Christmas Alphabet : T for Tom Waits – Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis

Last month I went, for the fourth time, to see Conor Macpherson’s modern masterpiece Play ‘The Weir’.

It’s a comic tragedy or a tragic comedy depending on your point of view.

The whole action of the Play takes place on a single evening in an Irish rural bar.

As the drinks flow the four characters tell, in sequential monologue form, riveting stories imbued with puzzled pain, aching regret and unending longing.

Strings break in Heaven.

As each story unfolds more is revealed by the tale than the teller had ever expected.

By the end of the play though they are raw from the experience there is a shared sense of catharsis and, almost miraculously, a feeling that the surrounding darkness is pierced by rays of light and fragile hope.

The search for that fragile hope is one of the main reasons we tell stories – both to others and to ourselves.

As I drove home a song began to play in my head.

A song that is a comic tragedy or a tragic comedy depending on your point of view.

A song of puzzled pain that tells more about the teller than ever anticipated.

A song filled with aching regret and unending longing.

A song that breaks strings in Heaven.

A song that has achieved a sense of catharsis by its conclusion.

A song that, almost miraculously, ends on a note of fragile hope.

A song that takes place at Christmas Time when even the most cynical like to believe in Hope – however faintly it glimmers.

A song by a supreme storyteller.

Tom Waits.

‘Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis’.

Now, aint that just Grand!

Tom Waits, in this freewheeling pre Swordfish Trombones period, wore a baggy coat with pockets stuffed with the works of John Fante, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Charles Bukowski and Alan Ginsberg.

Playing in his head were the recordings of Lenny Bruce, Lord Buckley, Howling Wolf, Bob Dylan and Hank Williams.

He had pretty much taken up residence on the Lost Highway.

Because, of course, it’s the best way to see the Moon and Stars clearly and to find out what kind of storyteller you might become.

Tom Waits became the kind of storyteller who could make you gasp, make you laugh out loud and then cry hot tears as his crazy lyrical stories unfolded.

A Tom Waits song makes you relish the details.

I love the way while the piano rolls meanderingly along the lyric seems to spontaneously emerge out of thin air.

The use of ‘And’ and, ‘Hey’ to kick off each exhalation of thought and invention gives the song a tremendous immediacy.

Hey Charley I’m pregnant
and living on 9-th street
right above a dirty bookstore
off Euclid avenue

It’s important that the song is addressed to a specific person.

It’s thinking of that person, that one person, who might, just might, make it all right again, that makes a person put pen to paper.

And you should always kick off with the news that’ll make the reader sit bolt upright and want to read on.

Read on.

And I stopped taking dope
and I quit drinking whiskey
and my old man plays the trombone
and works out at the track

You want to convince Charley and yourself that things have changed.

They really have changed.

You’ve changed.

Those vices you shared are memories now.

And, you found a guy.

A guy who plays the trombone and brings the dollar bills home.

And he says that he loves me
even though its not his baby
and he says that he’ll raise him up
like he would his own son

And, hey .. a guy who won’t let you down.

Not like all the other Guys.

A guy who will raise up your unborn son – even though he’s not his own son.

And, he gave me a ring
that was worn by his mother
and he takes me out dancin
every saturday nite.

Now, Charley knows somewhere in his heart that there’s no woman who ever lived who doesn’t want their Darling to give them a ring that was worn by his Mother.

And, Hey, whatever anyone tells you there ain’t no feeling better than goin’ out dancin’ on a Saturday Night – just the two of you.

Just the two of you.

And, I still have that record
of Little Anthony & The Imperials
but someone stole my record player
how do you like that?

When you’re lost and you think you’re going out of your head and your heart’s about to jump right out of your chest you can’t help but remember those old songs.

There are some songs you’ll never get out of your head.

Little Anthony with the soaring voice.

Tears on my pillow, pain in my heart, caused by you, you

If we could start anew, I wouldn’t hesitate
I’d gladly take you back, and tempt the hand of fate
Tears on my pillow, pain in my heart, caused by you

Wo oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh

Wo oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh

Wo oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh

hey Charley … I went back to Omaha to
live with my folks

Charley knows, like you do, that you can never really go back to the home you grew up in.

