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How to Listen to Tom Waits

Updated on March 3, 2016
Nightcat profile image

Nightcat is a Jane of all trades and likes to pass on tips she’s found useful around the home.

One Cool Cat

If you landed here and know who Tom Waits is, you've already completed step one. Nobody today knows him all that well, or if the do, they say he is everything offensive about music. But here you'll get a step by step guide to listening to a man who's music defies attempts to put it in any set genre.

The videos included here are by Tom Waits, so if you offend easily, run far, far away. Run to Far, Far Away, he played there too. But I'll be starting off with one sure to raise the hackles of folks everywhere. Why? Because he's Tom Waits That's why.

Tom waits intro image courtesy of Nelo Tunes All videos and image copyrights remain with the original holder.

PLEASE NOTE: No offense is meant by posting any of the videos or songs. Waits makes a profound point with each one. If you own the original copyright and want something removed, please ask and I'll be happy to do so.

Not Well Known?

OK maybe an informal poll isn't exactly scientific, but out of the three people I asked recently, only one heard of Tom Waits. He knew one song, but had no idea what the title was. This is sad as he is in the Music Hall of Fame. You'd think more folks would know of him. He is an artist in the here and now, and actor too.

Of course I mentioned Robert Johnson and also drew blanks so maybe I need a wider audience. Still, the point is he isn't well known, but should be. America has some true home-grown, distinctive artists, but we never give them due respect.

Let me explain something, I dearly love the man, respect him as an artist and marvel at the voice.If the site seems sparse due to no pictures other than the intro. Well, he has been known to sue folks. True, they were companies making money and using his work without permission, but still.

Do you know who Tom Waits is?

Well, do you?

Do you know who he is?

See results

Sea of Love

He's a lot sexier on this song than The Honeydrippers! The beat sounds almost like calypso, but there's also rock guitar, and his vocals can't be classified. But the song and his voice draw you in, lure you onto the dance floor.

There just aren't too many musical artists left that deserve the title, but this track proves Tom Waits deserves the title. Strong backup vocals, and a rocking band. He has perfection covered.

PS This is the title track from the film of the same name.

Lie to Me

I llove the dreamy quality of the music here. The lyrics are simple, and this is a video he made, yes! He should honestly do this more often. His visuals add so much to the songs. Sort of like a concert without all the drunks doing catcalls.

Chocolate Jesus

Only Tom Waits could take those inspirational candies we are bombarded with each year and make a song about them. Sure slightly cynical, he's pointing out candy doen't a faith make. But in a wonderful paradox, he has faith through the candy, at least.

Sorry the video is choppy, but it has that megaphone, glitter-tossing, dancing madness that is Tom Waits going on. I remember seeing this and thinking he sounded like a cross between the blues and The Squirrel Nut Zippers.

I love this song as it plays back on the idea that blues musicians were all going to hades in a hand basket. Seriously. Folks were taught the blues were evil, esp. as the song lyrics reveled in wild women, drinking and gambling. A lot of the early bluesmen like Son House wrestled with the agony of feeling eternal damnation was coming for them, yet the blues kept calling them away from salvation.

Little Drop of Poison

Mmm, all the huffing in the intro, still sounds like a bluesman to me. But he still has that alternative sound band behind him. Made famous in Shrek 2 when played by Hook in the bar scene, this classic remains a favorite. You could almost dance to this one. In fact there is a dance video out there, but I feel it detracts. Just listen.

He's abandoned by all his friends, his woman, everyone. I hear you, Tom. Also the idea the devil made the world is not new. Some faith-based preachers say just that. Trust me I was as religious and Bible-thumping as the best of them at one point. Then popular music called me away. But some folks truly believe that while God controls the universe, he let the devil take over the world to make mankind suffer. And what is his most potent weapon after women? Music!

Maybe they have a point. The more music lyrics I remember the less Biblical passages I can quote.


So the crops won't grow, and everybody is headed to Chicago via train. Is it about the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, or something else? It sure sounds like a mass exodus. Yet wait. He's following his woman, so he doesn't seem to care what anyone else is doing. He's having soul pains. Maybe from not providing for his woman, maybe for the hardscrabble life he leads. But he sure ain't happy.

Will things be better in Chicago? You sure hope so but in a city so filled with people where are the rest going to go? At times when masses of people leave unproductive farms and hit the cities you often end up with the majority of the men waiting at the warfs and other such places, hoping for work. Not always the golden city or easy life the song seems to promise.

It could also be that Chicago has become blues Mecca. Not that I'm trying to pigeonhole him as a bluesman, but by the gods, he has the voice for it.

Anywhere I lay My Head

I like this song for the dignity of the whole thing. OK, it is a prime example of why most folks either love or hate him. Some people think his singing voice is tremendous, others not so much. Since he's never liked being defined he can use the excuse of say, the blues, where folks wouldn't expect each word to come out crystal clear. Slurring or mispronouncing words being a characteristic of the genre.

But for some reason the song reminds me of a weeping South. One of taverns and singers, one where the past haunts the present and even the land mourns with shame over three hundred years of slavery.. A despairing soil that longed for eons for a world of dignity, gravitas, and profound respect for all people.

Grab A Seat

Grab a seat and have a listen.
Grab a seat and have a listen.

Tom Waits in Four Easy Steps

Here's your handy-dandy listening guide. It really helps to not be uptight when you play an MP3 of his. Or spin a CD or whatever. Just relax. That's it. Relax.

