It was Wednesday, November 2nd, 1977, and the 28-year-old Waits, already a cult hero, was visiting Memphis for back-to-back sets. Foreign Affairs had just been released, but his song list featured cuts from The Heart of Saturday Night, Small Change, and Nighthawks at the Diner. The rasping songwriter was stumbling toward the end of his burlesque period, a tragically clownish love affair with Americana where Waits played the part of a hobo poet: half Charlie Chaplin, half Hoagy Carmichael, and all W.C. Fields. Critics liked Foreign Affairs well enough, but they were getting tired of Waits' drunk-at-the-piano schtick, and so was Waits, who wondered if he was on his way to becoming a novelty act.
Frank Vicari's tenor saxophone started the Memphis show, squalling like a cat in the bathtub, and Waits growled his way through "The One That Got Away," a sprawling, impressionistic take on graft, watery graves, and all things noir. Fifteen songs later, the sax was still moaning, and Waits was deep into the wrecked despair of "San Diego Serenade." He bopped his way through vaudeville-inspired songs such as "Step Right Up" and "Jitterbug Boy," crooned howling heartachers like "I Wish I Was in New Orleans," and comically mumbled his way through "The Piano Has Been Drinking."
"When I heard Tom Waits, I knew this was something. This was one of the original voices of rock-and-roll. It was incredible music and incredibly far out of the mainstream," says Walter Dawson. In 1977, Dawson was The Commercial Appeal's intricately tattooed music writer, with an ear for interesting material and the desire to introduce readers to artists they weren't likely to hear on the radio. When Dawson heard Waits was coming to Memphis, he placed a glowing review in the CA.
Located on Madison Avenue just west of McLean, the Ritz seemed custom-built for Waits' seedy chic. Before it was converted into a nightclub, the building housed the Capri Art Theater.
"It was a skin joint," says Jerry Swift. Today, Swift's the goateed elder statesman of the Memphis Flyer's advertising staff. In 1977, he owned the Ritz, an acoustically excellent performance space with a revolving stage and a reputation for booking artists such as Billy Joel, Leon Redbone, John Prine, and Joan Armatrading.
Waits' concerts took a turn to the theatrical in '76, when he started touring with a street lamp for a set and making some unusual requests of club owners. The Ritz show was no exception.
"When the contract came in, I was looking over the rider," Swift says with a salty chuckle. "It had the usual stuff -- food, drinks, and things like that. And then I saw, 'The club owner must provide a stripper on stage.' I called and asked, 'What's with this stripper shit? This is Memphis, and I don't know if we can do that.'"
Fortunately for Swift, a man by the name of Art Baldwin had recently arrived in Memphis with a bevy of exotic dancers imported from Tacoma, Washington, and one of the Tacoma girls was available for the gig.
According to Swift, there wasn't any actual stripping involved. The dancer just had to dress like a streetwalker and hang out under the street lamp. A bit of bumping and grinding was requested during "Pasties & a G-String," where Waits lasciviously shouts, "I'm getting harder than Chinese algebra!"
Dawson says members of the Amazing Rhythm Aces, who'd gone backstage, watched as Waits carefully placed a cigarette in every pocket of his suit so he could comically fumble around for a smoke onstage.
"That's showmanship," Dawson says.
Of Waits that night, Swift recalls, "I thought he was a homeless man looking for a handout. He looked like one of the winos who would come in if somebody left the backstage door open. I said, 'Hey, what do you think you're doing,' and he looked up at me and said, 'Well, I'm performing here tonight.'"
The Tom Waits scheduled to play the Orpheum on August 4th isn't the same artist Swift nearly tossed out of his club 29 years ago. After Foreign Affairs and Blue Valentine, Waits dumped the hobo schtick in favor of songs his wife and frequent collaborator Kathleen Brennan once divided into two categories: "grim reapers" and "grand weepers." His poetry became more specific and more surreal as his compositions took on the tropes of classic rock and European folk in equal measure. This resulted in songs as accessible as the Rod Stewart hit "Downtown Train" and as startlingly bizarre as "Singapore." In the 1990s, Waits started writing operas for avant-garde director Robert Wilson, and the bulk of his recent work has resulted from these collaborations.
It's unlikely Waits will run through many of the classic songs he played here in '77, but that's okay. Having been away for so long, he's got plenty of catching up to do.
Friday, August 4th