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Tom Waits: Tales from a Cracked Jukebox, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Tom Waits: Tales from a Cracked Jukebox, BBC Four

Tom Waits: Tales from a Cracked Jukebox, BBC Four

The musical life and times of 'an ordinary guy with a gruff voice'

Son of a preacher man: reluctant interviewee Tom WaitsMichael O'Brien

“I’m not necessarily the ‘I’ in my songs” declared Tom Waits in James Maycock's documentary, its title a tipping of the proverbial hat to another artist who, in his 69 years on earth, inhabited many roles.

Tom Waits has mostly kept journalists at arm’s length and he’s never been one to talk about his private life, so producer/director Maycock (whose subjects have included Yehudi Menuhin and Yoko Ono) relied on archives for this rewarding 60-minute film. But he found plenty of other figures prepared to speak intelligently about his work, and in some cases about the man.

Role-playing is a way of expressing himself more freely

Bones Howe, Waits’s one-time record producer – a man associated, ironically, with the "sunshine pop” genre that included “Up Up and Away” and such classics as “California Dreamin’” – was a case in point. The two men “bonded” over their shared love of the tenor sax, the sound of both loneliness and love, having been put together by label boss David Geffen when Waits was an unknown. “He’s just an ordinary guy with a great sense of humour and a gruff voice,” Howe said, recalling dinners at his home. Singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, whose voice has more than a touch of gravel to it, wasn’t sure “how much of the stage persona is real”.

It’s years since Waits has taken a drink, saved no doubt by Kathleen Brennan, whom he met while working on the score for Francis Ford Coppola’s movie One from the Heart, but he plays his parts so well you’d never know. Inevitably, one is reminded of Keith Richards (with whom he has worked) and (somewhat surprisingly) of Dylan Thomas – it’s probably the funny hat that does it, and the Welshmen of course shared Waits's interest in bars and low-life.

He’s got more in common with Jack Kerouac, who “opened my eyes”, making Waits realise “it was OK to sleep till four in the afternoon” and to take “a good hard look at the bowels and the underbelly of a major urban centre”. Most of his reading was done after he’d left high school when he started “hanging out in used bookstores” and discovered detective novels, which perhaps helped provide the noir in his work. Ian Rankin, no slouch when it comes to detectives, is clearly a huge fan, describing Waits as “an extraordinary painter of pictures as well as a teller of stories” and “the poet of doomed no-hopers”.

Tales from a Cracked Jukebox was essentially a chronological trawl through Waits’s life and work, as he criss-crossed the country from west to east and back again, writing, singing, acting, observing. His family were preachers and teachers and “a little disappointed when they found out I was going to be neither”. His mother once warned him that “the devil hates nothing more than a singing Christian”, a line he thought would make a great song. Since his first album, Closing Time (1973), he’s explored many styles, including Weil and vaudeville (“role-playing is a way of being able to express himself more freely than he would as Tom Waits,” Ute Lemper observed), and has always revered the music of the great American songbook – indeed, musician Jim Sclavunos believes his best lyrics are easily on a par with those of Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael.

The gravelly voice can be hard to listen to, which is no doubt why Waits’s songs are often best-known by their cover versions, but there’s no doubt that he is an extraordinary musician. Perhaps Maycock’s documentary will have opened ears that have up to now been closed to Waits’s brand of genius. Rod Stewart’s version of “Tom Traubert’s Blues” deserved to be a chart hit but the original is a gut-wrencher, an exemplar of “the sad, sweeping melancholy that is the real Tom Waits,” as Ed Harcourt put it.

Rod Stewart’s version of 'Tom Traubert’s Blues' deserved to be a chart hit but the original is a gut-wrencher

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