Sometimes it is impressive what can be achieved with proverbial smoke and mirrors. Promotions, relationships, business deals. Sometimes the appearance that you are something can get you further than actually being that thing.
Smoke and mirrors work in the music industry too. From the doing quite well on the surface pop act whose managers are mercilessly siphoning off their earnings in the background, to the gut-busting satanic-shape throwing metal acts who are actually Born Again Christians, to the swaggering guitar act who declare themselves to be a ‘dirty rock and roll band’, when in actual fact they’re just a bunch of blokes with a massive sense of entitlement, and precious little in the way of talent to justify it. Smoke and mirrors all the way.
At least Tom Waits was relatively creative with his use of smoke and mirrors on Nighthawks at the Diner. What was dressed up as a live album of previously unreleased material recorded in a jazz club was actually Waits and his band playing to small invited audience in a recording studio. Also the fact that Waits was trying to inhabit the character of a world-weary beat-poet who had been on the receiving end of some rather harsh life lessons, was only undermined slightly when you realise that he was about 26 years old at the time that Nighthawks at the Diner was recorded.
Remarkably, Waits manages to pull the charade off, and as an album, Nighthawks at the Diner is a satisfying example of early-period Tom Waits playing to the crowd and becoming comfortable with his on stage persona. Sure, it’s not as career defining as the later Small Change, but it was a marked evolution on from the preceding The Heart of Saturday Night. Being in a ‘live’ setting also gave Waits the opportunity to flesh out his on-stage character with some between-song patter with the audience, though it should also be noted that Waits also started embracing his on-stage persona around this time, to the point where he was going a little too method in his approach .
Song wise, Nighthawks at the Diner is a strong set, but from time to time you can’t help but wonder it they would have been enhanced by being recorded in a straight studio session, or whether the ‘live’ setting actually breathes a little more life into them. There are also a handful of tunes that you can’t help but wonder if they would have been mercilessly disposed of if it had been a studio album. Eventually though, you realise that this tendency to second guess what might have been is distracting you from what is, and eventually you do start to embrace Nighthawks at the Diner, minor flaws and all.
In retrospect, Nighthawks at the Diner was a brave album for Tom Waits to release, as he was still establishing himself as an artist, however it now gives the listener vital insight into how his on stage character evolved, from the romantic drunk of Closing Time to the altogether more down and out character that he was inhabiting a few years later on Small Change. Sometimes it was smoke and mirrors, sometimes not, and sometimes it was just somewhere inbetween.