Small Change is Tom Waits' fourth studio album, released by Asylum Records. Produced by Bones Howe, it was recorded during the latter half of July 1976 at the Wally Heider Recording Studio in Hollywood. It contains eleven tracks that run a combined 49 minutes and 28 seconds.
It is, in my opinion, one of the greatest albums of all time and certainly Waits' magnum opus (though probably any of his other albums are considered this great depending on the listener). It catches him close to the beginning of when he started using that alcohol-bruised gravelly voice (some consider it "the white man's Louis Armstrong") that we all know and love. It's a stark contrast from his first album, 1973's Closing Time, on which his voice was more or less gravel-free. The famous voice really started speaking in its rough yet gentle tones on the predecessor to this album, 1975's "live" (recorded in a studio with a small audience) album Nighthawks at the Diner. Here on Small Change, he's honed it to a perfect work of art that so fits the jazz, blues, scat and folk tones of his piano-driven, alcoholic music back then, before he started really laying on the experimentation and instrument-inventing works that followed.
The album as a whole seems mostly to be alternating scat numbers and serious, seemingly depression-era blues songs, a few of which feature only that voice and the piano. This bipolar arrangement may turn off some first-time listeners with its non-linear flow, but if one gives it a real chance, it will probably work its way into the listener's favorite albums. Or at least, that's how it was with me. I first heard it in early 1997, when I was in a long distance relationship with a girl, who, at 22 years old (one year older than I was at the time), seemed more worldly than my largely (up to that point) sheltered life. She put Small Change on one side of a cassette and 1983's highly experimental Swordfishtrombones on the other. I fell in love with Small Change almost immediately, particularly the song "I wish I was in New Orleans", because at that time that was exactly my wish, having visited the old city for the first time that same year, right around the time she mailed me that cassette. I was totally enamored with the album, which I'll always love, and the city, where I'd finally move in 2000, after several trips there. The city and the album both became components of my heart. They remain there to this day.
And now, to the meat:
Since this is such a magnificent work of art, let's split the tracklist into how it originally appeared on vinyl when it was released in September 1976.
- Tom Traubert's Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)
- Step Right Up
- Jitterbug Boy (Sharing a Curbstone with Chuck E. Weiss, Robert Marchese, Paul Body and The Mug and Artie)
- I Wish I Was in New Orleans (In The Ninth Ward)
- The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) (An Evening with Pete King)
- Invitation to the Blues
- Pasties and a G-String (at the Two O'Clock Club)
- Bad Liver and a Broken Heart (in Lowell)
- The One That Got Away
- Small Change (Got Rained On With His Own .38)
- I Can't Wait to Get Off Work (and See My Baby on Montgomery Avenue)
"Step Right Up" was the only single from Small Change, as a promotional 7" record for radio DJs. It featured "Step Right Up" (stereo) b/w "Step Right Up" (mono).
These eleven songs represent three different atmospheres, or storylines: pure, straight-up blues; scat jazz; and the musical equivalent of film noir. If they share a common theme, it is Waits' fondness for wine, women and song, as it were. You can almost hear the rocks in his whiskey glass tinkling, or the quiet pops of his cigarette's cherry when he inhales. This creates an amazingly palpable atmosphere, one in which the listener abides and takes in the sounds with all senses: the smell of the cigarette smoke; the sodden rugs in the bar the listener finds her/himself in, listening to Waits' rugged yet sparkling tunes; the humidity in the New Orleans air making the listener's palms sweat; and the taste of whiskey as the listener drowns her/his troubles with Tom. It's such a real experience that I struggle to find words apt enough to describe it comprehensively.
The tracklist is arranged in such a way that songs jump back and fourth between the blues and the bawdy, going from the emptiness of solitude ("Invitation to the Blues") to the silliness of scat jazz ("Step Right Up").
The blues songs are presented in a way that it's hard not to imagine women, old times, far-off places, broken men, old shoes (Waits has a great deal of respect for shoes) and empty bottles, the objects of these songs, sitting across the room as he plays, reminiscing along with the singer and trying not to make noise as he creates melodies for them and sings them for the listener. From the high goofiness of "Pasties and a G-String" and "The Piano Has Been Drinking" to the emotional lows of "Tom Traubert's Blues" and "Invitation to the Blues" to the strange yet wonderful combinations of the two present in "Jitterbug Boy" and "I Wish I Was In New Orleans", there isn't a single bad song on this album.
It is, from my perspective, perfect. And yet, it seems so out of place for the time it was recorded (mid-1970s); it's a strange effect. It feels like it may have been recorded in the 1930s, using 1970s-era equipment. In interviews following the release of Small Change, it becomes clear that Tom was living quite a rock star kind of life; he was alcoholic, hedonistic and constantly on tour. When the tour was over, he began work on what was to become this album, and you can hear the blur of strip clubs, street corners, cheap motels, bars, skid rows and world-weariness. Indeed, the album cover is a picture of Waits leaning back against a counter top in a strip club's dressing room, smoking a cigarette, with an anonymous stripper (possibly Cassandra Peterson) silently regarding him and the photographer.
If I was asked to name something good about the otherwise unappealing 1970s, this album would be my first thought. It's brilliant and I cannot recommend it enough. If you're already familiar with Tom Waits' oeuvre, then you know what I'm writing about here. If you aren't, Small Change would be a perfect place to start letting Tom Waits into your life.
Small Change got rained on with his own .38 ...
Full album on YouTube
Fond memories and making the transition from teenager to adult—1997, at age 20, was a very good year for me.