Small Change (Tom Waits album)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Small Change
Tom Waits - Small change (1976).jpg
Studio album by
ReleasedSeptember 21, 1976 (1976-09-21)[1]
RecordedJuly 15, 1976 – July 29, 1976
StudioWally Heider Studios, Hollywood, California
ProducerBones Howe
Tom Waits chronology
Nighthawks at the Diner
Small Change
Foreign Affairs

Small Change is a 1976 album by Tom Waits, released on Asylum Records, his fourth since his debut Closing Time in 1973. It was recorded in July at the Wally Heider Recording Studio, in Hollywood.


Small Change was recorded, direct to 2-track stereo tape, July 15, 19–21 and 29, 1976 at the Wally Heider Recording Studio, in Hollywood, USA[2] under the production of Bones Howe.


The album featured famed drummer Shelly Manne, and was, like Waits' previous albums, heavily jazz-influenced, with a lyrical style that owed influence to Raymond Chandler and Charles Bukowski as well as a vocal delivery influenced by Louis Armstrong, Dr. John and Howlin' Wolf. The music, for the most part, consists of Waits' gravelly, rough voice, set against a backdrop of piano, upright bass, drums and saxophone. Some tracks have a string section, whose sweet timbre is starkly contrasted to Waits' voice.

"Tom Traubert's Blues" opens the album. Jay S. Jacobs has described the song as a "stunning opener [which] sets the tone for what follows."[3] The refrain is based almost word by word on the 1890 Australian song, "Waltzing Matilda" by A.B. "Banjo" Paterson, although the tune is slightly different.

The origin of the song is somewhat ambiguous. The sub-title of the track "Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen" seems to indicate that it is about a time that Waits spent in Copenhagen in 1976 while on a tour. There, he apparently met Danish singer Mathilde Bondo. Indeed, in a 1998 radio interview, she confirmed that she met Waits and that they spent a night on the town together. Waits himself described the song's subject during a concert in Sydney Australia in March 1979: "Uh, well I met this girl named Matilda. And uh, I had a little too much to drink that night. This is about throwing up in a foreign country."[3] In an interview on NPR's World Cafe, aired December 15, 2006, Waits stated that Tom Traubert was a "friend of a friend" who died in prison.[4]

Bones Howe, the album's producer, recalls when Waits first came to him with the song:

He said the most wonderful thing about writing that song. He went down and hung around on skid row in L.A. because he wanted to get stimulated for writing this material. He called me up and said, "I went down to skid row ... I bought a pint of rye. In a brown paper bag." I said, "Oh really?." "Yeah - hunkered down, drank the pint of rye, went home, threw up, and wrote 'Tom Traubert's Blues' [...] Every guy down there ... everyone I spoke to, a woman put him there."[3]

Howe was amazed when he first heard the song, and he's still astonished by it. "I do a lot of seminars," he says. "Occasionally I'll do something for songwriters. They all say the same thing to me. 'All the great lyrics are done.' And I say, 'I'm going to give you a lyric that you never heard before."' Howe then says to his aspiring songwriters, "A battered old suitcase to a hotel someplace / And a wound that will never heal." This particular Tom Waits lyric Howe considers to be "brilliant." It's "the work of an extremely talented lyricist, poet, whatever you want to say. That is brilliant, brilliant work. And he never mentions the person, but you see the person."[3]

The song has been recorded by Rod Stewart on two 1993 albums, Lead Vocalist and Unplugged...and Seated under the title "Tom Traubert's Blues (Waltzing Matilda)".

Album closer "I Can't Wait to Get Off Work (And See My Baby on Montgomery Avenue)" has a simple musical arrangement, boasting only Waits' voice and piano. The lyrics are about Waits' first job at Napoleone Pizza House in San Diego, which he began in 1965, at the age of 16.[5]


At the time of the recording of Small Change Waits was drinking more and more heavily, and life on the road was starting to take its toll on him. Waits, looking back at the period said:

I was sick through that whole period [...] It was starting to wear on me, all the touring. I'd been travelling quite a bit, living in hotels, eating bad food, drinking a lot - too much. There's a lifestyle that's there before you arrive and you're introduced to it. It's unavoidable.[6]

In reaction to these hardships Waits recorded Small Change (1976), which finds Waits in a much more cynical and pessimistic mood lyrically than his previous albums, with many songs such as "The Piano Has Been Drinking" and "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart" presenting a bare and honest portrayal of alcoholism, while also cementing Waits' hard-living reputation in the eyes of many fans. The album's themes include those of desolation, deprivation, and, above all else, alcoholism. The cast of characters, which includes hookers, strippers and small-time losers, are, for the most part, night-owls and drunks; people lost in a cold, urban world.

