"I was born without a body,
I've got nothing but scorn"


Thomas Alan Waits was born on December 7, 1949, in Pomona, California. He has one older sister and one younger sister. His father, Jesse Frank Waits, was a Texas native of Scots-Irish descent, while his mother, Alma Fern (née Johnson), hailed from Oregon and had Norwegian ancestry. Alma was a conventional housewife and regular church-goer. Jesse taught Spanish at a local school and was an alcoholic; Waits later related that his father was "a tough one, always an outsider". The family lived at 318 North Pickering Avenue in Whittier, California. He described having a "very middle-class" upbringing and "a pretty normal childhood".

It was at the Troubadour that Waits came to the attention of Herb Cohen, who signed him to a publishing contract; that Cohen did not give him a recording contract suggests that he was interested in Waits only as a songwriter rather than a performer. Quitting his job at Napoleone's to concentrate on his songwriting career, in early 1972 Waits moved to an apartment in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, a poor neighbourhood known for its Hispanic and bohemian communities. He continued performing at the Troubadour and there met David Geffen, who gave Waits a recording contract with his Asylum Records. Jerry Yester was chosen to produce his first album, with the recording sessions taking place in Hollywood's Sunset Sound studios. The resulting album, Closing Time, was released in March 1973, although attracted little attention and did not sell well. Biographer Barney Hoskyns noted that Closing Time was "broadly in step with the singer-songwriter school of the early 1970s"; Waits had wanted to create a piano-led jazz album although Yester had pushed its sound in a more folk-oriented direction. An Eagles cover of its opening track, "Ol' 55", on their album On the Border, brought Waits further money and recognition, although he regarded their version as "a little antiseptic"

In July 1976 he recorded the album Small Change, again produced by Howe. In later years, he described it as a seminal episode in his development as a songwriter, describing it as the point when he became "completely confident in the craft". On release, the album was critically well received and was his first release to break into the Billboard Top 100 Album List, peaking at number 89. Later biographer Patrick Humphries called Small Change Waits' "masterpiece". He received growing press attention, being profiled in Newsweek, Time, Vogue, and The New Yorker; he had begun to accrue a cult following. He went on tour to promote the new album, backed by the Nocturnal Emissions. In reference to his song "Pasties and a G-String", a female stripper came onstage during his performances. He began 1977 by touring Japan for the first time.

In July 1978, Waits began the recording sessions for his album Blue Valentine. Part way through the sessions, he replaced his musicians in order to create a less jazz-oriented sound; for the album, he switched from a piano to an electric guitar as his main instrument. For the album cover, Waits used a picture of him and Jones in his car, a 1964 Ford Thunderbird, taken by Elliot Gilbert. From the album, Waits' first single was released, a cover of "Somewhere", but it failed to chart. For his Blue Valentine tour, Waits assembled a new band; he also had a gas station built for use as a set during his performances. His support act on the tour was Leon Redbone. In April, he embarked on a European tour, there making television appearances and press interviews; in Austria he was the subject of a short documentary. From there he flew to Australia for his first tour of that country before returning to Los Angeles in May.

"“I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.”

An assistant story editor on the film was Kathleen Brennan, a young Irish-American woman; Waits had met her before, at a party he attended before his move to New York, and later described encountering her as "love at first sight". They entered a relationship and were engaged to be married within a week. In August, they married at a 24 hour wedding chapel on the Manchester Boulevard in Watts before honeymooning in Tralee, a town in County Kerry, Ireland, where Brennan had family. Returning to Los Angeles, the couple moved into an apartment in a 19th century building along Union Avenue.Hoskyns noted that with Brennan, "Waits had found the stabilizing, nurturing companion he'd always wanted", and that she brought him "a sense of emotional security he had never known" before. At the same time, many of his old friends felt cut off after his marriage.

Waits wrote the songs which would be included on Swordfishtrombones during a two-week trip to Ireland. He recorded the album at Sunset Sound studios and produced the album himself; Brennan often attended the sessions and gave him advice. Swordfishtrombones abandoned the jazz sound characteristic of his earlier work; it was for instance his first album not to feature a saxophone. When the album was finished, he took it to Asylum, but they declined to release it. Waits wanted to leave the label; in his view, "They liked dropping my name in terms of me being a 'prestige' artist, but when it came down to it they didn't invest a whole lot in me in terms of faith". Chris Blackwell of Island Records learned of Waits' dissatisfaction and approached him, offering to release Swordfishtrombones; Island had a reputation for signing more experimental acts, such as King Crimson, Roxy Music, and Sparks. Waits did not tour to promote the album, partly because Brennan was pregnant. Although not enthusiastic regarding the new trend for music videos, he appeared in one for the song "In the Neighbourhood", co-directed by Haskell Wexler and Michael A. Russ. Russ also designed the Swordfishtrombones album cover, featuring an image of Waits with Lee Kolima, a circus strongman, and Angelo Rossito, a dwarf.

Waits began work on his next album, Rain Dogs, before recording it over the course of two and a half months at the RCA Studios in mid 1985. Keith Richards played on some of the tracks; he later acknowledged Waits' encouragement of his first solo album, Talk is Cheap. One of the tracks on the album, "Downtown Train", was subsequently covered by Rod Stewart, when it reached the top five in 1990. In 1985, Rolling Stone magazine named Waits its "Songwriter of the Year". In September, his son Casey was born. Waits assembled a band and went on tour, kicking it off in Scotland in October before proceeding around Europe and then the US. He changed the setlist for each performance; most of the songs chosen were from his two Island albums.

In autumn 1986, he took a small part in Candy Mountain, a film by Robert Frank and Rudy Wurlitzer, as millionaire golf enthusiast Al Silk. He then starred in Hector Babenco's Ironweed, as Rudy the Kraut, a more substantial role, where he starred alongside Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. Hoskyns noted that Babenco's film put Waits "on the mainstream Hollywood map as a character actor". In autumn 1987, Waits and his family left New York and returned to Los Angeles, setting on Union Avenue. In summer 1988, he appeared as a hitman in Robert Dornhelm's film Cold Feet, filmed in Gallatin National Forest. Waits hated when musicians allowed companies to use their songs in advertising; he said that "artists who take money for ads poison and pervert their songs". In November 1988 he brought a lawsuit against Frito-Lay for using an actor imitating his voice to advertise their Salsa Rio Doritos; it came to court in April 1990 and in 1992 Waits won. He received a $2.6 million settlement, a larger sum than he had earned from all of his earlier albums. n 1989, Waits appeared in his final theatrical stage role to date, appearing as Curly in Thomas Babe's Demon Wine, alongside Bill Pullman, Philip Baker Hall, Carol Kane, and Bud Cort. The play opened at the Los Angeles Theater Center in February 1989 to mixed reviews, although Waits' performance was singled out by a number of critics, including John C. Mahoney, who described it as "mesmerizing.

"“There ain't no devil, there's just god when he's drunk”

Hoskyns referred to him as being "as important an American artist as anyone the twentieth century has produced", while Humphries described him as "one of America's finest post-Dylan singer-songwriters".Humphries noted that at the time of his emergence to public fame, Waits represented "a unique voice on the late Seventies pop radar". He thought that Waits was, along with the painter Edward Hopper, "one of the two great depicters of American isolation". Among the celebrities who have described themselves as Waits fans are Johnny Depp, John Oliver, and Jerry Hall. Musicians who noted their admiration for Waits' work included Joe Strummer.