Whatever Happened To Tom Waits?

Tom Waits

When I was 12 I was mostly listening to Barry Manilow and Bette Midler, while my brother, who was a year older was listening to Visage,The Eurythmics, Talk Talk, Prince, Depeche Mode, Thomas Dolby, Kate Bush, XTC and very briefly, Tom Waits. I could understand most of his choices and could happily listen to them all but Tom Waits? I think my brother bought the single that came out in ’83 called ‘In The Neighbourhood.’ I remember thinking who is this crazed tramp with a voice like a dying chainsaw and music that was frankly terrifying to me at the time. I remember being afraid, very afraid.

Of course, things have changed. I’m not so easily frightened for a start and it’s funny that the things that scared us when we were younger, grow tame in the cold light of maturity. The allure of my brothers favourite bands began to wane by the late eighties, and Tom’s music never seemed to raise its salivating jaws again, until now. Instead of a gravelly voiced Mr Hyde, I now hear a honey voiced Dr. Jekyll.

I don’t know what made me suddenly tune into him but over three decades later, I am finally appreciating his music. This big bad wolf turned into a Labrador puppy before my very eyes. I didn’t realise how good he was and maybe I wasn’t ready for him before. He’s an acquired taste, a bit like Barry Manilow really, a cross between root beer, wasabi, yeast extract spread and stout. He’s not for the faint hearted, lukewarm he isn’t. I just listened to his entire back catalogue this bleak January and enjoyed every minute. He’s got me through the worst (hopefully) of this winter and debilitation through common cold and flu viruses and the isolation that can bring. Even his jazz bits I like because there’s enough blues to drown any jazz that gets any ideas above its station. He’s been accused of being a folk artist too but not a stereotypical one. His music seems to be a mish-mash of a lot of music styles, leaving out all the ones I don’t like. It’s difficult to describe as I’m still sort of getting my head around his music, after hearing sixteen of his albums in two weeks but there’s a lot of blues in there. He’s been going for so long now and always been under my radar. Where has he been all my life? Where have I been? Maybe some primaeval self defence mechanism kept me away from him all these years after the stir he gave me. Ah, well, I’m found him now, or rather rediscovered him and that’s all that matters.

Born in ’49 to schoolteacher parents, who separated in Tom’s childhood, he graduated from college proficient in piano and guitar, and worked as a doorman and a Coast Guard for a time. He was sleeping in his car when his first album came out in 1973 entitled ‘Closing Time’. It has an innocence about it, sounds a bit Country & Western (for him)! His earlier albums are more conventional and his voice is not so rusty. I heard it was cigarettes and drink that did the damage.

I really like the ‘Swordfishtrombones’ album and his live album ‘NightHawks At The Diner’ and ‘Real Gone.’ I like them all.

He’s released sixteen studio albums to date, his most recent being ‘Bad As Me’ released in 2011. He has, within the last couple of years, lost a court battle against the successful French musical theatre and circus production, ‘On Acheve Bien les Anges’, who he claims have used his songs without permission.

Not only is he a prolific singer songwriter and musician, he is also an actor and has appeared in many movies. He has also recently been offered a role in a series called ‘Citizen’ on HULU network but it appears to have shelved.

He’s still around and appears to be going from strength to strength and doesn’t intend to slow down anytime soon. Meanwhile, I feel like I’ve just discovered a treasure chest, a musical salve in these short, dark days, a banquet of nuts that will keep this squirrel happy until early spring…and hopefully beyond.

Burger Break Between The Blues

I went to the Jazz and Blues Weekend Festival in Blackpool last weekend held at The Winter Gardens. It was a free event, all for charity and jam packed full of very talented singers, songwriters and musicians. I’m not a jazz fan, I’m more into the blues, and never understood why they heap the two together.  I don’t see the connection, they’re not the least bit alike. Still, I can appreciate and enjoy most kinds of music. My husband, who is not into music per se, and has chronic pain issues, sometimes needs to read to distract from that pain. He sat and read a book on inventions and science for the whole time and got some funny looks from po faced ‘serious’ jazz fans. How can you sit and read while these ‘cool’ musicians do a jazz version of ‘Tainted Love?  It just looked odd to them I suppose. If they had the back story, I’m sure they would have understood.

I’d been listening for jazz for maybe two hours, when I realised I was in need of a bit of fresh air from the seriousness of it all. MACDONALDS, a perfect antidote. I just needed a bit of meat to counteract a Sunday morning hangover, which, unusually, this day, went on until 5 p.m. Ordered two no frills burgers, but was scandalised by the size of the dill pickle, which was about the size of a half penny and you have to be old and British to know what a half penny is. It would make you cry if you were a fan of dill pickle and saw the size of it.

