In early 1981, Tom Waits embarked on a world tour to promote his new album Heartattack and Vine. Having played gigs in France, the UK, USA and New Zealand, he reached Australia in late September. The following month, in Melbourne,  MATTHEW PECKHAM had the chance to observe the man at close quarters when he performed at Monash University.

tom waits

At Monash University the Student Union used to present a variety of lunchtime concerts. Many were relatively low-rent acts looking for ‘exposure’, but once, by stroke of genius or quirk of fate they managed to book Tom Waits for a gig at the Robert Blackwood Hall, where I was Technical Manager with an office that literally overlooked the stage.

Waits was touring Australia at the time, promoting an album called Heartattack and Vine.

For those who don’t know, Tom Waits is an American folk/blues musician famous for a gravel voice, ‘morbid pathos’ and a steady diet of bourbon and tobacco. The Rolling Stone review of the album said that ‘he finds more beauty in the gutter than most people would find in the Garden of Eden’.

Tom Waits is functionally nocturnal.

He arrived late, in fact the audience was seated and showing signs of impatience long before he entered the building. When he finally took to the stage he was chain-smoking, to the livid outrage of the Assistant Manager, whose defence of the parquetry was legendary.

With each cigarette Tom reminded the audience that while he was aware that daylight existed, he was neither well-acquainted nor comfortable with it. From this simple proposition flowed a stream of patter invoking dire retribution against his management, booking agents and limousine-driver for ambush, kidnap and torture.

Sensing that the performance was not among his best, Tom underscored every scorch-mark on the stage with an apology. When his cigarettes ran out, he begged the front row for replacements—the guy in the front stalls who tossed him a pack of Marlboro probably still dines out on the memory.

On Tom’s Australian tour of eleven appearances, five—including two return concerts after going to Perth—were in Melbourne, and all the rest were after dark. Daylight exposed in grim reality the fragile, damaged and desperate musician that was Tom Waits, a layer beneath the cynical veneer.

Well this stuff’ll prob’ly kill you, let's do another line

What you say you meet me down on Heartattack and Vine

I will never know how many of that audience understood, or appreciated, what was being revealed to them, when finally, in a voice like rock-salt, Tom asked them, “So how much did you guys pay for your tickets?”

“Six bucks!”

His relief was real: “Oh, thank Jesus. I thought it was maybe thirty.”