Back in 2006, Tom Waits released an outtakes and rarities compilation called Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards. At 56 tracks, it had a lot – but not nearly everything. So fans dutifully compiled a companion collection of everything left on the cutting room floor, cleverly titled Forgotten Orphans. In addition to more outtakes and b-sides, this fan bootleg included something the main set lacked: live performances. Many of those were super-rare covers, none of which have ever been officially released. But they are worth hearing. Tom Waits is widely regarded as an excellent songwriter, but these covers showcase Tom Waits’ power as a song interpreter. He’s never gone the Bob Dylan route of periodic forays into cover albums, but if he ever did, these songs show how great such an album could be.
The performances date back to 1973, the same year Tom’s debut record came out. He still was a James Taylor-sounding folkie very different than the oddball innovator he would become. From the early coffeehouse period, the song choices wind a path parallel to his songwriting, gradually moving away from folk selections into blues, soul, and American songbook choices. The interpretations also get less conventional, adding distortion, avant-garde jazz, and a lot of stomping and hollering. They continue all that way through the Swordfishtrombones/Rain Dogs/Frank’s Wild Years era of the ’80s, with a few more recent live covers too.
Waits tackles some iconic numbers over the course of these twenty covers. A mournful version of Sam Cooke’s “Cupid” from ’76 weeps with every line. His version of Little Willie John’s classic “Fever” twenty years later finds him singing through a distorted megaphone over gut-bucket blues guitar. Four songs come from what must have been quite a concert, a 1988 New Year’s Eve show with Marc Ribot in the band where, for the first and only time, he covered songs by The Doors (a roaring “Take It As It Comes”), Elvis Presley (“Hound Dog,” sounding much more like Big Mama Thornton’s original), Ewan MacColl (an accordion sashay through “Dirty Old Town”), and Bing Crosby (a warped “Pennies From Heaven”).
He even covers two James Brown songs in two different decades (“I Feel Good” in ’79 and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” in ’87), which is perhaps no surprise. He one wrote:
I first saw James Brown in 1962 at an outdoor theatre in San Diego and it was indescribable… it was like putting a finger in a light socket. He did the whole thing with the cape. He did “Please Please Please.” It was such a spectacle. It had all the pageantry of the Catholic Church. It was really like seeing mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Christmas and you couldn’t ignore the impact of it in your life. You’d been changed, your life is changed now. And everybody wanted to step down, step forward, take communion, take sacrament, they wanted to get close to the stage and be anointed with his sweat, his cold sweat.
Tom’s song choices reveal a lot about who he considers he influences. He rarely covers his peers or contemporaries; in fact, in this set no song choice originated later than 1967. He clearly listens to more contemporary music – in a 2005 Guardian article on his favorite albums he mentioned several this century by Primus, David Hildago, and Elvis Costello – and he has collaborated with a number of younger artists over the years. But he clearly considers live covers a way to honor the musicians who came before, and chooses to perform songs he’s been hearing his whole life.
(Speaking of Costello, he and Waits duet through the country classic “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know About Her” in 1986. One suspects one of them had recently attended that year’s Bob Dylan and Tom Petty tour, where Dylan and Petty were covering the same song every night.)
Though names like James Brown and the Doors are the eye-catchers, you won’t want to skip over the more obscure songs either. The two solo acoustic covers at a San Diego record store number among his earliest recorded performances. The first is particularly noteworthy, a cover of one of his earliest peers, Ray Bierl, who hosted a coffeehouse folk night Tom played at. Bierl:
I met Tom in San Diego when he started showing up at open mikes, “hoots,” at the Heritage Coffee House in Mission Beach, playing his own and other people’s songs. I remember him doing “It Looks Like I’m Up Shit Creek Again”– I got him to write down the words for me — and Elvis’ “Are You Lonesome Tonight” complete with recitation. He hadn’t taken up the piano at that point, but already had a strong personal style and a flair for performing and an integrity about him that audiences responded to. Tom soon was working as doorman at the Heritage, and on slow nights it seemed he had a bigger crowd hanging out with him on the sidewalk than were inside listening to the music.
Among other highlights from the lesser-known songs: a late-night piano version of “Spanish Is the Loving Tongue” in ’74 would have fit right on the debut album he recorded not long after. He wildly reinvents “Standing On the Corner,” a song made famous by the Four Lads (themselves most famous for influencing Brian Wilson and Beach Boys – not that you’d guess it from this version). He puts a Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem to music, a rare callback to his earlier piano-jazzbo incarnation at one of his last live performances in 2010.
Whether covering a famous hit or an obscure oddball, you’ll hear that Tom commits fully every time. He is not the sort of performer to pull out a half-rehearsed novelty cover as a lark one evening. Springsteen singing “Royals” is fun, but that’s not Tom’s style. Every one of these shows him performing at his best, fully prepared alongside his band – even for the songs they never performed again.
Tom gets covered by other musicians often (we might have posted one or two), but does not get the credit he deserves as a cover artist in his own right. Though recording quality is not always pristine, these 20 covers should make the case that he is as good a song-interpreter as he is a song-writer. Stream them all below, arranged in chronological order.
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Friday’s Blues (Ray Bierl cover, live at Folk Arts Rare Records 11-16-1973)
I Like To Sleep Late In The Morning (David Blue cover, live at Folk Arts Rare Records 11-16-1973)
Spanish Is The Loving Tongue (Charles Badger Clark/Billy Simon cover, live in San Diego 1-1-1974)
Good Night Loving Trail (Bruce “Utah” Phillips cover, live in Denver 10-08-1974)
Saturday Night Fish Fry (Louis Jordan cover, live in Santa Barbara 2-13-1975)
Standing on the Corner (The Four Lads cover, live in Cleveland 8-25-197?)
Cupid (Sam Cooke cover, live in Westchester 10-02-1976)
Summertime (George Gershwin, live in Osaka 03-??-1978)
Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You (Andy Razaf and Don Redman, Seattle 10-07-1978)
I Feel Good (James Brown cover, live in Toronto 10-19-1979)
Tom Waits and Elvis Costello – I Forgot More Then You’ll Ever Know (The Davis Sisters cover, live in Los Angeles 10-04-1986)
Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag (James Brown cover, Toronto 10-07-1987)
Mack The Knife (Kurt Weill/Bertholt Brecht cover, live in Berlin 12-08-1987)
Take It As It Comes (The Doors cover, live in Los Angeles 12-31-1988)
Pennies From Heaven (Arthur Johnston and Johnny Burke cover, Los Angeles 12-31-1988)
Dirty Old Town (Ewan MacColl cover, live in Los Angeles 12-31-1988)
Hound Dog (Big Mama Thornton / Elvis cover, live in Los Angeles 12-31-1988)
Fever (Little Willie John cover, live in Healdsburg 11-08-1996)
Ramblin’ Man (Hank Williams cover, live in Cleveland 08-13-2006)
Fortune Has Its Cookies To Give Out (Lawrence Ferlinghetti cover, live in San Francisco 10-02-2010)
You do have the real ‘Orphans’ box set right? If not, go get it!