Sometimes you dismiss an entire era of an established artist’s career for what you convince yourself is a good reason. As much as I love Tom Waits’ debut, Closing Time, and the albums he recorded since joining Island Records in the early 80s, I dismissed the rest of his 70s material for one reason alone. Jazz.
As anyone who has read a handful of my reviews will probably conclude, I’m no fan of jazz. Maybe it’s the deep-grained elitism that I perceive among certain sections of jazz community, be they fans or musicians (of which I have met many of both down the decades), maybe it’s the fact that I simply prefer the more democratic pleasures of rock and roll, but the fact that Tom Waits albums of the mid to late 70s had a whiff of jazz about them meant that I unfairly ignored them until recently.
So what changed my mind? As it turned out, it was a podcast of all things. For a while now the brilliant Song by Song podcast has featured podcast regulars Martin Austwick and Sam Pay being joined by a rotating series of guests to discuss each song on each album in Waits catalogue in painstaking chronological order. The resulting enthusiastic, insightful and off-tangent musing has resulted in me gradually shifting my opinions on Waits’ 70s material, which has ultimately resulted in me picking up a number of his albums from this period, including the classic Small Change from 1976.
Recorded at the height of Waits effectively method-acting his way through the 70s as the character of an alcoholic vagrant, Small Change found him hitting a peak as a songwriter, writing about life’s impoverished and under-regarded characters that he had either met the acquaintance of, or witnessed across a crowded room / bar / strip club. A bit bluesy, a bit jazzy and shot through with lyrical genius, you can’t help but feel sympathy, or sometimes even empathy for the characters Waits writes about in the first and third person. Sometimes he wasn’t even writing about the situations, rather jotting down his vague recollections of a scenario he had found himself in and setting them to music. Whatever the case, Small Change is a perfectly formed album exploring the experiences of someone well versed in the seedier sides of society.
Some of the songs on Small Change don’t quite hit the mark and you get the feeling that Waits is emphasising aspects of his character for effect, rather than being true to his nature. Sometimes the subject of a song is just a little too unpalatable for my particular tastes (as great as the drum backing is to “Pasties and a G String”, I struggle to warm to its lyrical theme), but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their place on this considered, well paced and beautifully evocative album. I even like some of the jazzier moments, simply because they are appropriate for the overall mood of Small Change.
Who knows if I would eventually have given Small Change a chance without its prompting, but The Song by Song podcast challenged my perceptions of the music of Tom Waits in the 70s, and in doing so opened up a whole period of his career I may not otherwise have felt emboldened to explore. Sometimes you need to be challenged as a music fan, and in this case, I found a whole new appreciation of a vital era in the career of one of the most compelling musicians of his generation.
The Song by Song podcast can be found on iTunes, with further information available at: http://www.songbysongpodcast.com