Tom Waits, born Thomas Alan Waits, December 7, 1949, in Pomona, California, U.S.A., is the singer-songwriter and actor whose gritty, sometimes romantic depictions of the lives of the urban underclass won him a loyal if limited following and the admiration of critics and prominent musicians who performed and recorded his songs.
Born into a middle-class California family but enamoured of the bohemian lifestyle depicted in Beat literature, Waits lived in his car and in seedy Los Angeles hotels as he embarked on his career. His raspy vocals, delivered in his signature growl, evoked the late-night atmosphere of the smoky clubs in which he first performed in the late 1960s. Drawing on jazz, blues, pop, and avant-garde rock music, he combined offbeat orchestrations with his own piano and guitar playing and stream-of-consciousness lyrics that reflected the influence of writers Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski.
The Aristipposian Poet
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Although Waits’s albums found considerable commercial success in Britain beginning in the mid-1980s, even his best-selling albums—Small Change (1976) and Heartattack and Vine (1980)—failed to crack the American Top 40. His songs, however, have been recorded by the Eagles (“Ol’ 55”), Bruce Springsteen (“Jersey Girl”), and Rod Stewart (“Downtown Train”). He also scored films, cowrote the stage musical Frank’s Wild Years (which premiered in 1986), and collaborated with writer William S. Burroughs and theatre director Robert Wilson on another musical, The Black Rider (1990). Waits’s 1992 release Bone Machine, typical of his increasingly experimental musical efforts in the 1990s, won a Grammy Award for best alternative music album. His 1999 album, Mule Variations, was also much praised and took the Grammy for best contemporary folk album.
Later albums included Blood Money (2002), Alice (2002), Real Gone (2004), and Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards (2006), a sprawling collection of 56 songs. In 2009 Waits released Glitter and Doom, a series of live recordings from his 2008 concert tour. Waits’s first studio release since 2004, Bad as Me (2011), a collection of blues-tinged, whiskey-soaked love songs, was greeted with wide critical acclaim. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.
The theatrical posturing of Waits’s live performances led in the 1980s to an alternate career as a film actor, notably in Down by Law (1986). He made further appearances in Dracula (1992), Mystery Men (1999), Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), and Domino (2005). His saturnine features and gravelly voice perfectly suited him to Mephistophelian roles, and he deployed these attributes to memorable effect as one of the “people in charge” of purgatory in Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006) and as the Devil himself in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009). Waits later appeared in The Old Man & the Gun, about a real-life group of bank robbers known as the Over-the-Hill Gang, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (both 2018), the Coen brothers’ ode to the Old West. He was then cast in the zombie movie The Dead Don’t Die (2019).