In spite of what his apparently unyielding artistic vision may suggest, Tom Waits is nothing if not a willing collaborator. During his early Asylum years (1973 – 1980) the fledging San Diego upstart found support and guidance through arranger Bob Alcivar and producer Bones Howe – he of 5th Dimension & The Monkees prior. Indeed, even in the supreme confident wilderness that is Waits’ 80s output onward, Kathleen Brennan and Francis Thumm were but two of a coterie of figures central to influencing Waits’ grand rebirth.
Waits is never shy either to give room to another musician on the record. Supposedly his routine is to beat out the core of the song on piano or guitar, allowing his fellow players to adapt and write around it. The method works it seems, here’s 9 of the best musicians that have seemed to influence him most:
Mike Melvoin – Piano (The Heart of Saturday Night, Nighthawks at the Diner)
Drafted in by producer Bones Howe to give some technicality to Waits’ grown sophomore effort The Heart of Saturday Night, Melvoin is one of the forgotten stars of Waits’ earlier music, especially in regards to his electric live performance throughout the entirety of Nighthawks at the Diner. After being introduced to each other, Melvoin quickly received Waits seal of approval as he recalled backing poet Kenneth Rexroth while a student at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
Though there’s any number of tracks to choose from that Melvoin enlivens with his remarkable technique, ‘Eggs & Sausage’, with its gorgeously realised runs of twinkle notes is perhaps his best. His playing brings out a great sense of purpose and joy to this wonderful catalogue of greasy late night salvation.
Marc Ribot – Guitar (Rain Dogs, Franks Wild Years, Big Time, Mule Variations, Real Gone, Orphans, Bad as Me)
It’s impossible to listen to the latter era Waits and not instantly recognise the syrupy elastic of Marc Ribot’s incredible guitar work. Seizing on the chaotic blueprint laid down by Fred Tackett on Swordfishtrombones, the one-time Lounge Lizards member has been a central figure in the sound of Tom Waits ever since Rain Dogs.
Ever the inventor, according to Tom: ‘Ribot prepares his guitar with alligator clips and has this whole apparatus made out of tinfoil and transistors that he kinda sticks on the guitar. Or he wraps the stirngs with gum, all kinds of things, just to get it sound real industrial.
Whilst it’s perhaps obvious to reach for his demented stomps as evidenced on such classics as ‘Rain Dogs’ & ‘I’ll Be Gone’ as shining examples of his mastery, this fretboard Renaissance man is not only comfortable in the uncomfortable, but a damn fine traditional rock guitarist too!
In ‘Hang Down Your Head’, Ribot provides wonderful accompaniment to this gentle, Kathleen Brennan co-credit, anthem, his solo unflashy and tastefully built around a scrap of notes, at once expansive and nostalgic.
Les Claypool – Bass (Bone Machine, Mule Variations, Real Gone, Orphans, Bad as Me)
The longtime Primus singer/bassist, Les Claypool, just makes sense as someone who Waits would work with. Both are witty, urbane songwriters who relish in exploiting weird concepts and werider sounds.
As fellow Primus guitarist Larry LaLonde dominates this song with his harsh stabs ringing out both bitter and clean, Claypool’s descending bass runs are ever present, laying a hearty foundation to this, the incredible opener to one of Waits’ true masterpieces, Mule Variations. Scandalously the only Waits album to ever win a Grammy!
Pete Christilieb – Tenor Saxophone (The Heart of Saturday Night, Nighthawks at the Diner)
Another fantastic player from the Nighthawks band along with the aforementioned Mike Melvoin, Christlieb’s crisp, mournful playing is all over Waits’ early releases, providing tender interludes and searching solo moments.
‘Depot Depot’ finds the saxophonist at his best, first providing the late night haze of the slumbered intro and then launching into a full-blooded solo performance. The notes are pure and hit with a piercing depth, the perfect evocation of the hustler poetry Waits seemed consumed by at the time.
Fred Tackett – Guitar (Swordfishtrombones, Big Time)
Best known as the lead guitarist for the excellent Little Feat, Tackett’s guitar can be heard all over Swordfishtrombones, heavily influencing both Ribot and the entire approach of Waits onward. His idiosyncratic, squeky approach is the perfect yin to the razed clatter of Waits’ vocal yang, constantly busy and seeking out little moment to stuff more incongruous melody amongst.
‘Underground’ is undeniably the Fred Tackett song, a wondrous showcase of his commanding lead work, at once both dulcet and dissonant, playful yet erratic. The wacky lead dragging the song through its demented sonic sludge. Perhaps this is a reach on my part, but does the song not seem to have influenced the playing fo the closing Spongebob Squarepants theme? See below:
Jim Hughart – Bass (The Heart of Saturday Night, Nighthawks at the Diner, Small Change, Foreign Affairs, Blue Valentines, Heartattack and Vine)
As one of Tom’s most frequent and consistent contributors, (he performs on the most albums on this list), Hughart has a special place in the heart of fans. His jazzy, creative lines instantly recognisable and always inventive.
Though his list of great moments is countless, it would be a crime not to automatically include ‘Diamond on Windshield’ in this list. The finger clicking bassline is grand and searching, its constant drive the perfect counterpoint to Waits’ effortessly smooth spoken word delivery.
Lew Tabackin – Tenor Saxophone (Small Change)
Even though he appears on but one of Waits’ releases, 1976’s Small Change, Lew Tabackin nevertheless made a great impression. His intelligent, soulful leads providing a great elegance to the outro of ‘I Wish I Was In New Orleans’, as well as some nourishingly noirish backing on ‘The One That Got Away’.
It’s on the high-powered, free wheeling ‘Step Right Up’ however that Tabackin really cements himself. His leads giddy and robust, at times mimicking Waits’ on his scattershot vocal rhythmic pleas ,at times else just rising above the song, pulling notes from nowhere and adding to the sense of intensity driven by the skittering power of Shelley Manne’s drums. Through all 5 minutes of the track Tabackin is there in the background, finally letting rip as an Elephant raw as Tom charges on hustling.
William Schimmel – Accordion (Rain Dogs, Franks Wild Years)
Recognised widely as one of the principal architects in the modern resurgence of the accordion, as well as a founder ‘Musical Reality’, a form of music that composes with pre-existing music, Schimmel’s appearances on the two latter albums of the Franks trilogy marks one of the great collaborations for Waits.
Though he merely introduces the song with a flurry of notes and then departs till it nears its close, Schimmel’s maniacal playing on ‘Rain Dogs’ is one of the great moments in the entire Waits oeuvre. The sense of occasion and place which he endows the song with at the beginning is rich and robust, the perfect opening for a song concerning the album’s titular focus.
Ronnie Barron – Organ (Heartattack and Vine, One From The Heart, Swordfishtrombones)
A New Orleans session legend drafted in to provide organs on the rocky ‘Heartattack & Vine’, Barron collaborated with lots of legends from Dr. John to Canned Heart and Ry Cooder.
‘Downtown’ is practically Barron’s song, he bubbles up and begins it and Tom’s delivery of the old melodic trope is a little predictable in comparison throughout. In the verses he slinks low in the shadows, providing little modular elements to the chords . The solo and sense of improvisation is electric,. As the song fades out he builds on tiny, insatiable grooves.
‘Down in the Hole’ is a fortnightly Tom Waits podcast exploring the entire ouevre of the American singer songwriter, album by album. It is hosted by Sam Whiles (@sidwidle1) and Tom Kwei (@tomkweipoet):
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