Thomas Alan Waits (born December 7, 1949) is an American singer-songwriter, musician, composer and actor. His distinctive voice was described by critic Daniel Durchholz as sounding as though "it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car". Waits has built up a distinctive musical persona with his trademark growl, his incorporation of pre-rock music styles such as blues, jazz, and vaudeville, and experimental tendencies verging on industrial music.
Waits was raised in Whittier, California, and then San Diego. Inspired by Bob Dylan and the Beat Generation, as a teenager he began singing on the San Diego folk music scene. Relocating to Los Angeles, he secured work as a songwriter before gaining a recording contract with Asylum Records and producing his first album, Closing Time, in 1973. He has worked as a composer for movies and musicals and has acted in supporting roles in films, including Paradise Alley and Bram Stoker's Dracula. He also starred in Jim Jarmusch's 1986 film Down by Law. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his soundtrack work on One from the Heart.
Waits' lyrics frequently present atmospheric portraits of grotesque, often seedy characters and places, although he has also shown a penchant for more conventional ballads. He has a cult following and has influenced subsequent songwriters despite having little radio or music video support. His songs are best-known through cover versions by more commercial artists: "Jersey Girl" performed by Bruce Springsteen, "Ol' '55" by the Eagles, "Downtown Train" by Rod Stewart, and "Come On Up To The House" by Sarah Jarosz.
Waits' albums have met with mixed commercial success in his native United States, although they have occasionally achieved gold album sales status in other countries. He has been nominated for a number of major music awards and has won Grammy Awards for the albums Bone Machine and Mule Variations.
In 2011, Waits was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
He is included among the 2010 list of Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Singers, as well as the 2015 list of Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time.
Waits lives in Sonoma County, California with his wife and frequent collaborator Kathleen Brennan (married August 1980) and their three children.
Thomas Alan Waits was born on 7 December 1949 in Pomona, California. His father, Jesse Frank Waits, was a Texan of Scots-Irish ancestry, while his mother, Alma Waits, was raised in Oregon of Norwegian heritage. Alma was a conventional housewife and regular church-goer. Jesse taught Spanish at a local school and was an alcoholic; Waits later related that his father was "a tough one, always an outsider". The family lived at 318 North Pickering Avenue in Whittier, Los Angeles County. Waits was the second of three siblings, having both an older and younger sister. Waits described having a "very middle-class" upbringing and "a pretty normal childhood". He attended Jordan Elementary School, where he was bullied. There, he learned to play the bugle and guitar, while his father taught him to play the ukulele. During the summers, he visited maternal relatives in Gridley and Marysville. He later related that it was an uncle's raspy, gravelly voice that inspired the manner in which he later sang.
In 1959, Waits' parents separated and his father moved away from the family home; it was a traumatic experience for the ten year old boy. Alma took her children and relocated to Chula Vista, a middle-class suburb of San Diego. Jesse visited the family there, taking his offspring on trips to Tijuana in Mexico. In Chula Vista, Waits attended O'Farrell Junior High School, where he fronted a school band, the Systems, later describing the group as "white kids trying to get that Motown sound". He developed a love of rhythm and blues and soul singers like Ray Charles, James Brown, and Wilson Pickett, as well as country music and Roy Orbison. Later, Bob Dylan became a strong influence, with Waits placing transcriptions of Dylan's lyrics on his bedroom walls. He was an avid watcher of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and Twilight Zone. By the time he was studying at Hilltop High School, he later related, he was "kind of an amateur juvenile delinquent", interested in "malicious mischief" and breaking the law. He later described himself as a "rebel against the rebels", for he eschewed the hippie subculture then growing in popularity and was instead inspired by the 1950s Beat generation, having a love of Beat writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. In 1968, he dropped out of high school.
Waits worked at Napoleone's pizza restaurant in National City, and both here and at a local diner he developed an interest in the lives of the patrons, writing down phrases and snippets of dialogue which he overheard. He has also claimed that he worked in the forestry service as a fireman for three years. For a time he also served with the United States Coast Guard. He enrolled at Chula Vista's Southwestern Community College to study photography, for a time considering a career in the field. He continued pursuing his musical interests, taking piano lessons. He began frequenting folk music venues around San Diego, becoming drawn into the city's folk music scene. In 1969, he gained employment as an occasional doorman for the Heritage coffeehouse, which held regular performances from folk musicians. He also began to sing at the Heritage; his set initially consisted largely of covers of Dylan and Red Sovine's "Big Joe and Phantom 309". In time he performed his own material as well, often parodies of country songs or bittersweet ballads influenced by his relationships with girlfriends; these included early songs "Ol' 55" and "I Hope That I Don't Fall in Love With You". As his reputation spread, he played at other San Diego venues, supporting acts like Tim Buckley, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and his friend Jack Tempchin. Aware that San Diego offered little opportunity for career progression, Waits began traveling into Los Angeles to play at the Troubadour in West Hollywood.
