A peculiar kind of poetry is possible very early in the morning. It was 40 minutes after midnight when Tom Waits slouched onto the stage of the Warner Theatre early yesterday morning. A crumpled felt hat shaded his eyes; a stained undersized shirt pulled up over his flowery arm tattoo; a jazz quartet swung and bopped behind him. Standing at every angle but straight, Waits muttered, crooned, growled and wheezed his very peculiar, very powerful poetry.
Waits' songs depict drunks, hookers, petty thieves, small-town refugees, greasy dives, all-night drives, used car lots, hotel shootouts and "The Heart of Saturday Night." Bruce Springsteen likes to sing about these characters, but Waits sings as one. The clock turned back an hour during Waits' set; time turned back 35 years into the films noirs of Humphrey Bogart. Waits played the original connoisseur of cool who supplied Bogart with information and wisdom through his alcoholic haze.
Waits used plenty of props to create a musical theater that put Broadway period pieces like "Chicago" and "Bubbling Brown Sugar" to shame. Using a cash register as a percussive instrument, Waits launched into an amphetamine litany of advertising slogans in "Step Right Up." Leaning on a battered gas pump, Waits assumed the character of a small-town mechanic telling the story of an all-night cross country drive taken on impulse. He sang "Putnam County" as fake snow fell around him at an L.A. newsstand. But even sitting alone at the piano Waits managed to wedge the audience into a time and space warp of his own special making.