Sightings of Tom Waits were a curiously shared experience, a talking point among night owls like me in early 1970s LA. We might see him shuffling through West Hollywood, east of Beverly Hills and south of the Sunset Strip. But from a drive-by glimpse in the tenebrous light before dawn, he looked like some hapless dude in a slept-in suit, navigating the sidewalk to oblivion within a wedge of corridors that converged at Melrose and Doheny.
Using parking meters as walking sticks
With my eyelids propped open at half mast
He was probably traipsing home from wherever he’d spent the night informing his latest stanza, ready to crash until two in the afternoon like any self-disrespecting songwriter. Or he may have been headed to Duke’s, a greasy spoon tucked into the side of the Tropicana Motel on Santa Monica Boulevard, where he was holed up for a good long time and became its most legendary denizen.
The Tropicana itself was a legendary hole. For musicians, the vibe was Laurel Canyon with maid service and a pool. For New Yorkers, think Chelsea Hotel with parking spaces. There were palm trees, but rats lived in them. Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax owned the place. It was inhabited by a motley menagerie of nocturnal transients, rock-n-rollers on a rite of passage through Purgatory, waiting for a record deal. Waits was a Tropicana pioneer. But before he moved in, he used to wait in line outside the Troubadour, an equally fabled joint, a nightclub just a few blocks away, where he’d be hoping to go onstage for open-mic nights. Those amateur hours were called hootenannies. By 1972, he was getting paid to play gigs there.
I spied Waits hoofing it three or four times while I was driving home after coffee and eggs at Duke’s, having wandered in after last call at one barroom or another and like everyone else, trying to maintain an even keel until daybreak. Norm’s and Ship’s were also restaurants of last resort in the vicinity of San Vicente and La Cienega Boulevards. (The latter translates as the swamp.) I read somewhere that Waits drove beaters, and that would have been as much a fashion statement as practicality. But I only saw him on foot. They say nobody walks in LA, but Tom Waits was somebody, an artist on the come. He was no deadbeat. He did seem to love deadbeats…