Early musical career: 1972-1976
It was at the Troubadour that Waits came to the attention of Herb Cohen, who signed him to a publishing contract; that Cohen did not give him a recording contract suggests that he was interested in Waits only as a songwriter rather than a performer. Quitting his job at Napoleone's to concentrate on his songwriting career, in early 1972 Waits moved to an apartment in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, a poor neighbourhood known for its Hispanic and bohemian communities. He continued performing at the Troubadour and there met David Geffen, who gave Waits a recording contract with his Asylum Records. Jerry Yester was chosen to produce his first album, with the recording sessions taking place in Hollywood's Sunset Sound studios. The resulting album, Closing Time, was released in March 1973, although it did not sell well. Biographer Barney Hoskyns noted that Closing Time was "broadly in step with the singer-songwriter school of the early 1970s". An Eagles cover of its opening track, "Ol' 55", on their album On the Border, brought Waits further money and recognition, although he regarded their version as "a little antiseptic".
To promote his debut, Waits and a three-piece band embarked on a U.S. tour, largely on the East Coast, where he was the support act for more established artists. As part of this, he supported Tom Rush at Washington D.C.'s The Cellar Door, Danny O'Keefe at Massachusetts's Club Passim, Charlie Rich at New York City's Max's Kansas City, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas in East Lansing, Michigan, and John P. Hammond in San Francisco. Waits returned to Los Angeles in June, feeling demoralised about his career. That month, he was the cover star of free music magazine, Music World. He began composing songs for his second album, and attended the Venice Poetry Workshop to try out this new material in front of an audience. Although Waits was eager to record this new material, Cohen instead convinced him to take over as a support act for Frank Zappa's The Mothers of Invention after previous support act Kathy Dalton pulled out due to the hostility from Zappa's fans. Waits joined Zappa's tour in Ontario, but like Dalton found the audiences hostile; while on stage he was jeered at and pelted with fruit. Although he liked The Mothers of Invention's band members, he found Zappa himself intimidating.
Waits moved from Silver Lake to Echo Park, spending much of his time in downtown Los Angeles. In early 1974, he continued to perform around the West Coast, getting as far as Denver. For Waits' second album, Geffen wanted a more jazz-oriented producer, selecting Bones Howe for the job. Recording sessions for The Heart of Saturday Night took place at Wally Heider Studio Number 3, Cahuenga Boulevard in April and May, with Waits conceptualising the album as a sequence of songs about U.S. nightlife. The album was far more widely reviewed than Closing Time had been, reflecting Waits' growing notability on the American music scene.
After recording The Heart of Saturday Night, Waits reluctantly agreed to tour with Zappa again, but once more faced strong audience hostility. The kudos of having supported Zappa's tour nevertheless bolstered his image in the music industry and helped his career. In October 1974 he first performed as the headline act before touring the East Coast; in New York City he met and befriended the singer Bette Midler. Back in Los Angeles, Cohen suggested Waits produce a live album. To this end, he performed two live shows at the Record Pant Studio in front of an audience. The recording was released as Nighthawks at the Diner in October 1975. He followed this with a week's residency at the Reno Sweeney in New York City, and in December appeared on the PBS concert show Soundstage. From March to May 1976 he toured the U.S., telling interviewers that the experience was tough and that he was drinking too much alcohol. In May, he embarked on his first tour of Europe, performing in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Copenhagen. On his return to Los Angeles, he joined his friend Chuck E. Weiss by moving into the Tropicana motel in West Hollywood.
Waits signed to Asylum Records in 1972 and his first record was released in 1973, after numerous abortive recording sessions: the jazzy, folk-tinged Closing Time. The album was produced and arranged by former Lovin' Spoonful member Jerry Yester. It received positive reviews, but Waits didn't gain widespread attention until more prominent artists covered a number of the album's tracks. Lee Hazlewood became one of the first major artists to cover a Tom Waits song, using the title variation "Those Were Days Of Roses (Martha)" on his album for Capitol "Poet, Fool, or Bum". Also in 1973, Tim Buckley released the album Sefronia, which contained another cover version of Waits' song "Martha" from Closing Time. This cover later appeared in the 1995 compilation Step Right Up: The Songs of Tom Waits. The album's opening track "Ol' '55" was recorded by the Eagles in 1974 for their On the Border album.
He received increasing critical acclaim and gathered a loyal cult following with his subsequent albums. The Heart of Saturday Night (1974) featured the song "(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night" and revealed his roots as a nightclub performer, with half-spoken and half-crooned ballads often accompanied by a jazz backup band. Waits described the album as:
a comprehensive study of a number of aspects of this search for the center of Saturday night, which Jack Kerouac relentlessly chased from one end of this country to the other, and I've attempted to scoop up a few diamonds of this magic that I see.
In 1975, Waits moved to the Tropicana Motel on Santa Monica Boulevard and released the double album Nighthawks at the Diner, recorded in a studio with a small audience to capture the ambience of a live show. The record exemplifies this phase of his career, including the lengthy spoken interludes between songs that punctuated his live act. That year, he also contributed backing vocals to Bonnie Raitt's "Your Sweet and Shiny Eyes" from her album Home Plate.
By this time, Waits was drinking heavily, and life on the road was starting to take its toll.
I was sick through that whole period ... It was starting to wear on me, all the touring. I'd been traveling 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.
In reaction to these hardships, Waits recorded Small Change (1976) which finds him in a much more cynical and pessimistic mood, with songs such as "The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) (An Evening with Pete King)" and "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart (In Lowell)". With the album, Waits asserted that he "tried to resolve a few things as far as this cocktail lounge, maudlin, crying-in-your-beer image that I have. There ain't nothin' funny about a drunk ... I was really starting to believe that there was something amusing and wonderfully American about being a drunk. I ended up telling myself to cut that shit out." The album also included "Tom Traubert's Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)"; it featured jazz drummer Shelly Manne and was heavily influenced by jazz, like his previous albums.
