Tom Waits was a man with a voice like burnt gravel and the mannerisms of Heath Ledger’s Joker. He sounded like Louis Armstrong when he sang. You don’t expect that voice to come out of him when you first glimpse this thin, junky like, haggard man on the album cover of Small Change. That voice comes out like a parody of Armstrong. So strange to hear it from this thin white tramp, stinking of booze and cigarettes.
In interviews his wit was so quick you wondered if it was planned ahead of time. The man was just sharp. One interviewer said to him, after Tom pulled a bottle of wine from nowhere and started drinking, “It’s kinda strange to have a guy sitting here with a bottle in front of him.” And without pause Tom said, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” This man was quick. That same wit, that odd poetic sense of humour, finds its way into his lyrics.
Small Change came out in 1976. You can put that record on and immediately find yourself transported to a world that maybe never even existed outside of fiction. A world of Beat Poets. Smokey bars. Dimly lit stages. You’re at a small table near the front of the stage. You can see your own distorted reflection in the side of the grand piano. Hunched over the keys, with smoke drifting up from his cigarette, is Tom Waits. His slow ragged voice singing, “The piano has been drinking…”
Normally artists easily find themselves categorised away in your mind with similar artists. But Tom Waits doesn’t fall in with Bob Dylan, or Leonard Cohen, as you might expect. He’s on the pile with Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs. All writers. And his influences are as deeply bound with comedians like Lenny Bruce and Lord Buckley as they are with the jazz that feeds his music. Tom Waits was a wit-inflicted Beat Poet with a piano.
Small Change was his fourth album. The opening track, Tom Traubert’s Blues, is a twisted version of Waltzing Matilda. Although Written in London while on tour there the song is about an earlier time. The songs subtitle, Three Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen, sums up the nature of the narrative.
But track two, Step Right Up, is where the album kicks off. Tom takes old clichéd advertising slogans and stitches them together in this humorous musical rant. “Step right up. You got it buddy: the large print giveth, and the small print taketh away.”
Every track has something worth hearing, a great lyric or grim scene (like, “Crawling on her belly, and shaking like jelly, and I’m getting harder than Chinese algebra.” From the dirty but brilliant song, Pasties and a G-String), but the stand-out track is My Piano Has Been Drinking (not me). A nonsense song about a singer in a bar. A drunkard passing blame to his instrument and voicing distain at everything around him. The piano is played with disregard. It’s like an act. Tom Wait’s playing the drunk. While drunk. As for the words, there will be no lyrical spoilers here, it’s worth waiting for.
I won’t go into the rest of the album, some things are worth discovering for yourself.