If you ever had a reason to leave you’re never going to be happy back in Omaha.

And, hey, you had so many reasons to leave.

Reasons to leave.

and I wish I had all the money
that we used to spend on dope
I’d buy me a used car lot
and I wouldn’t sell any of em

I’d just drive a different car
every day dependin on how
I feel.

You and Charley, his hair all slicked back with grease used to drive with the top down at ninety miles an hour on the two lane blacktop.

And, hey, wouldn’t it be great if you had all that wasted cash and could roll down the highway every day in a different car.

Just the two of you.

You can almost feel the warm air caressing you both.

Dreams are like that.

Dreams are like that.

Sometimes dreams are all that can keep you going.

All that can keep you going.

hey Charley
for chrissakes
do you want to know
the truth of it?

I don’t have a husband
he don’t play the trombone

and I need money to pay this lawyer

But. But. It takes a lot of energy to dream.

And, hey, sometimes you just don’t have the strength anymore.

Just don’t have the strength.

So, you breathe deep and let it out.

Let it out.

All of it.

The blood and the guts and the tears.

And, hey, you find yourself saying the thing you promised yourself you’d never say.

The thing you promised yourself you’d never say.

and Charley, hey
I’ll be eligible for parole
come valentines day.

Robert Plant, Tom Waits, Del Shannon (and Phil Phillips) dive into The Sea Of Love!

‘The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.’ (Isak Dinesen)

‘There is one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath’ (Herman Melville)

The sea begins at the shore. Standing at its edge we can only marvel at its immensity and otherness. Yet we know that some aspects of ourselves can only be brought to life by deserting the comforting security of the land and the harbour.

You have to put to sea; surrendering to its call, to discover the worlds of wonder which surely lie somewhere beyond the horizon. What’s true for the rolling deep and briny sea is true just as much for that other sea which consumes so much of our waking and dreaming hours – the sea of love.

Come with me now, come with me now and surrender to Phil Phillips and The Twilights original from 1959 and be borne back again to The Sea Of Love.

Phil Phillips wrote the song and sang lead vocals on this classic slice of swamp pop which was a million selling Number 1 R&B hit and Number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. He was born John Phillip Baptiste in Lake Charles Louisiana in March 1931. His roots lay in gospel music with the family group The Gateway Quartet. It was his barely required love for Verdi Mae Thomas that inspired him to switch to the secular realm and Sea Of Love was the dreamily hypnotic result.

Originally recorded as a demo at a local radio station the song came to the attention of George Khoury a sharp local music mogul with a downtown record shop who had enjoyed some chart success already as a producer and record label owner through the lovely, ‘Mathilda’ by Cookie And The Cupcakes.

Indeed it’s Cookie And The Cupcakes, with Ernest Jacobs prominent on piano, along with the mysteriously unnamed Twilights who back up Phil on the recording made at Eddie Shuler’s Goldband Records Studio.

Despite the phenomenal sales which accrued once the original Khoury label recording was leased to big time Mercury Records Phil always claimed that he only ever earned $6,800 from his song with the rest disappearing into the coffers of George Khoury, Eddie Shuler and Mercury. A sadly familiar tale!

What can never be taken away from Phil is the glory of his song and his performance on the record. Sea Of Love drifts along at a stately, one might almost say somnambulant pace as it carries us along. There’s a quality of eyes closed pre dawn hours reverie about the record that allows it to dive fathoms deep into our unconscious.

I love the hummed opening which speaks as eloquently of the yearning for love as the reticent yet straight from the heart vocal which follows. To my ears the lyric and vocal have more than a tinge of the lyrical and romantic tradition of the french/creole culture Phil grew up in.

The song almost seems like a creole chanson translated into English. Perhaps this gives the song something of its woozy surreal charm. Listening repeatedly to the song I felt adrift in a free floating dream – buoyed up by the depths of the sea with only the cool gaze of the forgiving moon to light my way.