Small Change was accompanied by the double A-side single "Step Right Up"/"The Piano Has Been Drinking"; it was a critical and commercial success and far outsold any of Waits's previous albums. With it, he broke onto Billboard's Top 100 Albums chart for the first time in his career, a feat that he did not repeat until 1999 with the release of Mule Variations. This resulted in a much higher public profile, which brought with it interviews and articles in Time, Newsweek, and Vogue. Waits put together the touring band The Nocturnal Emissions, which featured Frank Vicari on tenor saxophone, Fitzgerald Jenkins on bass guitar, and Chip White on drums and vibraphone. Tom Waits and the Nocturnal Emissions toured the United States and Europe extensively from October 1976 until May 1977, including a performance of "The Piano Has Been Drinking" on cult BBC2 television music show The Old Grey Whistle Test in May 1976.
Foreign Affairs (1977) was musically in a similar vein to Small Change, but showed further artistic refinement and exploration into jazz and blues styles. Particularly noteworthy is the long cinematic spoken-word piece, "Potter's Field", set to an orchestral score. The album also features Bette Midler singing a duet with Waits on "I Never Talk to Strangers." The album Blue Valentine (1978) displayed Waits's biggest musical departure to date, with much more emphasis on electric guitar and keyboards than on previous albums and hardly any strings (with the exception of album-opener "Somewhere" - a cover of Leonard Bernstein's song from West Side Story - and "Kentucky Avenue") for a darker, more blues-oriented sound. The song "Blue Valentines" was also unique for Waits in that it featured a desolate arrangement of solo electric guitar played by Ray Crawford, accompanied by Waits' vocals. Around this time, Waits had a relationship with Rickie Lee Jones (who appears on the sleeve art of the Blue Valentine album). In 1978, Waits also appeared in his first film role, in Paradise Alley as Mumbles the pianist, and contributed the original compositions "(Meet Me in) Paradise Alley" and "Annie's Back in Town" to the film's soundtrack.
Heartattack and Vine, Waits's last studio album for Asylum, was released in 1980, featuring a developing sound that included both ballads ("Jersey Girl") and rougher-edged rhythm and blues. The same year, he began a long working relationship with Francis Ford Coppola, who asked Waits to provide music for his film One from the Heart. For Coppola's film, Waits originally wanted to work with Bette Midler; she was unavailable due to prior engagements, however. Waits ended up working with singer-songwriter Crystal Gayle as his vocal foil for the album.
In August 1980, Waits married Kathleen Brennan, a screenwriter, whom he had met while working on the set of the Francis Ford Coppola movie One from the Heart. Brennan is regularly credited as co-author of many songs in his later albums, and Waits often cites her as a major influence on his work. She introduced him to the music of Captain Beefheart. Despite having shared a manager with Beefheart in the 1970s, Waits says, "I became more acquainted with him when I got married." Waits would later describe his relationship with Brennan as a paradigm shift in his musical development. After leaving Asylum, the label released the first Tom Waits "Best of" album in 1981, a collection called Bounced Checks, notable for including an alternate, stripped down version of "Jersey Girl" and the otherwise unreleased "Mr. Henry", as well as an alternate master of "Whistlin' Past the Graveyard" and a live performance of "The Piano Has Been Drinking". During this period, Waits appeared in a series of minor movie roles, including a cameo role in Wolfen (1981) as an inebriated piano player, and his song "Jitterbug Boy" also appeared on the movie's soundtrack. One from the Heart received its official theatrical release in 1982, with Waits appearing in a cameo as a trumpet player as well as receiving an Oscar nomination for Original Song Score (eventually losing out to Victor Victoria, by Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse). This marked the first in a series of collaborations between Waits and Coppola, with Waits appearing in cameos in Coppola's movies The Outsiders (1983), Rumble Fish (1983), and The Cotton Club (1984). Waits also contributed two songs to the documentary Streetwise (1984), "Rat's Theme" and "Take Care of All My Children".
After leaving Asylum for Island Records, Waits released Swordfishtrombones in 1983, a record that marked a sharp turn in his musical direction. While Waits had before played either piano or guitar, he now gravitated towards less common instruments, saying, "Your hands are like dogs, going to the same places they've been. You have to be careful when playing is no longer in the mind but in the fingers, going to happy places. You have to break them of their habits or you don't explore; you only play what is confident and pleasing. I'm learning to break those habits by playing instruments I know absolutely nothing about, like a bassoon or a waterphone." Swordfishtrombones also introduced instruments such as bagpipes ("Town with No Cheer") and marimba ("Shore Leave") to Waits' repertoire, as well as pump organs, percussion (sometimes reminiscent of the music of Harry Partch), horn sections (often featuring Ralph Carney playing in the style of brass bands or soul music), experimental guitar, and obsolete instruments (many of Waits' albums have featured a damaged, unpredictable Chamberlin, and more recent albums have included the little-used Stroh violin). The New Musical Express named Swordfishtrombones its album of the year.
