Small Change was recorded, direct to 2-track stereo tape, from July 15 to July 20, 1976 at the Wally Heider Recording Studio, in Hollywood, USA under the production of Bones Howe.
The album featured famed drummer Shelly Manne, and was, like Waits' previous albums, heavily jazz influenced, with a lyrical style that owed influence to Raymond Chandler and Charles Bukowski as well as a vocal delivery influenced by Louis Armstrong. The music for the most part consists of Waits' hoarse, rough voice, set against a backdrop of piano, upright bass, drums and saxophone.
"Tom Traubert's Blues" opens the album. Jay S. Jacobs has described the song as a "stunning opener [which] sets the tone for what follows." The refrain is based almost word by word on the 1890 Australian song, "Waltzing Matilda" by A.B. "Banjo" Paterson.
The origin of the song is somewhat ambiguous. The most plausible version, the sub-title of the track "Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen", seems to be that it is about a time that Waits spent in Copenhagen in 1976 while on a tour. There, he apparently met Danish singer Mathilde Bondo. In a 1998 radio interview, she confirmed that she met Waits and that they spent a night on the town together. Waits himself descried the song's subject during a concert in Sydney Australia in March 1979 as "Uh, well I met this girl named Matilda. And uh, I had a little too much to drink that night. This is about throwing up in a foreign country." In an interview on NPR's World Cafe, aired December 15, 2006, Waits stated that Tom Traubert was a "friend of a friend" who died in prison.
Bones Howe, the album's producer, recalls when Waits first came to him with the song:
He said the most wonderful thing about writing that song. He went down and hung around on skid row in L.A. because he wanted to get stimulated for writing this material. He called me up and said, 'I went down to skid row ... I bought a pint of rye. In a brown paper bag.' I said, 'Oh really?'. 'Yeah - hunkered down, drank the pint of rye, went home, threw up, and wrote 'Tom Traubert's Blues [...] Every guy down there ... everyone I spoke to, a woman put him there."Howe was amazed when he first heard the song, and he's still astonished by it. "I do a lot of seminars," he says. "Occasionally I'll do something for songwriters. They all say the same thing to me. 'All the great lyrics are done.' And I say, 'I'm going to give you a lyric that you never heard before."' Howe then says to his aspiring songwriters, "A battered old suitcase to a hotel someplace / And a wound that will never heal." This particular Tom Waits lyric Howe considers to be "brilliant. " It's "the work of an extremely talented lyricist, poet, whatever you want to say. That is brilliant, brilliant work. And he never mentions the person, but you see the person."
The song has been recorded by Rod Stewart on the albums Lead Vocalist and Unplugged and Seated under the title "Tom Traubert's Blues (Waltzing Matilda)".
Album closer "I Can't Wait to Get Off Work (And See My Baby on Montgomery Avenue)" has a simple musical arrangement, boasting only Waits' voice and piano. The lyrics are about Waits' first job at Napoleone Pizza House (still at 619 National City Blvd, National City, CA) in San Diego, which he began in 1965, at the age of 16.
At the time of the recording of Small Change Waits was drinking more and more heavily, and life on the road was starting to take its toll on him. Waits, looking back at the period said:
I was sick through that whole period [...] It was starting to wear on me, all the touring. I'd been travelling quite a bit, living in hotels, eating bad food, drinking a lot - too much. There's a lifestyle that's there before you arrive and you're introduced to it. It's unavoidable.
In reaction to these hardships Waits recorded Small Change (1976), which finds Waits in much more cynical and pessimistic mood lyrically than his previous albums, with many songs such as "The Piano Has Been Drinking" and "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart" presenting a bare and honest portrayal of alcoholism, while also cementing Waits' hard-living reputation in the eyes of many fans. The album's themes include those of desolation, deprivation, and, above all else, alcoholism. The cast of characters, which includes hookers, strippers and small-time losers, are for the most part, night-owls and drunks; people lost in a cold, urban world.
With the album Waits asserted that he "tried to resolve a few things as far as this cocktail-lounge, maudlin, crying-in-your-beer image that I have. There ain't nothin' funny about a drunk [...] I was really starting to believe that there was something amusing and wonderfully American about being a drunk. I ended up telling myself to cut that shit out."
However, beyond the serious themes with which the album deals, the lyrics are often also noted for their humour; with songs such as "The Piano Has Been Drinking" and "Bad Liver And A Broken Heart" including puns and jokes in their treatment of alcoholism, with the added humour in Waits' drunken diction.
It received critical reviews equal to or better than Waits's previous albums, but was at first a surprise commercial success, rising to #89 on the Billboard chart within two weeks of its release. However, Small Change fell off the Billboard Top 200 three weeks later, and Waits was never to better its position until 1999's Mule Variations .
When asked in interview by Q Magazine in 1999 if he shared many fans' view that Small Change was the crowning moment of his "beatnik-glory- meets-Hollywood-noir period" (i.e. from 1973-1980), Waits replied
Well, gee. I'd say there's probably more songs off that record that I continued to play on the road, and that endured. Some songs you may write and record but you never sing them again. Others you sing em every night and try and figure out what they mean. "Tom Traubert's Blues" was certainly one of those songs I continued to sing, and in fact, close my show with.
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