Greetings, Michele Myers here, producer of KEXP Documentaries. Our current series, “Poets & Music” explores the interplay between the beat and the word with profiles on poets who record with music like William S Burroughs, Saul Williams, Gil Scott-Heron, Jack Kerouac, Patti Smith, Ursula Rucker and Ken Nordine. And today we focus in on Tom Waits, the gravelly-voiced poet-musician who takes on characters and tells stories, rather than the usual narrative approach of a writer talking about themselves. These characters of Tom’s are usually from the less upwardly mobile set of society — the drunkard, the enlisted man, the penniless traveler, the gas-station attendant… A trademark of his songwriting is that he often puts the sweetest melodies with the saddest stories.
Tom was just a teenager, working as a doorman, when someone handed him a copy of Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road. He was taken with the writing and the language, and (although he grew up in the free love era of the 60’s and 70’s) Tom dressed like one of the members of Kerouac’s Beat Generation from the 1950’s, with dark glasses and worn out white-collar clothes. He took to the jazz music and culture that the Beat Poets recorded with. Tom also studied crooners — singers from the 1950’s — like Frank Sinatra, who knew how to hold an audience in the palm of their hands.
Tom Waits has put out over 20 albums since his debu, Closing Time, in 1973. And most of the songs are sung rather than spoken. This March he’ll be inducted in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
KEXP Documentaries are created by Michele Myers with assistance from John Felthous, Tiffany Grobelski, Mary Janisch and Executive Producer Kevin Cole. If you would like to follow along more closely in the creation of these radio stories, we post research materials, songs and videos on our Facebook page and on Twitter.