His earliest performances, at LA’s Troubadour Club, were spoken-word affairs. And when he did ‘sing’ it was with a grizzled, whisky-fogged growl.
But what he lacked in finesse he made up for in authenticity. To hear him wheeze through Downtown Train is to hear a man who has experienced all the pain life has to offer.
With Closing Time (1973), Waits staked out a rock & roll gutter all of his own, gruffly crooning beat-poet tales of drifters over R&B and jazz-tinged accompaniment.
Nighthawks At The Diner (1975) was recorded with experienced jazz session musicians in a studio occupied by a live audience, and the fake nightclub atmosphere captured Waits perfectly as a singer of lounge-lizard late-night jazz-blues poetry about optimistic bums, restless drinkers, experienced deadbeats and heartbroken losers.
Heartattack and Vine (1980) was Waits’ seventh album for Asylum, and he had still not moved beyond cult status, his beatnik barfly image on the edge of wearing out what little welcome it still received.
When the album failed to creep beyond #96 in the Billboard charts, Waits lost his record deal – but not his inspiration. Following his soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola’s flop One From The Heart, the singer reinvented himself with the dark, unhinged cabaret of Swordfishtrombones.
With Swordfishtrombones (1983) his vocals turned more ragged, his songwriting more eclectic and his orchestrations more “junkyard”.
But his noisome world was never so beautiful as on his 10th album, Rain Dogs (1985).
Named for “stray dogs that have lost the scent of home in a rainstorm and have to sleep in doorways”, Rain Dogs was an album populated by the bruised and lost, ragged city songs of tenderness and brutality in a world inspired by Waits’ residence in pre-makeover New York. Death was at his elbow, and there was nothing for it but poetic melancholy.
The album was his first attempt at self-production, and the first time he had recorded in his new hometown of New York City.
Waits has forged on into even more extreme musical territories since, but it’s arguable whether he has ever again recorded such an absorbing balance of experimentalism and balladry as Rain Dogs.
“You have to keep busy. After all, no dog’s ever pissed on a moving car”