His songwriting shifted as well, moving away from the traditional piano-and-strings ballad sound of his 1970s output towards a number of styles largely ignored in pop music, including primal blues, cabaret stylings, rhumbas, theatrical approaches in the style of Kurt Weill, tango music, early country music and European folk music as well as the Tin Pan Alley-era songs that influenced his early output. He also recorded a spoken word piece, "Frank's Wild Years", influenced by Ken Nordine's "word jazz" records of the 1950s. Apart from Captain Beefheart and some of Dr. John's early output, there was little precedent in popular music.
Waits's new emphasis on experimenting with various styles and instrumentation continued on 1985's Rain Dogs, a sprawling, 19-song collection that received glowing reviews. Rolling Stone ranked the album No. 21 on their list of the 100 greatest albums of the 1980s—and in 2003, they ranked the album number 397 on their list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Contributions from guitarists Marc Ribot, Robert Quine, and Keith Richards accompanied Waits' move away from piano-based songs, in juxtaposition with an increased emphasis on instruments such as marimba, accordion, double bass, trombone, and banjo. The album also spawned the 12" single "Downtown Train/Tango Till They're Sore/Jockey Full of Bourbon", with Jean Baptiste Mondino filming a promotional music video for "Downtown Train" (which became a hit for Rod Stewart), featuring a cameo from boxing legend Jake LaMotta. The album peaked at No. 188 on Billboard's Top 200 albums chart.
Franks Wild Years, a musical play by Waits and Brennan, was staged as an Off-Broadway musical in 1986, directed by Gary Sinise, in a successful run at Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theater. Waits himself played the lead role. Waits developed his acting career with several supporting roles and a lead role in Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law in 1986, which also featured two of Waits's songs from Rain Dogs in the soundtrack. In the same year, Waits also contributed vocals to the song "Harlem Shuffle" on The Rolling Stones' album Dirty Work.
In 1987, he released Franks Wild Years (subtitled "Un Operachi Romantico in Two Acts"), which included studio versions from Waits' play of the same name. Rolling Stone summed up the album's myriad styles this way: "Everything from sleazy strip-show blues to cheesy waltzes to supercilious lounge lizardry is given spare, jarring arrangements using various combinations of squawking horns, bashed drums, plucked banjo, snaky double bass, carnival organ and jaunty accordion." Waits also continued to further his acting career with a supporting role as Rudy the Kraut in Ironweed (an adaptation of William Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel) alongside Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, in which Waits performed the song "Big Rock Candy Mountain", as well as a part in Robert Frank's Candy Mountain, in which Waits also performed "Once More Before I Go." In 1988, Waits performed in Big Time, a surreal concert movie and soundtrack he co-wrote with his wife.
In 1989, Waits appeared in his final theatrical stage role to date, appearing as Curly in Thomas Babe's Demon Wine, alongside Bill Pullman, Philip Baker Hall, Carol Kane, and Bud Cort. The play opened at the Los Angeles Theater Center in February 1989 to mixed reviews, although Waits' performance was singled out by a number of critics, including John C. Mahoney, who described it as "mesmerizing." Waits finished the decade with appearances in three movies: as the voice of a radio DJ in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train; as Kenny the Hitman in Robert Dornhelm's Cold Feet; and the lead role of Punch & Judy man Silva in Bearskin: An Urban Fairytale. His only musical output of the year consisted of contributing his cover of Phil Phillips' "Sea of Love" to the soundtrack of the Al Pacino movie of the same name and contributing vocals to The Replacements song "Date to Church", which appeared as a B-side to their single "I'll Be You".
The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets—a theatrical collaboration of Waits, director Robert Wilson, and writer William S. Burroughs—premiered at Hamburg's Thalia Theatre on March 31, 1990. The project was based on a German folktale called Der Freischütz, with Wilson responsible for the design and direction, Burroughs for writing the book, and Waits for music and lyrics, which were heavily influenced by the works of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. In the same year, Waits contributed a cover of Cole Porter's "It's All Right with Me" to Red Hot + Blue, the first in the series of compilation albums from the Red Hot Organization - one of the first major AIDS benefits in the music business—which sold over a million copies worldwide. Jim Jarmusch directed a promotional music video for the song. Waits also collaborated with photographer Sylvia Plachy in the same year; her book Sylvia Plachy's Unguided Tour includes a short Waits record to accompany the photographs and text.
Between 1991 and 1993, much of Waits' early work was assembled and released as Tom Waits: The Early Years. Waits was angered at this, describing many of his early demos as "baby pictures" that he would not want released.
The following year, Waits was extremely busy working on movie soundtracks, acting, and contributing to a number of music projects by other artists. First, Waits appeared on the Primus album Sailing the Seas of Cheese as the voice of "Tommy the Cat", which exposed him to a new audience in alternative rock. This was the first of several collaborations between Waits and the group; Frontman Les Claypool would appear on several subsequent Waits releases. The same year saw Waits provide spoken word contributions to Devout Catalyst, an album by one of Waits' greatest influences, Ken Nordine, on the songs "A Thousand Bing Bangs" and "The Movie." Waits also contributed vocals to a duet with singer Bob Forrest on the song "Adios Lounge" on the Thelonious Monster album Beautiful Mess. He also contributed vocals to two songs ("Little Man" and "I'm Not Your Fool Anymore") on jazz tenor saxophonist Teddy Edwards' album Mississippi Lad. Edwards was extremely complimentary of Waits' contributions, saying:
Tom Waits is the one who got me my contract with PolyGram. He's wonderful, he's America's best lyricist since Johnny Mercer. He came down to the studio on the Mississippi Lad album, that's the first one I did for PolyGram, and he sang two of my songs, wouldn't accept any money, just trying to give me the best boost that he could.
