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Tom Waits: How The Skid Row Balladeer Found His Voice

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Tom Waits: How The Skid Row Balladeer Found His Voice

Tom Waits: How The Skid Row Balladeer Found His Voice

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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A new group of musicians will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the end of March. We've been looking at the stage personas of those who will be honored. Today, a performer who found his voice among the dispossessed of Skid Row. From member station WCPN, David C. Barnett has the story of Tom Waits.

DAVID C. BARNETT: It seemed like being a sensitive singer-songwriter was the ticket to fame in Los Angeles, back in the early 1970s. Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor were models for musical success. So, that's the way 22-year-old Tom Waits pitched himself on a 1971 demo tape.

(Soundbite of song, "Had Me A Girl")

Mr. TOM WAITS (Singer-songwriter): (Singing) Well, I had me a girl in LA, I knew she could not stay.

BARNETT: But, Waits had little in common with the denim-clad denizens of the rolling hills, west of LA. In a 2006 NPR interview, Waits said it took him a while to figure out who he was.

Mr. WAITS: I think most singers when they start out are doing really bad impersonations of other singers that they admire. You kind of evolve into your voice. Or maybe your voice is out there waiting for you to grow up.

BARNETT: Waits found his voice downtown, in the city'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 tell them in the improvisational cadence of one of his literary heroes, Jack Kerouac.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. JACK KEROUAC (Novelist and poet): (Reading) He's wailing beer caps and bottles and jamming at the cash register and everything is going to the beat. It's the Beat generation. It's Be-at.

BARNETT: Tom Waits found a sympathetic ear in record producer Dayton "Bones" Howe.

(Soundbite of music)

BARNETT: Howe says Waits not only spun tales about the street, he dressed the part and lived the life.

Mr. DAYTON "BONES" HOWE (Record Producer): You know, he was staying in a motel on Santa Monica Boulevard and I mean he just was messy. He used to say, I shave and get dressed and go to bed.

(Soundbite of song, "The One That Got Away")

Mr. WAITS: (Singing) Well, this gigolo's jumping salty, ain't no trade out on the streets. Half past the unlucky and the hawk's a front row seat. Dressed in full orchestration, stage-door Johnny's got to pay. And sent him home and talking bout the one that got away.

BARNETT: Working with "Bones" Howe over the course of seven albums, Waits painted a series of city scenes from pulp fiction melodramas to the ruminations of an inebriated lounge pianist.

(Soundbite of song, "The Piano Has Been Drinking")

Mr. WAITS: (Singing) The piano has been drinking, my necktie is asleep and the combo went back to New York, the jukebox has to take a leak.

BARNETT: "Bones" Howe says the singer was starting to identify a little too closely with his characters.

Mr. HOWE: Tom was always drinking. He drank pretty heavily. It was what he was and what he was doing and he didn't want to be interfered with.

BARNETT: 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 stop drinking. But that persona of the disheveled outsider persisted.

(Soundbite of cheering)

(Soundbite of song, "Trampled Rose")

Mr. WAITS: (Singing) Whoa, whoa.

BARNETT: It was Wait's sonic identity that changed, says "Bones" Howe.

Mr. HOWE: The person that I saw changed every year. His philosophy was, if I keep being a moving target, you know, I can't get hit. He never wanted to be the same again in any way.

(Soundbite of song, "Trampled Rose")

Mr. WAITS: (Singing) Long way going to get my medicine. Sky's the autumn grey of a lonely wren.

BARNETT: The reclusive Tom Waits recently returned to the recording studio, which means the target of his identity is likely to move again.

For NPR News, I'm David C. Barnett, in Cleveland.

(Soundbite of song, "Trampled Rose")

Mr. WAITS: (Singing) Piano from a window played...

MONTAGNE: And you can see a slideshow of Tom Waits through his career at NPR

(Soundbite of song, "Trampled Rose")

Mr. WAITS: (Singing) Whoa, whoa, whoa.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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