Song Noir

I really became a character in my own story. I’d go out at night, get drunk, fall asleep underneath a car. Come home with leaves in my hair, grease on the side of my face, stumble into the kitchen, bang my head on the piano and somehow chronicle my own demise and the parade of horribles that lived next door.

Tom Waits

Song Noir: Tom Waits and the Spirit of Los Angeles

Song Noir by Alex Harvey will be an in-depth examination of the first, formative decade of Tom Waits’ career, when he lived in Los Angeles and mined an extraordinarily rich seam of the city’s low-life locations, characters and ‘noir’ associations.

Los Angeles fed and nurtured Waits’ dark imagination. In turn he created a body of work that contributed to the sense of the city as a deeply unsettling urban experience – a place of extremes; of dreams and violence, despair and yearning. The book will examine how this period represents the absolute high watermark of Waits’ Los Angeles legend, the time that he very deliberately set about living the life his songs described; it’s the moment when Waits’ creative inter-penetration of city and self-hood becomes complete. The book will also explore how, over time, Los Angeles became as much a trap as a means of escape for this artist. It wasn’t simply that his ‘lush life’ had turned into a kind of prison. His performing persona, one that drew on so many of city’s associations and influences, hardened into a mask that threatened to restrict his musical growth.

The book explores how, within the context of Los Angeles’ noir-like dreamscape, Waits was able to re-work the spoken idioms of Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski and draw upon the legacy of jazz-blues rhythms to such powerful, hallucinatory effect.

But Song Noir will also chart how Waits’ stark portraits of Americana, with its diners and drunks, started to become repetitive and mannered. It was a kind of self-created trap, as the city of Los Angeles also came to embody the deeply personal demons bound up with Waits’ complex relationship with his unsettled, alcoholic father, Frank.

About the Author
Alex Harvey is a Los Angeles-based director and writer, who has made over 20 documentaries and dramas, working in both film and television. His most recent film is the feature documentary Enter the Jungle (2014). He has written essays for publications such as the London Review of Books, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.


By John Scanlan

John Scanlan is the Series Editor of Reverb with Reaktion Books.