"We all hear our own stories in our favorite songs (that is why Tom Waits sings in werewolf language--you can pretend it is about anything you want!)."
—John Hodgman, More Information Than You Require
"This is a man who writes songs for the angels and sings them in the voice of Beelzebub. The Carny, the Sideshow, the circus freak show is a world I've always wanted to be in, and that's exactly where Tom Waits is."
Okay... but how?
Well, everyone seems to use the cliched phrases like "whiskey soaked," "gravelly-voiced," "barfly," "hobo," "raconteur troubadour."
With that out of the way, Tom Waits is an innovative musician, generally classified as Alternative, but borrowing heavily from European and American folk music, gospel, lounge music, pop, the blues, cabaret, and occasionally country and even rap (he beatboxes on the 2004 album Real Gone, and he appears on N.A.S.A's "Spacious Thoughts").
His work can be divided into two periods, his jazzy, lounge singer period, lasting from the '70s to the late '80s, and the reinvented, experimental sound of his "Swordfishtrombones" album on, and his shift to a mysterious, Carnival-and-Sinister-Junkman persona. This shift was caused by his abandonment by Asylum Records and his marriage to his co-songwriter and muse Kathleen Brennan. Brennan introduced him to the music of Captain Beefheart, whose influence can be seen in "Swordfishtrombones" and later albums.
He is known for his theatricality, dark and dense lyrical style, and a charming sense of humor - he's one of the few musicians that tend to get long interview sessions on late night talk shows, occasionally getting more laughs than the host. He wrote the scores of four musicals: "Franks Wild Years" [sic], written with Kathleen, and his collaborations with Robert Wilson, "The Black Rider", "Alice," "Woyzeck" (the last being released as Blood Money).
He has also acted in several films, notably Coffee and Cigarettes as himself, Mystery Men as a Mad Scientist, Bram Stokers Dracula as Renfield, and Wristcutters: A Love Story as Kneller, whose dog is missing. He plays Mr. Nick (the Devil) in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which also happens to be Heath Ledger's last film. His latest role is a bird named Virgil in Rosto A.D.'s Monster Of Nix.
In 2011, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, making him either the second (after REM) or third (depending on if you count The Velvet Underground or Talking Heads) Alternative Rock artist to be inducted.
Also, for some reason, he's the curator of The Museum of Everything.
- Album Title Drop: From Closing Time "Now it's closing time/the music's fading out."
- Anti-Love Song: several examples.
- Band Toon: While not a straight example, he was featured in an early music video featuring a rotoscoped version of himself and a stripper. It was called "Tom Waits For No One," and was unreleased until published on YouTube. It's the only Oscar-winning music video of all time.
- Beneath the Earth: He often uses subterranean imagery, such as his songs "Underground," "Dirt in the Ground," and "Down, Down, Down." "Underground" is supposedly about Tom Waits' dream of a colony of dwarves living under a city.
- Big Applesauce: Rain Dogs was written during a point where Tom was living in New York. It shows.
- Big Screwed-Up Family: "Cemetery Polka"
- Careful with That Axe: Near the end of "Swordfishtrombone," a song where most of the vocals are somewhat quiet, Tom Waits lets out a loud scream.
- Child Ballad: He has his own version of Ballad #10, "The Twa Sisters," from his album "Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards." Take a listen.
- Circus of Fear: His songs are soaked to the bone in the imagery of the carnival, and the Devil Pegleg in The Black Rider is the leader of a twisted carnival of lost souls.
- Cluster F-Bomb: "Hell Broke Luce"
- Concept Video
- Cool Old Guy: Oh, definitely.
- Cosmic Plaything - the main character of Blood Money, Woyzeck, is definitely one of these.
- Cover Changes the Meaning: His version of "Heigh Ho" has been described as "the theme tune for midget slave labor." Take a listen and see if you don't agree.
- Legend has it that Disney were on the phone when they heard about it, but not for the reason you'd think. His version is so weird that, supposedly, not even Disney recognized it as their own song.
- A very strange example. Army Ants is taken from a book about insects, but the way he reads it, sounds like the ramblings of a Conspiracy Theorist.
- Crapsack World: In the Neighborhood, Town with No Cheer, 9th and Hennepin, Potter's Field, and Children's Story.
- Needless to say, a lot of the settings he has used are this.
- Creator Couple: With Kathleen Brennan, who has contributed to his current and most critically acclaimed style.
- Dance Sensation: the Metropolitan Glide.
- Darker and Edgier: Bone Machine
- Deadpan Snarker: plenty of interviews show that he is one.
