The first job I got working in the “music” business was at Wherehouse Records in Gardenia, California. I was living in Hawthorne just a few miles away. I think at that time Wherehouse was the biggest record store chain in California. I don’t know maybe Tower was bigger, but I don’t think so. Wherehouse certainly had more stores. The job I got was working at the warehouse for Wherehouse. They had a big central warehouse in Gardenia. All the LPs, cassettes and 8-Tracks were shipped in to the the warehouse and then sent out to the individual stores. Someone I ended up working in the “returns” room. It was a fairly large corner of the warehouse, closed off into its own “room” constructed from 2x4s and chicken wire. All the returns (defects, overstock and otherwise) would be shipped from the individual stores to the warehouse and end up in giant stacks of boxes in the returns room. My job was to sort through all the albums, group them together by label on shelves and then write up “return authorization” forms to ship them back to the labels. Many people don’t know that in the record business everything is 100% returnable to the label, for any reason whatsoever. Stores can buy anything they want, as much as they want, and if it doesn’t sell they just send it back to the label for credit. I don’t think most retail businesses work that way. I think in most retail situations if you buy something and can’t sell it you just keep marketing it down until it does sell. But not the record business. You just send it back. I actually really liked this job. It gave me an incredible education in music and record albums. I’d see so many things come through that room. Things I’d never seen before. Some pretty rare things too. Well, rare nowadays at least. I really learned a lot about labels, artists, albums, etc. working there.
I had a couple of friends who I met at Wherehouse who lived a few blocks over from me. I used to go over to their house fairly frequently and listen to and talk about music. Rolf and Jim. Jim was the old-timer. He didn’t work at the warehouse (where Rolf worked with me) but at one of the retail stores. He’d been working at Wherehouse for awhile. He was a bit older than me and I looked up to him. I was always interested in what he was listening to. I remember one night he came in from a show at the Troubador where he’d seen this band, I’d never heard of before, Little Feat. Man, he just raved about the show and the band. Now this was 1974, so Little Feat had been around a little while, but they hadn’t really broken through yet. I think their fourth album, Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, had just been released. I remember he also liked The Heart Of Saturday Night by Tom Waits. But what I remember most was that he considered it a “morning” album. He used to say he would only play it in the morning. Being young and impressionable I found that kind of cool.
I first became aware of Tom Waits when I bought the Eagles’ debut album. One of my favorite songs on the album was their cover of Tom’s song “Ol’ 55.” There’s a great story that Don Henley tells about their version. He says Tom didn’t really like it, he didn’t like the way they did the song. But, says Henley, he liked it a lot more when the royalty checks started arriving. Tom’s original version of “Ol ’55” was on his debut album, Closing Time. An album I dearly love. For those most familiar with Tom’s later material Closing Time might be a real shock. It’s a very folkie, singer-songwriter affair filtered through a Jack Kerouac novel. What a bunch of great songs. His second album, The Heart Of Saturday Night, was released in 1974. It contained more of the great songwriting that graced his first album, but the production was definitely something new. Producer Bones Howe brought a much tougher, street wise sound to the songs. The jazz/beat influence is much stronger as well. It’s an early preview of the direction Waits would take his music in later years. “Please Call Me Baby,” “Drunk On The Moon” and “New Coat Of Paint” are among my songs on the album, but the standout track here is the title track, “(Looking For) The Heart Of Saturday Night.” It’s “companion” piece, “The Ghosts Of Saturday Night” is a real Kerouac/Ginsberg influenced track with Waits reciting poetry to a jazz background. I had just discovered John Stewart around this same time and I was quite surprised to hear him play “Shiver Me Timbers” during a concert at UCLA. I remember he praised Waits as a great new, young songwriter.
Funny thing about Tom Waits. I wasn’t able to stay with him as he and his music grew and changed. The first two albums are two of my all-time favorite albums. His next album was the live Nighthawks At The Diner, and I’m quite fond of that one as well. But then came Small Change, Foreign Affair, Blue Valentine and Heartattack And Vine. I bought all of these albums, but none of them really captured my ear the way the first two had. And then in the early 80s he really started to change. I read great reviews of albums like Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs and Franks Wild Years. I bought them, but they never connected with me. Now I know full well that these years are considered by most Waits’ fans to be his prime years. Seems that I fell off the wagon exactly when the majority of fans were getting on. I haven’t bought or listened to a new Tom Waits album in a very long time. But I come back to those first two on a very regular basis and they still do it for me every time.