourite style or discipline that they wish he’d done more of. Personally I think Closing Time is interesting, but I’m glad he took a different route.
Tom Waits career’s gone through multiple phases down the decades. What do you feel makes his 70s work standout so much from his contemporaries?
M: The poetry – unusual and arresting. The strong sense of character – which I think some people found a little hokey at the time – he was evoking a 1950s Beat in an era of Neil Young and The Eagles. And his incredible ear for a melody.
S: I like the timelessness of it, and I agree about the language and character. Closing Time is a different animal, but from Heart of Saturday Night onwards there’s also an energy and drive to a lot of the songs, like the music evokes something about the lifestyle he’s living/writing, being on the prowl.
Tom Waits’ albums lean heavily on a variety of jazz musicians through the 70s. Which of the musicians he worked with in this era do you feel had the biggest impact on his sound during this period?
M: I think the musicians he worked with in the 80s (Marc Ribot, the late Ralph Carney, Greg Cohen spring to mind) probably had a bigger impact. Larry Taylor (his bassist, also of Canned Heat) is big for me in the 70s. Shelly Mann’s drumming on Small Change is incredible, as is Lew Tabackin’s sax, but they’re not around for long
S: Looking back, the guy I think we didn’t give enough credit to is Jim Hughart. We mentioned his bass playing here and there, but from Heart of Saturday Night onwards he is a constant. There are tracks where they collaborate really closely, but the 70s makes me think of Waits backed by drums and bass, and Hughart is his guy.
Although an official rarities collection seems an unlikely thing for Waits to authorise, are you aware of any unreleased / rarely heard gems that might be lurking in the vaults from his Elektra / Asylum years?
M: I don’t know whether he’s ever recorded it – but he wrote a song called Rainbow Sleeves, which was performed by Bette Midler and later Rickie Lee Jones. I think it’s absolutely beautiful and if there is a version of him performing it, I’d love to hear it.
S: The original demo of Blue Skies that appears on Early Years vol. 2 is one of my favourite Waits tracks, and that doesn’t appear anywhere else. I like the stories he tells around songs, so the intros for songs that sit around live versions of, say, On A Foggy Night are great. I also like the version of Good Night Lovin’ Trail that is on the Live At Ebbets Field record from 1974.
The forthcoming reissue campaign sees the first seven Tom Waits albums available on streaming services. Do you feel that Tom Waits’ songs work in isolation as part of a larger, multi-artist, playlist, or are his albums best consumed as a whole?
M: I think his catalogue is a little too big to take in one hit. I’d split it into early 70s (Closing Time, Heart of Saturday Night, Nighthawks), Mid-70s (Small Change, Foreign Affairs), RNB (Blue Valentines, Heartattack and Vine), the Franks Wild Years Trilogy (Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, Franks Wild Years) and so on. These albums are different but he definitely has stylistic periods.
S: They’re albums first for me. Occasionally a song is so striking that it stands on its own, like Martha or maybe Invitation To The Blues, but so much of his music is about tone and feel. The world that a song or a set of songs evoke needs the surrounding music, to give the listener time and space to bed into that world. Also, the thing that our project has revealed is that the songs that you wouldn’t say are the standout “singles” on an album are fascinating objects; there are five really amazing tracks on Small Change that I wouldn’t say were my “favourites”, but after listening to them more closely, I realise that I’ve just not been paying attention to them. And you’d miss them if you cherry-picked.
Do you feel that there is a superior format to listen to Tom Waits music on?
M: I’m not a format purist, and as I’m travelling for a year, it has to be portable.
S: I am a format purist in many situations, but convenience is more important to me for music. Having said that, the opportunity to get some of these albums on vinyl is… tempting.
M: If Anti want to show some love to a little fan podcast…
And of the seven albums being reissued, which would you recommend to someone completely unfamiliar with Waits’ career?
M: Small Change is my favourite of that period. Heart of Saturday Night is more melodic, and Heartattack and Vine has The Waits Voice (TM) without being too musically weird.
S: Small Change is my choice too – it’s accessible but really varied. I’ve got a lot of love for Nighthawks At The Diner too, but that’s a bone of contention between me and Martin, so maybe I shouldn’t mention that…
Are there any Tom Waits albums that you would recommend someone hold out on listening to until they’ve heard a few others first?
M: Maybe The Black Rider. I find it a hard listen overall.
S: A lot of the music from the 90s and late 2000s is tricky, I feel he’s trying to break out of some of the structure that his music lived in up until that point, and knowing and engaging with those rules first is helpful. But some people will be fans of industrial music or Brecht/Weill more than 70s jazz/blues, so those albums like Bone Machine or The Black Rider might speak more to them.
Your podcast won a British Podcast Award for Best Review podcast in 2017. Did you ever consider taking the same approach of reviewing another act and their output, or was it always going to be Tom Waits?
S: Oh god… Martin?!? I think there are bands we both love, and we’ve always talked about Song by Song on Tom Waits as our “Metaseason 1”… but the idea of starting again at the beginning of another performer seems a bit terrifying right now. Having said that, once we finish this project I’m sure I’ll miss it, so never say never.
What are your plans for Song by Song should you get to the point where you actually manage to catch up with Waits latest album, 2011’s Bad as Me? Resurrect the podcast every time he releases a new album?
M: I think “resume having a normal friendship” would be my vote
S: Or never speak about music again. Possibly both.
One final question. On each episode of The Song by Song podcast, you almost always have a guest with you to help you review the songs. If you ever got the chance to get Tom Waits himself, would you accept it?
M: I’d be pretty terrified. But I’d love to have him on right at the end to pick his favourites.
S: It’s an “unstoppable force vs immovable object” question for me. If offered, I don’t think I could possibly say no… but saying yes is too frightening to contemplate. On a serious note though, Waits has always seemed to want his work to speak for him – his life is very private, and his persona keeps people at a distance. So I think listening to these albums, hearing other people’s opinions and then coming to my own conclusions is the way to “meet” Tom Waits.
The forthcoming re-releases of Closing Time, Heart of Saturday Night, Nighthawks at the Diner, Small Change, Foreign Affairs, Blue Valentine and Heartattack & Vine can be pre-ordered at: https://uk.kingsroadmerch.com/tom-waits/
The Song by Song Podcast is available wherever you download fine podcasts from, and it’s official website is: http://www.songbysongpodcast.com