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Barfly balladeer, gravel-larynxed crooner and angular blues shouter – Tom Waits has been all these and more in a convention-troubling career of nearly 35 years. David Davies looks back over an astonishing body of work that swelled again recently with the release of Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards, a 3CD compendium of ‘lost’ songs, curiosities and brand new recordings.

Rather like another recent Class Act subject, Captain Beefheart, the principal difficulty in trying to get a handle on the curious, tangential life of Tom Waits is knowing which stories to believe. Never averse to throwing journalists and fans off the scent – or simply a damn good wind-up – Waits has often woven elaborate tales around key episodes in his career.

What we can be pretty sure about is that he was born in Pomona, California, in 1949, and only began to seriously consider a life in music around the time that he started working as a doorman at San Diego’s Heritage nightclub in the early 1970s. Soon writing feverishly, he evolved a style combining song and monologue, and started to make his first live performances. Subsequent appearances at the legendary Troubadour club in Los Angeles cemented a growing reputation, recognised in 1971 by a deal with Asylum Records. It took a full two years for Waits to complete his debut, but when Closing Time did emerge in 1973 it documented a style and world-view that were already fully-formed. By turns melancholic, pithy and wryly self-pitying, Waits blended jazz, blues and country into a compelling mix that established a basic template for all of his recordings until the late ‘70s.

The persona of the hard-drinking, poetically-minded rambler – down on his luck and propping up the bar – was part of Waits’s schtick from early on, but at some point in the mid ‘70s it crossed over and took up residency in his actual daily life. ‘Bad Liver and a Broken Heart’ – effectively an anti-anthem of alcohol-sodden loserdom – was a pretty good indicator here, although Waits’s work actually continued to become more focused on subsequent LPs like Blue Valentine. Decade’s end found Waits struggling with both lifestyle problems and a growing suspicion that he had backed himself into an artistic cul-de-sac. 1980’s bluesy, guitar-based Heartattack & Vine suggested he was looking for a fresh direction, but it was really his marriage to playwright Kathleen Brennan in August of the same year that made all the difference. For a start, Waits now had a regular co-writer and musical sparring partner, who encouraged him to start experimenting and producing his own work. More crucially in the long-term, she urged him to lay off the booze and the everpresent cigs, turning around a life that (by Waits’s own later admission) was fast heading for the ditch.

Changing labels (from Asylum to Island), Waits embarked on a highly creative period. 1983’s Swordfishtrombones unveiled an otherwordly new sound, constructed from asthmatic pump organ, woozy horns, junkshop percussion and virtually no piano. The album also found Waits establishing a new circle of accomplices, prominent among them reedsman Ralph Carney, double bassist Greg Cohen, multi-instrumentalist Larry Taylor and gifted guitarist Marc Ribot, whose excursions into atonality and cat-frightening noise would lace some of the best new material. Rain Dogs (‘85) and Frank’s Wild Years (‘87) further refined the approach, the latter revealing a growing obsession with Kurt Weill. The progression was paralleled by a change in Waits’s voice, which – for a while – seemed to become more deep and growly with each new record, assuming an almost nightmarish quality for 1992’s Bone Machine. Exchanging the sound of the junk shop for that of the scrap metal yard, it’s a difficult but compelling listen (and, on ‘Earth Died Screaming’, plain bloody terrifying).

Perhaps recognising that he couldn’t take this approach much further, Waits opted to pull back and combine elements of all his previous incarnations for 1999’s Mule Variations. Horn-driven blues stomps (‘Big In Japan’), unashamedly tear-jerking balladry (the gorgeous ‘House Where Nobody Lives’) and flat-out weirdness (‘What’s He Building?) – it was all there on what might prove to be the best album of his long career

Venturing out only for short, infrequent tours, Waits – still working closely with wife Brennan – has become even more prolific this century. He finally committed two of his theatrical song-cycles to disc in 2002 on dual-releases Alice and Blood Money, before experimenting with ‘mouth percussion’ and mangled blues to stunning effect on 2004’s Real Gone (a record that no fan of Marc Ribot’s scalding guitar work should be without). The recent release of the 50-plus track Orphans – a 3CD set combining previously unreleased songs, spoken word pieces, anecdotes and numerous new recordings – continues this very long winning streak, and confirms Waits as a boundlessly inspired creative force now deserving of equal status recognition with contemporaries like Dylan, Cohen and Mitchell.

Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards is available now on ANTI- and more info on this and other releases can be found on the ANTI- website here there is also plenty to get your teeth into at the Official Tom Waits Digest

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