The Spinners

Nighthawks at the Diner (Tom Waits, 1975)

In American, Jazz, Rex Baylon on February 4, 2010 at 5:43 am

Beatnik. Crooner. Vaudevillian. Balladeer. These are words used to describe Tom Waits, and it’s a testament to the man’s abilities that he can inhabit all these roles all at once. With a discography that stretches four decades and 18 albums, no artist in the history of American music has had such a varied career without the help of MTV, mass advertising, or even radio play. He is not for everybody; fans of his work gravitate to the grotesque characters you’d find in a Bukowski novel or are drawn to the damaged individuals that populate dime store novels. But once you become a fan of Tom Waits, you’re a member for life.

For his third album, Nighthawks At The Diner, Waits chose to invite a small audience in the studio where he recorded the album. The result is a work that is part-performance piece, part-improvisational exercise, and 100% Hip with a big bold capital H.

The title of the album speaks for itself. Nighthawks At The Dinner conjures up not just the image of Edward Hopper’s famous painting but also some personal travelogues to not-so-reputable eateries. It is a work that deals primarily with nocturnal wandering and the inevitable feeling of loneliness as evening turns to dawn.

Bittersweet songs like “Better Off Without A Wife” or “Warm Beer and Cold Women” will have you grinning at the irreverent lyrics, but they will also have you stifling a laugh at the genuine pain that Waits manages to channel into these songs. Even with an audience to amuse him, Waits seems utterly isolated from the human race; which is fitting since as a performer, while many of his contemporaries were channeling Led Zeppelin or The Rolling Stones, Waits was always looking back to Hoagy Carmichael, Frank Sinatra, and Louis Armstrong.

The anachronistic nature of his works makes them timeless. By following his own obsessions, he has carved a place for himself in the music industry. Those who find themselves stumbling upon his music may not like what they hear, but his fans will always fight to protect his unique voice from being extinguished.

– Rex Baylon

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