After a stint in the U.S. Coast Guard, Waits moved to Los Angeles in 1971 where he formally began his music career. He signed with manager Herb Cohen at age 21 and began recording demos, including many of his now famous songs.
Waits came into his own as a cult hero in the 1970s, and he broke out nationally when artists like the Eagles and Tim Buckley began covering tracks from his early albums. The newfound fame and a life on the road took a toll on Waits, and he started drinking heavily — an experience reflected in his 1976 album Small Change.
The 1980's saw a shift in Waits' songwriting style. Moving from the traditional piano and strings ballads of his earlier albums, he started to experiment with more eccentric instruments like the bassoon, waterphone and bagpipes. His stage show also took a turn toward the more theatrical, and he moved into acting — here, opposite Iggy Pop in the 2003 Jarmusch film "Coffee and Cigarettes".
This month, five new performers will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It's an eclectic group of selections, ranging from pop diva Darlene Love to shock-rocker Alice Cooper. But in spite of their differences, each of these singers adopted a special identity or image to stand out from the rest of the pack. Morning Edition has been looking behind the personas of this year's inductees.
In the Los Angeles of the early 1970s, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor were all models for musical success. It seemed like being a sensitive singer-songwriter was the ticket to fame, so that's the way a 22-year-old Tom Waits pitched himself on a 1971 demo tape.
But Waits had little in common with the denim-clad denizens of the rolling hills west of L.A. In a 2006 NPR interview, Waits said it took him awhile to figure out who he was.
"I think most singers, when they start out, are doing really bad impersonations of other singers that they admire," Waits said. "You kind of evolve into your voice. Or maybe your voice is out there, waiting for you to grow up."
Waits found his own voice in L.A.'s Skid Row district, home to working-class stiffs on third shift, waitresses and drunks — not the usual subject matter of singer-songwriters. Waits wanted to tell the stories that never got told, and to do it in the improvisational cadence of his literary hero, Jack Kerouac.
The singer found a sympathetic ear in record producer Dayton "Bones" Howe, who'd had a hand in a 1960 album of Kerouac readings. Howe says Waits not only spun tales about the street; he also dressed the part and lived the life.
"He was staying in a motel on Santa Monica Boulevard," Howe says. "He was messy. He used to say" — and here he affects a Tom Waits impression — "I shave and get dressed and go to bed."
Working with Bones Howe over the course of seven albums, Waits painted a series of city scenes — everything from pulp-fiction melodramas to the ruminations of an inebriated lounge pianist. But Howe says that, over time, the singer started to identify a little too closely with his characters.
Tom Waits performs "The Piano Has Been Drinking" on the late-'70s talk show satire Fernwood Tonight.
"Tom was always drinking," Howe says, "and he drank pretty heavily. It was what he was and what he was doing, and he didn't want to be interfered with."
The last time the two men worked together was on the soundtrack of Francis Ford Coppola's 1982 film One From the Heart. During that time, Waits met his future wife and current producing partner Kathleen Brennan, who helped him get sober. But that persona of the disheveled outsider persisted — it was Waits' sonic identity that changed.
"The person that I saw changed every year," Howe says. "His philosophy was, if I keep being a moving target, I can't get hit. He never wanted to be the same again in any way."
After a few years without a studio album, Waits recently returned to the recording studio — which means the target of his identity is likely to move again.