waits christmas card

In December of 1978, Tom Waits recorded an episode of Austin City Limits. The now-mainstay music program was in its relative infancy – only its fourth season – and had built a solid fanbase of Americana music enthusiasts. As the ACL website notes:

“…the show came in through the back door, so to speak. Terry Lickona, who became producer in Season 4, was trying to book singer Leon Redbone. Redbone and Waits shared a manager, who promptly requested that Terry book his other client as well. In order to make sure the Redbone show happened, Terry agreed, even though he was nervous that the roots-oriented audience ACL had already built in its previous three seasons might think that Waits’ avant-garde gutter poetry was too radical for the show.”

The rest is history. Waits put on a stellar performance mixing songs from his then recently released Blue Valentine, some older material, and debuted “On the Nickle” which wouldn’t see a proper release until 1980′s Heartattack and Vine. If you’ve never seen the full televised performance, it’s worth seeking out.

Now, it was December, after all, and having just put out a record with a song called “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis,” and Waits being a festive guy, he had to know it was a must for the set list. Opening and closing the song with excerpts of “Silent Night,” Waits delivers the song in a way that varies quite a bit from the Blue Valentine version. Gone is the singing delivery of the narrator’s letter – at least for the first part. Waits delivers it in a style familiar to fans: his spoken-word storyteller voice. It adds to the song – which already has a subtle but important sadness in its lyrics – a gravity which makes it just that much more melancholic.

Initially, the Austin City Limits crowd isn’t quite sure how to take it. When Waits kicks off “Silent Night,” the audience laughs rather loudly. It’s hard to blame them. Waits’ raspy delivery, not even yet halfway to the circus-barker-of-the-damned tone he has now, was probably not the most obvious interpreter of Christmas carols. The audience, too, has a smaller chuckle over “Christmas Card…”‘s opening line of “Hey, Charlie, baby, I’m pregnant,” being delivered in that same voice. Though a funny thing happens on the way to the coda. The audience, slowly, gets it. Sure, they laugh at the narrator’s comment about her lover’s hair grease and even chuckle softly at Waits’ interpolation of Little Anthony and the Imperials’ “Going Out of My Head,” but all of a sudden, something shifts.

When Waits’ narrator loses her record player and softly pines that she “almost went crazy,” Waits, perhaps sensing he needs to bring the audience fully into the song’s grey world, shifts back to his singing voice. And it works. Yes, they laugh about the narrator’s dream of buying a used car lot, but there’s something awfully sad (and telling of their situation and station) about someone’s dream being to buy a used car lot and to drive a different car every day “depending on how I feel.” And the audience seems to realize it. When the narrator reveals her deception – and her prison whereabouts – they are silent. And when Waits returns to finish “Silent Night,” they remain quiet to the very end, fully brought into the broken world of the song. If one were to compile proof of Waits as a master performer, you could do a lot worse than placing this at the very top. words/ j neas

5 Responses to “Tom Waits :: Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis”

  1. I don’t have anything to add, just thanks for posting this. Great performance, and great background on it. You’ve made my Christmas a little brighter by talking about this depressing, depressing song.

  2. [...] http://www.aquariumdrunkard.com/2012/12/20/videodrome-tom-waits-silent-night-christmas-card-from-a-h… [...]

  3. Great post. You guys are the best.

  4. [...] Aquarium Drunkard does a great job of describing the performance: [...]

  5. Very nice! Thanks for the memories. Even though I wasn’t there, you’ve given me the chance to enjoy it. Keep up the good work!

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