The Asylum label period of Tom Waits' extraordinary career began in 1973 with his debut album "Closing Time" and ended 8 albums later in 1980 with "Heartattack & Vine". He then signed to Island Records and in 1982 released "Swordfishtrombones" to howls of joy, amazement, praise and derision - all in equal measure. And most of his albums on Island ('82 - '93) and Anti ('99 to the present day) have been the same ever since - mad, bad, beautiful, discordant and utterly unique. Personally I love each period, Asylum, Island and the Anti label - I find them all to be manna in a world of increasingly plastic pop forced down our throats by gutless radio programmers every single day of our lives. And although the word "genius" is often overused, Waits is a genius - a maverick talent - and beloved by both his fans and the music industry for being so.
His Asylum albums were - if you like - his romantic troubadour period, a drunken Street bum with the heart of a poet and the itchy feet of Bukowski. He looked and sang the part too - greasy hair, freshly lit cigarette hanging out of his gob, wrecked clothes, a chronicler of the downtrodden and lost. But this was an artist whose songs were written with charm and real feeling for those on the outskirts - often touching and beautiful to a point where he could make you laugh with one song and cry with the next. But by "Heartattack & Vine", he had taken this persona it as far as it could go - hence the complete about face with his Island debut.
A little history for potential purchasers to explain why "Used Songs" is the best of scrappy bunch; the 1st compilation covering the Asylum Label period of his career appeared in 1981 and was called "Bounced Checks" (pictured below) - a single vinyl album containing a spattering of tracks and an unreleased live version of "The Piano Has Been Drinking" recorded in Dublin - a gig a friend of mine was privileged to be at. It's never been made available on CD to my knowledge. The second outing is "Asylum Years", a far better and more comprehensive 2LP set released on vinyl in 1984. Unfortunately, it's CD equivalent (also pictured below) which came out two years later is a bit of a mish-mash - a single disc that lost 9 of the original 24 tracks and added 3 new ones not on the original double! This 14-track truncated CD carried the then relatively new words "digitally remastered" on the front cover and was sought after for that reason. The sound on that CD is good - if not spectacular - and is available to this day. It's also worth noting that there are 8 tracks on the "Asylum Years" 1986 remastered CD that aren't on "Used Songs" - they are "Diamonds On My Windshield", "Martha", "The Ghosts Of Saturday Night (After Hours At Napoleone's Pizza House)", "Grapefruit Moon", "Small Change (Got Rained On With His Own .38)", "Potter's Field", "Somewhere" (a superb cover of the famous Leonard Bernstein classic from "West Side Story") and "Ruby's Arms".
Which brings us up to "Used Songs 1973-1980", his 3rd and best compilation covering that period. Elektra/Rhino's set features 16 tracks Digitally Remastered in 2001 by tape experts BILL INGLOT and DAN HERSCH at DigiPrep - and the sound quality is full, clear and beautifully rendered. A real treat. "Used..." takes in songs from all 7 of his studio albums and one from the live double. Here's the layout and what track is from what album:
USED SONGS 1973 - 1980 (77:33 minutes):
1. Heartattack & Vine (on Heartattack And Vine", 1980)
2. Eggs & Sausage (In A Cadillac With Susan Michelson)
(on the live 2LP set "Nighthawks At The Diner", 1975)
3. A Sight For Sore Eyes ("Foreign Affairs", 1977)
4. Whistlin' Past The Graveyard (on "Blue Valentine", 1979)
5. Burma Shave (on "Foreign Affairs", 1977)
6. Step Right Up (on "Small Change", 1977)
7. Ol' 55 (on "Closing Time", 1973)
8. I Never Talk To Strangers
(on "Foreign Affairs", 1977) [duet with BETTE MIDLER]
9. Mr. Siegal (on "Heartattack And Vine", 1980)
10. Jersey Girl (on "Heartattack And Vine", 1980)
11. Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis
(on "Blue Valentine", 1979)
12. Blues Valentines (on "Blue Valentine", 1979)
13. (Looking For) The Heart Of Saturday Night
(on "The Heart Of Saturday Night", 1974)
14. Muriel (on "Foreign Affairs", 1977)
15. Wrong Side Of The Road (on "Blue Valentine", 1979)
16. Tom Traubert's Blues (Four Sheets To The Wind In Copenhagen)
(on "Heartattack And Vine", 1980)
Being a single disc there are some glaring omissions and odd choices, "I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You" from "Closing Time" is left off in favour of "Ol' 55". "Wrong Side Of The Road" is chosen instead of the beautifully evocative "Kentucky Avenue" or the fantastic "Romeo Is Bleeding", both from "Blue Valentine". "On The Nickel" from "Heartattack & Vine" isn't there either. And so on - you could bitch about choices for days. ("Ol' 55" first turned up on the 3rd EAGLES album "On The Border" and was probably most peoples first introduction to Waits - so its easy to see why it was chosen.) What is on here though, sounds fabulous.
Why is sound so important with this issue? Each of his Asylum albums are available on CD, but the earlier albums in particular are hissy and less that impressive sound-wise, because almost all of them came out in the initial vanguard of CD releases in the late Eighties - they weren't mastered well and have never been touched since. That's not the case with "Used Songs". The REMASTERING done by Rhino here makes all the difference. Right from the opening guitar and drum of "Heartattack & Vine", you're aware of the fantastic sound quality upgrade - it just pounds you. "Burma Shave", with just piano and vocals, is loud and beautifully clear. Then there's the delicacy of "Muriel" and "A Sight For Sore Eyes" and the hurting gargled-with-gravel vocals of "Tom Traubert's Blues" (his Waltzing Matilda song) - the sound on all of them is sweet and full, the saxophone and sassy rhythm section floating out of the speakers like some boozed-up turned-on jazz combo. It's thrilling, it really is! And lyrically, Waits has always been the equal of Joni or Bob - and way funnier. The booklet pictures the albums, there's a reproduction of a 1975 Jon Landau article from Rolling Stone, and a new liner note from Hal Willner - all tied off with a tasty card wrap, giving the whole package the class this release deserves.
Although it should have been a double, "Used" has the big advantage of its gorgeous sound and makes you pine for Extended Editions of each of his fantastic albums from that period. And on that point, when you think of the amount of lesser artists who have their entire catalogues released, remastered and pumped up with bonus tracks, and then you see someone of Waits' stature have no album from 1973 to 1993 in REMASTERED form by either WEA or Island on the market after 20 years of CD re-issues - it's just ridiculous and criminal. The same of course applies to Little Feat, Prince, Rickie Lee Jones, and the early Van Morrison Warner Brothers classics "Astral Weeks", "Moondance" and "His Band & The Street Choir". Come on Rhino and Universal - get their titles remastered and get them out there - for God's sake!
In the near 20 years I've spent working in record shops and dealing with rare records, I've met some great artists and huge talents in the industry and enjoyed chin waging with them all - fame doesn't really faze me that way. But my love of Tom Waits is different. Tom is God incarnate. If Tom Waits actually turned up in our humble little shop, I'd be knobbled! I'd be too busy kissing the hem of his garment to actually speak to the man! An Irishman lost for words - yikes!
To sum up, "Used Songs" is a fantastic set, a superb introduction to the man & his music and frankly, a beacon of light in a landscape of increasingly dim musical pap. I picked it up in FOPP in London for £5 and it's available from over 60 on-line retailers for about the same price - including P&P!
Sure I'm biased, I adore the guy and his music, I do - but BUY THIS CD. If you love music, you need to hear this man's songs - it will be the best musical fiver you've ever spent...