Music is at its best when it is at it’s most universal, when it taps you on the shoulder as if to say “I’ve been there too”, It bonds with you and opens your eyes, a friend that never leaves, and you become encapsulated by a sensation to which all other senses have never known. Better than any other media, music teaches us how to love, how to express it, how to feel it, how to long for it and miss it when it’s gone. Theres a reason why love continues to be the most popular subject in songwriting, it is one of the most essential building blocks of humanity, a universal feeling.
Heartbreak, it seems, brings out the best in musicians, and perhaps none were touched more than Frank Sinatra and Tom Waits, whose albums In the Wee Small Hours, and The Heart of Saturday Night both take this universal feeling to a whole new level, in their music they make it breathe, cast a lingering darkness in the air, and place the heart in the creaks and aches of their vocals.
In every sense of the word, In The Wee Small Hours is a masterpiece of musical interpretation, an album that found Frank Sinatra reinvigorated from his previously doomed career. Capitol Records had taken a chance on the no longer perfect voice of Ol’ Blue Eyes and matched it with a dynamic young arranger in Nelson Riddle who had won over Sinatra’s respect with his beautiful big band arrangement of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, If Sinatra was Lennon, Riddle was his McCartney. In The Wee Small Hours found Frank Sinatra at a turbulent time in his life, his musical style no longer filled music halls nor dominated the musical charts, his once glorious tenor had deepened, his voice no longer as smooth as it once was, and he had just lost the girl of his dreams, Ava Gardener.
This is not to say that this was Frank’s one girl, surely he had many, as well as a wife and children previously. Yet Gardner proved to be a challenge that not even Frank could handle, this was a woman who had everything, Sinatra wasn’t accustomed to being in a relationship where someone had equal power and less reason to need him. Being dumped found Sinatra feeling something he had never felt before, lost. To express his emotions, Sinatra came out with what can be regarded the first concept album in music, choosing songs that were related on theme and looking to keep an overall mood and sound specific to the album, the year was 1954, Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band would come out 12 years after.
Picture yourself in a world of dimly lit streets, with a soft pattering rain, people slowly walking out of bars after last call, a lonely figure silently walking aimlessly, as if deep in a dream. In the film that is Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours this is the opening scene. Frank begins with the title song, a ballad that was specifically written for the album, a brooding cinematic song, washing the world away with its blue melody, sweeping strings showing only the dimmest of streetlights as Frank sings with a weary sigh “In the wee small hours————–of the morning———–while the whole wide world is fast asleep——–you lie awake and think about the girl——-and never ever think of counting sheep” The album continues its story with fantastic scenes of those heartbroken blues; “Mood Indigo”
“You ain’t been blue, no no no, you ain’t been blue till you’ve had that mood indigo, that feeling goes stealin down to my shoes, while i sit and sigh, go long blue, always get that mood indigo, since my baby said goodbye”
“Glad To Be Unhappy”
“Look at yourself, if you had a sense of humor you would laugh to beat the band, Look at yourself do you still believe the rumor that romance is simply grand”
“I Get Along Without You Very Well”
“I get along without you very well, Of course, I do, Except when soft rains fall, And drip from leaves, Then I recall, The thrill of being sheltered in your arms, Of course, I do, But I get along without you very well”
“Deep in a Dream”
“The smoke makes a stairway for you to descend; You come to my arms, may this bliss never end, For we love anew just as we used to do, When I’m deep in a dream of you., Then from the ceiling, sweet music comes stealing; We glide through a lover’s refrain, you’re so appealing, That I’m soon revealing my love for you over again. My cigarette burns me, I wake with a start;My hand isn’t hurt, but there’s pain in my heart.”
“I See Your Face Before Me”
“It doesn’t matter where you are, I can see how fair you are, I close my eyes and there you are, Always, If you could share the magic, Yes, if you could see me too, There would be nothing tragic, In all my dreams of you, Would that my love could haunt you so, Knowing I want you so, I can’t erase your beautiful face before me”
“Can’t We Be Friends”
“I took each word she said as gospel truth the way a silly little child would. I can’t excuse it on the grounds of youth, I was no babe in the wild, wild wood. She didn’t mean it, I should have seen it, but now it’s too late.”
