Tom Waits’ music has been influential on the biggest musicians for 50 years

If you’ve never heard of him, singer, song writer and actor Tom Waits is a stalwart of the rock world, and his huge influence on the musical world is the reason he’s THB‘s featured artist for this month (May 2020).

Over a career spanning around 50 years, he’s released 16 albums, most recently, ‘Bad As Me‘ in 2011 (a year which saw him inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame), composed two film soundtracks (Francis Ford Coppola’s 1982 musical film One from the Heart and Jim Jarmusch 1991 Night On Earth) and acted (in various capacities) in 38 films, including Jim Jarmusch’s 2019 zombie comedy The Dead Don’t Die; The Coen brothers’ 2018 Western The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; Terry Gilliam’s 2009 fantasy The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus alongside Heath Ledger, Colin Ferrell, Johnny Depp.

Most popular covers of Tom Waits songs

His influence over contemporary music shows itself in how his songs have also been covered by many household names over the years, so there’s a good chance you know and love some of his songs without knowing they’re his. Popular songs that are covers of Tom Waits songs include:

  • Rod Stewart’s 1989 hit Downtown Train was originally recorded by Waits in 1985 on his album ‘Rain Dogs‘. In 1993, Rod Stewart also covered Tom Waits 1976 track Tom Traubert’s Blues.
  • In 1984, Bruce Springsteen covered 1980 ‘Heartattack and Vine‘ track, Jersey Girl. The song is popular amongst Sprngsteen’s fans and because of Bruce Springsteens association with New Jersey, many of his fans mistakenly think it is his song.
  • Jersey Girl has also been covered by Corinne Bailey Rae on the 2019 compilation ‘Women Sing Waits‘; Renee Cologne covered the song on her 2019 album Coverlings; and Bagatelle covered the song on their 1998 album, Gold.
  • The Ramones covered Waits’ 1992 ‘Bone Machine‘ track I Don’t Wanna Grow Up in 1999. The Ramones’ cover has since been used in the ending credits of films including 2019 super hero film, Shazam!.
  • I Don’t Wanna Grow Up has also been covered by, Scarlett Johansson, Petra Haden and Bill Frisell, Hayes Carll, Squeeze. The song was also performed on The Walking Dead episode ‘Infected‘.
  • Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa covered Chocolate Jesus off 1999’s ‘Mule Variations‘ in the 2011 release, ‘Don’t Explain‘.
  • Country legend Willie Nelson – among others – covered the ‘Mule Variations‘ track Come On Up To The House in 2012.

Listen to Tom Waits’ Jersey Girl below, and Bruce Springsteens cover after:

What has Tom Waits done recently?

Tom Waits last studio album, ‘Bad As Me‘ was released in 2011, and he hasn’t toured since then either, so has Tom Waits retired? what has the the (currently) 70-year old musician been up to since then?

Since then he’s featured in the film Seven Psychopaths in 2012, and in 2013 recorded a track with Keith Richards, Shenandoah – as well performed live with The Rolling Stones.

In 2016, Tom Waits contributed to covers on the tribute album, ‘God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson‘, namely, The Soul of a Man and John the Revelator.

In 2018, he starred in the Coen Brothers Netflix film The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs and also acted in The Old Man & The Gun. He also was a featured artist on the track Bella Ciao on the album ‘Songs Of Resistance 1942 – 2018‘ by Marc Ribot.

Most recently, 2019 saw Waits play a role in The Dead Don’t Die.

Famous uses of Tom Waits’ songs

Tom Waits music has been widely used in popular culture, as his style is recognisable even if you don’t know who he is and that makes his discography effective at conveying a mood in TV and film. Some of the more noticeable uses of his tracks are listed below:

