While at Barnes and Noble the other night I caught Tom Waits’ careworn visage glaring at me from the cover of the latest issue of Uncut magazine. Thing is, that photo looks like it was from 1973, the year of his first album (the piece is called “Birth of a Boho Legend”). Talk about an old soul. I didn’t pick up a copy (at least not yet) as I am still happily absorbed in the same mag’s special all-Kinks issue that my sister surprised me with for my birthday. But it got me thinking on two points. First I have to finish my article on the celebration of 1973 in general, the greatest of all rock years not recognized as such and now forty years in the rear view mirror. I’ll have it out here soon.
Secondly, why hasn’t “Big Time”, the great Tom Waits concert film from 1988, ever made it out on DVD? The VHS-to-VHS copy I once made after checking it out from the library can’t last forever. Yeah, you can watch it on YouTube nowadays but it just isn’t the same. It demands, like any good film, a decent size screen and no other distractions. “Big Time” is a variation on the off-Broadway play “Frank’s Wild Years” (written by Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan) and is similiar to the stage show on his 1987 tour supporting the LP of the same name. Songs like “Ol’55” and “Grapefruit Moon” made that ’73 debut (Closing Time) a worthy debut but Waits’ offbeat genius as a songwriter and conceptualist didn’t come into full flower until the Eighties and beyond. This is the best showcase for his famously expansive assortment of mid-century American character types: the homesick sailors, the farmboys off to the big city, the strippers and barflies, the beautiful losers and beatnik drifters that crowd into his songs like passengers on a rush-hour Tokyo subway.
“Big Time” was mainly filmed at the art-deco Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles, Waits’ hometown and a place he knows well (he describes the theater as being located on the corner of “Friendly and Snooty”). The 50-year antiquity of the venue is a suitably scenic platform for the Waits’ usher/ticket-seller/hustler character whose droll activities are interspersed with the onstage action. Here the noirish stage set and the musical palette of accordion, honking sax and upright bass complete the picture. The Frank of the title is a downwardly mobile Sinatra wannabe who tells the “beautiful” crowd that he “feels closer to(them)than his own family” and wheezes his way through a song that insists he’s headed “Straight to the Top” where the air is “fresh and pretty clean.” More as himself, Waits either goes to his upright piano for one of his vaunted melancholic ballads like “Johnsville, Illinois” or gets up to front his crack band on deliciously manic performances of “Down in the Hole” or “Telephone Call from Istanbul” (“never trust a man in a blue trench coat/never drive a car when you’re dead”).
Wait’s dry between-songs witticisms are a hoot but by the end, when it’s clear that Frank and his long-shot dream of redemptive stardom are destined to be kicked to the curb,the heartstrings get a pulling during numbers like “The Train Song” and “More than Rain”, the latter betraying the Brechtian influence that crept in during that time. But Waits’ sly nature never gets vanishes for long and he’s compelled to sing the climatic ballad, “Innocent When You Dream” while standing fully-clothed in a bubble bath.
Tom Waits was never big on touring and I was happy to have had the chance to see him on that tour in ’87 at Boston’s Orpheum Theater (not at the corner of anything, but pushed to the back of a cul-de-sac near Park Street Station). From the moment he charged out of the gate with “Hang on St. Christopher” (a driver “jacked-up on whiskey” exhorts the patron saint of travellers through a bullhorn, telling him that “tonight the Devil can ride”), to when he encored with a rip-roaring “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”, one of the best shows I saw in the Eighties. If the gig had been scheduled a few months earlier I probably would not have seen it: put off by his notoriously gravelly vocals, I had never giiven Waits a chance. But thanks to my new roommates heavy rotation of such LPs as “Rain Dogs” and “Swordfishtrombone” the light bulb went off just in time to ask him to be me up a ticket as well. An object lesson that musical discoveries are an ever-renewable resource for a better life. True, a guy as willfully eccentric as Waits will never siphon off many middle-of-the-roaders, but for his considerable cult audience and for those destined to discover, a proper home-video release of “Big Time” is long overdue.