On December 7 in 1949, Thomas Alan Waits was born in Pomona, California. While in elementary school, Tom began learning to play some instruments. His father, who would divorce Tom’s mom when Tom was ten, taught the boy to play the ukulele. And an uncle’s gravely voice would later inspire the singer-songwriter to adopt his own singing voice as the adult Tom Waits.
One of my favorite Tom Waits song is “On the Nickel,” a song he calls “a little wino’s nursery rhyme” in the video below from a 1978 Austin City Limits episode. I first fell in love with the song when it stood out for me on his 1980 Heartattack and Vine album, which also features his original version of “Jersey Girl.”
As Waits further explains, the name “the nickel” is a reference to Fifth Avenue in Los Angeles. But even if you did not know the song was about the homeless, you cannot help feeling the melancholy sound of the song. “On the Nickel” intertwines nursery rhymes that connect hopeful childhoods to lost adults, with themes that could apply to anyone.
So what becomes of all the little boys?
The sandman takes you where
You’ll be sleepin’ with a pillow man,
On the Nickel over there.
If you know the song, you may have wondered about the reference to Grady Tuck (“You can skip the light with Grady Tuck on the nickel over there”). Tuck was a San Diego musician.
Check out this live 1978 performance of “On the Nickel.”
What is your favorite song by Tom Waits? Another one of my favorites is “San Diego Serenade.” Leave your two cents in the comments.
(Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)