Issue 13: On Coffee and Tom Waits: The Joy of an Acquired Taste
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But that all changed earlier this year when, on a whim, I listened to his 1973 debut album, Closing Time. With an album name like that and a cover featuring Waits sullenly leaning on a piano in a dark room, I went into it figuring it would be a somewhat downbeat affair tangentially related to that time of the evening when the last drinks of the night are served.
And I was correct – that’s exactly what it is. But I was still taken aback at how accurately he nailed the vibe of that bizarre time period in the wee hours of the morning when you’re as tired and loopy as you are buzzed and just about everything seems funnier or more bittersweet than it should be. The album sounds exactly what 3 in the morning feels like.
I was even more taken aback at Waits’ voice on Closing Time, which sounds nothing like what it would in later years. While not exactly Dean Martin, he does have a much gentler warble that fits the late-night songs perfectly. When I wasn’t distracted by his voice, I realized how good the songs were and suddenly his exalted reputation made sense.
Closing Time suggests Waits could probably have gone on to become a more inebriated and rough-around-the edges version of Billy Joel or Elton John, but that’s not the path he ended up choosing. The album is both a literal and figurative starting point for Waits, as he would go on to make many more albums that are arguably much better and, without a doubt, far stranger.
But not only have I loved every single one of these subsequent albums that I’ve heard, it’s never been in spite of his voice. Going into them a little more open-minded and patient, that infamous growl grew on me. After a couple go-rounds with it, I more or less got used to his voice. And after I got used to it, I realized I didn’t mind it. And after that, I realized I actually sort of liked it. And after that, I finally admitted to myself that I kind of, sort of, yes, loved it. As illogical as it may seem, it just fits perfectly with Waits’ many tales of the seedier side of life.
Unsurprisingly for a brilliant songwriter with a decidedly un-commercial voice, other artists’ covers of Tom Waits’ songs often have ended up more popular than the original versions. Whether it’s “Downtown Train”, made famous by Rod Stewart, “Way Down in a Hole”, which was used as the theme song for The Wire, the Eagles’ version of “Ol’ 55” or something else, there’s a chance you probably know and maybe even like several Tom Waits songs whether you are aware of it or not.
Much like how I felt when I finally came around to coffee, I often wonder how I spent so many years ignoring or consciously avoiding Tom Waits. If I like something this much that I once hated, what does that say for all the random things in life I sort of like? I guess sometimes the things you love the most are things you think you hate. Going through this process makes you discover something new about yourself. And this happens so rarely, it’s sometimes the best discovery of all.
Marc Ingber is a communications specialist and writer for a nonprofit based in Minneapolis, MN. He was born and raised in the Twin Cities and attended journalism school at the University of Kansas. His primary interests include rock n' roll, movies, food and drink, the Minnesota Vikings and the Minnesota Twins - probably in that order.
Read other articles by Marc Ingber
For the first 25 years of my life, I couldn’t stand coffee. I thought it smelled good as a kid, so on occasion when I was feeling brave I would try a sip of my mom’s morning coffee, but each time I was reminded that the taste was far more bitter than the smell.
Most kids don’t like coffee, so perhaps that’s not unusual. But even in college, while my friends nursed hangovers and/or studied with cappuccinos, lattes and the like at the local java haunts around town, I would stick to hot chocolates and vanilla steamers.
But that all changed one fateful afternoon several years ago. After an early morning flight to Vegas, I found myself sitting in one of those casino buffets with a pitcher of that classic diner coffee sitting on the table in front of me. For whatever reason, watching my friend sip it silently in preparation for a long day and night ahead made me want to re-try coffee once again.
And for some reason, this time it stuck. I’m not even sure I liked it – but I didn’t hate it either. I was really tired, the coffee was hot and the supply was never-ending. It just felt right. So I decided to have some the next morning too, and I enjoyed it even more. In fact, I’ve drank it every morning since then, becoming a full-fledged slave to java – a common situation for millions of Americans.
I’ve come a long way since that cheap diner coffee. It’s fair to say I’ve reached a low-grade level of coffee-snobbery that involves owning a conical burr grinder and buying single-origin beans from a specialty dealer near my house, in addition to making cappuccinos at home on an espresso machine.
As I look back on this transformation from a coffee hater to someone who even knows what a conical burr grinder is, much less owns one, I often wonder about the implications of my journey. Is coffee, like many acquired tastes, something that just comes with age? Did my tastes literally change some time between age 24 and 26? Or was I just not giving it a proper chance in my younger days, and theoretically could have been a coffee snob in junior high had I applied myself?
Coffee, strangely, is one of the things I think about when I listen to what has become another of recent obsession of mine – Tom Waits. It has no literal connection to him, but it’s similar in that my opinion on him has done just as much of a 180 in the last few months as my opinion on coffee did many years earlier.
Tom Waits is not exactly the Eagles or Fleetwood Mac – if your primary goal in life is to avoid him, you don’t have to try very hard. The only time you’ll hear anything Waits-related on standard FM radio is if another, more conventional artist is covering one of his songs. But for a large contingent of your average garden-variety hipster music geek, and I am undoubtedly one of these, Waits is nothing less than a god. Not liking him is akin to not liking the Velvet Underground – it’s unspeakable.
For whatever reason though, Waits’ appeal was lost on me for years and years. Well, in truth I probably do know the reason. It’s because he has a voice that could charitably be called “ridiculous” and perhaps accurately be called “terrible.” Or if you’re looking for a description with more nuance, critic Daniel Durchholz memorably described Waits’ voice as sounding “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.”
On past attempts to understand the supposed genius of Tom Waits, I remember thinking the instrumental part of his songs had some appeal, but could just never get past his voice. I wondered how anyone could get through one song, much less a whole album, of Waits’ voice.
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life/politics design music photography home us film art fashion global notes archive On Coffee and Tom Waits: 
The Joy of an Acquired Taste
Marc Ingber
Vhcle Magazine Issue 13, Music