The only collection of exclusively Waits-performed material of 1991 appeared when Waits composed and conducted the almost exclusively instrumental music for Jim Jarmusch's 1991 film Night on Earth, which was released as an album the following year. In July 1991, Screamin' Jay Hawkins released the album Black Music for White People, which features covers of two Waits compositions: "Heartattack & Vine" (which later that year was used in a European Levi's advertisement without Waits' permission, resulting in a lawsuit) and "Ice Cream Man". Waits continued to appear in movie acting roles, the most significant of which was his uncredited cameo as a disabled veteran in Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King. He also appeared alongside Kevin Bacon, John Malkovich, and Jamie Lee Curtis in Steve Rash's Queens Logic, and opposite Tom Berenger and Kathy Bates in Hector Babenco's film At Play in the Fields of the Lord, adapted from Peter Matthiessen's 1965 novel.
Bone Machine, Waits's first studio album in five years, was released in 1992. The stark record featured a great deal of percussion and guitar (with little piano or sax), marking another change in Waits' sound. Critic Steve Huey calls it "perhaps Tom Waits's most cohesive album... a morbid, sinister nightmare, one that applied the quirks of his experimental '80s classics to stunningly evocative—and often harrowing—effect... Waits' most affecting and powerful recording, even if it isn't his most accessible." Bone Machine was awarded a Grammy in the Best Alternative Album category. On December 19, 1992 Alice, Waits's second theatrical project with Robert Wilson, premiered at the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg. Paul Schmidt adapted the text from the works of Lewis Carroll (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, in particular), with songs by Waits and Kathleen Brennan presented as intersections with the text rather than as expansions of the story, as would be the case in conventional musical theater. These songs would be recorded by Waits as a studio album 10 years later on Alice. 1992 also saw Waits featuring in Francis Ford Coppola's film Bram Stoker's Dracula, as the possessed lunatic Renfield.
In 1993, he released The Black Rider, which contained studio versions of the songs that Waits had written for the musical of the same name three years previously, with the exceptions of "Chase the Clouds Away" and "In the Morning", which appeared in the theatrical production but not on the studio album. William S. Burroughs also guests on vocals on "'Tain't No Sin". In the same year, Waits lent his vocals to Gavin Bryars' 75-minute reworking of his 1971 classical music piece Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet; appeared in Robert Altman's film version of Raymond Carver's stories Short Cuts and Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes: Somewhere in California, a short black-and-white movie with Iggy Pop; and his third child, Sullivan, was born. In 1997, Waits and Brennan wrote and performed the music for Bunny the animated short film by 20th Century Fox's Blue Sky Studios, which was awarded Best Animated Short Film by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
In 1995, Holly Cole released Temptation, a tribute album consisting entirely of Waits covers.
Popular American punk rock group Ramones covered "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" on their final studio album, 1995's ¡Adios Amigos!. Waits would later return the favor by covering the Ramones' songs "Danny Says" and "The Return of Jackie and Judy", releasing them in his 2006 studio album.
Another Waits cover was released in 1995, as Meat Loaf covered Martha for his concept album Welcome to the Neighborhood.
In 1998, after Island Records released the compilation Beautiful Maladies: The Island Years, Waits left the label for ANTI-, whose president, Andy Kaulkin, said the label was "blown away that Tom would even consider us. We are huge fans." Waits himself was full of praise for the label, saying "Epitaph is rare for being owned and operated by musicians. They have good taste and a load of enthusiasm, plus they're nice people. And they gave me a brand-new Cadillac, of course."
Waits's first album on his new label, Mule Variations, was issued in 1999. Billboard described the album as musically melding "backwoods blues, skewed gospel, and unruly art stomp into a sublime piece of junkyard sound sculpture." The album was Waits' first release to feature a turntablist. The album won a Grammy in 2000; as an indicator of how difficult it is to classify Waits's music, he was nominated simultaneously for Best Contemporary Folk Album (which he won) and Best Male Rock Vocal Performance (for the song "Hold On"), both different from the genre for which he won his previous Grammy. The album was also his highest-charting album in the U.S. to date, reaching no. 30.
The same year, Waits made a foray into producing music for other artists, teaming up with his old friend Chuck E. Weiss to coproduce (with his wife, Kathleen Brennan) Extremely Cool, as well as appearing on the record as a guest vocalist and guitarist. He also contributed a cover of Skip Spence's "Books of Moses" to More Oar: A Tribute to the Skip Spence Album, a collection of covers of the singer's songs on Birdman Records. The same year, Waits appeared in the superhero film spoof Mystery Men, portraying a mad scientist as part of the ensemble cast that included actors such as Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, and Geoffrey Rush.
John Hammond's Wicked Grin, a collection of Waits cover songs, was released in 2001. Waits appears on most songs, playing guitar, piano, and/or offering backing vocals. The album also includes the traditional hymn "I Know I've Been Changed", performed as a duet by Hammond and Waits.
Tori Amos included a cover of the song "Time", from Rain Dogs on her 2001 album Strange Little Girls. Waits quit drinking alcohol around the same time.
