Recorded live in the studio with an invited audience of fans and friends, Tom Waits is at the peak of his lounge lizard, jazz-folk balladeer persona on his third album, the 70-minute set of new material entitled Nighthawks at the Diner (1975). Waits opens this piano ballad with a hilarious minute-long introduction about "reaching the end of an emotional cul de sac one particular evening," one of a number of spoken word bits on the record that established Waits' reputation as a raconteur. It was a trait that would remain a major aspect of his persona in song, on stage as a singer/songwriter, and as an actor later in his career. Like Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, and even Noel Coward, who became known for more than their craft, Waits transcended his role as a musician, transforming himself into a character via songs like "Warm Beer and Cold Women." It was material like this that displayed a standup comedian's sense of humor and timing that had only been hinted at on his previous two records -- collections that veered from earnest folk to almost maudlin ballads, though with plenty of sharp observations and heartbreaking melodies. On Nighthawks at the Diner, Waits began to employ his wit in and around the songs, setting the stage for his legendary live performances. His unique image is shown coming into full bloom here -- the streetwise boozy hipster with a heart of gold: "Warm beer and cold women, no I just don't fit in/Every joint I stumble into tonight, it's just how it's been/All these double-knit strangers, gin and vermouth/Recycled stories in the Naugahyde booths."
On "Warm Beer and Cold Women," Waits also betrays a pathos as the wandering everyman character that had started to take shape early in his career, jawing it up with nighthawk diner patrons and gin-mill barflies, pimps, prostitutes, and sailors, a cast of characters that would later grow in scope and in depth. In one of his best lines from this era, Waits finds himself chewing the ear off one of the latter: "I just want him to listen now, I said 'that's all you have to do.' He said I'm better off without you, till I showed him my tattoo." Waits shares a bit of the Beats' reverence for Walt Whitman, embracing the concept of the individual "leaves of grass" who make up the teeming democratic masses. In the end, he brings it home to the lonely bachelor on the make, stumbling into all the wrong places at all the wrong times, "one of those nights." This is the opposite spirit of the vibe Waits' narrator has in an earlier song, "Heart of Saturday Night," when everything seems to be clicking into place. Backed by some veteran Los Angeles jazz musicians, including Mike Melvoin on electric piano, Bill Goodwin on drums, Pete Christlieb on sax, and Jim Hughart on acoustic upright bass, Waits straddles genres; "Warm Beer and Cold Women" is a jazzy saloon song with a country chord progression. The lyrics also encompass both types of music -- not as much of a stretch when one remembers that Tony Bennett once scored a hit with "Cold, Cold Heart."