With the album Waits asserted that he "tried to resolve a few things as far as this cocktail-lounge, maudlin, crying-in-your-beer image that I have. There ain't nothin' funny about a drunk [...] I was really starting to believe that there was something amusing and wonderfully American about being a drunk. I ended up telling myself to cut that shit out."[7]

Beyond the serious themes with which the album deals, the lyrics are often also noted for their humour; with songs such as "The Piano Has Been Drinking" and "Bad Liver And A Broken Heart" including puns and jokes in their treatment of alcoholism, with the added humour in Waits' drunken diction.


The cover art features Waits sitting in a go-go dancer's dressing room, with a topless go-go dancer standing nearby. It is alleged that the go-go dancer pictured is Cassandra Peterson,[8] best known as the iconic character Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Peterson, however, says she's not sure of the authenticity of this claim.[9]


Professional ratings
Review scores
Allmusic4.5/5 stars link
Christgau's Record GuideB–[10]
The Rolling Stone Album Guide4/5 stars[12]

Small Change received critical reviews equal to or better than Waits's previous albums, and was at first a surprise commercial success, rising to #89 on the Billboard chart within two weeks of its release. Three weeks later, the album fell off the Billboard Top 200, and Waits was not to better its position until 1999's Mule Variations.[2]

When asked in interview by Mojo magazine in 1999 if he shared many fans' view that Small Change was the crowning moment of his "beatnik-glory-meets-Hollywood-noir period" (i.e. from 1973 to 1980), Waits replied

Well, gee. I'd say there's probably more songs off that record that I continued to play on the road, and that endured. Some songs you may write and record but you never sing them again. Others you sing em every night and try and figure out what they mean. "Tom Traubert's Blues" was certainly one of those songs I continued to sing, and in fact, close my show with.[13]

Track listing[edit]

All songs written and composed by Tom Waits.

Side one

1."Tom Traubert's Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)"6:39
2."Step Right Up"5:43
3."Jitterbug Boy (Sharing a Curbstone with Chuck E. Weiss, Robert Marchese, Paul Body and The Mug and Artie)"3:44
4."I Wish I Was in New Orleans (In the Ninth Ward)"4:53
5."The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) (An Evening with Pete King)"3:40

Side two

1."Invitation to the Blues"5:24
2."Pasties and a G-String (At the Two O'Clock Club)"2:32
3."Bad Liver and a Broken Heart (In Lowell)"4:50
4."The One That Got Away"4:07
5."Small Change (Got Rained on with His Own .38)"5:07
6."I Can't Wait to Get Off Work (And See My Baby on Montgomery Avenue)"3:17
Total length:49:28


Chart positions[edit]

Chart (1976) Peak
US Billboard 200[14] 89


Region Certification Certified units/sales
Australia (ARIA)[15] Gold 35,000^
United Kingdom (BPI)[16] Silver 60,000^

*sales figures based on certification alone
^shipments figures based on certification alone


  1. ^ "Releases". ANTI-. Retrieved March 6, 2018.
  2. ^ a b "Tom Waits Time line: 1976 - 1980". Archived from the original on 2008-10-26. Retrieved 2007-01-18.
  3. ^ a b c d "Tom Traubert's Blues". Tom Waits Library. Archived from the original on 2011-12-09. Retrieved 2007-01-18.
  4. ^ Interview with Tom Waits on NPR's World Cafe, aired December 15, 2006
  5. ^ Montadon, Mac, Timeline and Discography in Innocent When You Dream, p. 385
  6. ^ McGee, David (1977), Smellin' Like a Brewery, Lookin' Like a Tramp, in Montandon, p.29
  7. ^ McGee, David (1977), Smellin' Like a Brewery, Lookin' Like a Tramp, in Montandon, p.30
  8. ^ "When Elvira met Tom Waits".
  9. ^ "Elvira on her date with Elvis and the fish recipe she got from Vincent Price".
  10. ^ Christgau, Robert (1981). "Consumer Guide '70s: W". Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies. Ticknor & Fields. ISBN 089919026X. Retrieved March 21, 2019 – via
  11. ^ M. Deusner, Stephen (March 24, 2018). "Tom Waits: Small Change". Pitchfork. Retrieved March 24, 2018.
  12. ^ "Tom Waits: Album Guide". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on September 19, 2011.CS1 maint: unfit url (link)
  13. ^ ""Tom Traubert's Blues" lyrics and notes". Tom Waits Library. Archived from the original on 2012-01-01.
  14. ^ Small Change – Tom Waits: Awards at AllMusic. Retrieved July 26, 2012.
  15. ^ "ARIA Charts – Accreditations – 2001 Albums". Australian Recording Industry Association. Retrieved July 26, 2012.
  16. ^ "British album certifications – Tom Waits – Small Change". British Phonographic Industry. Retrieved July 26, 2012. Select albums in the Format field. Select Silver in the Certification field. Type Small Change in the "Search BPI Awards" field and then press Enter.

External links[edit]

  • MacLaren, Trevor, "Tom Waits: Small Change", 2004 March 2 All About link