"You can come back on the show any time because I think you’re a gas."
40 years ago this month Tom Waits toured Australia for the first time. He’s only been back once, in 1981. While here that first time, he played theatre shows in most capital cities – his appearance at Sydney’s State Theatre was broadcast live on Double J and later bootlegged - in support of his latest album Blue Valentine.
What is most vividly remembered about the tour by most who saw it though was his appearance at the start of the tour on The Don Lane Show. He was, of course, an unusual and unlikely guest for Australia’s favourite variety show host. Unusual for Tom, as at that point he hadn’t done much TV anywhere (he would later become a big David Letterman favourite of course), and that he was clearly ambivalent about the mainstream culture that such a program represented. And unlikely for Don Lane and his audience because... well a chain-smoking, hunched-over, mumbling, apparently stoned singer and interviewee wasn’t exactly usual fair for Australian television at the time!
But, what seemed like a massive culture clash, and what initially at least felt like a train wreck about to happen, was indeed, something else entirely. Something of a triumph in fact. While Lane seemed on the face of it to struggle with the singer, and while the singer seems shy and more than happy to let his persona do the talking – the routine with the cigarettes, ashtray and lighter at the beginning is beautiful - it soon becomes apparent that Lane has a real affection for Waits. His struggle is in actually trying to find a way to make his audience see that Tom is a genuine guy, and a talented one at that.
Don introduces Tom as a singer who is a mix of “Satchmo Armstrong and Humphry Bogart” and someone who “doesn’t try to work at or be different or unusual; it comes to him naturally”, and it is clear he means it positively. After all, Don himself was an old song and dance man – a former night club singer and an American one at that – who no doubt knew the musical references as well as the times and places that Waits sung of. Later on, Waits refers to obscure musical eccentric Lord Buckley as a favourite; Lane knows who he’s talking about and delights in the shared knowledge. Lane also spells out that he’d spend time with Waits earlier in the day, that he thinks he’s a lovely guy – “just mad”. And after Tom sits down and plays a beautiful version of his skid row wino’s lullaby “On A Nickel” (which wouldn’t appear on a record until the following years Heart Attack & Vine) and gets a genuine response from the audience, Don takes delight in telling Tom, ” You know, you’re starting to get through!”
Don, who had been busted but later cleared of a marijuana charge in his early days in Australia, probably saw other things he recognised on Tom as well.
For Tom’s part, he responds to Lane as much as his persona and his seemingly genuine shyness or awkwardness lets him. He probably saw the audience as a potentially hostile one; at very least one that had never seen anything like him. And he responds with charming – albeit hard to recognise - humility. He laughs quietly to some of Don’s jokes, makes a reference to being “big in Philadelphia” that gets big laugh from Don (clearly sharing an in-joke), and makes a genuine effort to amuse the audience with retorts like “I feel like I’m at my grandmother’s”, as Don cleans up his ashes. Even if he never makes eye contact with anything further away than his cigarette. And from the moment he sits at the piano – Don is still chatting to him as he repeats the opening bars to his song – you can see he’s in the zone and giving his all. His performance is indeed "a gas".
Waits returned in September/October 1981 for an even more extensive tour, including a massive five Melbourne shows (Princess Theatre, three nights at the Dallas Brooks Hall and one Palais Theatre show). And he returned to the Don Lane show. While footage of this second appearance is no longer available on YouTube, a transcription and screenshots can be found on a Tom Waits fansite here. It’s another engaging interview, and Lane confirms his appreciation of Tom and his talents – and his willingness to defend both - right at the start: “The last time Tom Waits appeared with us, his unusual style and sense of humour lit up the switchboard for about an hour after the show. And not all with compliments either. But his concerts filled up. His albums continued to sell with great success, and he's gone from strength to strength. However, his unpredictability has remained unchanged. And how he'll be with us tonight, who knows? I don't know about you, but I'm really glad to see him again. Cause I think he's a heck of a talent. Ladies and gentlemen, Tom Waits! “
The 1979 interview and performance is available here in two parts, and if you’re a fan of Waits, or of Don Lane and 70s Australian TV, you will find this a hilarious and indeed heart-warming watch.
Don Lane sadly passed away in 2009, having suffered Alzheimer's for a number of years. Tom Waits is still going strong; he’s overcome his shyness, but is definitely – wonderfully – still mad. Hopefully one day we’ll see him back down under. And hopefully he remembers the unlikely boost he got from his fan Don.