Video History: Tom Waits On Talk Shows

July 2, 2012

Tom Waits is set to make a pair of television appearances next week, performing material off his new album, Bad As Me, live for the first time before chatting with show hosts. On Monday he’ll stop by Letterman’s Late Show followed by Fallon’s Late Night the next day. While these programs might not be the most comfortable fit for our favorite idiosyncratic troubadour, he’s actually never shied away from the format, showing up for a dozen or so inspired performances and memorable interviews since the 1970s. As a longtime Waits YouTube junkie, what strikes me most is how well the many late-night clips manage to offer a glimpse into his phases over the years — from the barroom balladeer visiting Fernwood to a newly sober introvert on the Don Lane Show, to a quick-witted raconteur in recent years. Can’t wait to see what Waits has in store come Monday, but in the meantime, let’s get caught up with some highlights from the vaults:

Fernwood Tonight, 1977

One of the best and most dated vintage clips around, in which Waits’ car supposedly broke down on the way to Toledo, leaving him to perform Small Change‘s “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) (an Evening with Pete King)” in Martin Mull and Fred Willard’s fictional town of Fernwood, Ohio.

Favorite Quote: “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”

Don Lane Show, 1981

Waits appears a bit nervous, but with wits intact for this pivotal moment in his career: right after quitting smoking (not for good), drinking hard alcohol (sort of), and marrying Kathleen Brennan (his wife and songwriting partner ever since). The difference between this and his previous appearance on the Australian talk show helps put it in further context.

Favorite Quote: “I think in order to quit successfully you have to feel as though you’re superior to those who do smoke,” he jokes. “So I’ve managed to quit, and I feel like a good American.”

Late Night with David Letterman, 1986

Prime mid-’80s Waits, a precursor to the multi-faceted man we’re most familiar with today. He talks about moving to New York City from Los Angeles, his acting and theater forays, and the cover of Rain Dogs.

Favorite Quote (on New York City): “Well, it’s like a big ship, you know, and the water’s on fire.”

Late Night with David Letterman, 1988

Hair bleached blonde and covered with confetti, Waits performs “Straight To The Top,” talks Big Time, and moves back to California.

Favorite Quote (on critical reception to his film): “Another guy said, ‘It looks like it was filmed in the belly of a very sick animal.’” Letterman: “Is that what you were hoping to achieve?” Waits: “Well, it’s pretty close. I’m surprised they caught it.”

Late Show with David Letterman, 2004

Waits unveils a piece of his photography work, where he finds unlikely images in oil stains and horse cribbing. (He even ended up putting the image he discusses on the cover of Zoetrope a year later.) Plus, a great performance of Real Gone‘s “Make It Rain.”

Favorite Quote (on overhearing his kids say, “Don’t ever ask Dad to help you with your homework.”): “They said I made up a war once. I think I was just groping for the real name and I just substituted it for rhythm.”

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