In 2002, Waits simultaneously released two albums, Alice and Blood Money. Both collections had been written almost 10 years previously and were based on theatrical collaborations with Robert Wilson; the former a musical play about Lewis Carroll, and the latter an interpretation of Georg Büchner's play fragment Woyzeck. Both albums revisit the tango, Tin Pan Alley, and spoken-word influences of Swordfishtrombones, while the lyrics are both profoundly cynical and melancholic, exemplified by "Misery is the River of the World" and "Everything Goes to Hell." "Diamond in Your Mind", which Waits wrote for Wilson's Woyzeck, did not appear on Blood Money; however, it did emerge on Solomon Burke's album Don't Give Up on Me of the same year. While Waits has played the song live a number of times, an official version would not be released until 2007.
Waits contributed a version of "The Return of Jackie and Judy" by The Ramones to the compilation album We're a Happy Family: A Tribute to Ramones, which was released in 2003 on Columbia Records. That same year, Waits was a judge for the 2nd annual Independent Music Awards to support independent artists' careers, and he also appeared in Born into This, a documentary about Charles Bukowski, reading a poem called 'The Laughing Heart'.
Waits released Real Gone, his first nontheatrical studio album since Mule Variations, in 2004. It is Waits's only album to date to feature absolutely no piano on any of its tracks. Waits beatboxes on the opening track, "Top of the Hill", and most of the album's songs begin with Waits's "vocal percussion" improvisations. It is also more rock-oriented, with less blues influence than he has previously demonstrated. The same year, Waits contributed backing vocals to the track "Go Tell It on the Mountain" on the Grammy Award (Best Traditional Gospel Album)-winning album of the same name by The Blind Boys of Alabama. He also contributed a version of Daniel Johnston's "King Kong" to the tribute album The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered, released on Gammon Records.
At this time, Waits made a return to acting after a five-year break, marked at first by the re-release of his 1993 Jim Jarmusch-directed short Coffee and Cigarettes: Somewhere in California, costarring Iggy Pop, compiled in Coffee and Cigarettes. In 2005, Waits appeared in the Tony Scott film Domino as a soothsayer. In the same year, Waits appeared as himself in Roberto Benigni's romantic comedy La Tigre e la Neve, set in occupied Baghdad during the Iraq War. In the movie, Waits appears in a dream scene as himself, singing the ballad "You Can Never Hold Back Spring" and accompanying himself at the piano.
A 54-song three-disc box set of rarities, unreleased tracks, and brand-new compositions called Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards was released in November 2006. The three discs are subdivided relating to their content: "Brawlers" features Waits's more upbeat rock and blues songs; "Bawlers", his ballads and love songs; and "Bastards", songs that fit in neither category, including a number of spoken-word tracks. A video for the song "Lie to Me" was produced as a promotion for the collection. Orphans also continues Waits's newfound interest in politics with "Road to Peace", a song about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The album is also notable for containing a number of covers of songs by other artists, including The Ramones ("The Return of Jackie and Judy" and "Danny Says"), Daniel Johnston ("King Kong"), Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht ("What Keeps Mankind Alive"), and Lead Belly ("Ain't Goin' Down to the Well" and "Goodnight Irene"), as well as renditions of works by poets and authors admired by Waits, such as Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac and a previously released duet with Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse entitled "Dog Door". Waits' albums Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards and Alice are both included in metacritic.com's list of the "Top 200: Best-Reviewed Albums" since 2000 at No. 10 and No. 20, respectively (as of November 2009). The same year, Waits appeared on Sparklehorse's album Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain, playing piano on the track "Morning Hollow."
Five different versions of Waits's song "Way Down in the Hole" have been used as the opening theme songs for the HBO television show The Wire. Waits's own version, from Frank's Wild Years, was used for season two. The other versions used for the series were performed by, in season order, The Blind Boys of Alabama, The Neville Brothers, "DoMaJe" and Steve Earle.
Waits made a number of high-profile television and concert appearances between 2006 and 2010. In November 2006, Waits appeared on The Daily Show and performed "The Day After Tomorrow." This was significant for his having been only the third performing guest on the show, the first being Tenacious D and the second The White Stripes. On May 4, 2007, Waits performed "Lucinda" and "Ain't Goin' Down to the Well" from Orphans on the last show of a week Late Night with Conan O'Brien spent in San Francisco. There was a short interview after the last performance. Waits also played in the Bridge School Benefit on October 27-28, 2007 with Kronos Quartet.
On July 10, 2007, Waits released the download-only digital single "Diamond in Your Mind". The version of the song was recorded with Kronos Quartet, with Greg Cohen, Philip Glass, and The Dalai Lama at the benefit concert "Healing The Divide: A Concert for Peace and Reconciliation" at Avery Fisher Hall, recorded on September 21, 2003.
Waits's song "Trampled Rose" (from Real Gone) appeared on the critically acclaimed album Raising Sand, a collaboration between Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. Waits also provided guest vocals on the song "Pray" by fellow ANTI- artists The Book of Knots on their album Traineater.
He played the role of Kneller in the film Wristcutters: A Love Story, which opened in November 2007.
On January 22, 2008, Waits made a rare live appearance in Los Angeles, performing at a benefit for Bet Tzedek Legal Services—The House of Justice, a nonprofit poverty law center.
