Mass market nostalgia gets you hopped up for a past that never
existed.… Only a reckless verisimilitude can set that line
—James Ellroy, “American Tabloid”
What price freedom? Dirt is my rug.
TOM WAITS IS AN IMAGINARY HOBO. He cruises the oddball corners of American pop culture and collects the deft and moving and loopy short takes he sees and imagines there. Like Raymond Carver, he judges only when judgment is utterly unavoidable, a last resort on the journey through life.
Back in 1973, Closing Time first caught Waits's then far less grizzled voice on disc, growling about unguarded moments in real lives. Unlike that era's Me-Generation singer-songwriter crop of hit-generating navelgazers, the solipsistic James Taylors and Carole Kings and Carly Simons, Waits made you feel other people because he did. He was ironic or direct, caustic or unabashedly torn open by loss and hope and love and fear and the pivotal emotions that daily face folks who don't live inside recording and movie and TV studios, ivy-covered towers, newspaper and magazine offices, the Beltway, or their own swollen heads.
His sense of being on the outside may have started at birth: the story goes that he was delivered in the back seat of a cab outside a hospital in Pomona, California, on December 7, 1949—Pearl Harbor's eighth anniversary. His parents, both schoolteachers, were divorced when he was 10; growing up, he and his two sisters moved around California a lot. As a teen, Waits hung back from the regional craze for surf music, hotrod music, or even psychedelic music. Instead, he listened to his parents' 78 s of Perry Como and Bing Crosby, and tacked Bob Dylan lyrics up on the walls of his room. This was when he started writing down ideas that came