On July 26, 1979, BBC2 aired an hour-long Tom Waits concert under the title Tonight in Person. The concert might be regarded as a straight taping of a live show but it also included elements that were more theatrical and seemed to be incorporated into the show as if it were an in-studio taping, a bit like when standup comedians bring in an audience for something that is understood by everyone present to be a recording of a TV special. That’s how this program feels, anyway, it doesn’t feel like a regular concert.
Some chronologies list this appearance as actually occurring on July 26 but I think that’s incorrect. If you look at a good chronology of Waits’ activities that year, it’s evident that he was touring Europe and Australia in the first part of the year and then started a U.S. tour in October, but he wasn’t playing music in front of audiences at any point in the summer. It’s hard to feature Waits flying from L.A. to London for a single show in July. I strongly suspect that he taped this show in late April, a couple of days after his appearance at the Konzerthaus in Vienna (which constituted the core of the delightful A Day in Vienna TV special, which we wrote about here). Waits played the Palladium on April 21, it seems, and probably this show was taped in there somewhere.
Waits starts things off with a track that never made it onto any of his albums called “With a Suitcase.” The song did appear in the Paradise Alley sessions of 1978, which are available on Tales from the Underground, Vol. 3. Waits sings the first verse of “With a Suitcase” and then breaks off and relates an amusing story about stumbling upon a clothing store on Beale Street in Memphis that is improbably open for business in the wee hours of the night: “You can’t get a sandwich at three o’clock in the morning but you can get a nice-looking suit.” I did some searches, and it’s possible that this was the only time he ever told that particular tall tale.
Waits sings two songs each from Foreign Affairs (“I Never Talk To Strangers” and “Burma Shave”), Small Change (“Step Right Up” and the title track), and Blue Valentine (“Red Shoes by the Drugstore” and “Kentucky Avenue”). A year later he would release Heartattack and Vine, and in fact the studio audience was treated to a preview of “On The Nickel,” which he refers to as a “hobo’s lullaby.”
Waits sings “Burma Shave” from a stage set of a typical American gas station from the 1950s—he’s pretty frisky with the words here…. the song opens with a verse that isn’t in the studio version and ends with a lengthy and touching “don’t you cry” coda that he also appended to the song when he did it on Austin City Limits in 1978.
The last proper song Waits performs is “Small Change,” which he sings under a lamppost…. once the song is done, as if to echo the refrain “Small Change got rained on with his own thirty-eight,” a sprinkling of glitter drifts down from the rafters and Waits opens an umbrella to protect himself from the downpour. Then comes “Closing Time,” during which Waits rummages through a garbage can and pulls out a creased top hat and a gold jacket, and puts them on.
Watch the show that every Tom Waits completist has to see, after the jump…