How Tom Waits Got His Voice
Tom Waits grew up in a broken home that happened to be filled with music. His father, an alcoholic, sang a strange mix of Irish songs and Mexican music; his mother, soon to be a divorcee, sang lush harmonies with her sisters. (Meanwhile, his uncle, Vernon, had a terrible voice that sounded gravelly and full of gauze. Not musical in the least, and yet it apparently had the biggest influence on Waits’ singing in his later years.)
Though his parents enjoyed music, they considered it a hobby, not a career, and certainly not something they wanted their son to devote his life to. “There were a lot of preachers and teachers in my family,” Waits said in one interview. “Music wasn’t the family business.” Apparently, that didn’t make too much of a difference.
While in elementary school, Waits learned a few chords on the guitar from a friend, and soon made his debut as a musician, performing in front of a few classmates. It was an uneventful beginning. According to one account, his classmates “looked abjectly at the marbles and rocks they’d brought” as he played.
Though Waits had this early start, it would be several more years before the music really found him. In middle school, he went on trips with his father to Baja California where he was charmed by the Mexican rancheras he heard. According to Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits, this was when “he truly began to see music as a calling.” According to one interview with Waits in the book about this revelation, “It was something I didn’t completely understand. I thought, ‘I’m going to ride this somewhere, it’s going to take me somewhere.”
But it took years for him to get somewhere with his music, and along the way, he stole many peoples’ voices.
Waits soon became the front man of a school band called the Systems, playing R&B standards. “[We were] white kids trying to get that Motown sound,” he said later, according to Lowside of the Road. After the band dried up, Waits moved on to folk music, immersing himself in the fresh sounds of Bob Dylan. He reportedly “plastered his bedroom walls with transcriptions of [Dylan’s] songs,” and spent the next few years of his life perfecting the art of being a Dylan cover artist.
When he was just 17, Waits left home and headed to the East coast, where he worked a bunch of short term jobs, including bar tending, changing tires at a gas station and driving an ice cream truck. According to the biography, “Waits knew performing was his destiny but couldn’t see how to translate that into practical action. All he knew was that a career in ‘showbiz’ would almost certainly ‘beat the hell out of putting aluminum siding on recreational vehicles, or fixing radios.” So, unsure what path to take, Waits soon returned to California, this time to pursue photography at Chula Vista’s Southwestern Community College. But this was short lived.
In 1969, at age 19, Waits started to hang around The Heritage, a popular music bar in San Diego which hosted great musicians like Lightnin’ Hopkins. This would be the bar where Waits would make his debut as a real singer songwriter, but first, he had to work his way through the door. Waits knew he wanted to perform there, so he scored a job working as a doorman at the club. He was popular with many of the customers and performers, and in this way, he managed to do some good networking. Finally, he started performing, but he clung to the Dylan songs he knew. Those who witnessed these early performances later recalled that Waits’ personality stood out, though the music itself did not. One musician put it bluntly in the biography, “I would never have expected him, in all honesty, to go on and be a successful performer.”
What changed, of course, is that Waits finally started to craft his own songs. His early efforts were mostly a mix of country and bluegrass, often filled with slapstick humor. Two of his earliest known tracks were Poncho’s Lament and Looks Like I’m Up Shit Creek Again. “I don’t know if they were really songs,” Waits said, according to the biography. “Mostly they parodied existing songs with obscene lyrics. That’s what most people do, or that’s what I did.” Though these songs are ‘parodies,’ they are filled with genuine longing and romantic conflict. In fact, the lyrics of Shit Creek resemble Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, just with more bite to them:
So I’m out a walkin on this dusty highway
Cause you’ve given me no reason for to stay
And I’ll walk until I’ve found someone who loves me not in vain
And it looks like I’m up shit creek again
Meanwhile, Pancho’s Lament repeats a clashing feeling over and over. “I’m glad that you’re gone / But I wish to the lord that you’d come home.]
It wasn’t long before Waits moved away from these early efforts and produced two of his first masterpieces – I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You and Ol’ 55. These songs carved their way into people’s memories, and with this new arsenal of music, Waits soon departed to The Troubadour in Hollywood to seek out the career that waited for him.