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Forgotten Classics: Tom Waits – Nighthawks at the Diner – University Observer Online

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Tom Waits has always been somewhat of a ‘cult artist’, mainly due to his gravelly voice and his lyrical content, which often revolved around drunks, drifters and other characters of ill repute. Waits was always a very ‘experimental’ musician, never tying himself down to any one genre and instead creating his own unique sound via the influence of a bevy of relatively niche genres such as jazz, blues, vaudeville and, later in his career, industrial rock music.

Nighthawks At The Diner, released in 1975, was the album where the strong jazz and beat poetry influences of Waits’ early career were brought to their zenith. Though there is plenty of singing on the album, it is interspersed with a heavy rotation of spoken-word poetry which, while praised by critics, didn’t sit well with many listeners.

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Some would consider Nighthawks to be Waits’ third studio album; while others would consider it to be one of his first live albums. When, in fact, it is a kind of hybrid of the two. In the album, Waits fabricates a palpable jazz club atmosphere by inviting a select number of audience members, consisting mostly of the band’s friends and family, into the studio for the recording. Tables and chairs were set up in the corner and the audience were provided with snacks and refreshments.

But the jazz club atmosphere of ‘Nighthawks’ is not limited to the behind the scenes production. Waits adds to the live performance feel by introducing many of the songs on the album as a live jazz performer often would. He injects a healthy dose of dry humour and clever wordplay into his introductions to simulate banter with the crowd. The introduction, which comes just before the song ‘Emotional Weather Report’, and the introduction to the song ‘Better Off Without A Wife’ are prime examples of Waits’ use of humorous banter, which was inspired by the comedy stylings of Lenny Bruce. The audience responds to his banter, which makes the album feel that bit more like a live performance.

Perhaps the songs most indicative of Waits’ atmospheric lyrical prowess on Nighthawks are ‘Eggs And Sausage (In a Cadillac With Susan Michelson)’ and ‘Warm Beer And Cold Women’. The former depicts the late-night patrons of a greasy-spoon diner, hence the name of the album; the latter illustrates the laments of a broken-hearted drunk, a trope used quite often by Waits.

Though Nighthawks was generally well-received by critics, the album never quite got the attention it deserved and – despite being arguably instrumental in the metamorphosis of Tom Waits’ distinct musical persona – has often gone overlooked and is largely, and unfortunately, forgotten in the annals of music history.

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