Final Asylum

Tom Waits’ Heartattack and Vine Remastered, Revisited

Heartattack And Vine by Tom Waits

Reinvention may be the ultimate proof of artistic genius. And there’s no better example of this concept than Tom Waits.

Discussions among Waits fans over what the highlights are in his intensely personal, incredibly dense musical mass of pain, longing, anger, happiness and more than a little autobiography usually begin and end over those still enamored with the early records on Elektra/Asylum and a larger group, certain that his later, post-1980 work on Island Records is the repository of his true genius.

Distinguished by many of his best songs as opposed to the more chaotic, noisy, consciously arty Kurt Weill-like settings on the Island albums, the Elektra/Asylum albums feature mostly Waits solo, playing piano or accompanied by a skeletal band, trying hard to croon in his cracked and broken growl.

The Island recordings, which began in 1983 with a blockbuster pair of artistic triumphs; Swordfishtrombones (1983) and Rain Dogs (1985), leave all that behind for a more confrontational, percussive, less autobiographical direction. From the first notes of “Underground” on Swordfishtrombones it was clear that his approach, if not his entire aesthetic had changed. Suddenly more a theatrical art rock impresario than boozy confessional urban troubadour, Waits whispered, yowled and inhabited a depraved falsetto as much as he actually sang. Banging, clanging percussion, often in odd time signatures, rather than voice, piano and minimal accompaniment became the focus. A clamorous but no less meaningful zeitgeist took root, one that peaked with Waits growing downright assaultive, oftentimes using a bullhorn to shout into a microphone. Listenability became more difficult. Rhythms and words often worked at cross purposes. And while there were flashes of the old Waits, most affectingly in the minute and thirty second ode to Kathleen Brennan his wife and frequent songwriting partner, “Johnsburg, Illinois,” and the beautifully sentimental, “In The Neighborhood,” (both from Swordfishtrombones) and later in “Downtown Train” and “Blind Love” from Rain Dogs, it was clear he’d permanently left his former sad, sentimental self behind for this bold, rackety new direction.

Like all artistic reinventions, his turn away from confessional tenderness and major chord accessibility toward a cooler, less accessible variety of artistic genius, left some fans behind while winning new converts, those weary of his former self, convinced that it was nothing short of an exhausted dead end.  

But just before he transitioned to UK-based Island, and so greater fame in Europe, Waits made a final album for Elektra/Asylum, 1980’s Heartattack and Vine, which has recently been reissued on LP in a newly remastered edition supervised by Waits and Brennan. Like most modern remasterings, the sonic changes from the original LP are subtle—a more lasting tingle to the high frequencies, a fuller, slightly more rounded resonance in the bass notes, and a slight sharpening of that wonderfully wheezing voice. Released by Anti- Records, this new 180 gram LP pressing is clean and quiet in the extreme.  

1980 Tom Waits promo shot

As a final gasp of the “old” Waits, Heartattack and Vine is often derided as a minor work, one that merely fulfilled a contractual obligation rather than a valuable and important finale to the critical early discography of this most essential of American gutter bards. Even among the seven Elektra/Asylum albums it’s seen as the weak dog, the flawed final statement before he moved on to the futuristic rainbow of aboriginal creativity of the revelatory Island years. While it’s true that not everything on the ballad-heavy Heartattack and Vine is top drawer Waits the songwriter, I’d make a case that the album’s heart, and one of the most inspired stretches on any Waits record, are the three songs that end side one of the LP: “Saving All My Love for You,” “Downtown” and “Jersey Girl.” While laments like “On the Nickel” and the closer “Ruby’s Arm” are heartfelt and well-sung, it’s the trio at the center of the nine tracks that make this album worth another listen.

The first of the three, the gorgeous, desperate ballad, (complete with chimes) “Saving All My Love for You,” opens with stanzas of classic Waits wordplay, all delivered as a fervent, supplicating prayer.

“It’s too early for the circus,
It’s too late for the bars,
No one’s sleepin’ but the paperboys,
And no one in this town is makin’ any noise,
But the dogs and the milkmen and me.

The girls around here all look like Cadillacs,
No one likes a stranger here,
I’d come home but I’m afraid
That you won’t take me back,
But I’d trade off everything just to have you near.

I know I’m irresponsible and I don’t behave,
And I ruin everything that I do,
And I’ll probably get arrested when I’m in my grave,
But I’ll be savin’ all my love for you.”

Next up, “Downtown,” is the kind of creepin’ around, booze-and-cheap motel travelogue so typical of Waits time in Los Angeles. Like everything on this album, this tune is anchored by Roland Bautista’s craft guitarwork.  

It’s the cool of the evening the sun’s goin’ down, I want to hold you in my
Arms I want to push you around, I want to break your bottle and spill out all
Your charms, come on baby we’ll set off all the burglar alarms, goin’ downtown
Down downtown.”

Finally there’s the immortal “Jersey Girl,” the best “down the shore” Springsteen song that the Boss never wrote—but promptly covered on record (1984) and repeatedly in concert. With an “Under the Boardwalk” feel, Waits’ version here even has a glockenspiel–a Springsteen specialty–twinkling away in the background near the song’s fade out.

As much as I believe that Heartattack and Vine deserves a long overdue reappraisal from fans and critics alike, I must acknowledge that the split over Waits’ work is actually three camps not two. There are those—and I certainly count myself a member—that like both periods equally and appreciate them for what they are: the necessary artistic growth and fascinating journey of a masterful savant and utterly inimitable American songwriter and musical force.


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