Small change, big impact: Tom Waits is a one of a kind

Tom Waits is a one of a kind
Tom Waits is a one of a kind

DENVER (Rahnuma): Popular opinion holds that there are two sides to Tom Waits’ career and character — namely, the early and late periods. True, a tidy line can be drawn between the American singer-songwriter’s first decade and everything that followed the auditory revolt of 1983’s “Swordfishtrombones,” his seventh studio album.

However, there were always numerous angles to this most monochrome chameleon. There was Waits the jazz-piano tinkler, misty-eyed balladeer and industrial/experimental noise-maker; then there was Waits the twisted bluesman, beatnik, stand-up, poet, huckster and raconteur.

All of these aspects are framed in the poised panache of his best-loved role — the hat-topped hobo — and delivered in the grizzled, gruff garble of that zillion-cigarette croon.

This month heralds the finale in a series of reissues celebrating his first seven, seminal albums, which were recorded for David Geffen’s Asylum Records between 1973 and 1980. The centerpiece is the majestic “Small Change,” his fourth LP. By the time it was released, in 1976, Waits had been swallowed up by his own outlandish persona.

Cribbed from Australian folk song “Waltzing Matilda,” Waits’ signature singalong “Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)” came bathed in schmaltzy cinematic orchestration.

Less subtle was Waits’ freewheeling, improvised rap “Step Right Up,” a dizzying dash of outlandish advertising claims and marketing jargon spewed out over a thumping double bass riff. Assisted only by a bluesy saxophone wail, the five-minute “Small Change (Got Rained on with His Own .38)” forensically details a mob-land killing.

Like most of the record, it is a conceit that sounds silly on paper, and should be laughable on the ear, but there is something about Waits’ distant delivery that compels you to hang onto every word.

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