The problem with gimmicky songs is that the gimmick grows old, usually pretty quickly. But in the case of Tom Waits and “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)” the off-key piano gimmick is such a perfect part of the whole — the nonsensical lyric, the boozy delivery — that the song remains as fresh and entertaining as it must have felt in 1976.
If you don’t own any Waits, you really should. His three most accessible albums are probably 1973’s Closing Time, Small Change which features tonight’s selection, and Swordfishtrombones from 1983. I read once that the studio was aghast at the weirdness Waits had planned for that last one (and mind you that’s on the Tom Waits Weirdness Scale, which blows out even the VodkaPundit Cocktails Scale), but Swordfishtrombones ended up doing great business and earning him tons of new fans.
Before that though, Waits made his name making music like you’re hearing right now — honest, raw, witty, and self-aware that it’s an all act without being hipster-ironic about it. It’s the kind of music you’d expect to hear in the wee small hours at a seedy blues club in the seediest part of ’70s downtown Los Angeles.
Music reminiscent of such a particular time and place shouldn’t have proven so timeless, but doing just that is a part of Waits’s peculiar genius.
(I can’t recommend Bone Machine, even though it’s probably my favorite Tom Waits. Even as a dedicated fan it took me years to warm up to that album. As I think I’ve written here before, it sounds like it was recorded in an old barn, and instead of instruments, he and his band just banged away on whatever rusty implements they happened to find in there. And they did it at night. Under a full moon. It’s only for Advanced Level Waits Fans, although if you dare, “Black Wings” is one of the more approachable songs from that album.)