Thomas Alan Waits was born on the eighth anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He was born on December 7, 1949 in Pomona, California. He and his two sisters grew up moving around from city to city in California. His parents who are both school teachers divorced when he was 10. They then moved to National City. Tom's grandfather was christened Jesse Frank Waits and his father Frank Waits. Tom is Scottish and Irish from his father's side of the family and Norwegian from his mother's side.
Tom became interested in music early and began tacking up sheets of Bob Dylan's lyrics in his room and even framed some in the rest of his house. He would keep a pad of paper and pencil by his bed so that he could remember the lyrics that he would think up in the middle of the night. He taught himself how to play the piano at a neighbor's house and then learned the guitar on a Gibson.
As well as creating music at an early age, the persona that Tom is famous for soon appeared. He enjoyed entertaining his classmates and his teachers as soon as his secondary schooling. An art class teacher would let him play his harmonica for the class and sometimes he would be asked to get up on the tables and do his version of a "soft shoe". He also tried as soon as possible to grow a mustache and a goatee. Sal, Tom's employer at "Napoleone's Pizza House", used to joke that he had more hair growing wild on his ass than Tom could cultivate on his face.
During his adolescence, Tom spent quite some time keeping his cars running. He first had problems with his '54 Ford station wagon that he called a "bato wagon". He then worked on his '55 Buick which was to be inspiration for the song "Ole '55" which the Eagles covered. He then progressed to the '61 white volkswagen where he finally learned how to drive a stick shift.
Waits got into the music business at an early age. In the summer of 1972 he was working as a doorman at The Heritage in San Diego. He would get up between acts and perform on a small stage (I don't know if this was part of the job or just something management let get away with). These performances caught someone's eye, because Herb Cohen had signed him on to Asylum records at the age of 22.
Early in his career he began living in the famed Tropicana Motel on Santa Monica Blvd in LA which is somewhat near the corner of Hollywood and Vine. He toured alot where he supposedly opened for such varied acts like C&W superstar Charlie Rich, pianist Billy Preston, John Hammond and Frank Zappa. During this time, Tom tried to live the lifestyle that he portrayed in his songs. During this time of smoke and alcohol, he also became involved with Rickie Lee Jones. This singer (who is featured on the "Blue Valentine" album cover) and pal Chuck E. Weiss were part of the same crazy scene that defined Tom's persona in the seventies.
After too many late nights, Tom realized that he could not go on the same way for much longer. The persona he had struggled so hard to define would now cause him problems. One of Tom's first trying times came after he released Foreign Affairs and Blue Valentine. Critics seemed to think these albums were just going down the same rut as the earlier albums and without the same spirit. These albums are great albums, but I think it was the beginning of a change for which people were not ready.
At the same time Tom seemed to be struggling with what he wanted to do, two good things happened in his life. The first was working with Francis Ford Coppola and Zoetrope. He was to compose the music for "One From The Heart" where alot of the story is told through the music. Tom enjoyed this experience because Coppola showed him how to sit down and actually write music. It gave Tom alot more control over his life and his love of music. The second benefit for working with Zoetrope appeared after he met a script editor named Kathleen Brennan.
Kathleen soon caught Tom's eye and they began their unorthodox relationship. Waits has stated that "She can lie down on nails, stick a knitting needle through her lip and still drink coffeee, so I knew she was the girl for me." They were married in August 1980 and honeymooned in Tralee, Co. Kerry. When Patrick Humphries asked Tom Waits about the marriage ceremony, he said: "I found the Marriage Chapel in the Yellow Pages, right next to 'Massage'. The registrar's name was Watermelon and he kept calling me Mr. Watts!" Tom not only memorialized his love for her in songs like "Johnsburg, Illinois" (her birth place), she would also become a major force and collaborator in his music as well.
With these new experiences, Tom ventured a little too far away from stable ground for Asylum Records. His album Swordfishtrombones was just a little too strange for what management expected. Waits took this album and his music to Island Records where he found a new home. The next few albums were a metamorphosis of his career. These albums were done without the back streets and alley ways of his early albums. The lyrics went a little deeper and the music expanded from his folk and jazz roots into a bizarre combination of strange instrumentation. This new style has never been played on the mainstream radio stations, but it gained him a very strong reputation among other musicians and the fans that remained with him became stronger than ever.