Week Eight: Tom Waits, The Early Years, Volume One. This CD cost me $11.22.
My introduction to the wonderful world of Waits was as a freshman in college (California! Uber alles!). The first thing I heard by Waits was his masterwork, Rain Dogs. I quickly discovered Franks Wild Years and Swordfishtrombones, and then worked backwards to his earlier stuff. Of course, that triad of insanely great albums --- with their otherwordly, almost bestial sound --- remained the quintessential Waits for me.
It is almost always the case that our first exposure to a new artist becomes our touchstone for that artist, a comfortable favorite no matter in what directions the artists goes after (or, in this case, prior) to our discovery. I once met someone who came at Waits from the opposite side: I played the then-just released Bone Machine in a group, and this fellow, who was quite a bit older than me (probably my age now), reacted with horror at the clank, boom and steam of the first few tracks. It wasn't until the album slowed down and Waits began one of his trademark growling, melodramatic, beautiful ballads that the fellow asked me incredulously, "Is this Waits?" when I affirmed that indeed it was, he said that he much preferred Waits' earlier stuff --- the jazzy folk sound of the nightclubs that was Waits' previous trademark.
As I said, to me, that's not Classic Waits. Now, I'm a slavering fan of nearly every note the man has recorded, so I'm certainly not disparaging Waits' recorded beginnings. Indeed, I regard Small Change as one of the best albums of all time. But to me, in general, the younger the Waits, the less I'm enthralled.
So, encountering The Early Years --- a collection of Waits' pre-debut demos --- many years after my initial discovery of the noise-merchant Waits, I wasn't very pleased with it. "Why," young Chance sneered, "he sounds almost like Arlo Guthrie on this!" And if it were the fashion, I'm sure I would have added a "Pshaw!" So I put it aside, and went back to Rain Dogs for the 10,000th time.
But again, years after that, I decided to give The Early Years another listen. And yea, verily, it came me like unto a vision that Tom Waits is a God of Music, and Can Do No Wrong. These songs, though perhaps unrefined, show that even as a youth he was one of the greatest songwriters of his generation, and hint at the brilliance to come. It's not essential listening, by any means, but definitely worthwhile, far from the dross I dismissed it as way back when I was a foolish youth.