Earlier this month I visited one of York’s unique and kind of niche music establishments, the Vinyl Cafe on Micklegate. You can pop in any day for coffee, food, alcohol, and browse and most likely buy some decent vinyl records. However, on the 6th of August, the venue played host to what I felt sounded like an intriguing and interesting book talk by author Alex Harvey. The book, ‘Song Noir – Tom Waits And The Spirit Of Los Angeles’ was a project that Alex started during the lockdown. His day job is a film and TV director who has worked on the Late Show and Panorama to name just a couple. But he is also a huge and obsessive fan of Tom Waits. Being an obsessive Bowie fan I completely understand that! Alex read a number of passages from the book and expanded them with his knowledge, anecdotes, and some of Waits’ songs. The book covers Waits’ life in Los Angeles and the albums he recorded there, from debut ‘Closing Time’ (1973) to ‘Swordfishtrombones’ (1983). It was a turbulent period for LA and Tom Waits. The first album was a little folksy and borders on country rock, which may be how the Eagles came to record Wait’s “Ol’ 55”. I hadn’t really thought about it before but the iconic Waits growl didn’t really appear until the ‘Small Change’ album. That album contains the wonderful “Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets To The Wind In Copenhagen)” which Alex used to illustrate that part of the book. I also discovered that this is Alex’s favourite Tom Waits song. I always felt that Rod Stewart did quite a creditable version of that song.
The story behind “Burma Shave” is fascinating, in that it came out of Tom Waits’ memory of car journeys as a child and seeing the regular advertising hoardings for Burma Shave, a brand of shaving cream. In the song, Waits uses the name as a destination and therefore reimagines it as a town. ‘Blue Valentine’ from 1978 was the first Tom Waits album that I ever owned, it was given to me as part of a bundle of maybe 40 albums from an old guy (he was perhaps only 45, but I was just 19) that I bought my first mobile DJ rig from. I listened to it and my first thought was that this is absolutely bloody awful. However, I did keep it and dug it out a couple of years later and grew to love it when I played it again. Had I matured, no maybe I was just in the right mood for it by then. But the key thing that I learned from Alex talking about the book and actually reading it myself was about Waits’ relationship with Rickie Lee Jones. Tom’s friend Chuck E. Weiss fell for Jones first before Waits made his move. A number of songs on ‘Blue Velvet’ refer to the relationship with Rickie Lee Jones, especially “Red Shoes By The Drug Store”. Alex recommended checking out Jones’ autobiography ‘Last Chance Texaco’ which I plan to do. Weiss is the subject of Jones’ huge 1979 hit “Chuck E.’s in Love”.
“Heartattack And Vine” from 1980 is a series of songs that has Waits wrestling with his demons. Apparently, his therapist’s telephone number is scrawled on the album cover, I did not know that! On the album cover Waits is also wearing a tie and one lyric refers to someone who hangs themself with a tie. I learned so many things from listening to Alex speak about Tom Waits with a deep passion for the man and his music, even little nuggets that Homer Simpson was a real artist. How the hell did I not know that? What Alex Harvey does so well in the book is bring together so many of the things that influenced Tom Waits, especially the film noir genre from the mid-20th Century. Waits also drew inspiration from Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski to name just a couple. But the life that Tom Waits lived in LA plays a very big part in his songs and how they developed over that period from 1973 to 1983. I loved the description of Waits’ experience of supporting Frank Zappa, you will need to read the book for that one. It took me just a couple of days to read my signed copy of the book and I loved it. I would recommend it to anyone who loves music, specifically Tom Waits, or those that just like a great biography. Go and buy this book, you will not regret it. Click here to buy it from Amazon US and here to buy it from Amazon UK.
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