So, burger break and then back to the blues festival and then I realised I had to get back home for role playing at seven. You know, like Dungeons and Dragons, but much better than that, as we’ve moved on from the 80’s stuff, honest, well, some of us have. I wanted to stay at the festival, hadn’t realised how good it was going to be and hadn’t realised it was on until 10p.m.

I had just had my senses assailed by the amazing Mickey Van Gelder and Pat Clarke. Pat Clarke. Oh, what that man can’t do with a harmonica! I wanted to stay so bad, harmonicas aside. However, I knew I had to honour my prior commitments. So, we were watching the wonderful  Lauren Dalrymple, and, embarressingly, had to walk out in the middle of her set, which was at the more intimate Baronial Hall on the Sunday evening.  I thought to myself, if role playing is cancelled, I’ll head straight back into town and hopefully, catch the finale!

We went home and discovered that roleplaying had indeed been cancelled. I got changed, headed back into town and managed to catch the awesome blues finale in the Spanish ballroom. Nick Unlimited were like a heavy bluesy Status Quo, with a bit of Manfred Mann and The Kinks thrown in.

There were kids running around, dancing like crazy, a really full on family atmosphere. I preferred that in some ways to the serious Soul Jazz going on in the other hall, with not a sound, a movement, or a muscle twitch going on. Both atmospheres had their attractions though.

A lot of the musicians, the cream of the festivals crop, went on to a local live jazz/blues/rock nightclub for the after show party. This is when you see passions burst forth with some really good performances. What fascinates me most about these kind of musicians, is the way they flit from instrument to instrument when they are jamming. They sashay from lead guitar, to bass, to keyboard, to percussion. It seems a bit slutty, but you can’t deny their versatility. It’s admirable. The musicians never seem to get drunk, or tired, or want to go home. These guys are really into the music, they feel it, love it and live it.

Blackpool Jazz and Blues Festival 2017 proudly raised funds for Trinity Hospice. 







Quote Of The Week

‘At the end of 1968 there were a lot of great electric guitar players in the room- a lot of chances to get discouraged and put your guitar down. But that kind of reaction is the ego talking. Whether your reaction is to stick out your chest, or to run and hide-superiority or instant inferiority-either one is full of shit. You’re supposed to be you.’

Carlos Santana, from his autobiography, ‘The Universal Tone

Flowers In November

Billie Holiday

I sometimes like to read about the seedier side of life because that’s where I see the diamonds in the rough, the flowers that bloom in November.

Just before we have our little tea and biscuit chat about Billie Holiday, because that’s the topic of today’s post, I’d like to give a little mention to a flowering plant called the ‘Sea Daisy.’ What’s that got to do with blues singer Billie Holiday you say, well, I’ll tell you, but all in good time.

I acquired the seed, quite by accident. When I was moving to the coast, several years ago, I dropped the pot. Plant, soil and all. My husband, realist that he is said, ‘You’ve lost that now, just bin it.’ and being the dreamer, idealist, that I am,(not necessarily an optimist) I got down on my knees and started to scrape up the earth with my hands, putting it back in the broken pot, much to the amusement of all my new neighbours, who were nosing around at the time.

A little baby leaf, about the size of a fingernail was all I had left of the plant that had died on the kerb, and it wasn’t even attached to anything, so I stuck it in into the soil, put in on the sill of the tiny window, in that dark little (temporary) bedsit, prayed over it, gave it love, baby. How do you give a plant love? Hard to explain. I’m not really one for expression of love, although I do feel it, I suppose, whatever it was, is, I gave it to that pot of soil, with the little biddy leaf.

The leaf grew, went from strength to strength, and I got some funky green things growing, man. It was far out. The plant did indeed regain its former glory but also, also, a strange new plant was born. Sea Daisies. They bloom in April/May and then again in the constant rainy gloom of November, where the days are short and dark, like the chocolate bars of today, but that’s seasons for you, you can’t live with ’em, you can’t live without ’em…

The Sea Daisy


Of course, I notice them more in November. Looking at those copious and vibrant amounts of beautiful pink flowers, year after year, during such a dark, damp November day, would put hope for the promise of spring in most people’s hearts. Any time I feel down, especially during these short days, I just look at those flowers in November and it cheers me right up. I’m looking at them right now. Here’s mine, a bit blurred, but then, I can never take a good picture, always blurred.


Flowers in November and diamonds in the rough and light in the darkest places… brings me right back to Billie.