  1. Have a sense of humor. This is the man who brought us Chocolate Jesus. Ironically, this offended people, though he is reffering to the inspirational sweets out at Easter time. You know, chocolate crosses, candy bars with Bible verses, yadda, yadda, yadda. I've even seen a chocolate Jesus, which I'm not sure has anything to do with religion whatsoever. Eating the Good Lord, how gauche.
  2. Don't expect anything he does on stage to make sense. As you'll see from the first video, he'll sing through a bullhorn, throw glitter, dance, do anything that apparently comes to mind. Sure he's crazy. Crazy as a fox. Folks eat this stuff up.
  3. Don't expect him to make sense. One song is about Christmas cards from a call girl, a couple more are religious songs. What? Huh? It is Tom Waits, trying to understand him may blow your mind.
  4. Get into a very relaxed position and enjoy. Don't bother putting him on your iPod and hitting the gym. You need to be sitting or lying down in a very dark room, and just chill to the music.

Dave the Butcher

This reminds me of the lovely imported horror films from the '60s and '70s. They were still set in castles, usually had very poor film quality, and seemed to be pieced together at random. Almost always dubbed, they always have one crazy, creepy, Carnival of the Dead song like this. I just love it. It is so creepy-cool. He doesn't care you can't dance to it, or that there are no lyrics.

Now that is how music should be. I'd say Tom Waits made this song for Tom Waits. It is never going to get massive airplay, or anything other than a fan video or animation as shown here. Though as Tom Waits isn't exactly a music video fan on his own behalf, I guess it is a moot point. Still, massively cool. Certainly not music for the masses.

Downtown Train

I think I heard this on the radio exactly once. For whatever reason Tom Waits songs don't always catch on with him. After one play everything became the Rod Stewart version. Which is a shame because you should salute your sources and I've never heard Tom Waits come up in an interview that mentions the song.

Rain Dogs Album

Heart Attack and Vine

Half the fun is the contortions Tom Waits goes through as he sings. That ringing, growling voice. That cigarette you'd never see another singer with. But unfiltered cigs may be the secret to his rasp. They were for many singers, but they killed them too.

You know I can't think of any other singer who could dress like a private eye and pull it off. That takes a level of cool most performers don't have. The jerking dance, blowing smoke through his nose. Tom Waits is as much a performance artist as he is a singer.

Tom Traubert's Blues

Tom Waits brings a lot of his grittyness to the song, bleakness too, but with a hint of warmth. No matter how bad things get, there is a release somewhere. I somehow always see him under an old streetlight as he sings this. A lot of people confuse it with the Australian folk song, Waltzing Matilda, but they are completely different songs.

Trust me when I was a little kid I had no idea there was a difference other than lyrics either, but he wrote the song.

He also acts! Enjoy. - Deleted scene, Mystery Men

Also, Ironweed!

Offended? Astounded? Fire away!

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    • Nightcat profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago

      Hi, cam8510! I actually did this a while ago on Squidoo, but I'm happy you enjoyed it. And thanks for the video link as well. :)

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 

      4 years ago from Hartford, CT

      Well, I wrote a Tom Waits hub too. We picked some of the same songs. Great artist and a good man. Here is a link to a video you may not have seen. Good hub, thanks for sharing.

    • Nightcat profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      @anonymous: I couldn't agree more, rauspitz! He's still soulful in an age of clone singers, thanks for the visit! :)

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I've been a Tom Waits fan for a long time. As soon as you hear that voice you know exactly who it is and it's all worth listening to.

    • Nightcat profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      @BarbaraCasey: I love him too, BarbaraCasey. I should add a few of those as videos, he can use all the love he can get. Thanks for visiting! :)

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Actually I really like Tom Waits singing his ballads. I have a tape from a few years back that has Heart of Saturday Night, Jersey Girl, The Piano Has Been Drinking and such. A tremendously talented guy, for sure.

    • Nightcat profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Merci, vlado! It is heartening to hear Tom Waits has a following there. I love his work, it is just the right thing for a rainy day like today. Thanks for visiting! )

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Here in Europe almost every music lover who's over 16 knows very well who Tom Waits is and would name you a few albums or at least songs that have made it into their top 10 of all times that he has wrote. What I find unique about uncle Tom is that he hasn't made a wrong step in over 40 years of recording, touring, acting and even giving interviews. Everyone has a bad album or at least a bad song or a stupid interview or something, everyone but Tom. After all this time there isn't a song I'd skip when I'm listening to his music.

    • Nightcat profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Thanks so much hughgrissettsr! I love it too. He has so much talent and doesn't get enough love IMHO. Thanks for visiting! :)

    • hughgrissettsr lm profile image

      hughgrissettsr lm 

      6 years ago

      nice lens! tom waits is a very unique artist! love downtown train!!!

    • Nightcat profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Thanks so much Steph_Tietjen. Thanks for visiting. :)

    • Steph Tietjen profile image

      Stephanie Tietjen 

      6 years ago from Albuquerque, New Mexico

      I love Downtown Train too...& Heartattack & Vine. The Dave the Butcher video was great!

    • Nightcat profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      I'm so happy you said that, sallemange. I've been thinking of adding it since most folks don't know he did it first. Thanks for visiting!

    • sallemange profile image


      6 years ago

      Totally unique. Its Downtown Train for me.


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