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Thomas Alan Waits (born December 7, 1949 in Pomona, California) is an American singer-songwriter, composer, and actor.
He started his career in the early 70s as a singer in dirty bars. Initially, he was deeply influenced by the beat generation (poets like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs) He could not make a living from his music although he was well accepted by the critics. The people at that time didn't like his classical bar music, pre-rock and Americana styles reminiscent of musical genres of the 50s and 40s, such as blues, jazz, and Vaudeville.
While listed as the opener for Frank Zappa, the audience catcalled and refused to listen to him. It appeared that Wait's classical Americana and Zappa's Avantgarde Jazz Rock were a less than perfect match.
Waits' voice was soft, warm and clear back then. He sang songs about the losers on the streets: alcoholics, junkies, prostitutes and social outcasts.
He is often compared to Charles Bukowski and like him he used to live the same lifestyle as his literal protagonists.
And countless cigarettes, gallons of alcohol and many parties all night long carved their traces into his face and voice.
This "new" gravely voice can be first heard on "Small Change". This voice is immediately recognizable and turned out to be his trademark, even though some people with a distinct harmonic sense of music can't stand to listen to it. It is described by the Music Hound Rock Album Guide 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."
"Small Change" with its sentimental ballads, its bar-jazz attitude and Film Noir orientated stories turned out to be his biggest commercial success in the 1970s.
He then developed his own style and it seems that this development is directly linked to the condition of his voice. His songs have grown more rude and hard since then. The arrangements have turned more surrealistic and experimental with every new record since then.
While composing the soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola's "One From The Heart" he met Kathleen Brennan his bride-to-be. They married in 1980 and she helped him quit drinking and smoking.
Since their marriage they started working together on his albums, too. She is often credited as co-producer or even as co-writer. It is hard to say which part belongs to her and which to him, but it's easy to see that they are a perfect team.
She also gave him three children and his eldest son Casey can be heard on turntables and percussion on Waits album "Real Gone".
One of his greatest impacts was the "Swordfishtrombones" album in 1983. His critics and fans were both hit by it in the same manner. He achieved a new level in song writing with this album and left former conventions and his earlier career behind. All songs, no matter if ballads jive or jazz are played in a completely different mood. It seems like Waits has banned the musical archetypes of these styles on record. All songs are flawless masterpieces of the Waits style. They are raw and plain at the same time and they build up the base for his success and his future career.
In the late 1980s he discovered a new way for his creativity in composing musicals.
His first Musical was named "The black Rider" and based on "Der Freischütz" von Carl Maria Weber. It was co produced by Robert Wilson and the lyrics came form William S. Burroughs (one of his admired beat poets). The story reminds a bit on Kurt Weil's and Berthold Brecht's "Three Penny Opera" and the 1930s.
The debut performance was in 1990 at the Thalia Theater Hamburg and was played by different theatre groups since then.
He also was responsible for two other musicals both first released at the same time in 2003.
One was the musical "blood money" covering the "Woyczek" theme of Georg Büchner. This one is one of the crudest and darkest works from Waits.
The other one is based on the story about Alice from Lewis Carroll. "Alice" is very romantic dreamily and soft and contains one of Waits most romantic songs.
Even they were released at the same time, the bootlegs of the "Alice" musical were long before traded between fans and were just rearranged and re-mastered for the official release.
To exemplify the difference of those two musicals here are some excerpts from both.
In Alice's "Everything you can think of" is a place for dreaming:
"Everything you can think of is true
And fishes make wishes on you
We're fighting our way up dreamland's spine
Red flamingos and expensive wine"
While in Blood Money's "Starving in the belly of a whale" dreaming is just a waste of time:
"Tell me who gives a good gooddamn
You'll never get get out alive
Don't go dreaming
Don't go scheming
A man must test his mettle
In crooked ol' world
Starving in the Belly…"
So it doesn't really surprise that the "Alice" record was very well accepted by the audience, while "Blood Money" was only loved by the real Waits fans.
Lyrically, Waits's songs are known for atmospheric portrayals of bizarre, seedy characters and places, although he has also shown a penchant for more conventional and touching ballads.
Waits has a devoted cult following and has influenced subsequent songwriters, despite having little radio or music video support. In fact, his songs are perhaps best known to the general public in the form of cover versions by more visible artists, such as the Eagles, Bruce Springsteen, and Rod Stewart.
Although Waits’ albums have met with mixed commercial success in his native United States, they have occasionally achieved gold album sales status in other countries.
Besides many film contributions as composer – imdb.com lists 47 appearances of Waits as composer and 38 soundtracks with Waits songs - he also is an actor with all in all 25 appearances, ranging from some mini roles as a trumpeter in "Heart of Saturday Night" over the R. M. Renfield in "Bram Stoker's Dracula" to - one of the main roles - Zack in "Down by Law" done by Jim Jarmush.
Waits has always refused to allow the use of his songs in commercials. He has filed several lawsuits against advertisers who used his material without permission. He has been quoted, "Apparently the highest compliment our culture grants artists nowadays is to be in an ad — ideally naked and purring on the hood of a new car," he said in a statement. "I have adamantly and repeatedly refused this dubious honor."
He was the first musician who successfully sued a company for using an impersonator without permission.
To get to know the special waits humour here are some quotes from his songs:
"And I'm standing on the corner of Fifth and Vermouth…using parking meters as walking sticks."
"The piano has been drinking, not me."
"I was born in the back seat of a Yellow Cab in a hospital loading zone and with the meter still running. I emerged needing a shave and shouted 'Time Square, and step on it!'"
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