Tom Waits, via a cast of grotesque and mean characters and exaggerated scenarios that foreshadow the Fellini-esque subjects he would explore in his future 1980s trilogy of albums -- Swordfishtrombones (1983), Rain Dogs (1985), and Frank's Wild Years (1987) -- offers another glimpse of what he once called "one of those nights": "The piano tuner has a hearing aid...and you can't find your waitress/With a Geiger counter/And she hates you and your friends/And you just can't get served without her." After a near-disastrous year of touring that culminated in one of his shows being postponed while a surprise lineup of folk royalty consisting of Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, and Kinky Friedman supplanted Waits unannounced on stage at a club in New Orleans, he took off "Waltzing Matilda" to Europe. It was only one in a long line of humiliating opening slots and small-club appearances that had been the bane of Waits' commercially modest touring and recording career thus far. Clearly, the road was starting to take its toll, but it was enough to spur the creative fire that produced his Small Change (1976) album. The album's songs were written mostly in London and have "that feeling," as Waits told interviewer Bill Flanagan in the latter's incisive book, Written in My Soul, Conversations With Rock's Great Songwriters (1987): "I was in Europe for the first time. I felt like a soldier far away from home and drunk on the corner with no money, lost. I had a hotel key and I didn't know where I was." The memories of lonely one-night-stand club dates were probably still fresh in his memory as well.
Such a night forms the background for the sloppy drunk "The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)." Leave it to Waits, however, to turn this gloomy scenario into something fresh, vital, humorous even. Opening with a maudlin piano (of course) introduction that increasingly slips off the rails into Thelonious Monk-like dissonance (hence the drunken piano) and joined only by bowed double-bass by Jim Hughart, Waits sings the lyrics in his gruff, Howlin' Wolf-via-Louis Armstrong voice, a litany of nightmarish snafus in some hellhole out of a Charles Bukowski story: "The jukebox has to take a leak/And the carpet needs a haircut, and the spotlight looks like a prison break/And the telephone's out of cigarettes/And the balcony is on the make/And the piano has been drinking, the piano has been drinking...." This is what you would call personification of the highest magnitude. Of course, they are all projections of the internal turmoil the narrator is dealing with, or trying to cope with, mostly through self-medication. It is the ultimate last song of the night, to be played at some gin mill after almost everyone has cleared out. There are no changes to the song, just the one chord progression. "The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)" deflates the myth that there is glory in a life on the road, the darker reality of Kerouac's romanticizing, but it does so without being didactic or even very serious -- unlike such melodramatic calls from motel rooms as Bob Seger's dreadful "Turn the Page" or countless such offerings from singer/songwriters. And it also seems like Waits is taking the boozy beatnik balladeer persona to its most logical end here. He already seems to be wary of the limitations to the image, and there are suggestions that he is moving on both as a character and as a songwriter; the dissonance and off-kilter subject matter hinting at some of his more daring later work.