“Most of the stops on this tour are in piss-stained alleys,” chuckled David Smay, as a motley–if well-dressed–crew of 47 settled themselves on his bus, which this past Saturday was parked outside King Eddy's–the only dive bar left “on the nickel” in downtown's increasingly gentrified Skid Row area.
They were ready to soak up the remnants of the Los Angeles from which toxic troubadour Tom Waits drew inspiration for more than a decade.
Although Tom Waits rarely tours his old town (coming as close as Phoenix on 2008's Glitter and Doom outing)–he packed up and moved to a chicken ranch in Petaluma many, many moons ago–the city and much of the iconic musician's oeuvre are intrinsically linked.
This was the third time the snow-haired David Smay (author of the 33 1/3 guide to Waits' Swordfishtrombones ) joined forces with local bus company Esotouric to point out Waits' formative haunts. As an on-board video monitor flashed photos, album covers and clips from hard-to-find concert movies, videos and animations, Smay regaled the crowd with a running commentary about “the Wolfman.”
First stop, the Ivar Theatre. Constructed for vaudeville, this Waits haunt later became America's last burlesque house. Smay quoted the singer: “It was a cold night, colder than the smile of the ticket taker at the Ivar.” (Which belonged to none other than El Duce of the Mentors.)
Leading the group to an imposing black gate at 1600 Cosmo Place, Smay noted it had once led to the infamous 60s nightclub, Bido Lido's, which by Waits' time, has become drag club the Sewers of Paris, where Smay promised Waits only “picked up one drag queen, accidentally.”
We peered at the Troubadour, where open mic hopefuls would loiter by the cigarette machine, waiting for the big spotlight to catch them as they made their way onstage. Doug Weston cut a “florid figure in a purple caftan,” and Waits struck a decade-long deal with manager Herb Cohen. (Waits rarely performs material recorded before his split with Cohen.)
Drinking heavily, Waits resided at the infamous Tropicana Hotel (now a new-wave Ramada Inn on Santa Monica Blvd.), dining at Duke's and bonding with the Zeros over alligator shoes. “People started showing up at 3am, knocking on his door,” Smay said, after Waits had listed his home address in some liner notes. Having constructed a persona informed by the Beats, Waits found it “more constricting as the '70s wore on. It wasn't everything he was.”
In the late 70s, as punk bands muscled into a clubland occupied by lower-key singer-songwriters, Waits was at a crossroads. (Esotouric founder Kim Cooper read Alice Bag's recounting of the infamous Troubadour riot, which pitted Waits and crew against a bevy of snotty punkers.)
He moved to New York, only to have director Francis Ford Coppola coax him back west to score One From the Heart, financed with Godfather millions. “There was no shooting script. He'd write songs and they'd adapt the film around them. It was a very transitional period in his life.” Although the film was a box office flop, Waits met longtime partner Kathleen Brennan through it. The couple would travel to places “where they'd just shot white people,” Smay said, as he flipped to an image of the Always and Forever wedding chapel they tied the knot at, Watts-at-2am-style.
Steaming past Coppola's original Zoetrope location and Sunset Studios, where Waits recorded in the 70s, we head to a rear bungalow in Echo Park, where he moved in 1973-1974, living out the decade there and producing the LPs Small Change, Foreign Affairs and Blue Valentine. Waits was a rascal back then. “He'd palm slices of avocado before shaking hands at Hollywood parties,” Smay giggled.
The next location had a little of the grit Waits knew back in the day. Everywhere we had turned, there was new paint and higher rents, and hookers replaced by yuppies. “I triangulated this location from four separate interviews,” Smay beamed. Traipsing up an alley almost catty-corner from Echo Park Lake, our group marveled at the site where Waits recorded his video for “In the Neighborhood,” which looks like its own universe, but is in fact, just an undulating stretch of tarmac. Across the street had been the Traveler's Café, a Pilipino-Chinese joint Waits ate at frequently. The spot is now home to the Rastafarian Tribal Café.
Climbing back aboard, Smay clicked on Big Time, a rare concert film from the Wiltern. Waits' small talk is priceless. “Wilshire is a little snooty, Western is very friendly.” He goes on. “You could say we're at the corner of Friendly and Snooty here tonight.” Rolling along, Smay screened a King Kong clip edited to Waits' Daniel Johnston cover of the same name. “Waits is the patron saint of cartoonists, animators and comics worldwide,” he noted as we rolled past Pershing Square, amid a tornado of feathers, having missed International Pillow Fight Day by mere minutes.
An interview played on. “I like the way that things are distorted by time… like listening to music far away,” Waits noted. It blends with ambient noise “just like water stains on wallpaper, you think it's part of the design, but it's not.”
As we made our way back to the cacophony of 5th and Spring, I made small talk with a fellow rider from San Diego. The tour was a gift from his wife. “I think Waits would hate this,” he said. “He'd tell us all to have a drink, get a life, and spend the cash on his back catalog.” Still, with filing drawers overflowing with obscure facts about the city, I found the tour informative, but it also made me wistful for a metropolis that no longer exists, one that used to stretch from a ratty WeHo to an affordable Echo Park to a downtown bereft of designer dogs and million dollar lofts.
Thanking Smay, I toddled off to Clifton's, riffing on the title track of Heart Attack and Vine.