Nighthawks At The Diner (1975)
To call Nighthawks At The Diner a “live album” is dubious the same way that canned laughter heard in sitcoms can be said to have been provided by a ‘live studio audience.’ Recorded over two days in the summer of 1975 at the Record Plant in Los Angeles and performed to an invited audience of record executives, friends and associates, Nighthawks At The Diner finds Waits backed by a quartet of seasoned jazz cats. Playing the role of the Hollywood hobo to the hilt, Waits performs every song elegantly, daubing each sepia-toned number with canny one-liners and well-paced asides. Throughout, a jive-talking Waits works blue (“I’m so goddamn horny the crack of dawn better be careful around me”), banters of “coffee not strong enough to defend itself” and uses bebop jargon to construct some memorable and deeply profound poetry, with discussions of “pincushion skies” and “Velveeta-yellow cabs” and “the impending squint of first light” and such. Theatrical piano bar signifiers abound: Waits introduces the band and drops names of familiar Los Angeles locales and eating establishments, to the delight of the game and agreeable crowd, perhaps laying the tracks for some of Todd Snider’s endless, stoned preambles. Waits occasionally gets serious, as on the saccharine “Nobody” and the uncharacteristically grave reading of Red Sovine’s trucker ghost story “Big Joe and Phantom 309,” as well the fantastic “Putnam County,” a number that blends Waits’ post-Beat patter (“And the Stratocasters slung over the burgermeister beer guts / swizzle stick legs jackknifed over Naugahyde stools”) with a piano melody worthy of Bill Evans. Mostly, though, it’s lighthearted fare. Sure, the album occasionally sounds like a Henny Youngman routine being performed over a very long rendition of “Crepuscule With Nellie” (or “Theme From The Pink Panther”), but Nighthawks At The Diner is great fun, poking fun at the archetypically seedy underbelly of showbiz while celebrating its slouching excesses.