On May 7, 2008, Waits announced the Glitter and Doom Tour starting in June 2008, touring cities in the southern United States and subsequently announced a series of dates in the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe. Waits was awarded the key to the city of El Paso, Texas during a concert on June 20, 2008. In his generally positive review of the opening show of the tour, The Wall Street Journal critic Jim Fusilli described Waits' music thus:
The 58-year-old Mr. Waits ... has composed a body of work that's at least comparable to any songwriter's in pop today. A keen, sensitive and sympathetic chronicler of the adrift and downtrodden, Mr. Waits creates three-dimensional characters who, even in their confusion and despair, are capable of insight and startling points of view. Their stories are accompanied by music that's unlike any other in pop history.
On May 20, 2008, Scarlett Johansson's debut album, entitled Anywhere I Lay My Head, featured covers of ten Tom Waits songs. Waits made an appearance on the album The Spirit of Apollo by alternative hip hop project NASA, on the track "Spacious Thoughts."
Waits wrote the following introduction for the Tompkins Square compilation People Take Warning - Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913-1938:
In the late 1920's and early 1930's, the Depression gripped the Nation. It was a time when songs were tools for living. A whole community would turn out to mourn the loss of a member and to sow their songs like seeds. This collection is a wild garden grown from those seeds.
In 2009, music critic Barney Hoskyns published an unauthorized biography of Waits entitled Lowside of the Road: a Life of Tom Waits.
Terry Gilliam's film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was released in late 2009, with Waits in the role of Mr. Nick. Production began in December 2007 in London. Star Heath Ledger's death in January 2008 cast doubt on the film's future, but the production was salvaged with the addition of new actors playing his character in scenes he did not complete.
He is working on a new stage musical with director and long-time collaborator Robert Wilson and playwright Martin McDonagh.
In early 2011, Tom Waits completed a set of 23 poems entitled Seeds on Hard Ground, which were inspired by Michael O'Brien's portraits of the homeless in his upcoming book, Hard Ground, which will include the poems alongside the portraits. In anticipation of the book release, Waits and ANTI- printed limited edition chapbooks of the poems to raise money for Redwood Empire Food Bank, a homeless referral and family support service in Sonoma County, California. As of January 26, 2011, four editions, each limited to a thousand copies costing $24.99US each, sold out, raising $90,000 for the food bank.
It was announced on February 9, 2011, that Waits was to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Neil Young. The ceremony was held at the Waldorf-Astoria on Monday, March 14, 2011, at 8:30 pm EST. Waits accepted the award with his customary humor, stating, "They say I have no hits and that I'm difficult to work with... like it's a bad thing."
On February 24, 2011, it was announced via Waits' official website that he has begun work on his next studio album. Waits said through his website that on August 23 he would "set the record straight" in regards to rumors of a new release. On August 23, the title of the new album was revealed to be Bad as Me, and a new single, also titled "Bad as Me," started being offered via Amazon.com and other sites. The album was released on October 24.
In 2013, the song "Shenandoah," recorded with Keith Richards, was included on the compilation album Son of Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys. The album was released February 19 on ANTI-. On May 5, 2013, Waits joined The Rolling Stones on stage at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, California to duet with Mick Jagger on the song "Little Red Rooster". The same year, the songs "Hold On" and "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" were sung by the character Beth Greene (Emily Kinney) in The Walking Dead episodes "I Ain't a Judas" and "Infected." On October 27, 2013, Tom Waits performed at the 27th annual Bridge School Benefit concert in Mountain View California. Rolling Stone called it a "triumph".
In June 2014, Waits' song "Come on Up to the House" was used in the Orange Is the New Black episode "40 OZ of Furlough".
On May 19, 2015, Waits appeared on one of the final broadcasts of Late Show with David Letterman to sing a song called "Take One Last Look". He was accompanied by Larry Taylor on upright bass and Gabriel Donohue on piano accordion, with the horn section of the CBS Orchestra. In the fall of 2015, Waits's work was featured in several songs adapted for stage performance in Chicago Shakespeare theater's production of Shakespeare's The Tempest.
There were jazz elements in Waits' early work.
Stylistically different from his previous LPs, 1983's Swordfishtrombones moves away from the piano and string orchestra arrangements of the late 1970s, replacing them instead with unusual instrumentation and a somewhat more abstract songwriting approach.
Waits has stated that a performance should be "a spectacle and entertaining". He modelled some of his early vocal mannerisms after Richard Buckley. Waits' work was influenced by his voracious reading and by conversations that he overheard in diners. A major influence was the Beat writer Kerouac, although other writers who inspired him included Charles Bukowski, Nelson Algren, John Rechy, and Hubert Selby Jr. He was also inspired by the comedian Lenny Bruce. Musically, he was influenced by Randy Newman, and regarded James Brown as one of his musical heroes. He has praised Dylan, noting that "for a songwriter, Dylan is as essential as a hammer and nails and saw are to a carpenter".
Humphries described "Waitsworld" as a place of "the ricocheted romantics bent out of shape by a broad who should have known better; the twisted psychotics; the loners; the losers".
