Album: Nighthawks at the Diner
Artist: Tom Waits
Release Date: October 1975
Label: Asylum Records

"I wanna take you on a kind of inebriational travelogue, here..."

To call this a concept album would be a disservice, though I guess that's what it is at its heart.

The problem with studio albums at their core is how dead they sound. The same can be said for recordings of super-concerts - by the time an artist has reached the kind of fame necessary to fill Madison Square Garden, a good portion of their initial spark has been lost. With this album, Tom Waits sought to strike a balance between those two extremes and regain a certain warmth that comes with middling fame.

To that end, Waits turned his recording studio into a night club. He brought in a small crowd, got 'em drunk and, with the help of one of the tightest backup bands I've ever heard, pounded out this album of original tunes. Waits crafted a character for the album, a lounge singer who epitomized the lonely Los Angeles nighthawk, drinkin' coffee and eating dubious meals, stumbling home in the wee small hours with nobody but himself. When he jokingly uses 'Here Comes The Bride' as a backing theme, the bouncy feel of the melody sounds so out of place and desperate that it makes you want to, well, drink. A lot.

It's not even the songs that make the album, though the songs are some of the most poetic and well intoned that Waits has written, before or since; it's the patter. Practically every song has an intro where he jams a bit and talks to the audience. While occasionally adding to the individual tunes (as it does with 'Eggs and Sausage...') more than that they add to the overall feel of the album and our reluctant host.

Waits is one dark mofo and this album doesn't break that feel too much, but it's far less sinister than a newcomer to his body of work would suspect. It's dark because he's so horribly sad, not because he's so horribly creepy. Think dark like Dashiell Hammett, leaning in a doorway and smoking a cigarette while watching the streetwalkers do their thing.

The other advantage of the live nature of the album is the humor that comes through his second to second vocal swings - there are moments where he sounds like an insurance salesman tryin' to make a quick buck before sliding right back into his normal character.

It's jazzy, up-tempo and down-beat, infused with and embodying the best of Waits' cynicism and wit and topped off with the appreciative applause of a slightly sodden audience. He successfully created a truly forceful, pathetic wretch of a man and I love him for it.

If you pick this up somewhere, make sure you've got the time to just sit and listen, lights down low and drink in hand.

Track Listing:

  1. Opening Intro
  2. Emotional Weather Report
  3. Intro
  4. On a foggy night
  5. Intro
  6. Eggs and Sausage (In a Cadillac With Susan Michaelson)
  7. Intro
  8. Better off Without a Wife
  9. Nighthawk Postcards
  10. Intro
  11. Warm Beer and Cold Women
  12. Intro
  13. Putnam County
  14. Spare Parts I
  15. Nobody
  16. Intro
  17. The Ballad of Big Joe and Phantom 309
  18. Spare Parts II (And Closing)

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