In the late '70s, Tom Waits was probably worried about becoming a parody of himself. By his 1975 record, Nighthawks at the Diner, he had fully realized the style he had been molding since his first record, 1973's Closing Time: He edged further away from any post-Dylan folk leanings with each record, sinking deeper into the streetwise, bohemian barstool poet. On Small Change (1976), the music became even more overtly jazzy in a Tin Pan Alley way; Waits seemed intent on updating the saloon song. Later records showed Waits experimenting a little with the formula: adding heavier orchestration, writing film music, performing duets with female singers, etc. By the time he switched labels to Island, he had all but abandoned this past persona. But, on "Invitation to the Blues," Waits was probably not yet all that concerned with self-parody; no one else was doing what he was during these years of rock & roll excess -- the 1976 song of the year Grammy award went to "I Write the Songs" and best new artist to the Starlight Vocal Band ("Afternoon Delight"). "Invitation to the Blues" would have certainly been off most radar screens. But that is where Waits thrived. Allowing others to score the occasional hit with one of his songs, he combed the diners, barrooms, and alleyways, "using parking meters for walking sticks," writing about fellow fringe dwellers. Waits writes timeless lyrics, as if he sees a sort of Americana continuum from doughboys getting back home, to Louis Armstrong singing in New Orleans, to the Beats racing across the country, to Dylan's surrealist adventures, to his own narrator in a roadside diner: "And you feel just like Cagney/She looks like Rita Hayworth/At the counter of the Schwab's drugstore."
The piano plays a Southern jazzy blues -- not unlike some of Mose Allison's songs -- a descending progression for the verses, the music ripe for a narrative. The instrumentation is filled out by Jim Hughart on upright bass, a bluesy tenor sax solo from Lew Tabackin, and a string section arranged by Jerry Yester. Waits' expressive voice has "seasoned" to a well-worn, boozy growl which, for a relatively young man, sounds perilously close to an old bluesman's rheumatic hack. Obvious references would have to include Howlin' Wolf -- if he had actually crooned -- and Louis Armstrong, particularly on the rich vibrato. Waits offers a noir-like (think The Postman Always Rings Twice) rendition of a Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn smart-aleck conversation that is really a ritualized mating dance by two people who know better -- a transient and a waitress at a roadside diner -- and yet the narrator decides to stick around, against his better judgment: "Get me a room down at the Squire/The fillin' station's hiring/And I can eat here every night/What the hell do I got to lose?" And that's the rub: they've both been through the ringer, but there are no better prospects on the horizon: "...mercy, mercy, Mr. Percy/There ain't nothin' back in Jersey/But a broken-down jalopy of a man I left behind/And a dream that I was chasin'/And a battle with the booze/And an open invitation to the blues." The images are familiar, as is the title -- an old Gershwin standard and Roger Miller country song both share the title -- but Waits is a natural, with a highly developed ear for dialogue, and he revels in the common cultural currency, able to twist it to somehow be relevant for the mid-'70s and beyond. As noted, his concerns are timeless and oblivious to trends. If anything, he could be accused of nostalgically romanticizing and sentimentalizing the past. But there is little romantic about the wasted characters in "Invitation to the Blues"; though the narrator pictures himself as Cagney, listeners know he is the only one kidding himself. Indeed, so does he.