“When Your Lover Has Gone”
When you’re alone, who cares for starlit skies, When you’re alone, the magic moonlight dies, At break of dawn, there is no sunrise, When your lover has gone
“What Is This Thing Called Love”
What is this thing called love, This funny thing called love, Just who can solve its mystery, Why should it make a fool of me?
“Last Night When We Were Young”
Today the world is old, You flew away and time grew cold, Where is that star that shone so bright, Ages ago last night? To think that spring had depended, On merely this: a look, a kiss, To think that something so splendid, Could slip away in one little daybreak
“I’ll Be Around”
Good-bye old friend, And if you find a love like mine, Just now and then, Drop me a line to say that you’re fine, And when things go wrong
Perhaps you’ll see, You’re meant for me, So I’ll be around when he’s gone.
Go ill wind, go away, skies are oh so gray, Around my neighborhood, and that ain’t good, You’re only misleadin’ the sunshine I’m needin’,
ain’t that a shame, It’s so hard to keep up with troubles that creep up, From out of nowhere, when love’s to blame.
“It Never Entered My Mind”
Once you warned me that if you scorned me, I’d say a lonely prayer again, And wish that you were there again, To get into my hair again, It never entered my mind.
“Dancing on the Ceiling”
At night I creep in bed, And never sleep in bed, But look above in the air, And to my greatest joy, my love is there, She dances overhead, On the ceiling near my bed, In my sight, All through the night, I try to hide in vain, Underneath my counterpane, But there’s my love, up there above.
“I’ll Never Be The Same”
I’ll never be the same, stars have lost their meaning for me, I’ll never be the same, nothing’s what it once used to be, And when the sun-birds that sing tell me it’s spring, I can’t believe their song, once love was king, but kings can be wrong, I’ll never be the same, there is such an ache in my heart. Never be the same, since we’re apart.
“This Love of Mine”
I cry my heart out it’s bound to break, Since nothing matters, let it break. I ask the sun and the moon, The stars that shine, What’s to become of it, this love of mine
This is an album entirely devoted to the night, to those lost hours between midnight and sunrise that only seem to exist when you’re most unhappy, moody and forlorn, Riddle and Sinatra combine to make a fantastic concept album, Frank’s voice is the central character and his mind is the plot. When he comes around to “Dancing On The Ceiling”, you really believe “the miracle” that lies above him.
It would seem that you couldn’t find artists more dissimilar than Frank Sinatra and Tom Waits in musical style. Frank was a professional, a polished performer who could interpret others song-craft as if his own, and shape it at will, while Tom Waits stayed in the limelight, featuring unmatched colorful prose, and a unique voice that in earlier years could sing the hell out of a song. Fittingly, Tom Waits would crown In the Wee Small Hours his favorite album.
His debut, Closing Time, had garnered him attention from fellow Californian songwriters, (Most famously The Eagles, who would take “Ol’ 55” and find success in a pretty faithful interpretation of the original) but it was on The Heart of Saturday Night that Tom Waits would reach his creative peak, creating a whiskey-soaked narrative for the weekend, introspective, beautiful, but not as melancholy as Frank’s ruminations on the deep night. Whereas In The Wee Small Hours was coated with blue strings and dimly lit streets, The Heart of Saturday Night still has signs of life, twinkling lights with a seedy underbelly, a man coming to terms with the limitations of middle class.
A bourbon laced piano clutches the opener “New Coat of Paint” with the charming feeling of being a few drinks into your night.
Let’s put a new coat of paint on this lonesome old town, Set ’em up, we’ll be knockin’ em down. You wear a dress, baby, and I’ll wear a tie. We’ll laugh at that old bloodshot moon in that burgundy sky
Yet the upbeat feeling seems fleeting, when a few drinks later, Waits sinks into a slow ballad a la not knowing what you got til it’s gone in “San Diego Serenade, with mournful backing strings and a sobering piano.
