Tom Waits
Small Change
/elektra; 1976/

Small Change is a Christmas album par excellence. It definitely works as a winter album as well. Humphrey Maurice made me listen to all Tom Waits albums throughout a common drunken night (one of us was much troubled by temporary speech impediments though but that’s another story that shall not be discussed here) and Small Change clearly stood out and was the one I borrowed for months.

In its own particular way, Tom Waits casually spreads out its appealing raucous voice over groovy jazz moods. It’s half-sad. You’re sad and you’ve got ten reasons to be sad but then it’s not depression yet. Sadness suffused with self-indulgence and self-derision. Something has changed but it’s a small change… You’re a loner tonight but you don’t care… and you feel like you’ll never lose your composure, you feel like eternity… It does also work if you’re celebrating Christmas on your own, dolefully watching snow fall through a window…and if there is no snow you don’t care. You’ll just sing along slowly ‘Waltzing Matilda’ in ‘Tom Traubert’s blues’ because it’s the right mood.

Half-drunk and weary on a comfortable sofa, you thrive on it thinking about Golden Age Hollywood films you keep flooding your vcr with. You start daydreaming you behave like Humphrey Bogart when he headlined movies in the forties or Sterling Hayden drinking whisky in The Long Goodbye. ‘Bad liver and a Broken Heart’ even mentions the alcoholic problem and Waits’ delivery becomes so sad from time to time that you’d like to refill his empty glass to comfort him. ‘I don’t have a drinking problem except when I can’t get a drink’. An invitation to the blues, right ?? That’s what you think and then Tom Waits utters it in his idiosyncratic slack manner in the song titled this way. Waits feels like Cagney but he sounds like a Billy Wilder character such as the musical teacher who tries to fall out with his wife to be able to hit her with the grapefruit he’s been hiding behind his back in Kiss Me Stupid Clumsy and subjected to hope, despair and mood swings. With this attitude, if you had a grapefruit, you’d definitely smile and gently hit your girl with it… I guess…

…but then later in the night your mood would change and move close to the spirit of the careless drunkard writer in The Lost Week-end by Altman:

‘a dream that I was chasin’ and a battle with the booze and an open invitation to the blues…’

‘An invitation to the blues’ would have been a perfect last song but it would have given a depressive note to the album, ending it with the saddest song.

Tom Waits' 1976 release is a punk album, not thanks to its sound for sure but in the sense that its state of mind is nearly nihilist. He seems to wander from his everyday life and let his mind drift wherever his daydreams carry him, which is echoed by the front sleeve showing our favourite crooner taking no interest in the naked cabaret girl standing near him. He couldn’t care less. In ‘I wish I was in New Orleans’ or ‘Jitterbug Boy’, he yields to petty play-with-words (‘…resting on my laurels and my Hardy’s too…’) and thinks he attended fancy events in fancy clothes eating fancy food. In this point of view namedropping has nothing to do with show-off but it has to be linked with daydreaming. Let’s call up Marilyn Monroe, Let’s get drunk with Louis Armstrong, be a jitterbug boy, live in Casablanca, see the Brooklyn Dodgers, imagine the bouncer as a sumo wrestler, talk about girls seeing wise guys named Chesty Morgan and so on… In the end it gives Small Change an absurd aspect which is sometimes backed up by maddening musical passages. It’s precisely this pervasive screwball aspect which permeates in every song that makes the music click with the lyrics. Even when he performs strange duets, this impression remains. In ‘pasties and a G-string’ he seems to be a fallen Santa Claus that has become a low-life clown ridiculed by the slant drums accompanying him. In ‘Small Change’ he hangs onto the fickle tenor sax to tell his funny story. The jazz music sometimes becomes lively but ominous, buoyant but twisted. In the catchy ‘Step right up’, Tom Waits performs a wild scat fighting with the groovy bass line which remains in your mind.

Except for ‘An invitation to the Blues’, sadness reaches its climax when piano-driven melancholy ballads get rid of the other instruments in tracks endowed with a weary tone such as ‘I can’t wait to get off work’, ‘Bad liver and a Broken heart’, ‘Jitterbug Boy’. ‘The piano has been drinking (not me)’ perfectly conveys this unsettled atmosphere, this dubious impression you feel when you’re half drunk in a Christmas evening and you observe drunk people surrounding you ; or when you’re alone when everyone’s not alone and you wonder whether you should commiserate or rejoice. Half-sad half-happy. Some sort of bittersweet melancholy.

The album stops spinning. Rain is pouring down on the roof. Melancholy has definitely taken possession of your mind. You think that Small Change is a must-have. And you’re right.

-SEB ‘Invitation to the B’ WOOd.

/feb 15th 2004/