The First Time I Ever Heard: Gabriel Solis, “First Time I Ever Heard Tom Waits”

by justindburton on September 10, 2012

During the month of September 2012, the IASPM-US website will feature essays on the topic of “The First Time I Ever Heard…” Each of our authors for this series will explore that magical moment most of us are so familiar with, when a song or artist or genre first entered our sound universe and knocked everything off its axis, if only for a moment.

Popular Music Tom Waits

I first heard Tom Waits at exactly the right time, or exactly the right time for me, at least.  In 1989, just off to college, my best friend and sometime roommate, Curtis, who couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard Waits, played me The Heart of Saturday Night, and I was, in a word, changed.  The thing about hearing music, really hearing it, in the way that I’m talking about here, where the music seems to seep in, settling down and taking up residence in the places in your mind where it sits and fidgets and keeps on nudging you for what seems like forever, is that it’s a matter of convergence.  The music and you, you and the music.

My dorm room, freshman year at San Francisco State, looked like any number of earnest, self-consciously hip music geeks.  I had posters of the Beatles, Bob Marley, and John Coltrane, plus one in Russian advertising a folk music festival that my mother had picked up on a trip to the USSR some years before—heady stuff in those days as the Soviet Union collapsed.  The saxophones I had gone to college to study sat by my desk, ominously gathering dust as I read in American history and listened to records.  My stereo, which dominated the room’s credenza, was cobbled together from cast-off solid-state components, turntable sitting proudly on top of tuner, amp and equalizer, all of it driving a pair of infinity speakers for which I had used most of my summer’s earnings from an unremarkable part-time job at Macy’s.

Growing up in the Central Valley of California, in an era before the Internet gave kids in marginal regions access to the same music as kids in cultural hot spots, my desire was huge, but my horizons were still small.  I had absorbed the 60s from my parents, mostly through Beatles records, but also through older folk and blues revival pressings.  I had discovered jazz through a friend of the family, and listened to most of the Stanislaus County Public Library’s holdings.  I had learned about electric blues and reggae from my high school girlfriend, and I had found a taste for punk and new wave from my older brother.  In each case, though, if it wasn’t on the radio or in someone else’s record collection, I probably hadn’t heard it.  The closest record store—the Wherehouse—was only three blocks from my house in Modesto, but it closed my freshman year of high school, and in any case, new LPs were usually beyond my means.

Moving to San Francisco, going away to college, was all I had wanted for years.  A chance to escape, to transcend, to shed the baggage of what I thought of as a dusty, provincial life in a region I called “far, far, far West Texas.”  And it was important that it was San Francisco I moved to—not L.A., or Chicago, or New York.  I wanted San Francisco to be the city it had been to Lawrence Ferlinghetti and to Jack Kerouak: San Francisco before the Hippies, a city of Italian and Chinese immigrants, of Beatniks and Victorian houses.  My friends could have the Haight.  I wanted to sit in the gathering fog outside Caffé Trieste, drink Anchor Steam in Vesuvio’s, and roll through the Aves in the evening, looking down the Sunset District’s long, straight lines as the light disappeared into the Pacific and the dark gathered over Mt. Sutro.  I bought cheap, used copies of Edward Albee. I avoided Buffalo Exchange and Aardvarks off Masonic, and instead hunted up ochre and rust cardigans and bent fedoras in little second-hand shops on Judah and Irving streets.

My musical taste hadn’t really changed, though.  I still listened to the same basic rotation of Crosby, Stills and Nash, Bob Marley, John Coltrane, and Muddy Waters.  More importantly, though, I still believed in a kind of orthodoxy of authenticity.  My musical provincialism wasn’t so much in the people and songs I was listening to, it turns out, but in the way I was listening.  In spite of the patently theatrical way I projected a grandiosely made-up style (I was an eighteen-year-old in tight, highwater slacks and a narrow-brimmed hat, for crying out loud) I listened to my records without a grain of irony and bought—deeply—the notion that I was hearing true confessions. I wanted, and as a result I heard, what Lucinda Williams calls “Real live bleeding fingers and broken guitar strings.”

Curtis came into my room one afternoon, a couple of weeks after I met him, perhaps halfway into the fall semester, not quite two months into my journey of San Franscisco self-fashioning, with a record and said, “Listen to this and describe the singer to me.”

He pulled whatever I was listening to—probably Monk—off the turntable and set a disc with an Asylum label down on the spindle.  I reached for the jacket, but he held it back.  “Hold on. Check it out first,” he said.

A hi-hat, snare and tom popped in, then a barrel-house piano clattered, C#minor7-F#7-A7-G#7, an upright bass, recorded with plenty of high end, so that its moving line had a twang audible above the pitches.

Let’s put a new coat of paint on this lonesome old town
Set ‘em up, we’ll be knocking ‘em down

The voice sounded like the bass—clear, deep pitches, but with enough treble to be edgy.  Plus it had a rasp—what I later came to know as a “vocal fry.”  I couldn’t place the accent.

I guessed, predictably, that the singer was old, Southern or Midwestern, and black, and Curtis, cheerfully, let me know how very wrong I was.

I listened to the rest of the album, and then ransacked Curtis’s collection for more—Heartattack and Vine, Small Change, and Swordfishtrombones.

Well, she’s up against the register, with an apron and a spatula
Yesterday’s deliveries, and the tickets for the bachelors…
You know there ain’t no devil, there’s just God when he’s drunk…
There’s a world going on underground.

I got Rain Dogs and Blue Valentine for Christmas that year and kept an eye out for more.

I loved Waits for the way he so clearly embodied the same fantasy world I was cobbling together of diners and dive bars, hats and Lucky Strikes, and for the way he seemed to have been listening to a lot of the same things I had been listening to—minus the Steel Pulse.  But I got something more from him, and increasingly so over the years.

The thing Waits’s music did when it slid into the bits of my mind where it has lived these past twenty-odd years, where it has scratched and crackled, and made me hum along, was to get me to think again (and again) about pop music as fiction and theater.    I gradually stopped taking my fantasy self so seriously, stopped wanting so earnestly to believe in the authentic linkage between the lyric, persona, and person in the music I loved.  Perhaps my experience of Tom Waits is peculiar, perhaps it is perversely idiosyncratic, but I think it is entirely reasonable.  From Waits I got a love of pop, a love of theatre, a love of spectacle.

Gabriel Solis is Associate Professor of Musicology at the University of Illinois, where he specializes in the study of African American Music.

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