I was teaching a class last year when the word ‘struttin’‘ came up. Not strutting with a ‘g‘ at the end, but the more street-smart struttin’. What did the word mean, someone asked. Their grandfather had had to put strutting on his shed to strengthen the roof, but given the context of the sentence, struttin’ made no sense. Immediately, instantly, at once, I thought of John Travolta in the opening scene of Saturday Night Fever. “Let me show you,” I replied, and rather than replicate the Travolta strut in front of a group of 10 and 11 year-olds (that would’ve been all sorts of wrong) I rattled across the keyboard impatiently until I had the Saturday Night Fever opening scene cued up on YouTube. With a thumb hovering over the space bar should I need to pause proceedings – what swearies and/or nudity might be lurking around the next frame? – I turned up the volume, turned off the lights and by the metaphorical seat of my pants, pressed play.
As the Bee Gees’ slick guitar line and steady disco beat filled the classroom, 30 or so wee heads bobbed in unison – ah-ha-ha-ha – to Stayin’ Alive while it played behind Travolta’s character as he strutted – strutted! – along the busy Brooklyn thoroughfare, (“Hey! To-neeey!”) all dimples and demi-quiff, the cock of the walk in his tight leather jerkin and Cuban heels. “Ah!” said the class in unison. So that was struttin’. The class understood. We moved on. “What did you do at school today?” would be asked later on at home. “We watched Saturday Night Fever,” would come the reply, to the bafflement and/or concern to some and/or all of the parents.
Over the years in the classroom I’ve managed to crowbar in such disparate references as the Stax Records snapping fingers logo, the choreography of The Ramones in concert, The Beatles’ ‘…Mr Kite‘ when doing a piece of writing on circuses and a gazillion records from the ’60s when we studied the decade.
“This, boys and girls,” I said triumphantly as I placed my old Dansette Major Deluxe on a table at the front of the classroom one day, “is a 1960s mp3 player.”
This led to the formation of the Friday Afternoon Record Club, when pupils brought all manner of 7″ singles from home and we’d listen to and discuss them. The first rule of Friday Afternoon Record Club though, is to never mention it, so we’ll leave it at that. The head teacher would’ve had a fit if they’d known we’d been listening to David Essex and Status Quo and Kelly Marie (b-boo, b-boo!) instead of something less culturally-relevant instead.
Had the learners in front of me recently been that wee bit older when we’d been discussing the meaning of struttin’, I might’ve extended the concept of the word through Tom Waits‘ Nighthawk Postcards.
‘Let me put the cut back in your strut,’ he
says sings scats, sounding like Louis Armstrong chewing on sandpaper. ‘And the glide back in your stride.‘
Nighthawk Postcards is a sprawling, eleven-minute jazz-inflected monologue, Waits rasping and riffing and painting highly visual pictures with well-written words, the aural equivalent of the suggested stories in the paintings of Edward Hopper. Not for nothing does the song and its parent album take nomencular inspiration from one of Hopper’s most-celebrated works.
An inebriational travellogue as it’s introduced, the bass player wanders in straight off the grooves of a Charles Mingus 78 and continues to walk all over the yellow-lit, yellow-stained ambience with hep jazzcat grooviness. There’s a low-key, full-blown jazz drummer, a saxophone player who can’t wait to be let off the invisible leash that tends him to the background and a brilliantly loose-knuckled, laid-back piano player – on this recording not Waits, surely – there’s no way he can riff and scat and rap his way across those notes and spaces while playing at the same time, is there? Is there?
Tom Waits – Nighthawk Postcards
The words leap off the record, instantly visual and scene-setting. Waits loves wordplay; busses that groan and wheeze, eyelids propped open at half-mast, a sucker born every minute and you just happened to be comin’ along at the right time. And he loves colours; neon swizzle sticks, a yellow biscuit of a buttery cueball moon, obsidian skies, harlequin sailors, piss yellow gypsy cabs… one line in and he’s got you hooked forever.
Stop whatever you’re doing and step into Tom’s low-rent, sawdust floored world. He’s funny, he’s soulful, he’s part bluesman, part jazzateer and part down-on-his-luck crooner – he breaks into Sinatra’s That’s Life at one point, making Frank’s version sound like the eternally happy collected works of PWL by comparison. The audience – they’re actually not at Raphael’s Silver Cloud Lounge as Waits might have you believe at the start, but live in the studio (L.A.’s Record Plant) – a bold move in 1975 – whoop and holler and guffaw and groan at all the right moments. The song… the whole Nighthawks album… is a masterclass in performance.
The band aren’t exempt from the odd show-offy moment either. When Waits sings of the L Train sounding like the ghost of Gene Krupa, the drummer clatters a perfectly brushed onomatopoeiac rail-rattlin’ Krupa beat in response. Rehearsed? You bet it is, but it’s a great moment. At the mention of P.T. Barnum, the sax player eases into a fluttering take on Julius Fucik’s ‘Entrance of the Gladiators‘ (you know it – look it up) before fading back into the shadows. It’s Waits though who’s the real star of the show. He’s one of the greats, and on this record his writing and delivery and all-round uniqueness is second to none. But I suspect you knew that already.
What’s the scoop, Betty Boop? Whadayamean you’ve never heard Nighthawks At The Diner?!? Do yourself a favour and add it to your collection. Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back, as I’m sure Tom must have growled across a tune of his at some point or other.