Tom Waits – Reflecting on the 50th Anniversary of “Closing Time” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Tom Waits – Reflecting on the 50th Anniversary of “Closing Time”

The Album First Came Out on March 6, 1973

Mar 06, 2023 Bookmark and Share

Three years prior to the release of his critical and commercial breakthrough Small Change, Tom Waits signed with Asylum Records and released his boozy, nocturnal, and ultimately low-key debut Closing Time. Chronicling the origins of Waits’ disheveled Los Angeles barfly persona, Closing Time finds the singer/songwriter delivering his tales of drunken mishaps and full moon heartache in a smoky croon, a drastic contrast to the raw, blues-howler bellow that would become a signature staple of his post-Nighthawks at the Diner output. To trace the evolution of Waits’ sound from the easygoing Closing Time and subsequent The Heart of Saturday Night to such future masterpieces as Small Change, Rain Dogs, and Mule Variations proves fascinating. Indeed, the Waits of Closing Time, approximately 23 years old and recently transplanted to Los Angeles from his native San Diego, is melancholic and wistful, inebriated upon the bar stool not only by his umpteenth stout but also his own crushing poetic soul. Here, Waits crafts introspective first-person narratives that populate his piano-centered late-night barroom soundscapes, sometimes producing, much to the listener’s surprise, poignant observations that impart the insight of a much older, more experienced man. In its entirety, Closing Time plays like a synthesis of mid-career Sinatra—the cigarette smoke, misty moonbeams, hazy streetlights aglow, and jazzy sense of sorrowful intrigue—and the gritty vulgarity of such countercultural street poets as Kerouac and Bukowski—both of whom Waits has personally declared central artistic influences. This juxtaposition renders Closing Time a fascinating trinket of American pop, as well as an impressively solid debut—a snapshot of a young Waits exploring the terrain and cultivating the massive persona of his masterworks to come.

Opening track “Ol’ ’55” remains among Closing Time’s better-known cuts, thanks largely in part to the cover by Waits’ Asylum labelmates Eagles, which was released the following year. However, Waits later expressed his distaste for the cover, referring to it as “antiseptic,” as well as for Eagles themselves. Indeed, Waits’ original remains the finest, his gravelly vocals and swaying arrangements best suited to detail this account of strange redemption on the road. Subsequently, folky acoustic number “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love with You” showcases a certain playfulness, its narrator insisting, “Well, the night does funny things inside a man/These old tomcat feelings you don’t understand.” What is ultimately revealed, however, is a portrait of two lonesome people, cast adrift in a crowded place. Expectations wax and wane as the last call arrives, before pure inebriation, or perhaps true love overwhelms the narrator’s soggy mind. Waits returns to the folk-pop template on the breakup number “Old Shoes (& Picture Postcards),” the track carrying an infectiously upbeat melody despite its bittersweet lyrical content. Waits would later cite the timeless album art of Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours as the inspiration for the cover of his own The Heart of Saturday Night, though Closing Time more closely embodies In the Wee Small Hours’ overall aesthetic, as witnessed on such tracks as the woozy “Virginia Avenue,” the ghostly “Midnight Lullaby,” and the earnest “Little Trip to Heaven (On the Wings of Your Love).” Delbert Bennett’s anguished trumpet allows these mercurial jazz-inflected tracks to maintain their respective atmospheres, Waits’ lyrical ruminations on love, titillation, desperation, and dejection guiding the listener down city streets and into shadowy alleyways as Waits finds himself “dreaming to the twilight.”

The album’s finest tracks, all of which adhere to the noirish heartache ballad format, distinguish themselves from the rest of the album. The chilly “Martha,” one of Waits’ key early compositions, affectingly explores themes of age and regret, as its narrator, identified as “old Tom Frost,” places an unexpected phone call to a former flame to whom he hasn’t spoken in “40 years or more.” Despite the singer’s youth, his insistence that “those were the days of roses, poetry and prose/And, Martha, all I had was you, and all you had was me” sounds entirely authentic. Representing young Waits at perhaps his most reflective, “Martha” serves as a taste of the musical brilliance to come. Tim Buckley, Bette Midler, and Meat Loaf have each covered this track, with Buckley’s being by far the most intriguing, but Waits’ original remains supreme. Subsequently, the mellow “Rosie” finds its insomniac narrator up late alongside a “lazy old tomcat on a midnight spree.” Here, such lines as, “And the moon’s all up, full and big/Apricot tips in an indigo sky” indicate Waits’ beatnik poetic sensibilities, with “Rosie” remaining among his finest ballads. The spare “Lonely,” perhaps the album’s most delirious cut, stands as a work of desolate beauty. Boldly, Waits proclaims, “I still love you…” before quietly retreating into his stupor. Superior piano ballad “Grapefruit Moon” finds Waits lost yet awash in the hazy beam guiding him. This bleary ode to intoxicated enlightenment essentially embodies the best of early Waits, his tales of dingy after-hours streets and the strange, yet supple figures that reside there carrying decided delicacies.

Closing Time was greeted with largely positive reviews upon its release, though none could have anticipated the transmogrification that Waits’ style would soon undergo or the degree to which critics would embrace it once it occurred. It is sometimes difficult to accept that Closing Time was recorded by the same artist who released Swordfishtrombones a decade later but therein rests the genius of Waits—he is versatile, vibrant, and has managed to maintain an oftentimes grim sense of humor for over half a century. Closing Time remains a great debut, a flashback to a grimy era whose poets spent much of their time slumped over barstools or asleep in alleyways and drove Cadillacs through Los Angeles traffic and watched the moon through open windows of sleepless bedrooms. Even then, Waits was a force to be reckoned with, and with each release, he elevated his sound and tweaked his persona. Through it all, Closing Time features some of Waits’ most intimate compositions, the sort of youthful, starlit vulnerability absent from his more bombastic releases. Closing Time reminds the listener of an era during which Waits was merely a “pool-shooting-shimmy-shyster shaking [his] head,” fumblin’ with the blues and searching for the light—or a light. Fifty years on, this era is worth revisiting.

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