Here’s an interesting one, Tom Waits Small Change. For me it represents the real peak of his soused beatnik routine, that smart-sipping PI persona with Kerouac Chandler on the office nameplate and a fractured heart under his jacket.
In my experience you either enjoy walking sideways with Waits through his neon demimonde where every hooker has a heart and every laugh hides the ghost of a sob, or it’s like drinking a cup of cold sick for you. You get no prizes for guessing which side of the fence I’m leaning against, while waiting for everything to stop spinning.
Small Change is a good place to start with Waits*, it marks something of a gentle transition between the oddball jazz singer songwriter of his first two LPs and the stretching out and exploring that was to follow. You do get a couple of his lovelorn croons at the moon as well as some more observational pieces, he was beginning to question his default ‘professionally pissed’ stance.
Before we begin our inebriational musical travelogue I will just say for the record that Bones Howe’s production is the gold standard. The sounds are warm and clear, everything just so. I have some reservations over the use of the string section at times but I’m a low key kinda guy.
Grand opener, strings and all, ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets To The Wind In Copenhagen)’ is the BIG track on Small Change. I don’t like it so much, never have, because of all the Waltzing Matilda gubbins**; Rod hasn’t helped its cause much with me either.
Good job then that I love ‘Step Right Up’, which is a fast, witty hustler’s spiel making increasingly ludicrous promises for the wonder product to end all wonder products over a driving drum beat, courtesy of the legendary Shelly Manne. My favourite boasts are that ‘it gives an erection, it wins the election’, ‘it finds the slipper that’s been at large / under the chaise longue for several weeks’. What’s not to love? I sent away for two of them, they haven’t arrived yet.
I am a whole lot less-enamoured with ‘Jitterbug Boy’^ and ‘I Wish I Was In new Orleans (In The Ninth Ward)’, in which Tom gives us his best Louis Armstrong after two quarts of Bushmills impression. The strings constrain these songs, rather than underline them, the way they should; something rougher is desperately needed here.
Small Change gets a lot better quite quickly with the amusingly unconvincing ‘The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)’ and it’s great line about the club owner being ‘a mental midget with the IQ of a fence post’ which I have used on a few occasions myself over the years and the heartfelt, touching ‘Invitation To The Blues’. The latter convincingly, string section and all, paints exactly the right white line of regret down life’s blacktop; chalking up all the feeling the other torch songs here miss.
I used to be a little confused about ‘Pasties And A G-String (At The Two O’clock Club)’ as I hadn’t realised that the pasties referred to were the nipple covers modelled on the front cover*^ and not the savoury pastry snacks beloved by 1537. True story. I rather like its’ throwaway percussive, scat singing nature and the comic relief.
Skipping one, I have to say I love love love ‘The One That Got Away’ with Waits rapping his best Kerouac nightlife tour poetry, Lew Tabackin’s sax performing wonders behind him. This is a close cousin of ‘Nighthawk Postcards’ and that can only ever be a good thing for me. I get fixated on this track occasionally, spinning it over and over again, just savouring the pronunciation and precision of Waits’ delivery.
The lowlife safari continues with a touch of Raymond Chandler in the mix for ‘Small Change (Got Rained On With His Own .38)’. The touch of meanness works a treat, the language sparkles, crackles and smirks over more great work by Tabackin. There’s compassion lurking hereabouts too, which is never a bad thing.
Of course Small Change needs to finish on a love song and that’s what we get on the light-hearted ‘I Can’t Wait To Get Off Work (And See My Baby On Montgomery Avenue)’, where he does sound more like a world weary Louis Armstrong than any man has a right to. It’s a trifle, but a genuinely sweet one.
Small Change is a mixed bag of an LP, starting a transition between what Waits was and where he was going to. I don’t pretend to any objectivity here at all, I have spent weeks of my life wallowing around in this record, loving even the bits I don’t like so much – that’s the true blue beauty of an LP isn’t it? you can’t just programme in your favourite bits and ignore the rest, one day you will catch yourself singing along to one you thought you didn’t like, or waiting for that chord change you didn’t realise you loved before. LPs are that gateway to a better you people.
So don’t be a mental midget step right up and buy one, it will give you an erection and win you an election. True story.
PS: Pasties, yum.
*the previous year’s Nighthawks At The Diner was mine, I actually like it a touch more because it’s funnier.
**a song I love to hear sung at rugby matches involving those chaps from down under.
^the subtitle of which is far too long to even contemplate writing.
*^allegedly by Elvira herself.