Encapsulating The Past Through A Revamped Refrain

Thirty years ago, Tom Waits releases Big Time

Still from the Tom Waits concert film Big Time

By the end of the ‘70s, Tom Waits’ musical approach has changed dramatically. Having initially established himself as part hipster/part forlorn troubadour, the decade’s end found him moving into more adventurous and often obtuse terrain. A change in record affiliation resulting in  his signing to Island Records, a move that further encouraged continuing transition.

The albums that followed in the early ‘80s — Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, and Franks Wild Years — found him singing with a grit and growl, part of an irrepressible attitude and a shifting stance that incorporated jazz, blues, swing, and avant garde.

His most recent studio outing prior to the arrival of the live Big Time, released in September 1988, was Frank’s Wild Years, an especially auspicious offering. Waits wrote it to accompany a play he scripted under the assumed name, Frank O’Brien. He subsequently promoted the effort through an extensive tour that took him across North America and to Europe in the fall of 1987.

The final shows of the North American run were presented at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco and the Wiltern Theatre in L.A., both venerable venues boasting considerable prestige. Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan suggested that the live recordings made during those engagements be used for both a film and concert recording. Given the working title of Crooked Time, they eventually modified their choice and changed the name to Big Time, hinting at the fact that Waits was indeed embarking on an adventurous  new phase in his career.

Movie poster for Big Time

The concert film received mixed reviews and limited distribution, but the album that resulted gained its own notoriety by virtue of the fact that it marked Waits’ first real live album. (1975’s Nighthawks at the Diner might have held that distinction had it not been performed before a select audience in a recording studio.) Where most concert albums find the songs stripped down and devoid of studio embellishment, Big Time took the opposite tack. It was enhanced with additional effects in post production — audience noises, gunshots, train whistles, the sound of traffic, and the like — suggesting that there was indeed a need for artificial enhancement, at least as far as its creators were concerned.

Nevertheless, Waits’ voice, a raspy rumble, hoot and howl, contradicted that stance with a decidedly undisciplined delivery. Songs such as “Underground,” “Strange Weather” and “Yesterday Is Here” boasted an uncommon sing-song style, while the rhythmic thrust of “Straight to the Top” possessed a discordant quality that made it seem wholly untamed. Likewise, “Telephone Call From Istanbul” and “Big Black Mariah” seemed to defy description. However there were occasional moments of coherence, in the melodic essence of “Falling Down,” “Time,”and “Straight to the Top” as well as the steady stomp of “Red Shoes,” “Gun Street Girl” and “Ruby’s Arms.” With a generous 18 songs — even with that, some songs that were in the film didn’t make the album — the set list was fairly representative of Waits’ template at the time.

Big Time original LP cover

If the album often comes across as defiant and discordant, the blame can’t be laid on the musicians alone. Guitarist Marc Ribot multitasked on banjo and trumpet, while Fred Tackett and Richie Hayward of Little Feat loaned their support on “Falling Down.” Sax, clarinet, sitar, alto horn and all manner of percussion added to the instrumental array. At certain times, it sounded as if everything was about to fracture at the seams, the result of a sound that was both celebratory and startling all at the same time.

Waits would create more obtuse efforts as time went on, and yet Big Time still served as his bold new step forward. Some 30 years on, it remains as striking and surreal as ever.

 

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