Jazzman Richie Cole once wrote a song called "Waiting for Waits," so I guess it's a well-known phenomenon. Anyway, there we were on the street last Wednesday night, stretched all the way around the Beacon Theater and tied in a bow while himself finished a fastidious sound check. The show was nearly two hours late in starting, and after thawing us out with four powerhouse numbers, Waits finally stopped to acknowledge and apologize for the delay. "You probably blame me personally, as you should," he said. Sensing a need for further explanation, he confessed, "I was shampooing my dog. And he likes to have a moisturizer, too. Once you start with the toiletries, there's no end in sight." With that, he had us.

It's the voice that does it -- or voices, I should say, because Waits has a bunch. His MC voice, a sly wise-guy whine, is the closest thing in his repertoire to normal. The others are more like theatrical masks, though to Waits "normal," too, is just a mask. He gets you to believe he was in Minneapolis once when it was 200 below zero, then says he got caught on the street in just a bra and a slip, and pretty soon he's joked you into accepting him as the title character in "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis."

Waits's stories seem to take place in a world out of time. Nobody ever travels by plane or communicates by computer, and the musicians never sample a synthesizer or trip a beatbox. It's The Land that Yuppies Forgot. His new album, Rain Dogs (Island), is essentially the soundtrack for a street-level tour of New York led by a Faginish guide who, in the opening number, likens the city to exotic Singapore. "Every witness turns to steam," he says, and indeed he makes you hear the sounds and sights and smells of the city, the perfume of pee and doughnuts, the ghostly hiss-and-rumble of pipes and subways, the scary and touching picture of those gentlemen on the corner, their good coats in the laundry and their lips caked with baking soda, who declare, "Taxi? We'd rather walk." The rain dogs are the homeless specters whose voices leak from dark doorways and billowing gutters, and they're represented on record not just by Waits's phlegmy bark but by a battery of eerie clinking percussion and guitarist Marc Ribot's swab-and-sting injections.

There are levels to this society, and crawling along the bottom are the denizens of "Clap Hands," which sounds like a subterranean S.O.S. croaked through the cracks in the sidewalk, or "Jockey Full of Bourbon," a sinister tango on which every instrument sounds like a lethal weapon. The ones that can afford to party barrelhouse through raunchy blues ("Big Black Mariah" and "Union Square," both guest-starring Keith Richards), while the indigent bitterly plot to collect their inheritance (the very Brecht-Weill "Cemetery Polka") or run wild through the streets ("Midtown," a retro-noir detective theme). The closest thing to a man who walks on his own two feet is the dreamer who struts to the subway "shining like a new dime" on "Downtown Train" (number one on my Tom Waits top 40, largely thanks to G. E. Smith's sweet sweet guitar hook). But he's not necessarily the highest order of man in this cosmology -- that belongs to the sharp-eyed poet of "9th and Hennepin." A verbal snapshot of one night in a Minnesota roadhouse, this spoken rap starts out self-indulgent, with more similes than a Tom Robbins paragraph, but then pans like Antonioni into the heart of the night:

The rooms all smell like diesel
And you take on the 
dreams of the ones who have slept here 
And I'm lost in the window 
I hide on the stairway 
I hang in the curtain 
I sleep in your hat.

Waits has always done these voices, mostly variations on the logorrheic barfly sliding from rowdiness to tall tales to lachrymose nostalgia. But on his last two albums, 1983's Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs, he's perfected his presentation by creating a context (a sonic context as well as a musical-literary one) that individualizes his characters rather than mushing them together. Both albums dispense with the standard 10-song format and comprise instead a lot more fragments: instrumentals and spoken monologues, more pop tunes or genre pieces (tangos, blues, etc.) than the piano-vamp-behind- lowlife-sagas of old. And they add up to a new musical identity for Waits, more eclectic in its influences (alternating extremes of abrasiveness and sentimentality, from hard bop to children's rhymes) yet more idiosyncratic.

The changes he's gone through in the last several years have been about shedding jive affectations, hewing to a deeper, more personal eccentricity, and then enlarging his vocabulary to express it. For one thing, he's parted ways with Bones Howe, who was in general a wonderful producer for Waits. But Howe's gorgeous string arrangements increasingly brought out or overembellished a maudlin streak that weakened Waits's work, particularly his singing (already handicapped with a consonant-gobbling rasp and a three-note range). Producing himself has given Waits the challenge of reconceiving the sound of his music, and he's met it with imagination, absorbing Captain Beefheart's truncated Dada blues, Lord Buckley's sound-effects-and -all storytelling, and Van Dyke Parks's penchant for odd orchestrations. His road band, for instance, features a guitarist who plays trombone, a horn player cum violinist, two demon drummers, and accordion maestro William Schimmel (a bizarre apparition in his own right).

At the Beacon, Waits and band skipped the hitbound "Downtown Train" and concentrated on precisely the weirdo, jagged pieces like "Jockey Full of Bourbon" and "16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought-Six" that I wasn't sure could be reproduced live. Waits not only reproduced them, he made them into more savage, more expressionistic, more monumental slabs of sound. He's clearly been picking up tips on performance, too, maybe from doing three movies with Francis Ford Coppola, maybe from witnessing the effect of his music in the sensational Off-Broadway production of Balm in Gilead by Steppenwolf Theater Company (which will produce his stage musical Frank's Wild Years in Chicago next spring). In any case, he's definitely honing his own spiky blend of rock and theater -- if Springsteen's stadium show made him a rock'n'roll Romeo, Waits at the Beacon was a cabaret Caliban. Along with his two latest records, the concert showed him pulling together a decade's worth of artistic advances along several fronts -- as a writer, musician, and performer -- and that's the Waits I've been waiting for.

Village Voice, December 3, 1985