I never saw the east coast ’til I move to the west, I never saw the moonlight until it shone off your breast, I never saw your heart ’til someone tried to steal, tried to steal it away, I never saw your tears until they rolled down your face.
“Semi Suite” happens to be my favorite on the album, featuring a slow swagger of a jazzy arrangement, bolstered by some nice brass, Waits seems at his most inspired mood here, his voice dangling and weaving with the feeling of the song, an ode to the forgotten woman who’s faithful to her truck driver partner, it’s never clear how deep their relationship goes, but thats the beauty of it.
Well you hate those diesels rollin, And those Friday nights out bowlin’, When he’s off for a twelve hour lay over night, You wish you had a dollar, For every time he hollered, That he’s leavin’, And he’s never comin’ back, But the curtain-laced billow, And his hands on your pillow, And his trousers are hangin’ on the chair, You’re lyin’ through your pain, babe, But you’re gonna tell him he’s your man, And you ain’t got the courage to leave, He tells you that you’re on his mind, You’re the only one he’s ever gonna find, It’s kind-a special, understands his complicated soul…But the only place a man can breathe, And collect his thoughts is, Midnight and flyin’ away on the road.
“Shiver Me Timbers” is Tom Waits returning the favor to the Eagles in this “Desperado” flavored ballad, featuring some beautiful intertwined guitar/piano play, but Wait’s is no one trick pony, and he includes two central characters from two preeminent writers of the late 19th and early 20th century, Jack London and Herman Melville in his tribute to losing oneself amongst the sea
But my heart’s in the wind, Where the clouds are like headlines, On a new front page sky, My tears are salt water, And the moon’s full and high, And I know Martin Eden’s, Gonna be proud of me, And many before me, Who’ve been called by the sea, To be up in the crow’s nest, Singin’ my say, Shiver me Timbers, ‘Cause I’m a-sailin’ away, And the fog’s liftin’, And the sand’s shiftin’, I’m driftin’ on out, Ol’ Captain Ahab, He ain’t got nothin’ on me, now. So swallow me, don’t follow me, I’m trav’lin’ alone, Blue water’s my daughter, ‘n I’m gonna skip like a stone
“Diamonds on My Windshield”
About his album of the night, Waits stated it was “…a comprehensive study of a number of aspects of this search for the center of Saturday night, which Jack Kerouac relentlessly chased from one end of this country to the other, and I’ve attempted to scoop up a few diamonds of this magic that I see” and certainly here Waits is at his most beat-poetic, with a upright bass and light drum work providing the only framework for his words, the main instrument on this track.
There’s a Duster trying to change my tune, He’s pulling up fast on the right, Rolling restlessly by a twenty-four hour moon, And a Wisconsin hiker with a cue-ball head, He’s wishing he was home in a Wisconsin bed, But there’s fifteen feet of snow in the east, Colder than a welldigger’s ass, And it’s colder than a welldigger’s ass, Oceanside, it ends the ride with San Clemente coming up, Those Sunday desperadoes slip by and cruise with a dry back, And the orange drive-in, the neon billin’, And the theatre’s fillin’ to the brim, With slave girls and a hot spurn bucket full of sin, Metropolitan area with interchange and connections, Fly-by-nights from Riverside, And out of state plates running a little late
“(Looking For) The Heart of Saturday Night”
The idea of “looking for the heart of Saturday night” came directly from Visions of Cody, in which Kerouac’s eponymous hero was “hurrying for the big traffic, – ever more exciting, all of it pouring into town – Saturday night.‘- Barney Hoskyns (Lowside Of The Road: A Life Of Tom Waits) Complete with the sounds of movement and car horns, Waits turns a yearning search into heartfelt song, taking the listener barrelin’ down that ubiquitous boulevard with him.
