Icon: Tom Waits
It has the smoothness of Barry White, but the raspiness of a mountain lion.
Why yes, that is RZA describing Tom Waits’s voice—perhaps better than anyone else ever has.
And it’s that voice—that raspy, gnarly, gutter-dog howl of a voice—that has fueled the myth of Tom Waits for 40-some years now, up through today’s release of Seven Psychopaths, starring Waits (curiously petting a curiouser bunny) as one of the psychopaths.
It’s a myth that’s as iconic as any, and well worth a little thought and consideration…
Now let’s be clear: there’s Tom Waits. And then there’s “Tom Waits.” Tom Waits: the earnest troubadour behind smoky late-night ballads like “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You.” The guy who rasp-crooned his way around LA in the ’70s, like some glorious combination of Kerouac, Louis Armstrong and a burned-out lounge lizard. A badass, a rebel, a poet… all that.
And then there’s “Tom Waits”: the guy who took Tom’s place in the early ’80s, devoting himself to portraying a cartoonishly outsized carnival barker version of Tom Waits. This guy got going with the unlikely help of Sylvester Stallone, who cast him as a piano player in Paradise Alley, Waits’s first film. A little while later, Waits jumped recording labels, adopted a more baroque sound (electric guitars! weird megaphone vocals! no more pianos!) and married Kathleen Brennan (who he later described as the Bogart to his Ingrid Bergman), a writer, artist and collaborator who would later cowrite many of Waits’s songs.
He spent the next couple decades barreling between films, soundtracks and increasingly avant-garde albums—all without losing the roadside dog persona that made him so damn lovable in the first place. His attire hasn’t changed much: you’ll typically see him wearing a porkpie over his still-unwieldy hair, a rumpled thrift-store jacket that somehow fits him perfectly and an overall sense that what he’s wearing has been slept in, drunk in, smoked in, worried in and God knows what else in. And for some reason he seems to almost always be photographed in black and white.
Which leads us to the most iconic, stylish and handsome photos of Waits ever taken. And this clip from Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, in which “Tom Waits” plays ““Tom Waits”” as only he can…
- — Paul L. Underwood