There’s a kid inside of us, no matter how decrepit we get, and the kid inside Tom Waits probably sounds a lot like the one in “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” a highlight of Waits’ gloriously ragged 1992 masterpiece Bone Machine. Given that there’s “nothing out there but sad and gloom” based on what he’s seen in the lives of the adults around him, the world of grown-ups rightly seems unappealing and bewildering. “How do you move in a world of fog that’s always changing things?” he wonders, articulating a dilemma that stymied so many of the hard-luck characters who tell their stories in the hundreds of songs authored by one of American music’s most cherished mavericks.
That question is probably still on the man’s mind as he turns 70. We like to imagine him as the coot prospector he played in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, scratching his head and grumbling, “How the hell did that happen?” in that iconic voice, which never seemed as if it could get any raspier but somehow always did.
Then again, turning 70 maybe isn’t such a big deal to a guy who tried hard to seem old before his time. When Waits first emerged in the Los Angeles club scene of the early ’70s, his clear devotion to heroes like Jack Kerouac and Thelonious Monk made him seem like a scruffy relic to listeners more hip to Jackson Browne. He styled himself as a piano-playing Charles Bukowski, tickling the ivories as he spun hard-luck tales equal parts miserable and hilarious. (Check out his 1975 live album Nighthawks at the Diner for vivid early evidence of both his storytelling chops and his ability to delight a crowd.)
But anyone who figured they had him pegged would be surprised again and again by what followed in the ’80s and beyond. Once Waits found a long-sought sense of personal stability with wife and creative partner Kathleen Brennan, his creative moves grew bolder, starting with 1983’s stunning Swordfishtrombones and continuing with later triumphs like 2004’s Real Gone. The music they contained could be tender and heartbreaking or crazy and chaotic. Whatever the case, it all remained true to his reliably skewed vision of that confusing grown-up world.
In the process, he’d honor his own inspirations—Bob Dylan, Harry Partch, Mose Allison, Captain Beefheart—while inspiring countless younger artists who absorbed his profound influence on how great songs get made and sung. To celebrate the occasion of his 70th, here’s a set of 70 Waits essentials and many more songs that show his grubby fingerprints.