- Early Installment Weirdness: Some people who were introduced to him during his Island Records/ANTI-Records years find his stuff from the 70s through the early 80's to be this.
- Everything Sounds Sexier in French: Two of Tom Waits' albums - Alice and The Black Rider - use frequent German words and fake accents to creepy effect. This reaches its logical conclusion with "Kommieneszuspadt", whose lack of any real meaning cleverly allows the listener to imagine something far nastier than anyone could ever write.
- It's even scarier in context. It's from a stage adaptation of Alice In Wonderland and is supposed to be sung by the White Rabbit. THE WHITE RABBIT! This troper has a mental image less like the fluffy Disney variety and more something akin to Frank, the 7 foot tall monstrosity from Donnie Darko.
- Fake Russian: it would seem the Russian Dance song from Black Rider musical wouldn't be worth mentioning as this (especially since Waits almost correctly utters the "one-two-three-four" in Russian there). But the thing is, Waits really doesn't like Russia and repeatedly rejected gig offers from the country, despite a massive following among Russian intellectuals; what's more, the song has been used as one of the themes for the dark and absurd movie about Russian backwater, The Truce (also despite the song not being anything like Russian in its musical style, but rather Gypsy/Balcan).
- Flower Motifs: "The Briar and the Rose."
- Gallows Humor: Common, with Frank's Wild Years being the most obvious example.
- Genre Busting: At least one third of his catalog falls into this category.
- Germans Love David Hasselhoff: In-Universe in "Big in Japan", which is a send-up of such an individual — though Tom Waits is slightly more popular in Europe than he is in America.
- Grotesque Gallery: "My friends think I'm ugly / I've got a masculine face." Plus the numerous songs about circus/carnival freaks.
- Actually pretty well subverted with Waits himself. If you look up "Warm Beer Cold Woman" on Youtube, and get the one of him actually singing it around the time he wrote it, he was pretty handsome when he was young, stubble and all. He's certainly gotten a bit of an old man's face nowadays, but not excessively so (he's only 60, after all).
- Guttural Growler: Does this even need to be said?
- Harsh Vocals: Ditto.
- Hell Hotel: the music video for "God's Away on Business." Even creepier is the fact that it was actually filmed at his house. By the son of Bob Dylan.
- While it is entirely plausible that the emus were added for the video shoot, it is equally possible that Tom Waits just lets live emus wander around his house.
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: The narrator from "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis" is definitely one.
- Incredibly Lame Pun: The stories he tells during his concerts are often littered with these, as shown on the second disc of "Glitter And Doom Live:"
"I've never known a lobster to donate anything to charity. You wanna know why? They're shellfish!"
- Ironic Nursery Tune: "Midnight Lullaby" riffs on "Song of Sixpence", "Jockey Full of Bourbon" features "Ladybird, Ladybird," and "Clap Hands" features "3,6,9, the Goose Drank Wine," but without any sinister intent. But a better example of this trope is his use of lullaby-like sounds on Alice and Blood Money, in "Everything You Can Think Of Is True" and "Misery Is the River of the World." Also found on Blood Money is the track "Lullaby," an original lullaby with sinister, depressing lyrics.
- Keith Richards: on Rain Dogs, offers guitar and backing vocals in "Union Square," "Big Black Mariah" and "Blind Love."
Now Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards/I will scratch where I've been itching.
- Knife-Throwing Act: "Circus" from his 2004 album Real Gone features a knife throwing act as part of the eponymous travelling show.
- Lipstick Mark
- Lyrical Cold Open: "Walking Spanish", "Flower's Grave", "Alice" and others.
- Lyrical Dissonance: "Frank's Wild Years". The song on Swordfishtrombones specifically, not the album.
- Generally, that voice makes touching love ballads sound like funeral songs.
- Mockumentary: Several of his performance arts pieces and interviews are in this style.
- Neoclassical Punk Zydeco Rockabilly: Great Scott. The genres can change at the drop of a hat, often within the same album.
- Nightmare Face: The cover of Bone Machine.
- Nightmare Fuel Station Attendant: Just look at him.
- No-Hit Wonder: Waits is notable for performing for over 4 decades and through three label changes, but without a single #1 hit on the charts. It's not surprising that he has a cult following, though.
- Not Christian Rock: References to God, the Devil, Jesus, and other religious motifs are fairly common in his lyrics (notably "Way Down in the Hole"), but whether that's a statement of faith or just the influence of gospel / americana style is anybody's guess.