  • In 1982, Waits composed the soundtrack to Francis Ford Coppola’s One From The Heart, which was inspired by the singer’s early career.
  • In 1999, the film Fight Club used the track Goin’ Out West.
  • In 2001, film The Last Castle featured his song Get Behind The Mule.
  • In 2003, Way Down In The Hole is used as the opening credits of Season 2 of The Wire. Other seasons all featured different versions of the song.
  • In 2013, two tracks of Tom Waits were used in episodes of The Walking Dead, namely Hold On and I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.
  • Also in 2013, Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis was used in an episode of Peaky Blinders. Peaky Blinders also used the track Clap Hands in another episode that same season.
  • Having been used in four TV shows, according to tunefind, Clap Hands is his most used track. Shows that have used the track are: Brassic (2020), Peaky Blinders (2013), Castle Rock (2018) and House of Lies (2013)
  • In 2014, Come On Up To The House featured in the final episode of Season 2, episode 9 of Orange Is The New Black.
  • In 2017, Hell Broke Luce was used in an episode of Marvel’s The Punisher.
  • In 2018, the film Adrift used the track I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love with You.
  • In 2019, the film, Jojo Rabbit featured the track I Don’t Wanna Grow Up. Meanwhile the film Shazam! featured The Ramones cover in the films end credits.
  • In 2020 Netflix’s Tiger King features the track Way Down In The Hole.

There’s plenty more cases where his songs are used, but it’s helpful to see the main instances to realise his legacy on music and popular culture.

Tom Waits musical style

Tom Waits is known for his raw music that often deals with the invisible sectors of society – the underpaid, underrepresented and forgotten. As such his trademark hoarse voice and jazz and blues based sound captures the working class American lives – in fact in many TV-films enjoy signifying a working class bar through Tom Waits songs playing in the background.

His earliest releases in the 70’s were jazz and folk based, utilising pianos and upright basses ad drawing inspiration from the likes of Bob Dylan. Since the 80’s Waits has brought in blues elements to keep his sound gruff and reminiscent of the society he sings for.

The blues influence is seen in Hell Broke Luce which features Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards on guitar. Waits also collaborated with Richards on Richard’s track Shenandoah.

Waits stature amongst the art world is evident in his collaborations with artists. ‘Bad As Me‘ features input not just from Richards, but Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea contributed bass lines on two tracks. Alternative rocker Les Claypool – another acclaimed bassist and band leader of Primus – contributed bass to the track Satisfied. Conversely, Waits contributed the vocals for one of Primus’ best known songs, Tommy The Cat in 1991.

Tom Waits Discography

  • Closing Time‘ (1973)
  • The Heart of Saturday Night‘ (1974)
  • Nighthawks at the Diner‘ (1975)
  • Small Change‘ (1976)
  • Foreign Affairs‘ (1977)
  • Blue Valentine‘ (1978)
  • Heartattack and Vine‘ (1980)
  • Swordfishtrombones‘ (1983)
  • Rain Dogs‘ (1985)
  • Franks Wild Years‘ (1987)
  • Bone Machine‘ (1992)
  • The Black Rider‘ (1993)
  • Mule Variations‘ (1999)
  • Blood Money‘ (2002)
  • Alice‘ (2002)
  • Real Gone‘ (2004)
  • Bad as Me‘ (2011)

Tom Waits Filmography

The full list of films, shows and documentaries Tom Waits has featured in includes:

  • Paradise Alley (1978)
  • Wolfen (1981)
  • One From The Heart (1981)
  • The Outsiders (1983)
  • Rumble Fish (1983)
  • The Stone Boy (1984)
  • The Cotton Club (1984)
  • Down By Law (1986)
  • Ironweed (1987)
  • Greasy Lake (1988)
  • Candy Mountain (1988)
  • Big Time (1988)
  • Bearskin: An Urban Fairytale (1989)
  • Cold Feet (1989)
  • Mystery Train (1989)
  • The Two Jakes (1990)
  • At Play In The Fields Of The Lord (1991)
  • The Fisher King (1991)
  • Queens Logic (1991)
  • Night On Earth (1991)
  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
  • Short Cuts (1993)
  • Mystery Men (1999)
  • The Last Castle (2001)
  • Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)
  • Domino (2005)
  • The Tiger and the Snow (2005)
  • Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006)
  • The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)
  • The Book of Eli (2010)
  • The Monster of Nix (2011)
  • Twixt (2011)
  • Seven Psychopaths (2012)
  • The Simpsons (one episode) (2013)
  • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
  • The Old Man & the Gun (2018)
  • The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

Listen to Tom Waits – Downtown Train

Listen to Tom Waits on:

Spotify | Deezer | Apple Music

Tom Waits’ website