The Alpha Primitive

Film reviews, essays, commentary and sundry writings

Ecstatic Joy Part 2: Cold Beer on a Hot Night

Cold Beer on a Hot Night is not an official Tom Waits release. It’s a bootleg recording of a show from 1979 in Australia during the Blue Valentine tour. For the purposes of his career progression, this really was the last hurrah of the pure rhythm and blues era of Waits’ recording career; Heartattack and Vine would come out the following year, ending his run with Asylum records and ushering in his carnival barker period with songs like “Mr. Siegal” and the title track. The croon was starting to leave him by then anyway, and nothing was more indicative of that than this bootleg.

At the time I came across this boot, Waits only had one live record to his name, 1988’s Big Time (Nighthawks at the Diner was technically recorded live, but was a studio performance of a new album as opposed to a concert of past songs and hits). It’s a good record, and there are some killer renditions on it (specifically the wonderful jazz boogie look at “Telephone Call from Istanbul”), but it’s also very much the product of its time. This is a good thing in some ways and a bad thing in others; while many revere the Island releases of the 80’s, and it is difficult to deny the majesty of a record like Rain Dogs, it’s the sort of style that is only comfortable within itself. 95% of Big Time pulls from the three Island records (Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, and Frank’s Wild Years), with only “Ruby’s Arms” from Heartattack and Vine and “Red Shoes” from Blue Valentine getting a spot in the sun, and “Red Shoes” sounds nothing like its original recording, turning a somber blues tune into another upbeat rollicking piece. It’s interesting as an oddity, but certainly changes the feel of the song from its original intent.

This shouldn’t really be a surprise. Anyone’s live records are going to be a product of the time they were recorded, especially if one’s career has been as stylistically diverse as Waits’ has. Big Time sounds nothing like Glitter and Doom which sounds nothing like Cold Beer on a Hot Night. It really comes down to a combination of style preference and song selection. Cold Beer has a leg up in that regard; Waits’ work in the 70’s may have had its ups (Small Change) and downs (Foreign Affairs), but it was notable for its emotional content and narrative impact. He was the ultimate whiskey-soaked storyteller, lounging in some booth in the darkest, smokiest corner of a hole in the wall bar with a full ashtray and an empty shot glass, telling his tales of woe to anyone who might be listening. This was the Tom Waits of Cold Beer on a Hot Night, a jazz/blues troubadour with a wounded heart and a voice of fire.

Backed by a swank jazz combo, you can picture the swagger in your mind as Waits opens the show with the barrio ballad “Romeo is Bleeding,” an up tempo (for Waits at least) slice of jazz. It’s a story song, like so many, depicting the tale of a young Mexican gangster who lives out his final hours after receiving a fatal gunshot wound in a mix-up with the cops. In the live setting, he punctuates the action with bullfrog croaks and barks and raspy whines and wheezes and howls at the moon, bringing the story to evocative life. Things settle down for a bit after this, as Waits takes his seat at the piano for a run of ballads, there’s “Annie’s Back in Town” and a medley of “Jitterbug Boy” and “ Better off Without a Wife” and “I Wish I Was in New Orleans” and “Since I Fell for You.” The trademark Tom Waits wit and playfulness is in its full effect, improvising and scatting and telling stories mid song, chuckling to himself. It’s fascinating that the piano ballad section is the home of the levity, but he never abandons the central tone of the songs.

The band comes back with a vengeance for “Red Shoes by the Drugstore,” another dark slice of life from Blue Valentine introduced succinctly and effectively (“I’d like to tell you all a Christmas carol. A tale of woe). With its deliberate tempo, pulsing tom drum and rolling bass walks all up and down the scale, punctured by shots of saxophone in the dark and Waits’ sizzling hiss. It’s definitive and it’s dark and solemn and it blows the Big Time version out of its shallow water, something more akin to the untouchable performance of “Shore Leave” from the movie that tragically didn’t make it to the disc (and would have singlehandedly stepped it up a few notches). It’s times like these that Waits is at his best, plumbing the depths of the downtrodden and disenfranchised. It may be a story about two lovers down on their luck, and the man just trying to acquire a diamond ring from his girl only to get pinched by the cops in the process which she waits, alone and cold by the drugstore in those evocative red shoes, looking for a man who’s never going to come. The true gift of Tom Waits is the way he can make a story like that, a story that likely has no bearing on such a huge swath of his listening audience, and make it feel like the most vital story they could possibly hear. He is a giant vat of empathy, breathing life and soul into his characters.

The Christmas theme continues as he returns to the piano, dovetailing a bit of “Silent Night” into the tragic ballad “Christmas Card from a Hooker in New Orleans” as the hits keep on coming. This is another of Waits’ great gifts, his uncanny ability to perfectly inhabit characters nothing like himself (I first noticed this with “Martha,” his tender ballad from Closing Time about an old man attempting to reconnect with a former flame that he wrote when he was 23). He isn’t afraid to slip in and out of talking and singing, painting the flawless portrait of a woman on the edge. And just as we’re all at our lowest, after that devastating tale of a person who society forgot, Waits has the genius antidote of “Pasties and a G-String.” Opening with a quick detour through “The Hokey Pokey Song” (seriously), Waits sashays his way through the strip club pastiche, bringing the tempo back up to the delight of the crowd. “Pasties” is one of his wittier works, a spoken word companion to “Step Right Up” and “Small Change” from Small Change. It’s a bit of a band showcase as well, allowing the sax to open up as the guitar and bass dance in and out. You can just feel the smile on everyone.