- Ode to Sobriety: "The Piano Has Been Drinking" is a type 1.
- Opening Chorus: "Woyzeck" features "Misery's the River of the World."
- Protest Song: "The Day After Tomorrow", an anti-war song, and "Road to Peace," about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
- Real Song Theme Tune and Thematic Theme Tune: The Wire uses "Way Down In The Hole". Each season with a different version - season 1 by The Blind Boys of Alabama, season 2 was Waits's original, season 3 was by The Neville Brothers, Season 4 was an R&B version by Domaje, and season 5's version is by Steve Earle)
- Rock Opera
- Screw the Money, I Have Rules: Waits has turned down numerous offers to use his songs in commercials, even going so far as to sue companies to prevent it, the one exception being for a charity.
- Though Waits is generally considered an Unreliable Narrator , both he and others have repeatedly stressed that were it not for said lawsuits he never would have been able to pursue his career as long as he did. He wound up making far more from refusing to allow his music be used in adverts than he ever did from his modest-at-best album sales.
- Self-Backing Vocalist: Waits tends to be the only guy doing vocals on most of his albums - exceptions include Rain Dogs and Bone Machine (Keith Richards) and the One From The Heart soundtrack (Crystal Gayle).
- Don't forget about Bette Midler on I Never Talk to Strangers from the album Foreign Affair.
- Shout-Out: To Edward Hopper's painting "The Nighthawks" in Nighthawks at the Diner.
- Signs of the End Times: "Earth Died Screaming" deals with this.
- Soprano and Gravel: Pretty much any time he performs a duet, probably most notably with Bette Midler and Crystal Gayle.
- Stalker with a Crush: The narrator of "Watch Her Disappear." And from a window across the lawn I watched you undress...
- Star-Crossed Lovers: Exaggerated in his song "Fish and Bird". It still manages to be a Tear Jerker.
- A Storm Is Coming: "Earth Died Screaming" and "Strange Weather."
- Stylistic Suck: Taken Up to Eleven On "The Piano Has Been Drinking."
- More like Stylistic Awesome.
- Suspiciously Specific Denial: At the end of "The Piano's Been Drinking", the entire song is revealed to be one.
- Talky Bookends in the video for "Downtown Train."
- The Jimmy Hart Version: of "Step Right Up" caused a bit of a legal stir between Tom and Frito-Lay.
- Three Chords and the Truth: He uses a collection of vintage equipment (including a calliope!), instruments salvaged from junkyards, and has recorded album tracks outside or in barns.
- War Is Hell: Hell Broke Luce, which is pretty much a long profanity laced rant from an Old Soldier in Iraq. "WHAT. IS. NEXT?!"
- The Windy City: Appropriately titled Chicago.
- Word Salad Lyrics: "The Piano Has Been Drinking." Justified in that the singer is schnockered out of his mind.
His works are also used as quotes on the following pages:
- Belly of the Whale
- Beneath the Earth
- Gladiator Games
- Insane Proprietor
- Redemption in the Rain
His works feature in:
- NCIS- Ziva is singing a Tom Waits song at the beginning of the season six opener. Yes, that is actually Cote de Pablo singing.
- As mentioned above, as the opening song of The Wire, sung by a different person or group for each season (and by himself for season 2).
- Jordon sings "Innocent When You Dream" in an episode of Crossing Jordan.
- The first Hellboy movie - "Heartattack & Vine" is playing when we first meet the adult HB.
- Fight Club - When they first go into the bar basement, you can hear "Goin' Out West" playing.
- Shrek 2 - Cpt. Hook can be seen playing "Little Drop of Poison". Later on, Hook sings Nick Cave's "People Ain't No Good".
- Robots - "Underground" plays over a creepy factory scene.
- "Earth Died Screaming" is used in Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys to chilling effect.
- Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room featured "What's He Building?" at the beginning and "God's Away on Business" over the end credits.
- "Dead and Lovely" is used at the beginning of Wristcutters: A Love Story
- "All the Word is Green" and "Green Grass" feature in The Diving Bell And The Butterfly.
- He collaborated with Crystal Gayle for the soundtrack of the musical One From The Heart.
- He also composed and performed the score and two original songs for Jim Jarmusch's Night On Earth.
- Homicide: Life on the Street, the drug-themed, proto-Wire episode "Bad Medicine" opens with "Til the Money Runs Out" and ends with "Cold Cold Ground."
- The book Sandman Slim has "Alice" as a song haunting the protagonist (whose murdered girlfriend was named Alice). At one point, his worst enemy makes a jukebox play it just to taunt him.