Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Classic Albums: Tom Waits, Nighthawks at the Diner

This week the fact that I am about to become a father, and that my life will soon never be the same again, hit me with the full force of reality.  I feel ready for it, since my rough and rowdy days are behind me, but last night, as I put the finishing touches on transforming my office into a nursery, I sipped from a glass of wine while listening to Tom Waits' Nighthawks at the Diner, just for old time's sake.

I may be settled down now with a wonderful wife and a secure job, but that's only been a rather recent development.  About this time six years ago I moved from Illinois, where I studied for my PhD, to western Michigan for a temporary "visiting" professor gig.  Soon after I moved I broke up with my longtime girlfriend, and while I eventually made some close and dear friends, the first few months up there were rough.  I spent a lot of time alone, and a lot more of that time alone than I should have hanging out in bars or drinking alone in my apartment.  About the same time I got into Tom Waits, and the album that set his hooks into me was Nighthawks at the Diner.

That might sound like an odd choice, but for all my avant-garde pretensions, I'd always had a hard time digesting the more challenging work he released after Heart Attack and Vine.  (Luckily, I got over it.)  On the other hand, I loved his sense of humor from the get-go, and Nighthawks might be one of the funniest non-comedy albums of all time.  (The intro where he talks about taking himself out on a date still gets me howling with laughter.)  Although it's meant to sound like a live album recorded at a club, Waits cut the record in the studio, which had been turned into an ersatz club, with some of his friends forming the audience.

As a lonely, romantic and bar-hopping young man looking for the "heart of saturday night," I saw a lot of myself in his boozehound-jazzbo persona of the 1970s.  During that period in the autumn of 2006 before I made my fateful January flight out to New Jersey to visit my now wife (we'd met the previous summer in a neutral location but hadn't yet become romantically involved), I lamented my single status and lack of a permanent job, and wondered whether I'd end up being a broken-down sad bohemian drunk like a character in a Tom Waits song.

Sometimes I felt like embracing that eventuality, especially when I listened to my favorite song on the album, "Better Off Without a Wife."  Before this song Waits spins a tale of taking himself out for a date at a "class joint" like Burrito King, and how much he gets along with himself as a partner.  (This monologue also contains one of the funniest bits about masturbation I've ever heard.)  He proudly declares his singlehood, bragging that he can "sleep until the crack of noon" and that he "don't have to ask permission if I want to go out fishin'."  Of course, there's a little melancholy beneath the song, as he's not sure if he really does prefer the single life after all, or whether he's just trying to convince himself of the fact.  After all, the first words are "all my friends are married," implying that his status makes him more than a little lonely.

In addition to spending lots of time in bars in those days, I also frequented the many diners I was lucky to have in my neighborhood.  It's only been in the last couple of years that I have been able to better manage my addiction to diner food, which I must say is especially hard to do here in New Jersey.  Like bars, these eating establishments were places where I could socialize with the strangers and staff, and feel a little less alone.  On this album, as the title would attest, Waits gives a hilarious monologue about eating at some less than savory diners where his veal cutlet jumped up on the counter and "tried to beat the shit out of my cup of coffee, but my cup of coffee wasn't strong enough to defend itself."  The following song, "Eggs and Sausage" beautifully describes the cheap pleasure of a late night diner meal. God knows I've have a few in my life.

During my months of loneliness I was, to quote the old song, looking for love in all the wrong places.  Who knew that great women don't hang around in dive bars to talk to drunken depressives?  No song better gets to the heart of that problem than the aptly named "Warm Beer and Cold Women."  Although  Waits later disowned his jazzy lounge style, I would hope that he's still proud of this song, which kept me company on many a long and lonely night.

In the end I never turned into a Tom Waits character, I was saved by the love of a wonderful woman and liberation from the vagaries of working in the academic field, which are enough to drive anyone to drink.  Even though I no longer gather dust at the corner bar and finish off my evenings with a chili dog at the local diner, I can still listen to these songs with the appreciation that they helped get me through some pretty tough times.  Hell, they're sweet sounding enough that I might just end up playing them while rocking some babies to sleep.

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