What a great word Naugahyde is. There’s something very retro and very American about it which transports me straight to a nocturnal world of misguided liaisons and longing in small brightly-lit diners. Well, maybe its just that I have been listening to Tom Waits Nighthawks at the Diner a lot recently, which is the only LP I own where the word ‘naugahyde’ crops up once, let alone 3 times.
I have to confess I am a sucker for the late night Jack Kerouac-isms of the world Tom Waits conjures up here. I am obsessed with the various beat writers and this is why this LP suddenly lit me up when I purloined it from my father in 1992. Whether this is an America that ever truly existed outside the pages of ‘On the Road’ or Gregory Corso’s work is a moot point, but what matters at this remove is the image and concept of it; a fact made explicit by the title and cover art borrowing from Edward Hopper. I for one desperately want to buy into the cars and bars, wildlife and low-lives, belly laughs and belly aches which come thick and fast in Nighthawks at the Diner.
What first grabbed me was the humour, this is a very funny LP particularly in the various intros to ‘Better off without a Wife’ and ‘Nighthawk Postcards’, but what I particularly like is that the humour is mostly self-deprecating, no-one’s being sneered at here and the joke’s always on Waits, as in ‘Warm Beer & Cold Women’. Look at ‘Putnam County’ and its affectionate depiction of small town lives (plus bonus mention of ‘swizzle stick legs jack-knifed over naugahyde stools’) and the various studs in town ‘boasting about being able to get more ass than a toilet seat’.
What grabbed me next was the lyricism of tracks like ‘Nighthawk Postcards’ with its depiction of ‘a yellow biscuit of a buttery cue ball moon / Rollin’ maverick across an obsidian sky’ – how could any English graduate resist! Again we’re thrown back into the worlds of John Fante and Bukowski, the moments of heart-stopping beauty glimpsed in the mundane by those of us bent on an ‘inebriational travelogue’. Again though, Waits is never clever-clever for the sake of it, never loses sight of the various character’s voices in his songs and the humour is always there to prick any pomposity, or literary flights of fancy.
When I was first listening to this LP I used to regard the ‘proper songs’ as interludes which got in the way of the funny / jazzy stuff, now they are my favourite bits by far. There is real beauty and heartache in ‘Nobody’, which is probably my favourite song on the LP with its’ admonishment that ‘Nobody, nobody will love you the way that I could / Cause nobody’s that strong’. ‘On a Foggy Night’ and ‘Eggs and Sausage’ ramp up the atmospherics, the latter has Waits singing ‘I’m in a melodramatic nocturnal scene’, a key line in the whole LP. The band, seasoned and acclaimed jazz men, all play faultlessly, particularly on the emotional cover of ‘Big Joe and Phantom 309’ near the end.
I’m a big fan of Nighthawks at the Diner, it gave me the impetus to explore all of Tom Waits other work, past and present; I like it for what it is but also the different paths it persuaded me to explore. I don’t think it is his best LP, those would come later when he started to play around with more unusual instrumentation and forms, but as an introduction it is perfect. I do love the way that the ‘live’ atmosphere gives this LP the feel of having been recorded at some far-gone jazz club afterhours, when in reality it was a bunch of friends in the studio – oh to have been there!