Here at Open Culture, we’ve often featured the many sides of Tom Waits: actor, poetry reader, favored David Letterman guest. More rarely, we’ve posted material dedicated to showcasing him practicing his primary craft, writing songs and singing them. But when a full-fledged Tom Waits concert does surface here, prepare to settle in for an unrelentingly (and entertainingly) askew musical experience. In March, we posted Burma Shave, an hour-long performance from the late seventies in which Waits took on “the persona of a down-and-out barfly with the soul of a Beat poet.” Today, we fast-forward a decade to Big Time, by which point Waits could express the essences of “avant-garde composer Harry Partch, Howlin’ Wolf, Frank Sinatra, Astor Piazzolla, Irish tenor John McCormack, Kurt Weill, Louis Prima, Mexican norteño bands and Vegas lounge singers.” That evocative quote comes from Big Time‘s own press notes, as excerpted by Dangerous Minds, which calls the viewing experience “like entering a sideshow tent in Tom Waits’s brain.”
Watch the 90-minute concert film in its entirety, though, and you may not find it evocative enough. In 1987, Waits had just put out the album Franks Wild Years, which explores the experience of his alter-ego Frank O’Brien, whom Waits called “a combination of Will Rogers and Mark Twain, playing accordion — but without the wisdom they possessed.” The year before, the singer actually wrote and produced a stage play built around the character, and the Franks Wild Years tour through North America and Europe made thorough use of Waits’ theatrical bent in that era. Its final two shows, at San Francisco’s Warfield Theatre and Los Angeles’ Wiltern Theatre, along with footage from gigs in Dublin, Stockholm and Berlin, make up the bulk of Big Time‘s material. As for its sensibility, well, even Waits fans may feel insecure, and happily so, about quite what to expect. (Fans of The Wire, I should note, will find something familiar indeed in this show’s rendition of “Way Down in the Hole.”)
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.