Tom Waits

On this Day:

On March 14, 2011, Tom Waits is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Neil Young. Immediately after his performance at his induction, Elton John noted: “If Jackson Pollack could sing, he’d sound like Tom Waits.”

Thomas Alan Waits (born December 7, 1949) is an American musician, composer, songwriter and actor. His lyrics often focus on the underbelly of society and are delivered in his trademark deep, gravelly voice. He worked primarily in jazz during the 1970s, but his music since the 1980s has reflected greater influence from blues, rock, vaudeville, and experimental genres.

Waits was born and raised in a middle-class family in Pomona, California. Inspired by the work of Bob Dylan and the Beat Generation, he began singing on the San Diego folk music circuit as a young boy. He relocated to Los Angeles in 1972, where he worked as a songwriter before signing a recording contract with Asylum Records. His first albums were the jazz-oriented Closing Time (1973) and The Heart of Saturday Night (1974), which reflected his lyrical interest in nightlife, poverty, and criminality. He repeatedly toured the United States, Europe, and Japan, and attracted greater critical recognition and commercial success with Small Change (1976), Blue Valentine (1978), and Heartattack and Vine (1980). He produced the soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola’s film One from the Heart (1981), and subsequently made cameo appearances in several Coppola films.

In 1980, Waits married Kathleen Brennan, split from his manager and record label, and moved to New York City. With Brennan’s encouragement and frequent collaboration, he pursued a more experimental and eclectic musical aesthetic influenced by the work of Harry Partch and Captain Beefheart. This was reflected in a series of albums released by Island Records, including Swordfishtrombones (1983), Rain Dogs (1985), and Franks Wild Years (1987). He continued appearing in films, notably starring in Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law (1986), and also made theatrical appearances. With theatre director Robert Wilson, he produced the musicals The Black Rider (1990) and Alice (1992), first performed in Hamburg. Having returned to California in the 1990s, his albums Bone Machine (1992), The Black Rider (1993), and Mule Variations (1999) earned him increasing critical acclaim and multiple Grammy Awards. In the late 1990s, he switched to the record label ANTI-, which released Blood Money (2002), Alice (2002), Real Gone (2004), and Bad as Me (2011).

Despite a lack of mainstream commercial success, Waits has influenced many musicians and gained an international cult following, and several biographies have been written about him. In 2015, he was ranked at No. 55 on Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time”. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.

During his career, Waits has had little chart success and no major commercial success. Instead, he has attracted a cult fan following. Hoskyns referred to him as being “as important an American artist as anyone the twentieth century has produced”, while Humphries described him as “one of America’s finest post-Dylan singer-songwriters”. Humphries noted that at the time of his emergence to public fame, Waits represented “a unique voice on the late Seventies pop radar”. He thought that Waits was, along with the painter Edward Hopper, “one of the two great depicters of American isolation”. Hoskyns noted that by the end of the twentieth century, “Waits was an iconic alternative figure, not just to the fans who’d grown up with him but to subsequent generations of music geeks”, coming to be “universally acknowledged as an elder statesman of ‘alternative’ rock”.

The journalist Karen Schoemer of Newsweek stated that “to the postboomer generation, he’s more Dylan than Dylan. [His] melting-pot approach to Americana, his brilliant narratives and his hardiness against commercial trends have made him the ultimate icon for the alternative-minded.” He was included among the 2010 list of Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Singers, as well as the 2015 Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time (per Wikipedia).

First, a Story:

A trucker came into a Truck Stop Café and placed his order with the waitress. He said “I want three flat tires, a pair of headlights and a pair of running boards.”

The brand new blonde waitress, not wanting to appear stupid, went to the kitchen and said to the cook, “This guy out there just ordered three flat tires, a pair of headlights and a pair of running boards. What does he think this place is, an auto parts store?”

“No,” the cook said. “‘three flat tires’ mean three pancakes; ‘a pair of headlights’ are two eggs sunny side up; and ‘a pair of running boards’ are 2 slices of crisp bacon!”

“Oh.. OK!” said the blonde. She thought about it for a moment and then spooned up a bowl of beans and gave it to the customer.

The trucker asked, “What are the beans for, Blondie?”

She replied, “I thought while you were waiting for the flat tires, headlights and running boards, you might as well gas up!”

Second, a Song:

Nighthawks at the Diner is the third studio album by singer and songwriter Tom Waits, released on October 21, 1975 on Asylum Records. It was recorded over four sessions in July in the Los Angeles Record Plant studio in front of a small invited audience set up to recreate the atmosphere of a jazz club. The album peaked at 164 on the Billboard 200, the highest place Waits had held at the time, and is currently certified silver by the BPI. It has received critical acclaim for its successful mood-setting, capturing of the jazz-club atmosphere and characterization.

“Phantom 309” is a song written by Tommy Faile and released as a single by Red Sovine in 1967. It was a minor hit, peaking at number nine on the Billboard Magazine Country chart. The lyrics are spoken, rather than sung.


The song tells of a hitchhiker (the singer, in first person) trying to return home from the West Coast. On the third day of his trip, while at a crossroads in a driving rain, the hitchhiker is picked up by “Big Joe” driving his tractor-trailer named “Phantom 309.” After driving through the night, Big Joe drops the hitchhiker off at a truck stop, gives him a dime for a cup of coffee, then disappears out of sight.

Once inside, the hitchhiker tells of Big Joe’s generosity and the waiter tells him he had been the beneficiary of a “ghost driver” (a variant of the vanishing hitchhiker/truck driver urban legend). Ten years earlier, at the same intersection where he was picked up, Big Joe had swerved to avoid hitting a school bus full of children because he could not stop due to his truck’s momentum. But in doing so, he had lost control of his truck and crashed; he had died in the wreck. The waiter tells the hiker that he was not the first; the ghost of Big Joe had been known to pick up other hitchhikers over the years.

Tom Waits version

The song was covered with slightly reworked lyrics by Tom Waits in July 1975 at Record Plant Studios in Los Angeles and released in October on his third album, the pseudo-live double-LP Nighthawks at the Diner, under the title “Big Joe and Phantom 309”. (To establish mood for the studio audience, Waits refers to the studio as “Raphael’s Silver Cloud Lounge” on the album’s first track). This version was covered by Archers of Loaf on 1995’s Step Right Up: The Songs of Tom Waits.

Courtesy of Chris Soper and, here is Big Joe and Phantom 309 from Tom Waits’ album Nighthawks at the Diner.  I hope you enjoy this!


Thought for the Day:

“What you want is for music to love you back. That’s why you pay your dues. You want to feel like you belong and are part of this symbiosis, metamorphosis, whatever you want to call it.” – Tom Waits

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Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

1 Comment

  1. I happen to love Tom Waits’ music. One of my favourite songs of all time is Waits’ ballad ‘Martha’. He has also been on albums with Leonard Cohen, Nick Cabe, and Crystal Gayle. Great oost

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