According to Hoskyns, Waits hid behind his persona, noting that "Tom Waits is as much of a character created for his fans as it is a real man." Among music journalists, there was much suggestion that Waits was a fake or a phoney. Hoskyns regarded Waits' "persona of the skid-row boho/hobo, a young man out of time and place" as an "ongoing experiment in performance art". He added that Waits had adopted a "self-appointed role as the bard of the streets". Mick Brown, a music journalist from Sounds who interviewed Waits in the mid-1970s, noted that "he had immersed himself in this character to the point where it wasn't an act and had become an identity". Louie Lista, a friend of Waits' during the 1970s, stated that the singer's general attitude was that: "I'm an outsider, but I'll revel in being an outsider". Another friend from the period, Troubadour-manager Robert Marchese, related that Waits cultivated "the whole mystique of this really funky dude and all that Charles Bukowski crap" to give "his impression of how funky poor folk really are", whereas in reality Waits was "basically a middle-class, San Diego mom-and-pop-schoolteacher kid". Jarmusch described Waits as "a very contradictory character. He's potentially violent if he thinks someone is screwing with him, but he's gentle and kind too."
Humphries referred to him as "an essentially reticent man... reflective and surprisingly shy". Hoskyns described Waits as "unequivocally—some would say almost gruffly—heterosexual". During the 1970s, he was known as a heavy drinker and a smoker but avoided any drugs harder than cocaine. He told one interviewer that "I discovered alcohol at an early age, and that guided me a lot." Hoskyns also noted that Waits took a "grumpy attitude" towards touring.
After he married and had children, Waits became increasingly elusive. During interviews, he deflected questions about his personal life. Waits refused to sanction any biography of him. When Hoskyns was researching for a biography on Waits, Waits and his wife asked people not to talk to him. Hoskyns believed that it was Brennan who was responsible for the "wall of inaccessibility" surrounding Waits.
Reception and legacy
Hoskyns referred to him as being "as important an American artist as anyone the twentieth century has produced", while Humphries described him as "one of America's finest post-Dylan singer-songwriters". Among the celebrities who have described themselves as Waits fans have been Johnny Depp, John Oliver and Jerry Hall.
Waits has steadfastly refused to allow the use of his songs in commercials and has joked about other artists who do (once commenting "If Michael Jackson wants to work for Pepsi, why doesn't he just get himself a suit and an office in their headquarters and be done with it?"). He has filed several lawsuits against advertisers who used his material without permission, and said, "Apparently, the highest compliment our culture grants artists nowadays is to be in an ad—ideally, naked and purring on the hood of a new car...I have adamantly and repeatedly refused this dubious honor."
Waits filed his first lawsuit in this vein in 1988 against Frito-Lay. The company had approached Waits to use one of his songs in an advertisement, which Waits declined. Frito-Lay hired a Waits soundalike to sing a jingle similar to the song "Step Right Up" from the album Small Change, which is a song Waits has called "an indictment of advertising". Waits won the lawsuit, becoming one of the first artists to successfully sue a company for using an impersonator without permission. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed an award of $2.375 million in his favor (Waits v. Frito-Lay, 978 F. 2d 1093 (9th Cir. 1992)).
In 1993, Levi's used Screamin' Jay Hawkins' version of Waits' "Heartattack and Vine" in a commercial. Waits sued, and Levi's agreed to cease all use of the song and published a full page apology in Billboard.
Waits found himself in a situation similar to his earlier one with Frito Lay in 2000 when Audi approached him, asking to use "Innocent When You Dream" (from Franks Wild Years) for a commercial broadcast in Spain. Waits declined, but the commercial ultimately featured music very similar to that song. Waits undertook legal action, and a Spanish court recognized that there had been a violation of Waits' moral rights in addition to the infringement of copyright. The production company, Tandem Campany Guasch, was ordered to pay compensation to Waits through his Spanish publisher. Waits later joked that they got the name of the song wrong, thinking it was called "Innocent When You Scheme".
In 2005, Waits sued Adam Opel AG, claiming that, after having failed to sign him to sing in their Scandinavian commercials, they had hired a sound-alike singer. In 2007, the suit was settled, and Waits gave the sum to charity.
In 2016 Waits embarked upon litigation against French artist Bartabas who had used several of Waits' songs as a backdrop to a theatrical performance that in many ways paid homage to Waits' work. Claims and counterclaims were made, with Bartabas claiming to have sought and been granted permission to use the material (and to have paid $400,000 for the privilege) but with Waits seemingly of the view that his identity had been stolen. The case in the French courts was lost and the circus performance was allowed to continue, although the threat of further litigation meant that it was not performed outside France and the resulting DVD release does not contain Waits' material.
Waits has also filed a lawsuit unrelated to music. He was arrested in 1977 outside Duke's Tropicana Coffee Shop in Los Angeles. Waits and a friend were trying to stop some men from bullying other patrons. The men were plainclothes officers, and Waits and his friend were arrested and charged with disturbing the peace. The jury found Waits not guilty; he took the police department to court and was awarded $7,500 compensation.
Discography and filmographyMain article: Tom Waits discography
- 1973: Closing Time touring
- 1974-1975: The Heart of Saturday Night touring
- 1975-1976: Small Change touring
- 1977: Foreign Affairs touring
- 1978-1979: Blue Valentine touring
- 1980-1982: Heartattack and Vine touring
- 1985: Rain Dogs touring
- 1987: Big Time touring
- 1999: Get Behind the Mule Tour
- 2004: Real Gone Tour
- 2006: The Orphans Tour
- 2008: Glitter and Doom Tour