Short listed for the Orange Prize, the book ‘With Billie’ by Julia Blackburn, instantly drew my attention because she sort of rescued the book, or rather a portion of material for the book. The woman who was originally accumulating all the research was Linda Kuehl. She painstaking and extensively gathered personal letters, photo’s, transcripts, documents from courts, hospitals, police rooms, newspaper cuttings and two shoe boxes full of audio tapes, full to the brim with interviews from everyone to John Levy the bass player to John Levy, the pimp.

Tragically, Linda Kuehl, committed suicide, by jumping from her apartment building, before the completion of her book. It is not known what had tipped her over the edge.

So, already, Julia Blackburn’s book, has a rather interesting back story, not a nice one, but still interesting.

A Jewish guy called Abel Meeropol, wrote  a poem called ‘Strange Fruit‘, about the systematic murder of black men by racist groups. Cause of death, strangulation, through lynching. He had been disturbed by a photograph of the murder scene and its victim. He set the poem to music and later changed his name to Lewis Allen. When the song is performed by Billie Holiday, it is still reminiscent of a poetry performance, the music accompaniment and melody is minimal, making the lyric and atmosphere even more potent. In the early 1900’s, lynching was at it’s most prevalent but was still going on in the forties. Black men were lynched for the ‘crime’ of ‘uppitiness’, a black man might be getting ‘above his station’, through job promotions, signs of growing wealth, going out with a woman he shouldn’t be going out with, any excuse. Billie herself had experienced segregation, even at the peak of her career and success. Even in some places in New York, facilities were out of bounds to her, restaurants, toilets, hotels, venues that white people took for granted. Sometimes she would have to stay in her room until she was called upon to sing her songs.

Billie cites one of the main reasons why the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and the FBI was always on her case, was because of that song. After she recorded it and it did so well, she felt it was no coincidence that they were always breathing down her neck. The minute she sung the last note of that song, she became, unwittingly, a political activist. Unwittingly, because she claimed she didn’t know what the song was about, at first. The poem is not without its clever subtleties, symbolisms and metaphors.

She was soon to understand, as time went on, how volatile it really was, and how it would guarantee that even, as she lay in her sick bed, she would be harassed by the authorities until the bitter end. Apparently, she had been getting much better in hospital, eating well and recovering enough to feel optimistic about the future.

But then a nurse reported the presence of white powder around her nose and she was instantly arrested, interrogated, all simple comforts removed from her bedside. No possibility of bail, kept under watch every minute of the day.  She was told that now, even if she got better, she would be transferred straight from hospital to prison.

Something broke in Billie that day. All her life, she had battled demons, survived a childhood of abuse, a life time of prostitution, a war with addiction, and finally, her very last battle with the authorities, before the wave of the white flag. All her life, she may have given in, but she never gave up. Now, it was time. Within the month, she was dead.

Many jazz musicians, black and white, were using drugs around the same time Billie was, including jazz legends Sarah Vaughan and Gerry Mulligan. Sarah Vaughan was targeted more readily than Gerry Mulligan. Perhaps, also being black, female and a friend of Billie’s may have made her fair game but as Billie said from a 1947 interview from Downbeat magazine, ‘I’ve made a lot of enemies. Singing that song hasn’t helped any.’

Jimmy Fletcher, a Federal Narcotics Agency  officer, was a man who had some regrets regarding the hounding of Billie. He appears to have had conflicting emotions, on one hand, understandably, he hated drugs and all they stood for, but he had a respect for Billie that had little to do with her being a singer and more to do with her humanity, what she was, not who she was. She had class, despite the quagmire that she had found herself in. Although completely swallowed up by her environment, she somehow, in some way, was able to rise above it. Her lack of confidence in the face of her fame and especially her talent, gave her an attractive modesty, a beguiling humility. She was known to be intelligent, kind and appeared to have integrity. Jimmy Fletcher noted that he had an opportunity to help her a few times and never took him up on it. Apparently, that was typical of Billie, she never called in favours from people she had much to get back from.

She came from the gutter and lived in it, but her ‘goodness’ gave her class. I’m not talking about social class, not monetary, silver spoon or hereditary. We all know the biggest fools and mightiest asses can and often do run roughshod through all the social classes, and there’s scum to be found on every shoe. Humanity, integrity, goodness, they’re the important qualities that denote class, in the true meaning of the word. What scale are we on ?

I’m going to leave Jimmy Fletcher with the last word, or at least, second to last. He said of Billie that ‘She was the loving type.’ Many would find it almost impossible to be the ‘loving type’ in an environment like that, and with an upbringing like that. It’s almost a miracle, but then, we know it must be possible, for we have seen flowers blooming in November.