Tom Waits and David Letterman: An American Television Tradition

Whether or not you lis­ten to his music, you have to appre­ci­ate the fact that a singer like Tom Waits has enjoyed decades of fame. When I first heard a song of his — “Inno­cent When You Dream” over the end cred­its of Wayne Wang’s Smoke — I assumed the voice I was hear­ing could­n’t pos­si­bly have come from a human being. Or if it did, maybe it came from a human being imi­tat­ing the man­ner of some sort of crag­gy, immor­tal mon­ster, processed through sev­er­al dis­tor­tion box­es. But no, I was hear­ing the sound of purest Waits, one of the few per­form­ers who deliv­ers an entire per­son­al­i­ty — whether his own or one he’s invent­ed — when deliv­er­ing a sin­gle line. You’ll find evi­dence of his cap­ti­va­tion fac­tor above, in a per­for­mance of “Choco­late Jesus,” a song inspired by lit­er­al­ly that, on Late Show with David Let­ter­man. Per­haps you won’t feel it, but you can’t argue with its view count on YouTube — 5.3 mil­lion and ris­ing.

Waits has made some­thing of a tra­di­tion of vis­it­ing Let­ter­man’s show, or maybe Let­ter­man has made a tra­di­tion of invit­ing him. Music jour­nal­ists often slap the word “reclu­sive” in front of his name, but Waits does make his media appear­ances, the best of which he makes on Let­ter­man’s show. You’ll find many such seg­ments on Youtube, includ­ing ones from 1983, 1986198719882002, 2004, and this year. In 1986, Let­ter­man intro­duced Waits as “prob­a­bly the only guest we’ve had on this pro­gram who was born in the back of a taxi,” which I assume still holds true. Just above, we’ve embed­ded his 1983 Christ­mas­time sit-down, which Waits’ fans seem to regard with spe­cial fond­ness, and in which Let­ter­man first learns this choice fact. Beyond that, Waits sings two songs and dis­cuss­es his var­i­ous unortho­dox res­i­dences (motel, trail­er, car), the use of brake drums as per­cus­sive drums on his then-lat­est album, and how he inter­vened when a school­boy was sus­pend­ed for bring­ing one of Waits’ records to show-and-tell. In Waits, we have the prime liv­ing exem­plar of a cer­tain par­tic­u­lar­ly Amer­i­can style of per­form­ing and song­writ­ing, and in Let­ter­man, we have the prime liv­ing exem­plar of a cer­tain par­tic­u­lar­ly Amer­i­can style of simul­ta­ne­ous­ly sil­ly and self-aware humor. What luck for the coun­try that these two can get togeth­er as often as they do.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Tom Waits Fish­ing with John Lurie: ‘Like Wait­ing for Godot on Water’

A Brief His­to­ry of John Baldessari, Nar­rat­ed by Tom Waits

Tom Waits Reads Charles Bukows­ki

Tom Waits Makes Com­ic Appear­ance on Fer­n­wood Tonight (1977)

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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  • Chris says:

    Thanks for this. I had­n’t seen the ’83 appear­ance. You’re right on: Waits and Let­ter­man are unique­ly Amer­i­can.

  • L.P. Hale says:

    Love Tom Waits. Saw him in Min­neapo­lis some­time in the late 80’s … a per­for­mance unlike any I have seen. Still res­onates with me today, and this video helped be revis­it it again.

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