$29 and an Alligator Purse

The conundrum that is Tom Waits, musically and otherwise, revealed itself long before the term "singer-songwriter" became fashionable—let alone marketable. As a musician, actor and all-around entertainer, Waits cannot be defined––in fact, "definition" is a commercial concept of which he has successfully steered clear throughout his career.

A distinct figure in the music world, Waits began recording music privately in 1971(sessions that would later be released in the early 1990s as The Early Years, Vol. 1 & 2). Multi-instrumentalist Mark Orton, a founding member of tonight’s performers the Tin Hat Trio (Waits performed one track on their recent CD, Helium), said of Waits, "His music is organic and, even at its most experimental, there’s still an antique quality."—This is the case with so many of the great music pioneers who have forged new musical forms by fusing, bending and contorting preconceived notions.
Waits’ musical career spans an impressive 30-plus-year discography. Fusing the notorious stage eccentricities of Thelonious Monk with the narrative expertise of Bob Dylan (one of his early idols) and a self-effacing humor not too dissimilar to comedians such as Larry David or Steven Wright (with their characteristic oddball remarks about daily life), Waits is one of the most unique performers in modern musical history. 
As a soloist, Waits is comfortable accompanying himself on piano, guitar and various instruments. He also incorporates unique instrumental components and musicians into his music—from saxophones and various reed instruments (Pete Christlieb, Lew Tabackin, John Lurie, Ralph Carney) to jazz drums and oddball percussion (Shelly Manne, Bill Goodwin, Bobby Previte, Gino Robair) to eclectic guitars (Marc Ribot, Smokey Hormel) to harmonica (Charlie Musselwhite, John Hammond), piano (Mike Melvoin) and upright acoustic bass (Larry Taylor, Jim Hughart and his brother-in-law Greg Cohen)—all this not to mention violins, accordions, banjos, trumpets, trombones and whatever else he can grab off the street. 
A great experimenter with alternate keys and rhythms, Waits has worked with the finest improvisers in jazz and makes creative use of unorthodox recording techniques. From his adventurous vocal narratives to the grooves and textures that he masterfully intertwines into his music—commonly making use of his extensive collection of circus instrument novelties and the like—Tom Waits creates music that speaks to listeners on all levels.
Waits is a dedicated husband and family man who has been with his wife Kathleen Brennan ever since they first met on the set of the Francis Ford Coppola film One From The Heart in the 1980s. Not fond of the public eye, Waits once wrote, rather revealingly, " . . . selfish about my privacy as long as I can be with me. We get along so well I can’t believe."
Although he’s known by many for his songs about chain-smoking, drunken escapades, Waits’ seemingly autobiographical tales offer a throwback to the life of the bygone hobo. His protagonists find comfort in their (or rather his) loneliness. The urban solitude of the average blue-collar, middle-class, truck-driving barfly who exchanges harmless yet poignant conversation with anyone in earshot is convincingly captured in Waits’ raspy vocalsand off-the-wall commentary. His spontaneous remarks wind up being dead-on poetic statements that we can all empathize with—from heartbreak to body odor.
Waits’ music continues to inspire a generation of appreciative listeners and influence a growing number of musicians. Popular Waits covers range from "Ol’ 55" (The Eagles)—a tribute to the songwriter’s 1955 Buick—to "Downtown Train" (Rod Stewart) and "Strange Weather" (Marianne Faithfull). Holly Cole recorded a full album of Waits tunes a decade ago (Temptation); and legendary blues guitarist, vocalist and harmonica player John Hammond (who Waits actually used to open for in the early 1970s) more recently came out with Wicked Grin––a full album dedicated to Tom Waits the composer, which also features Waits himself on all but one of the 13 tracks. Eleni Mandell is another performer whose music carries strong traces of Waits’ influence. She first met the man 13 years ago and considers him a musical hero. "He was so encouraging that I continue to trudge through the music business," as Mandell recently explained.
On behalf of the esteemed musicians gathered to celebrate the music of Tom Waits this evening, I leave you with a quote from one of Waits’ countless memorable lyrics appropriate to this occasion: "I want to thank you all for being here tonight . . . it’d be mighty strange here tonight if nobody showed up."
—Laurence Donohue-Greene
Managing Editor, AllAboutJazz-New York
This essay originally appeared in the program booklet for “$29 and an Alligator Purse: The Music of Tom Waits," a January 27, 2004 NYGF concert featuring John Hammond, Eleni Mandel and the Tin Hat Trio.

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I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a
frontal lobotomy....”
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WFUVRadio’s Rita Houston with John Hammond
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John Hammond on stage at Merkin Concert Hall.
Photo courtesy of Doug Foote
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Carla Kihlstedt of the Tin Hat Trio, with special
guest Kenny Wollesen. Photo courtesy of
Doug Foote.
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Eleni Mandel and her band. Photo courtesy of
Doug Foote.
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Mark Orton’s guitars. Photo courtesy of Irene Trudell.
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Merkin Hall was packed to the rafters, despite
the heavy snow fall in New York. Photo courtesy
of Irene Trudell.
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The festival promoter noodles around with Eleni’s vintage Martin acoustic. Photo courtesy of Irene Trudell.


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