By 1980 Tom Waits had come a long way from the nightclub ballads of his initial recordings Closing Time (1973) and The Heart of Saturday Night (1974). Having backed himself into a hobo-hipster corner from the derelict poet-saint jazz of Small Change (1976) and Foreign Affairs (1977), to the inebriated masterpiece of melancholy Blue Valentine (1978), Waits laid low for two years before re-emerging with the half slinky guitar-blues, half epic-ballads of the transitional masterpiece Heartattack and Vine.
Throughout the 1970s, Waits had built up, and just about drove into the ground, a distinctive musical persona: mini-epics chronicling urban America’s seamy underbelly. Lyrics including dime-store kitsch imagery, and music incorporating pre-rock styles such as blues, jazz and experimental cabaret, sung in his trademark growl, once described as sounding like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car several times. Heartattack and Vine, his last album with Asylum records, and the last with long-time producer Bones Howe, is a fine exponent of all these elements, however points towards something of a new direction.
The Filmway/Heider’ Studio B in the RCA building on the corner of Ivar and Sunset had a healthy rock ‘n’ roll reputation in the 70s, and it was there where the material for Heartattack and Vine was recorded. His ensemble, many of whom would go on to work with him throughout the 1980s, is sounding more jagged than ever, suiting the caustic subject matter to a tee. There seems to be a more limited musical scope, but in a good way and it comes across as pleasingly spontaneous when compared to some of his previously unwieldy compositions.
Something of a schizophrenic collection of songs: spirited and morbid, it opens with the title track, essentially a slow, dirty 12-bar workout. The drummer is using sticks not brushes, and Tom’s own electric guitar grinds along with his ghastly gargles. Waits gave up smoking around this time, you wouldn’t know it though. The cauldron that is his voice is more gravely than ever. In Shades is a fine R&B instrumental complete with nightclub audience applause, and the rough and ready Downtown is first take recording at its best with a ripping Ronnie Barron amphetamine organ solo. Elsewhere there is the amped-up mambo beats of Til The Money Runs Out (“sold a quart of blood and bought half a pint of scotch“), and the drunk and staggering blues of Mr Siegal (referring to Bugsy Siegal) including the line “how do the angels get to sleep when the devil leaves his porch light on”; both are highlights.
The ballad materiel perhaps isn’t as immediate. Saving All My Love For You, a Foreign Affairs outtake with a fifties film-score orchestration, and the albums most famous number (thanks to Bruce Springsteen who would incorporate it into his live set throughout the 1980s) Jersey Girl about a guy walking down the street to meet his girl, are both long and slow, orchestrated dramatically around Tom’s piano. The antiquated On the Nickel was written for the Ralph Waites motion picture of the same name, and album closer Ruby’s Arms is quite the tear-jerker harking back to his early days, and something of a Salvation Army band showpiece.
Forsaking his usual post-album tour to work on the film project with Coppola on what would become the soundtrack to One From the Heart, Heartattack and Vine is something of a crossroads album between where he is now, and his 70’s Asylum records. Moving to Island with the release of 1983’s magnificent Swordfishtrombones, Waits achieved a still-remarkable musical reinvention: one of the world’s finest songwriters and performers had, in the space of two albums, turned himself into a curator of styles that he has made effortlessly his own: an experimental-vaudeville-industrial-kitchen-sink-melting pot with varying degrees of ferocity. Heartattack and Vine echoes the past and foreshadows the future, and like all good Tom Waits albums is still essential listening for the dissolute and the damned – even if only for 35 minutes.
1. Heartattack and Vine ∗∗∗∗∗
2. In Shades ∗∗∗∗
3. Saving all My Love for You ∗∗∗
4. Downtown ∗∗∗∗
5. Jersey Girl ∗∗∗
6. Til the Money Runs Out ∗∗∗∗∗
7. On the Nickel ∗∗∗
8. Mr. Siegal ∗∗∗∗
9. Ruby’s Arms ∗∗∗