Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Tom Waits/The Eagles

You would have thought there was not much in common between Tom Waits and The Eagles.  Waits is a jazz singer who grew into an avant garde cult musician, makes a comfortable living and has artistic credibility to burn.  The Eagles are a country rock band who grew into a stadium rock behemoth with money to burn and comedians lining up around the block to lampoon them.  The Eagles are all lush harmonies, smooth backing and pedal steel guitar.  Waits has a gruff, raspy voice, halting piano and, as time passes, an increasing assortment of antique instruments and junkyard percussion. 

I'm not sure what the various members of the Eagles think of Waits.  In 1977 Waits said he thought listening to the Eagles was like watching paint dry.  He later apologised and explained he "was just corking off and being a prick".

However, things are not always what they seem.  Despite all these differences, the two actually have an amazing amount in common.  Here's some of the highlights.

First of all, they both emerged out of the same music scene.  Waits grew up in the Los Angeles area, cutting his musical teeth at the Troubador and other LA nightclubs in the early 1970s.  Glen Frey and Don Henley, Eagles founding members and chief songwriters, were from out of town but met at the Troubador in 1970 and the band played its first gigs there.  Both went on to be early signings with Asylum Records, founded by David Geffen in 1971.  They were both recording with Asylum at the same time, the Eagles releasing their debut in 1972 and Waits, after a few false starts, in 1973.

Second, both Waits and Henley/Frey drew a lot of their inspiration from the fictional outlaws and low-lifes of page and screen.  For Waits it was a mix of the gritty realism of the beat authors, especially Charles Bukowski, and the film noir world of petty crims, gunmen, hookers and thieves.  To be sure, Waits did his best to live the beat lifestyle, renting a room in a sleazy motel and drinking dangerous amounts of alcohol, but the underworld of Small Change, Potter's Field and Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis is pure, vivid fiction.

The Eagles drew similar inspiration from the Wild West.  They never went there - they were the orginal urban cowboys - but the value-free drifters of Tequila Sunrise, Bitter Creek or Take It Easy, the lawless outlaws of Doolin-Dalton or Outlaw Man, come straight out of the films of John Wayne, Donald Sutherland and co.  Like all good artists, both Waits and the Eagles sold their stories so well it was easy to forget they were fictions.

Last, but by no means least, the Eagles paid Waits' rent for a substantial part of 1974 and 1975.  Waits recorded the song 'Ol' 55' on his 1973 debut Closing Time, but the album struggled to get critical attention and sold slowly.  Here he is singing it a bit more recently.

Then The Eagles covered it on their third album, On The Border, released in 1974.

While Waits camped out at the Tropicana Motor Inn and lived through the long nightmare of touring as a support act/sacrificial lamb for Frank Zappa, On the Border sold by the truckload.  The royalties ensured Waits not only had somewhere to live and food to eat, but never needed to stint on the whisky.  It even drew attention to Waits himself, and many critics preferred his version.

Apparently when The Eagles heard what Waits thought of them, they said "Well OK, we ain't gonna record any more of his songs!"  By then he didn't need them.  He was off on his merry (or rather, maudlin) way and soon had other artists queuing up to take their place.  I just hope that at some point he found it in his heart to say "thankyou".

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