The mysterious allure of the song has attracted many singers, both famous and obscure, keen to steer their own course through The Sea Of Love. The first cover I’ve chosen to feature today is by the erstwhile Charles Weedon Westover who became one of the princes of early 1960s pop under the more familiar name of Del Shannon!

As you will have heard this is a much more rhythmically forceful version befitting its 1982 vintage and the confident swagger of Del’s backing band on the song – none other than Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers.

If Phil Phillips original brings to mind a pirogue calmly meandering through the bayou this version has the thrust of a powerful diesel engined motor boat beating back the deep sea channel waves. There’s an artful use of swirling keyboards in the middle of the song as a nod and wink tribute to Del’s own, never to be forgotten ‘Runaway’.

This version was a top 40 hit, the last of Del’s career (which ended so tragically with his suicide in 1990) and a highlight from the highly recommended, ‘Drop Down And Get Me’ album.

Del Shannon (who will feature more extensively on The Jukebox later) was throughout his life a highly distinctive and affecting singer who seemed in his voice to evoke the aura of someone who had never quite recovered from some awful secret hurt. A hurt that left him so wounded and anxious that any happiness on offer appeared bound to be fleeting if not wholly illusory. It’s a voice that suits the plangent mood of Sea Of Love holding you enthralled as the song unfolds.

Next from 1985 a version showcasing a plethora of Rock music, ‘Big Beasts’ on a retro R&B spree in the form of The Honeydrippers who featured Led Zeppelin alumni Robert Plant and Jimmy Page as well as Jeff Beck and Chic maestro Nile Rodgers. Paul Shaffer, famed for fronting the Letterman Show Houseband, held down the keyboard chair. Together they fashion a knowing homage to their 1950s roots in their swooning take on Sea Of Love which went top 5 on The Billboard Hot 100 chart.

And now as they used to say on, ‘Monty Python’ for something completely different. Here’s a, ‘Toasting’ master from Jamaica, U Roy (Ernest Beckford) with a deliriously enjoyable version rechristened, ‘Do You Remember’ which references both Phil Phillips original and a fine 1970 cover by The Heptones drawing on the production smarts of Joe Gibbs.

You can surely feel the hot Caribbean sun and the sea breezes wafting all about you as the irresistible rhythms take you over while U Roy extemporises with a winning mixture of cheeky humour and romantic ardour. You won’t be able to play this only once!

Follow that! Well, fortunately I’ve kept a take on Sea Of Love to conclude which can hold its own against any competition. This, by the one, the only Tom Waits, was a key element in the 1989 noiresque thriller movie, ‘Sea Of Love’ (starring a resurgent Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin), which was named after and featured Phil Phillips original song.

Tom Waits! there’s no one like him. Tom, here, gives us an intense, emotional, spooky hall of distorted mirrors Sea Of Love that leaves your head spinning and your heart battering threateningly against your ribcage. This is the diving deep, claustrophobic, submarine version which alters your sense of time and space with its strange charm.

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Tom Waits is a true American original who wouldn’t know how to just copy a song. His Sea Of Love is a loving recreation of a classic love song and Tom, having written a few of those himself, does it full justice by doing it entirely his own way,

As Tom showed Phil Phillips songs from the late 1950s still has endless depths to sound. Depths to sound in the always flowing, always churning, Sea Of Love.


Phil Phillips career was effectively hamstrung by a lengthy contract with Mercury which he fought hard to escape from. Disillusioned with the record industry and never seeing any significant windfalls from later versions of his classic song he went on to be a well regarded radio DJ in Louisiana.

The always commendable German collectors label Bear Family has issue a compilation, inevitably titled Sea Of Love, which with excellent sound collects all the highlights of Phil’s career. Well worth a listen for more examples of his haunting vocal style.

Phil was quite properly inducted in 2007 into the Louisiana Music Hall Of Fame.

Addendum – Since writing this post I’ve discovered this wonderful clip of Phil singing his classic song at The Louisiana hall Of Fame – prepare to feel your eyes moisten!