Well, you gassed her up, behind the wheel, With your arm around your sweet one in your Oldsmobile, Barrelin’ down the boulevard, You’re lookin’ for the heart of Saturday night, And you got paid on Friday, your pockets are jinglin’, Then you see the lights and you get all tinglin’, Cause you’re cruisin’ with a six, You’re lookin’ for the heart of Saturday night
“Fumblin’ with the Blues”
Waits brings things back to old time basics on this one, a stylized 40’s blues complete with beautiful clarinet playing and great jazz guitar as the night makes Waits’ characters all the more desperate to find someone to love, as the narrator croons and broods:
You know the ladies I’ve been seeing off and on, Well they spend your love and then they’re gone, You can’t be lovin’ someone who is savage and cruel, Take your love and then they leave on out of town, no they do, Well now fallin’ in love is such a breeze, But its standin’ up that’s so hard for me, I wanna squeeze you but I’m scared to death I’d break your back, You know your perfume well it won’t let me be
“Please Call Me Baby”
Much like Frank Sinatra’s narrators in In The Wee Small Hours, Waits too begins to ruminate on lost love, however Waits doesn’t lament like a victim recognizing that there’s a little bit of good and evil in all of us.
I admit that I ain’t no angel, I admit that I ain’t no saint, I’m selfish and I’m cruel but you’re blind, If I exorcise my devils, Well my angels may leave too, When they leave they’re so hard to find, Please call me, baby, wherever you are, It’s too cold to be out walking in the streets, We do crazy things when we’re wounded, everyone’s a bit insane, I don’t want you catching your death of cold, out walking in the rain.
A simple song of sitting at the modern day crossroads, the Greyhound Bus Terminal. True talent shines in those who can take the most mundane aspects of everyday life and create a work of art.
Depot, depot, what am I doing here?, Depot, depot, what am I doing here?, I ain’t coming, I ain’t going, My confusion is showing
And outside the midnight wind is blowing Sixth Avenue, I’m gonna paint myself blue, At the depot, I watch the taxis pull up and idle, I can’t claim title to a single memory, You offered me a key, Cause opportunity don’t knock, Has no tongue as you cannot talk, You’re gonna shuffle when you walk, At the depot
“Drunk On The Moon”
Waits paints another personal portrait here about his times living in Denver, Colorado, and a street near his hotel called “Larimer Street. Larimer being just full of a lot of ghosts down there on Larimer Street shopping for images in the trash cans – boy, that’s old Kerouac and Cassady stomping grounds. It’s really changed quite a bit. They put up what’s called Larimer Square now which is kind of like a contemporary little boutique sort of shopping centre. It looks awful ridiculous cause right across the street is some real bona fide serious winos – right out in front of a place called the Gin Mill, another place called the Terminal Bar. Terminal Bar is a block away from the Santa Fe train depot so they called it the Terminal Bar but they had no idea that like 20 years later the place’d be filling up with terminal cases. This is called Drunk On The Moon, there’s all different kinds of moons – silver slipper moons and there’s cue ball moons and there’s buttery cue ball moons and moons that are all melted off to one side and this is about a muscatel moon…”– Tom Waits (1975)
Tight-slack clad girls on the graveyard shift, ‘Neath the cement stroll, catch the midnight drift, Cigar chewing Charlie in that newspaper nest, Grifting hot horse tips on who’s running the best, And I’m blinded by the neon, Don’t try and change my tune, Cause I thought I heard a saxophone, I’m drunk on the moon
“The Ghosts of Saturday Night (After Hours at Napoleone’s Pizza House)”
Waits sums up his night with a reflection on his younger years when he used to work at a pizza joint in San Diego, again bringing the mundane aspects of humanity to life with visceral color, observing the loneliness of the people around him.
A cab combs the snake, tryin’ to rake in that last night’s fare, And a solitary sailor, who spends the facts of his life like small change on strangers, paws his inside P-coat pocket for a welcome twenty-five cents, and the last bent butt from a package of Kents, as he dreams of a waitress with Maxwell House eyes, and marmalade thighs with scrambled yellow hair, Her rhinestone-studded moniker says “Irene”, as she wipes the wisps of dishwater blonde from her eyes
Both Sinatra and Waits bring light to these forlorn hours of the night, the forgotten characters that parade the streets, the lament of knowing what you’ve lost and can never find again, the aimless search for meaning, for hope, and the strange feelings that the darkness provides. Cinematic and seedy, mournful and lustful, these albums belong in a category that few belong, perfect portraits for where humanity is at its most lost.