On December 7, 1949, a New York Times column characterized the struggles of those in need: “The children who do not laugh; the youths whose lives are twisted; the men and women struck down by accident or disease or sudden poverty; the aged who know no peace… They are in every city and in every block. You pass them on the sidewalk; you jostle them on the subway; they are behind the curtained window on many a lonely street… They must have help desperately, abundantly, and now.” That day, in Los Angeles, Thomas Alan Waits was born.
Tom Waits’ father had come to the citrus groves of La Verne, California from Sulphur Springs, Texas. His mother left behind the Rogue Valley of Oregon. From the beginning, Waits gave voice to untethered spirits. Emerging from the coffeehouses of San Diego, in the early 1970s he released three albums in three years — the folksy debut of Closing Time, the loungier tinges of the Heart of Saturday Night and the live jazz touches of Nighthawks at the Diner.
“Waits’ territory is the tawdry American moonscape of all-night bars and coffee shops, desolate bus stations and devastated souls,” wrote journalist Stephen Davis in 1975, profiling the up-and-comer as the voice of a generation alongside the “strange sensibilities” of Patti Smith and the “lusty spirituality” of Joel Zoss. Waits was credited as “mining the wasteland,” his lyrics grappling with solitude, struggle and restlessness and his sound evoking the same.
“I’m leaving my family, I’m leaving all my friends,” Waits murmured in “Shiver Me Timbers.” “My body’s at home, but my heart’s in the wind.”
His first review in The New York Times set the stage for decades of resonant headlines: “Tom Waits: Pop’s Minstrel of the Downtrodden” (1985), “Tom Waits Distills a Vocabulary of the Psyche” (1987), “Tom Waits Finds a Purity in Debris” (1992), “Tom Waits, All-Purpose Troubadour” (1993) and “A Poet of Outcasts Who’s Come Inside” (2002). Even critic John Rockwell, who dubbed Waits a “raspy-voiced neohipster” whose “affections of style are so extreme and so limited,” admitted his talent and potential to be around a “good, long time.”
Now, a good, long time later, with myriad projects and detours along the way, Waits will mark his 70th birthday on December 7. To celebrate, the Good Will Engine Company (41 Central St, PVD) is bringing together a robust and disparate lineup for Tom Waits Turns 70, a tribute featuring local folk, indie, jazz and straight-up rock-’n’-roll sounds honoring “the art, the music and the beautiful heart that makes up the legendary Tom Waits.”
“I see Waits as an artistically liberating force,” said musical director (and Motif contributor) Ben Shaw, who co-organized the concert with Chrissy Stewart, programming lead at the Engine and founder of PVDlive.
“He’s the musician for me who so simply draws a picture and makes you feel you’re in the story,” said Stewart.
Currently hosting Airbnb bookings, the Engine plans to open in early 2020 as an international hostel and shared lodging in a 19th-century firehouse that previously housed independent music venue Firehouse 13. Redeveloped to encourage budget-conscious travelers to visit and explore PVD, the space includes a cafe, lounge and performance venue.
“It’s going to be such a hub and intersection for locals and travelers, embracing all kinds of music, and all ages too,” said Stewart.
The Waits tribute will take place while the Engine is in preview mode.
“We have a wide range of performers with a lot of unique voices,” said Shaw. After compiling a list of well-known and more-obscure tracks from Waits’s 17 studio albums, Shaw coordinated with the artists to ensure the show features a mix of favorites and deep cuts.
“I figured we’d get a lot of performers picking stuff from his later, more rock and roots focused output,” said Shaw, “but once people started picking songs, I saw a lot of stuff being covered from his early, piano crooner period or at least going toward the ballads in his repertoire.”
The night’s roster includes indie-folk singer-songwriters Dan Blakeslee, Daphne Lee Martin, and Haunt the House. Jazz vocalist Tyra Penn, usually backed by Her Band of Snakes, regularly covers Waits in her performances. Consuelo’s Revenge and Steve DelMonico, guitarist and vocalist of the Quahogs, both played a tribute to Waits in 2016 (which DelMonico organized) at now-shuttered Aurora (formerly at 276 Westminster St). They’re on board again for this celebration. Each artist will perform one or two songs covering the vast expanse of Waits’ legacy, from his folksier and jazzier numbers to his guttural and experimental journeys.
“I think what they’ll all be bringing to each selection is going to give the night an eclectic energy,” said Shaw.
With a nod to Seeds on Hard Ground, Waits’s limited-edition chapbook published in 2011 to raise awareness and money for homeless services, the Tom Waits Turns 70 tribute will donate proceeds to Amos House (460 Pine St, PVD). The nonprofit combating homelessness and poverty in RI is a short walk across Broad Street from the Engine.
“Amos House was selected because of its direct impact on the community,” said Linda Kleineberg on behalf of the Engine. The venue’s value statement commits to working with grassroots organizations and helping to address the systemic issues that affect the neighborhood. Supporting those in need is in keeping with the spirit of Tom Waits, said Shaw.
“I was born to ramble, born to rove,” Waits ground out in “Cold Water.” “I’m born to trouble, I’m born to fate,” he rumbled in “Make it Rain.” As Waits turns 70, his words, his voice and his sound continue to answer the New York Times on the day of his birth: “When I was born / My folks wept at my beauty,” Waits wrote in Seeds on Hard Ground. Yet, joy doesn’t erase hardship and beauty surfaces in many forms, especially those most overlooked: “God, may we all / Amidst a storm / Safe by a fire / Bright and warm / Send to those / Left exposed / Good will and a / Much wider brim / To keep the pelting rain / From hammering them.”
Tom Waits Turns 70 takes place on Sat, Dec 7 at the Good Will Engine Company (41 Central St, PVD). All ages. Discount tickets available with donation of a gently worn coat.
Musicians include Steve Allain, Sara Azriel, Dan Blakeslee, Russ Connors, Consuelo’s Revenge, Steve DelMonico, John Faraone, Grace Goodrich, Haunt the House, Daphne Lee Martin, Tyra Penn & Joe Potenza, Tracie Potochnik, Morgan Johnson, & Emily Goldstein, Jess Powers & Ian Lacombe, Skinny Millionaires, Chrissy Stewart, SwampBirds, Wave Cloud and a house band featuring Ryan Kowal, Mark Medeiros, Matt Passeroni, and Ben Shaw.