So, years long ago, I worked in the TV listings department of the digest-sized TV GUIDE. As with my Wingspan piece, this essay – about a classic 1978 Austin City Limits episode that was slated to repeat on December 23, 2000 – came about due to me being the backup writer for the weekly Music Guide. PBS provided us with a videocassette, which I watched on a portable TV in my cubicle. I then wrote a summary for the column, a second summary for the stand-alone Close-Up, and – the week before air – was tapped to write an in-depth piece about it for the TV GUIDE Web site.
What follows is my final draft, but not the final version. I emailed it to one of several editors, who then scoured it for errors and – depending on his or her mood – may have rewritten portions of it.
A horn wails softly in the background. Smoke stabs the air. “When I was a kid, my dad had a 1957 station wagon. A Chevrolet. And, man, did I love that car! I used to go to the garage at night and turn out all of the lights and rub up against it. I think that was against the law….” Queued to the rap, a man’s silhouette leans against a gas pump, a cigarette dangling from his lips. It’s singer-songwriter Tom Waits, circa December 1978, his weathered, raspy voice echoing the boozy rhythms of “Burma Shave,” a slow, mesmerizing ode to lowlife losers stuck in a town not far from Route 66.
Watching this classic edition of Austin City—one of the most requested episodes in the series’ history—should be mandatory for wanna-be rock poets everywhere. Spinning story-songs focused on seedy yet sympathetic characters, he paints word-pictures that draw listeners in: “Licorice tattoo turned a gun metal blue/scrawled across the shoulders of a dying town/Took the one-eyed jacks across the railroad tracks/and the scar on its belly pulled a stranger passing through.” Although they ride atop the melody, the beat-inflected lyrics take on a life of their own. You could read ‘em at home and get a feel for the music’s rhythm, for the way the music seemingly meanders beneath Waits’ guttural growls before detouring back to the main drag in time to take the audience home.
The 50-minute set is filled with one stunner after another, from the exquisite “Annie’s Back In Town” (a gem found on the soundtrack to the 1978 film Paradise Alley) to “On the Nickel.” The latter is an aching lullaby for “little boys/who never say their prayers” and was inspired, he says during the introduction, by a Ralph Waite (yes, the actor from The Waltons) film about L.A.’s skid row. With a gorgeous, piano-based melody underpinning the story, Waits spins a heart-breaking tale about life on the other side of hope: “To never know how rich you are/you haven’t got a prayer/it’s head you wins/and tails they lose/on the nickel over there.”
Another highlight is “A Sweet Little Bullet (from a Pretty Blue Gun),” a tale about young girls heading for Hollywood “with nothing in their jeans/but sweet little wishes/and pretty blue dreams.” Soon, that quest for stardom transforms into a quest for escape: “I hear the sirens in the street/all the dreams are made of chrome/I have no way to get back home/I’d rather die before I wake/like Marilyn Monroe.” With his hat tipped forward, Waits jabs the strings of his guitar, pushing the rhythm into the audience’s face and forcing it to stare down the stark realities of society’s underbelly.
It’s a masterstroke of masterstrokes, as is “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis,” which is framed by a weary rendition of “Silent Night.” Accompanying himself at the piano, Waits takes on the personae of an unmarried, pregnant woman talking to a past love. “And, hey, Charlie, I think about you/every time I pass a filling station/on account of all the grease/you used to wear in your hair.” It’s a humorous moment of several—but the laughs don’t last, as her bravado slowly breaks down and the sad truth spills out.
Suffice it to say, Waits is an acquired tasted, someone—due to his croaked vocals—whose songs have found greater chart success via cover versions; Rod Stewart’s rendition of “Downtown Train” and Bruce Springsteen’s cover of “Jersey Girl” are but two examples. Yet, as this classic episode of Austin City demonstrates, Waits’ gruff voice is indeed the perfect lead instrument in all of his songs, the audio equivalent of each of the sad characters he sings about.