If you are into music, and I mean good music (fuck that relativistic bullshit about personal taste and all that) then you will find your way to Tom Waits. Actually if you watch a fair amount of films you may find him via that medium — he has a fairly healthy filmography under his belt and these aren’t just arthouse obscurity — these are mainstream successes like Dracula
where he played Renfield.
Anyway, what does Tom Waits represent musically? Well, anyone who has been around for as long as he has isn’t quite so easy to pin down. His sound and style have changed over the years and, sure they have an underpinning commonality of spirit, but they don’t really sound alike at all. He started off crooning, shifted through beat-inflected blues and jive and now makes something pushing the edge somewhere that not many are going to follow. It combines vaudeville, blues, beat, jive, jazz, and some kind of garden-shed industrial gothic music that he grinds out of some angle that him and his wife, co-lyricist Kathleen Brennan have truly made their own.
His influence, being so scattered and widespread, filters down in many ways and through many different bands — some of whom he has worked with, such as Sparklehorse. He is one of those artists that remains a moving target — never sitting still long enough to be entirely captured by any one description. You can definitely tell when you are listening to a Tom Waits song regardless of the period — he does have that quality to his voice whether he is crooning or barking away like some carny with a loudhailer. Some people hate early period and can only get on with the later more avant garde stuff, perhaps having plugged into the flow via the William Burroughs collaboration The Black Rider
, and conversely some go the other way — digging the early works and loathing the later period, which they see as wilfuly perverse and overloaded with artifice. So, like everyone he has his supporters and he has his detractors and like a lot of other well-established acts some of those com from within the camp of his own fans.
It seems odd, given his history, to expect anything other than innovation. It appears pointless to chop someone’s career up into piecemeal chunks and not to embrace the totality of the experience — so much better to follow the journey, watch the evolution, take it all as somewhere along a path. You can time travel through some artist’s catalogues, they are rich enough to allow it, and there is something here for everyone.