While Tom Waits’ debut album, Closing Time, is one of the best folk songs ever made, it could have been considerably more jazzy if the guy himself had his way. You see, whereas folk has always adhered to the idea of four chords and the truth, Waits prefers to disrupt the dogeared genre with a richness of unique originality. Nonetheless, his debut indicated that beneath all the avant-garde flourishes and tampering that followed, beneath everything in Waits’ florid back catalogue, is the backbone of good old folk—it serves as the base from which he experiments. Typically, his own brand adheres to the genre’s ageless traditions, but instead of age-old stories from his country’s history, he focuses on strange old America, circus tents, and vaudeville bars. The folk that he admires in others follows suit, as he says of his favorite Bob Dylan record, the bootleg of his productive homebound experimentation with The Band, The Basement Tapes: “For a songwriter, Dylan is as vital as a hammer, nails, and saw are to a carpenter.
I prefer my music with the rinds, seeds, and pulp still intact, therefore the bootlegs I obtained in the 1960s and 1970s, when the noise and grit of the recordings became inseparable from the music, are crucial to me.” Leonard Cohen’s exact poetry is also an important songwriter in Waits’ world. Drawing influences from the environment around them in every way is a critical element to the magnificent mausoleum of song that both artists offered the world, and Waits continues to do so, perhaps with new music very soon. They are eternal artists in this regard. However, in the midst of the 1980s’ flashy synth-sedation, the word “timelessness” did not sit well. In the grandeur of the day, anything without a flashing light was considered old hat. Despite this, Waits and Cohen’s expertise not only persisted, but blossomed.
In Cohen’s case, one of his finest compositions juxtaposed his scything lyrics with an overture of synths, factory-formed basslines, and studio wattage that was a million miles away from his previous Amish-adjacent standards. I’m Your Man is an outstanding album. In 1988, it added a twist of lemon to Cohen’s hallowed recipe without spoiling the stew. In a Guardian interview, Waits described it as his favorite Cohen record: “Euro, klezmer, chansons, apocalyptic, revelations, with that mellifluous voice.” A shipwrecked Aznovar washed up on beach. Important songs, thoughtful and authoritative, and Leonard is an Extra Large poet.” As does the late Shane MacGowan, who completes the trifecta of Waits’ favourite folk records, having also championed Rum Sodomy and the Lash by The Pogues.
Waits stated, “Sometimes when things are really flat, you want to hear something flat, and other times you just want to project onto it, something more like…you might want to hear the Pogues.” They love the West. “They enjoy all of those old movies.” They don’t only adore old weird America, like Waits, they love old weird worldwide, demonstrating a firm knowledge that human comedy is fundamentally peculiar, lubricated by booze that floats off this record in a mist of exultation—as all folk at its best. NB: We’ve bundled these incredible records into a little playlist goodie at the bottom of the essay.
Tom Waits’ favourite folk albums:
The Basement Tapes – Bob Dylan & The Band
Rum Sodomy and the Lash – The Pogues
I’m Your Man – Leonard Cohen