Friday, June 20, 2014

Discographies: Tom Waits Nighthawks at the Diner

Nighthawks at the Diner is one of two Tom Waits albums I had heard all the way through before starting this project. I'd heard it not too long ago and was completely blown away by it. Hearing again in the context of the two albums before it, what I find interesting is that while it makes perfect sense it is also quite surprising. Closing Time had a melancholy feel throughout and Saturday Night had a restless longing, but Nighthawks brings, above all, a sense of fun and humor to the mix. The album was recorded live in studio, with an audience, but it is all new material, so I didn't break my rules.

The material here is an expansion of the jazz heard in The Heart of Saturday Night, particularly Diamonds on My Windshield. Every song has a spoken intro that is often hard to separate from the song itself as it all plays like improvised jazz poetry, making the album seamless and best experienced as a whole. The stories are often "personal" and come with jokes, often resulting in a raspy chuckle from Waits himself. Overall the album makes me smile all the way through, which is a very unique experience for me to have with music.

We're Nighthawks, too! 
There's just something about diners that I love. It's the food, it's the simplicity, the general atmosphere, the history, the people. All of it. There's nothing like ending up at a diner in the wee hours of the night before heading home (which at 41, with kids, if you even find the time and energy to go out at all, means about 9 or 10pm). Jazz club conceit aside, this is what the album is about, really. Waits is often called a poet and it's clear from this album why that is. The pictures he paints don't feel like paintings, though. More like photographs. This is observational poetry from an eye (and ear) that misses nothing. As far as I'm concerned the diner in Eggs and Sausage is real and Waits sat in it writing down what he saw and heard over endless cups of coffee and maybe pie. The poetry of small, mundane moments, of orders taken and small talk and menus. The unintentional human contact when handing back a menu or taking a plate from a waitress. The sound of silverware, punctuating the unintelligible late night mumble of a crowd lost in their own conversations about life, what to order, what the future may hold, the movie they saw, how great this pie is, why it's time to break up, why it's time have kids, why it's time for more coffee. I want to go to this diner.

This album, perhaps because it's recorded live, also features a much raspier Tom Waits. Closer to the Tom Waits voice of today, thought not quite as much. Hearing the first two albums, it was remarkable how much softer his voice was. I expect it only gets raspier as we go along and at a certain point, he may lose the ability to go to the softer voice, based on the interview clips I've seen where he can't quite seem to smoke enough. After hearing this album, I searched the Youtubes for live footage of its recording and didn't find anything, but we do have something pretty close in this episode of PBS Soundstage from 1975 that features songs from Nighthawks as well as Saturday Night. Grab a cup of coffee or something harder, and enjoy.

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