07 December 2010

This Date In Rock History: 7 December

Happy birthday to Thomas Alan Waits, born on this date in 1949 to Pomona, California schoolteachers Jesse Waits and Alma McMurray.

Devotee to singers and songwriters as diverse as Hoagy Carmichael, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Howlin' Wolf, Marty Robbins and Stephen Foster, young Tom caught the attention of record executives in the blossoming Southern California music scene of the early 1970s. His lyrics commonly echoed the style of authors like beat writer Jack Kerouac and noir-novelist Raymond Chandler, and along with his whiskey-soaked vocals, created a unique corner of popular music that is still unmatched today.

The Night Owl's first encounter with a Waits composition was probably typical: The Eagles' cover of his "Ol' 55," which appeared on the group's On The Border album. By my days of university, Waits had become somewhat of an underground phenomenon; his tragi-comic tales of the underbelly of society played to the sweet spot of students vicariously searching for their own bit of Bohemia. One of his crowning achievements remains the opening track from the 1976 LP Small Change, intriguingly titled "Tom Traubert's Blues (Four Sheets To The Wind In Copenhagen)". Written during a particularly tumultuous period in Waits' life, producer Bones Howe later recalled when the singer first introduced him to the song:

He said the most wonderful thing about writing that song. He went down and hung around on skid row in L.A. because he wanted to get stimulated for writing this material. He called me up and said, 'I went down to skid row ... I bought a pint of rye. In a brown paper bag.' I said, 'Oh really?'. 'Yeah - hunkered down, drank the pint of rye, went home, threw up, and wrote 'Tom Traubert's Blues' [...] Every guy down there ... everyone I spoke to, a woman put him there.

Relax, pour yourself a wee bit of Jameson's, and toast this bit of brilliance in honor of Tom Waits' 61st birthday.

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