It’s the following afternoon and I find myself on the way to Lincoln, IL, about a 45-minute trip. As I pull onto Interstate 474, I’m greeted with the orchestral “Tom Traubert’s Blues.” Despite nothing but a one-off live album (Nighthawks at the Diner) separating them, it’s instantly clear that Tom Waits is now a whole different animal than he was just two years prior on The Heart of Saturday Night. I come across a construction sign (of course, I do) that points to a lane closure two miles ahead. I-474 is not a busy highway, so the amount of concern this causes is minimal. The next thing I know, Waits is singing “you go waltzing Matilda with me,” and I’m stuck in a gridlock not going anywhere.
Waits is still playing the part of lover boy on Small Change (1976), but he now sounds like he’s hunting for a one- night stand instead of forever from the women he chases. The language has changed from being respectful of those untouchable women to being crude and objectifying for this new set of women, who, from what he hear, are very much touchable. Small Change is the grimy, occasionally beautiful journal of a spiraling dirt bag. And it’s the first masterpiece of Waits’ career.
Forgetting the obvious difference of one being set before a studio audience, where Small Change diverges from its predecessor is that Waits takes all the performance power that he allowed to flow uncontrollably on Nighthawks and harnesses it into a more controlled environment. Nighthawks is a borderline joke album, as Waits constantly assaults with one liners, crude humor, and meandering storytelling, but Small Change is the first album that his humor is given equal stage time with his increasingly trashy portrayal of nightlife.
The result is a set of stories that end up sounding like the first set of songs Waits’ actually lived. Closing Time and Heart of Saturday Night, as good as they are, feel concocted to fit the framework of the genre Waits was working in. Conversely, Small Change sounds grimy enough, whacky enough, and sad enough to be as believable as the road construction in which I’m currently sitting.
Once the gridlock subsides about ten minutes later –a gridlock that somehow started due to a lane being closed for approximately 200 feet– and “I Wish I Was in New Orleans” plays, I’m struck by how good Waits’ vocals are here. His growl has started to take center stage –in a “I’m-smoking-three-packs-a-day” sort of way, but it sounds incredible; “Invitation to the Blues” might be even better in that regard. Small Change is half piano ballads, half jazzy, finger-snapping free verse. I’ve always been more taken with the piano ballad side of this album, but it’s hard to deny how fitting songs like “Step Right Up” are for driving. I turn up the volume a little and try to keep pace with Waits maniacal, ingenious sales pitch. Through windmills and Illinois countryside –more beautiful than ever given credit for– Small Change unfolds in a setting so far removed for its own that it almost feels made for a drive like this one. When it ends, I’m still a few miles outside of Lincoln. I decide to wait until the return trip to spin Foreign Affairs (1977).
It’s dark now, about nine o’clock. The road back to Peoria is more deserted than it was just a few hours ago. Small Change may be a great nightlife album, but Foreign Affairs is a great lonely nightlife album, which makes it a great companion for a lonely car trip. Foreign Affairs is kind of like the depressed, more reflective drunk. Not as abrasive, more regret-ridden. The playful duet with Bette Midler, “I Never Talk to Strangers,” sounds like the last two people in the bar. It’s scene is one for the end of the night, not the beginning.
There’s an important shift embedded in Foreign Affairs: Waits begins telling stories in the third person –something that started at the end of Small Change, but will become a flavor of choice by Blue Valentine (1978). His 1978 performance on Austin City Limits, where he opens with an indispensable rendition of “Burma Shave,” is the perfect combination of the rambunctiousness of Nighthawks at the Diner, and the power of this new approach to storytelling. Instead of getting songs about taking advantage of strippers and prostitutes (“Pasties and a G-String”), by the time Blue Valentine comes around, we get a song about the prostitute —a funny, sensitive, and ultimately devastating song at that (“A Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis”). Even when Waits opts for first person, there is now a distance between the singer and the character that wasn’t there before (“Kentucky Avenue”).
Blue Valentine is still riddled with street life, though, even if it finds itself more convincingly sensitive on several occasions. But again, third person (“Romeo is Bleeding,” “Sweet Little Bullet from a Pretty Blue Gun”). It’s street life, but no longer just Tom Waits’ street life. There’s no more personal heartbreak, just adept scene description from a witty, hyper-aware storyteller. Small Change and Foreign Affairs are inside the nightlife of their characters; Blue Valentine is the guy across the street watching it all happen.
I’ve since made it home and the second half of Blue Valentine closes the steamy August night. There won’t be another Tom Waits album until 1980’s Heartattack and Vine. It’ll be different in the ways most all albums are different from one another, and will give rise to perhaps Waits’ best known work (“Jersey Girl”), but it’s going to be the last formal Waits album before Kathleen Brennan, his future wife. And everything’s about to change.