“Under the Influence”: The music, literature, theater & films that have inspired Tom Waits

By on February 2, 2018

Tom Waits: Under the Influence — now streaming on Night Flight Plus“examines, dissects and all but lobotomizes the wealth of music, literature, theater and film that have assisted in creating Waits’ legendary genius and, results in hand, reviews the life and career of Tom Waits from this fascinating and rarely-identified viewpoint.”

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This two-hour twenty-minute documentary — produced in 2010 by the UK-based Prism Films, for Chrome Dreams Ltd. — features rarely-seen and previously-unseen photographs and film footage from a mosaic of these influences, including Jack Kerouac.

Tom Waits was particularly fond of Kerouac’s record albums — like Poetry for the Beat Generation: Jack Kerouac and Steve Allen – which featured the Beat writer reading from his work while Allen played jazz piano in the background (they later re-created this for Allen’s TV show).

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Waits has also expressed an appreciation for the writing of Charles Bukowski — with whom he shared a stage, twice, at the University of Pittsburgh in March of ’76 — as well as the work of writers like Damon Runyon, Carson McCullers, Hubert Selby Jr., and John Rechy, among others.

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There are also as exclusive interviews with Bones Howe (Waits’ legendary producer); Moris Tepper and John French from Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band; Ken Nordine (“Word Jazz” pioneer and occasional collaborator); David Dunn and Dean Drummond (Harry Partch associates); Chris Ingham (the BBC’s head of music); Beat-era scholar John Tytell; Barney Hoskyns (author of Lowside of the Road: The Life of Tom Waits) and David Smay (author of 33 1/3: Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones), among many others.

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Growing up, Waits has said there was always music being played in his house, and he preferred the music from his parent’s generation: Bing Crosby’s ’40s and ’50s pop hits, Stephen Foster parlor songs, and American Songbook classics penned by the great old Tin Pan Alley songwriters like George Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael, Cole Porter and Jerome Kern.

He also listened to jazz — particularly pianists and stylized vocalists like Huey “Piano” Smith, Art Tatum, Professor Longhair, Mose Allison, Thelonious Monk and many others — and a lot of blues, including records by Howlin’ Wolf, Leadbelly and Big Mama Thornton.

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Read more about Tom Waits: Under the Influence below.

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In the late ’60s, Waits was living out of his car and working as the doorman at an L.A. nightclub, the Heritage — where he entertained the crowds lining up outside with spoken-word performances — when he first got the idea of writing songs and becoming a singer-songwriter.

He started carrying around a small notebook, and began jotting down some of the memorable things he overheard in snatches of conversation, or in diners and little cafés, like the slang terms the cooks and waitresses had for their menu items: “Adam and Eve on a log and sink ‘em” and “shit on a shingle.”

Waits turned his notebook ramblings into amphetamine-driven rapid-fire Old Testament preacher-type songs like “Diamonds on My Windshield,” sometimes showing a comedic influence — with corny one-liners and jokey Borscht Belt punchlines — from comics like Rodney Dangerfield, Lord Buckley and Lenny Bruce.

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His songs were peopled with an assortment of non-comformists and outsiders living marginal lives: defeated dreamers with broken hearts; barflies, strippers and hookers with hearts-of-gold; aimless drifters and grifters; derelicts and jailbirds, downbeat stumblebums and beautiful losers.

They populated the seamy world of after-hours bars and smoke-filled, dimly-lit nightclubs, rundown bus terminals and seedy tattoo parlors, and sad laundromats, luncheonettes and late-night nighthawk diners and cafés.

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During the late ’60s and early ’70s, Waits was living in seedy motels like the Tropicana, and performing occasionally at the competitive Monday night “Hoot Nights” at the Troubadour club in West Hollywood.

There eventually caught the attention a manager, Herb Cohen (who also managed Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Linda Ronstadt, Tim Buckley and Fred Neil).

He also caught the ear of label honcho, David Geffen, who in 1972 would sign the 21-year-old Waits to his Asylum label, home to acts like Jackson Browne and the Eagles (they would go on to record one of his songs, “Ol ’55” — about his ’55 Caddy that could only go in reverse — for their album On the Border).

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In ’73, Waits toured with a sax-bass-drums trio, mixing muted trumpets, tenor sax, standup bass and a drummer using brushes.

He also opened as a solo warm-up act for Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, but the audiences heckled him every night.

Waits had to yell over the crowd’s yelps to be heard, which may be where he picked up his gurgling, gruff rasp of a voice that sounded like he’d chain-smoked cartons of unfiltered Marlboros and downed lots of cheap whiskey shots.

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Waits was prolific during the rest of the ’70s, following up his Jerry Yester-produced folk-flavored debut album Closing Time (1973) with a series of albums produced by Bones Howe: 1974’s The Heart of Saturday Night; 1975’s Nighthawks at the Diner, a double-LP, recorded live over two nights in late July in a makeshift nightclub set up at L.A.’s Record Plant studio; Barney Hoskyns would called the album as “70 minutes of small-hours trio jazz and gravelly Lord-Buckleyisms”)); 1976’s Small Change (a jazzier effort, his first masterpiece); 1977’s Foreign Affairs and ’78’s Blue Valentine (the first time he’d introduce electric guitar on his recordings); and 1980’s R&B-flavored Heartattack and Vine.

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Musically, his albums — which didn’t provide him with any hits — earned Tom Waits a loyal cult following all over the world.

There’s much more to the story, of course…which is why you should watch Tom Waits: Under the Influence on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.