It’s a good thing too, considering what is to come next. As the crowd cheers, the searing, piercing howl of a muted trumpet forces its way through the applause. So begins what is likely the single greatest live audio recording of a song I have ever heard. As the trumpet dies down, Waits introduces its player, the legendary New Orleans studio musician Herbert Hardesty, and the crowd goes wild. The rest of the band continues along with their down tempo low rumble as Waits begins to spin a tale. “You know, I remember, it rained all day the day that Elvis Presley died. And only a legend can make it do that” he begins, setting up Elvis as this grand unifying force behind all that’s good in the world. It’s all set-up, a way to bring in the the right mood for him to launch into “Burma Shave,” the 1950’s Rebel Without a Cause greaser ballad from Foreign Affairs.

Here’s the thing. I don’t like Foreign Affairs. It’s overproduced and stringy and just kind of boring. And while “Burma Shave” is a fan favorite from the album, I could never get behind the studio version. It’s sing-songy and I don’t like the melody and while the lyrics and the story they’re telling are excellent, I could never get past the weaknesses of the presentation. On Cold Beer on a Hot Night, all of that is stripped away. Waits and co. unfurl a thirteen minute beatnik odyssey of staggering beauty and depth, likely the single most resonant piece of music he has given to this world. The story of these two young lovers who just want to get away, away from their parents and their stupid, dead end towns and their responsibilities. Some of Tom’s most evocative lyrics of his entire career can be found in “Burma Shave,” (“And she popped her gum as she arched back/and said ‘man, this little down don’t amount to nothin’/It’s just a wide spot in the road/And sometimes my heart pounds like thunder/And I don’t know why it don’t explode/But everybody in this stinkin’ town has got one foot in the grave/And I’m going to take my chances with you tonight/All the way to Burma Shave’”)  but the dry, beatnik poetry sing/talking fits the mood of the story so much better that this time around it just pops in a way the studio version never did.

It helps, of course, that the song ends on the delirious high that it does. After its tragic and somber finale (“You know the sun hit the derrick/Cast a batwing shadow/He’s up against the car door on the shotgun side/But you know something, baby?/I swear to God/When they pulled you from the wreck/You still had on your shades/And dreams are growing wild every night/Just this side of Burma Shave”), he throws in a short little epilogue before launching into the piece de resistance, segueing into a breathtaking, soaring coda of George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” his voice breaking into a majestic climax, singing like he hadn’t done for the whole show. Hardesty’s trumpet is back in full force, staccato-ing its way through the final two minutes with aplomb. As the final strains of “Summertime” melt away, the audience response is rapturous, as well it should be. Words cannot do “Summertime/Burma Shave” justice. It’s an encapsulation of all the things that make Tom Waits the man and the performer he is. It’s cold and dark and solemn and witty and bright all at the same time. It’s a torrent of conflicting moods, themes and emotions, a stirring poetic narrative that paints a vivid picture of doomed young lovers. Nothing gets better than this.

Indeed, “Summertime/Burma Shave” is so good that the rest of Cold Beer on a Hot Night almost feels like an afterthought. Which is unfair, because it doesn’t exactly stop being good. A quick energetic interlude gives Tom the chance to introduce the band to a reprise of “Romeo is Bleeding.” The encore has a special significance to this specific crowd. “I kinda borrowed your unofficial national anthem for this one” he says, as they realize what’s coming. “This song is about throwing up in a foreign country” he finishes before sliding right into “Tom Traubert’s Blues,” that wonderfully sad ballad that opens Small Change. It’s one of Waits’ most famous songs, tender and fragile, his voice warbling along with the peaks and valleys. It’s as beautiful as it always is, and is a fitting end to a night like that, a concert of such immeasurable craft and passion.

But it’s not over. There’s one song left to go. Just Tom and a saxophone backup to float through “Small Change,” the spoken word poem and title track of his 1976 masterpiece. There’s no one better to back up Waits on a song like this than Herbert Hardesty and his tenor sax, keeping apace with his improvisations and digressions, staying right with him as he stumbles into a boozy, slurry cover of “Hey Big Spender,” because why not? The final ten minutes would last forever in a perfect world, but this world is not perfect, and the concert must end at some point.

Cold Beer on a Hot Night is the perfect encapsulation of late 70’s Waits, the jazz and blues man wise beyond his years, booze soaked and ballad-y. It’s a set list I would be disproportionately presupposed to like, with its heavy reliance on Small Change and Blue Valentine (my two favorites of his 70’s output), but considering how on he was, and how on his band was, it wouldn’t have mattered what he was playing. This is a case of a brilliant artist at the top of his craft backed by a band of consummate professionals spitting musical fire for not nearly enough time. I’ve written before about how live music is a transformative experience, and even though I wasn’t there (or in the same country or, well, born yet), listening to this record feels like I’m there. It doesn’t matter what my mood is, or what’s going on in my mind. I can always throw on Cold Beer on a Hot Night and transport myself to Sydney Australia in May of 1979. That’s something special right there.