Little Trip To Heaven: Tom Waits’ Closing Time At 50

A look back at Tom Waits’ masterful (and uncharacteristic) debut

Tom Waits 1973 (Image: Wikipedia)

Some artists have songs in their catalog that sound completely different from the way we think of those artists.

Is that really Bob Dylan singing “Lay Lady Lay”? Wait, you’re saying that’s Blue Oyster Cult doing “I Love the Night”? Time out, “Long Cool Woman (In a Black Dress)” is a song by The Hollies, not Creedence?

Closing Time is like that.

When most people think of Tom Waits, it’s the guttural Waits of “Underground” (that opens 1983’s Swordfishtrombones) and the booze-soaked Waits of “Ruby’s Arms” (that closes 1980’s Heartattack and Vine) that typically comes to mind.

But Closing Time, Tom’s debut album released March 6, 1973, displays a Waits who hasn’t yet handed his voice and persona over entirely to Lucky Strikes and whiskey.

Tom Waits Closing Time, Asylum Records 1973

This Waits fits relatively comfortably into the early-’70s singer-songwriter zeitgeist that welcomed and embraced artists like Joni Mitchell, Loudon Wainwright III, and Randy Newman. Indeed, Rolling Stone had Waits pegged as a Newman type, albeit grittier, who was parodying lounge music. 

But lounge music isn’t being parodied on Closing Time, it’s simply the main genre in which Waits chooses to flex his already formidable lyrical muscles.

The album opens with “Ol’ 55,” which most people know from the Eagles’ version (or maybe the Sarah McLachlan version or maybe the Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer version or maybe even the Richie Havens version). While those covers tend to come across more focused on the car and the road, Waits’ version feels like it’s much more about what took place before the car ride.

“I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You” is up next. Another track that’s invited several notable covers over the years (10,000 Maniacs and Hootie and the Blowfish, for example), the lyric evokes levels of sadness, loneliness, and emotional desperation that ring painfully true – and truly remarkable for a 23-year-old songwriter.

For my money, though, the album’s masterpiece is “Martha.” The poignant and gut-wrenching story of an older man reaching out to the great long-lost love of his youth after four decades probably didn’t resonate with many 20-something listeners in 1973, but the singer’s heartbreak, yearning and regret are hauntingly vivid to older ears a half-century later. If only the Waits on the album’s cover were 63 or 73 instead of 23, it would be a perfect illustration for this torch song of the first order. I’d love to hear Waits re-record it.

And when Delbert Bennett puts the mute in his trumpet and joins Tom at the piano, we’re deep into territory expertly mined by Sinatra on his iconic Only the Lonely album.

Boozy blues are in full bloom on “Virginia Avenue” (“Well, I’m walking on down Virginia Avenue / Trying to find somebody to tell my troubles to / Harold’s club is closing, and everybody’s going on home / What’s a poor boy to do?”) and “Midnight Lullaby.” Even “Little Trip to Heaven (On the Wings of Your Love)” includes a Sinatraesque “shoo-be-doo ba-daaa.” 

Oh, and by the way: The album’s most upbeat song, “Ice Cream Man”? Screamin’ Jay Hawkins included it on his 1991 album, Black Music for White People, but how in the high-waisted zoot suit has this not been covered by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy or the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies?

Closing Time magazine ad (Image: eBay)

The album’s closer is the title track, a moody and evocative instrumental that elegantly sums up the 11 tracks that came before it. Close your eyes, listen, and watch Edward Hopper paintings and scenes from 1940s noir films float across your field of non-vision.

At the beginning of the title track, you can hear Tom say, “okay, let’s do one for posterity.” He sure did. Closing Time is a terrific album that has aged exceptionally well. If you haven’t listened to it in years, or if you’ve never heard it at all, go give it a close listen – I’d wager cash money you wind up going back to it again and again in the months and years to come.


Craig Peters

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Craig Peters

Craig Peters has been writing about music, pro wrestling, pop culture and lots of other things since the Jimmy Carter administration. He shook Bruce Springsteen’s hand in 2013, once had Belinda Carlisle record the outgoing message on his answering machine, and wishes he hadn’t been so ignorant about the blues when he interviewed Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1983.

One thought on “Little Trip To Heaven: Tom Waits’ Closing Time At 50

  • March 14, 2023 at 12:01 pm

    Ok – Sounds like I need to catch up and listen 😊


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