The Great Album Series

Tom Waits - Small Change

Tom Waits
Small Change
Asylum Records (1976)
jazz, pop, blues, rock, beat poetry

It was tough to choose one Tom Waits album, (and I'm sure one day, we'll get an album from another period), and picking just one from his Asylum Record years was a little daunting.  It could have just as easily been Blue Valentine (1978), Heartattack and Vine (1980), and was almost Foreign Affairs (1977).  But something directed me back to 76's Small Change.  It's a perfect example of his albums of the period, and seems to be more personal, tackling more of his own demons.  Tom Waits is a bit of an acquired taste.  I get a bit of flack from people who don't get him, and I can understand where most of them are coming from.  His voice is unique to say the least (my girlfriend likes to say that he sounds like a Muppet).  What I think people miss (or choose to ignore), is the total package that is Tom Waits.  He is a voice of the lower class, the disenfranchised, the common man (and woman).  He has respect for his characters, no matter how low, down and out.  This is also reflected in his voice.  As mentioned before, his voice is not beautiful.  It's a raspy, whisky soaked voice that perfectly compliments his street-life stories.  His style is both blues man and beat poet.  Buy the time Small Change was released, Waits was receiving praise and success, and he was constantly touring.  The touring took its toll, he began developing a serious drinking problem, in his words: "I was sick through the whole period.  It was starting to wear on me, the touring.  I'd traveled quite a bit, living in hotels, eating bad food, drinking a lot- too much.  There's a lifestyle that's there before you arrive and you're introduced to it.  It's unavoidable".  I've linked some great performance video's to some of the songs, check em' out.

The album opens with fan favorite, "Tom Traubert's Blues".  A sentimental string arrangement cradles the ramblings from a romantic bum at the end of the night.  His ballads are what originally drew me to his song-writing, there is so much sincerity in his lyrics.  "it's a battered old suitcase to a hotel someplace, and a wound that will never heal.  No prima dona, the perfume is on an Old shirt that is stained with blood and whiskey.  And goodnight to the street sweepers, the night watchmen flame keepers, and goodnight to Mathilda too".

In total contrast, is the second track "Step Right Up".  A long pitch from a shister salesman, this track features a snare drum shuffle, played by jazz drummer Shelley Manne.  This is one the funniest songs by Tom Waits, the pitch getting more ridiculous as the song progresses, promising the product will entertain visiting relatives, turn a sandwich into a banquet and double on sax (among other things).  Jim Hughart's bass playing really makes the song swing. 

"Jitterbug boys" takes a more somber approach the they lyrical style of "Step Right Up".  This time the character (probably a drunk) talks about the great things he's done in his life, it becomes apparent that it's all fabrication, ending with the lines- "So you ask me what I'm doing here, holding up the lamp post, flipping a quarter, trying to make up my mind.  And if it's heads I go to Tennessee, tails I buy a drink, and if it lands on the edge I keep talking to you". 

The stories of the down-trodden continue with "I Wish I Was in New Orleans".  It's the type of tale you'd hear in a bar, about how life will be so better when the story-teller ends up somewhere else,  In this case New Orleans.  Saxophonist Lew Tabackin enters the song as if from the story-tellers fantasy, playing subtle runs behind Waits' gravelly vocal delivery.

Waits tackles his alcoholism with "The Piano has Been Drinking".  It's the end of the night and the piano player has had too much to drink, but insists he's fine, "the piano has been drinking, not me".  This song is rather humorous, full of bum notes, and bad jokes like "the Light man is blind in one eye, and can't see out the other". 

Probably my favorite track on the album is "Invitation to the Blues".  Raymond Carver seems to be a heavy influence on Waits in this period, and no more so than on this album.  "Invitation to the Blues" wears the influence on it's sleeve, telling a short story of a man and women, a chance encounter in a diner, that could only end in heartache.  The character has to choose between taking the bus out of town, or staying.  "Got a crazy sensation, go or stay? Now I gotta choose, and I'll accept your invitation to the blues". 

"Pasties and a A G-string" is a drum and vocal duet between Waits and Shelly Manne.  It almost sounds improvised, and gives a vivid picture of a night at a burlesque strip club.  This is one of the more upbeat tracks. 

Just like "the Piano has Been Drinking", "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart" takes a sometimes funny look at alcoholism ("I don't have a drinking problem, cep't when I can't get a drink").  But this song takes a more sombre look at the drunk, "You can name your poison, go ahead and make some noise.  I ain't sentimental, this ain't a purchase, it's a rental, and it's purgatory, And hey, what's your story? Well I don't even care, I've got my own double-cross to bear".  

"The One That Got Away" is another one of the highlights of the album.  A cool, beat poetry session with walking bass and growling saxophone.  Waits talk/sings his poetry, a series of 4 line passages about Men and the women that left them.  The song is full of hip slang ("Well this gigolo's jumpin salty, ain't no trade out on the streets") sad departures ("Someone tipped her off, she'll be doin a Houdini now any day, she shook his hustle, the greyhound bus'll take the one that got away") and men on the make ("Well Andre's at the piano, behind the Ivers in the sewers, with a buck a shot for pop tunes, and a fin for guided tours").

Actually my absolute favorite song on the album is "Small Change (Got Rained On With his Own '38)".  The song starts with the strike of a match.  A smokey saxophone begins playing, and Tom Waits begins telling the story of Small Change, gunned down by his own piece, and the raconteurs and rastabouts that won't say a word, the cops who don't care, and the streets.  This might be one of my favorite Tom Waits songs.  The lyrics are so descriptive, you can smell the stench of the streets.

The album closes with "I Can't Wait Get Off Work (And See My Baby on Mongomery Ave.)".  A solo effort with just voice and piano, Tom sings about his first job at a pizza joint.  A fitting ending for an album about the working class, focusing on one of the simpler pleasures, and  a reason to make it through the work day.

Tom Waits made 3 more albums in roughly the same vain as Small Change,  and all equally rewarding.  After those, he began experimenting, releasing 3 albums with Island records, his musical and vocal style shifted considerably from that of a 70's bar-crooner to a much more intense, odd mix of vaudeville, with strange instrumentation, and barking vocals.  


jessica said...

Yeah man, Tom Waits. I usually like to quote his songs over MSN to people that have no clue what the hell I'm talking about.

Shawn William Clarke said...

ha. Yeah, and eventually it'll get to someone in the know and BAM... There goes 2 years of your life...