Tom Waits' Natural Habitat Is an All-Night Diner
In Jim Jarmusch’s 1993 black-and-white film Somewhere in California (later included in his 2004 movie Coffee and Cigarettes), Tom Waits and Iggy Pop meet up in a diner. In a dingy booth backing a neon jukebox, Iggy Pop asks Waits, “You hang out here a lot?” Waits replies, “Yeah, yeah, this is my hangout.” And unlike the fidgety Pop, Waits looks completely at home here, sucking on a cigarette and sipping a cup of coffee, his arm slung casually over the back of the booth. Then again, throughout his four-decade career, Tom Waits always has appeared at his most comfortable when sidled up to a metal counter at an all-night diner. Diners are Tom Waits’ natural habitat.
Especially in his albums from the 1970s, Waits frequently crooned, in his inimitable raspy growl, about the misfits, romantics, and drifters on the fringes of society. With his standard uniform of porkpie hat and rumpled suit, Waits looked no different than those he sang about. He consciously cultivated a persona of a boozy beatnik who prowled city streets after dark. In this Waits-ian universe, diners were logical places for him while away the last few hours before dawn, chain-smoking cigarettes and eavesdropping on the insomniacs at nearby booths.
For Waits, the diner is both a refuge and a site of nocturnal inspiration. In a 1976 interview with the New Yorker, Waits said that during his early years as a singer-songwriter in Los Angeles, he picked up “people’s conversations in all-night coffee shops—ambulance drivers, cab drivers, street sweepers. I did research there as an evening curator, and I started writing—gingerly.” It’s no surprise that the people he observed in coffee shops and diners at three in the morning populate so much of his early work.
In Nighthawks at the Diner, a jazzy live album from 1975, Waits playfully incorporates diner imagery into several songs and monologues. “Eggs and Sausage (in a Cadillac with Susan Michelson),” in particular, is a loving homage to the sensory experience of a late-night diner: the register rings, newspapers litter the tables, cups are refilled endlessly from a coffee pot, and a waitress with Woolworth rhinestone diamond earrings repeats the specials. It’s classic diner fare:
Although much of the food suggests breakfast, it’s not the sort that’s eaten in the morning before heading off to work. Rather, it’s a meal for the so-called “gypsy hacks [and] the insomniacs” who are rarely conscious during the hours that breakfast traditionally is consumed. By the time people in business suites start ambling into the diner for a power breakfast, Waits’s characters know it’s time to call it a night.
“Eggs and Sausage” unfolds in Emma’s 49er, a made-up diner in downtown Los Angeles. But in Nighthawks, Waits references two actual Los Angeles establishments where he undoubtedly spent much time: Norms on La Cienaga Boulevard and the Copper Penny. Norms currently has 18 locations in Los Angeles; the Copper Penny is no more.
For the promotion of Nighthawks at the Diner, Waits teamed up with PBS to produce an a-cappela version of “Eggs and Sausage” with him seated at a diner counter—a video which was later used at his induction ceremony into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. In various profiles throughout his career—from London Trax magazine in 1981 to LA Weekly in 1999, to name only a few—Waits cagily answered questions from reporters in a diner booth.
In his sporadic acting career, Waits has been typecast as a diner aficionado. In a cameo role in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 film, Rumble Fish, Waits plays the proprietor of the diner Benny’s Billiards. In his few scenes he’s invariably shown behind the counter, serving chocolate milk and trying to keep the customers in line.
But perhaps the best representation of Waits in a diner is in Jarmusch’s Somewhere in California. The contrast between Iggy Pop and Waits in this short film is telling. The leather-clad Pop fidgets, stammers, and never appears comfortable in this quaint setting. At one point, Waits tells him, “If you don’t like it here, we can go down to Taco Bell or something. Maybe that’s more your style.” Waits, in contrast, is aloof and sardonic. It’s only when Pop abruptly leaves that Waits looks at ease. He pours more coffee, lights up a cigarette, and waves his hand idly in the air to the jukebox. He’s alone again in a diner, and there’s no place he’d rather be.
Beth Parker is a freelance publicist focusing on book promotion. You can learn more about her at bethparkerpr.com or @beth_parker.