his month marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Tom Waits’ debut album, Closing Time. To think of Tom Waits today—the veteran “outsider” musician with the persona that fits somewhere between Walter Brennan and John Cage—it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around the fact that at the start of his illustrious career he was a simple singer/songwriter, coming from the same southern California scene as James Taylor, Loudon Wainwright, Jackson Brown, and The Eagles.
Waits’ musical career (not counting a high school R&B band) began upon his return from a stint in the U.S Coast Guard and he soon became a regular at the legendary Troubadour club in West Hollywood. It was there that he came to the attention of Frank Zappa’s manager, Herb Cohen.
Cohen got Waits into the studio to cut some demos (these were later released—against Waits’ wishes—as The Early Years 1 & 2), but it was when David Geffen saw Waits performing “Grapefruit Moon” at the Troubadour that things took off. Geffen signed Waits to his newly-founded Asylum Records label, and work began on Closing Time.
Six of the album’s twelve songs have been covered by artists as disparate as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, The Beat Farmers, Hootie & the Blowfish, and Bat For Lashes.
Among Waits’ vast discography, Closing Time is something of the odd man out. His voice is as clean and pure as it would ever sound, and the production (by the Lovin’ Spoonful’s Jerry Yester) gives it a more mainstream sound than any other Waits record. Waits’ vocals are laden with studio effects that attempt to cover the roughness of his voice (which has of course become one of his trademarks), but despite the middle-of-the-road sheen, the record still betrays Waits’ ability to cross genres at will.
The album begins with a decidedly folky feel on the gently swinging “Ol’ 55” and the acoustic-guitar-driven “I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You,” but by the third song, “Virginia Avenue,” the late-night-at-a-smokey-jazz-club sound that will dominate Waits’ next several records makes its first appearance.
Acoustic guitars again dominate “Old Shoes (And Picture Postcards)” but from that point on, Closing Time becomes very much a piano album, making it sound far more like something fans of later Tom Waits albums would recognize.
According to producer Jerry Yester, Waits was involved in all the musical arrangements, despite his lack of formal training.
"He was absolutely communicative with all the musicians,” Yester is quoted as saying in Barney Hoskyns’ Waits biography, Lowside of the Road. “He didn't talk to them a lot in musical terms, but he always got his point across and could tell them exactly what he wanted. He'd put things in terms of metaphors and they knew exactly what he was talking about.”
Despite positive critical reaction, Closing Time didn’t exactly set the world on fire when it came out in March of 1973, but it had a major impact on many other musicians. The same year of the album’s release, two songs found their way into other musicians’ repertoires; The Eagles had an early hit with their cover of “Ol’ 55” (which Waits later dismissed as “a little antiseptic”) and Tim Buckley released his version of “Martha” on his album Sefronia, which came out only two months after Closing Time. In fact, including those two songs, six of the album’s twelve songs have been covered by artists as disparate as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, The Beat Farmers, Hootie & the Blowfish, and Bat For Lashes.
Following the release of the album Waits embarked on his first tour, opening for Frank Zappa, which no doubt had an impact on Waits’ future musical direction. Over the course of his next few albums, Waits delved deeper into his gin-soaked Beatnik persona. His less singer/songwriter-based sound would finally begin to emerge on 1976‘s Small Change (especially in the songs “Step Right Up” and “The Piano Has Been Drinking”), before coming to full flower on his landmark 1983 album Swordfishtrombones.
Closing Time may not be the greatest Tom Waits album (his second, The Heart of Saturday Night, is perhaps the best of his early efforts), but despite being aged by its occasional overproduction it remains a fine record, and an auspicious debut.