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Book does disservice to Waits' words

More obviously than many songwriters of our time, Tom Waits is a lover of words — of their sound and the ways in which they can slide or slam into one another, specific and ambiguous, hard and soft. His work is full of exotic slang and evocative names, and the neo-Beat stylings of his early middle years — recalling Jack Kerouac and the milieu, if not the style, of Charles Bukowski — seem to place him in a literary as well as a musical tradition. Waits is a storyteller who fills his songs with characters, colorful speech and narrative momentum; as a performer, he usually either is telling a tale or acting one out.

So there would seem to be good reason for "The Early Years: The Lyrics of Tom Waits (1971-1982)." And yet there remains the question of how well his work, or any songwriter's, is served by severing words from music. And there is the further question, easier to answer, of how well those words are served by this particular edition.

The material covered here comes from Waits' first seven albums ("Closing Time," in 1973, to "Heartattack and Vine," in 1980), the soundtrack to 1982's "One From the Heart" (where he split vocals with Crystal Gayle) and two later volumes of youthful demos that were released over his objections in the early 1990s. Like this book, those collections were called "The Early Years," and its title is an immediate clue to the fact that Waits has had nothing to do with this book, beyond having long ago written the songs whose lyrics it contains. (The Waits camp confirms this.)

While it's an attractive little object, the care seems to have stopped with the design. Putting the words between hard covers makes a claim for these renderings as definitive, but the closer you look, the more careless they seem. And you don't have to look very close: There are typographical errors, missing lines. Capitalization, punctuation and spellings are capricious. Rhymes are buried in bad line breaks. Some errors and inconsistencies well may have been inherited from whatever texts Waits might have, decades earlier, submitted to his publisher or approved or failed to disapprove for his record jackets. But it's clear that no one who really cared was allowed a crack at the galleys.

Even so, you can get an idea of his writing from "The Early Years" and how it changed over the period it documents. Not counting the dispensable demo collections, the lyrics highlight the first three overlapping phases of his career as he went from jazz-inflected folkie to folk-inflected jazzbo to mutant rhythm and bluesman, while what began as a dry tenor voice collapsed into a smoke-filled growl.

Certain themes run through these albums. Waits likes children's rhymes and lullabies. The moon is a constant presence — banana moon, grapefruit moon, bloodshot moon. He writes about distance and traveling between distances, cars and shoes, petty criminals and old lying drunks. Some songs employ a kind of whiskey-fed wandering stream of unconsciousness that produces nice lines such as "and you can pour me a cab." Things happen at midnight, in a neon glow, in a film noir rain.

The early songs are, not surprisingly, the least interesting to read — rhythmically stolid, youthfully sentimental: "So goodbye, so long, the road calls me dear / And your tears cannot bind me anymore." The lyrics can lie limply on the page, yet the best of them hang well on the kind of upswept melodies Waits was writing at the time. (They probably are his easiest songs to cover: "Ol' 55" fit the Eagles like a glove.)

By his third album, "Nighthawks at the Diner," Waits had worked out the weird antique style that anchored his early celebrity, as an artist and a public character (roles that were hard to pull apart). Soon he would be rhyming "hustle" with "bus'll" and "asbestos" with "rest us," sharpening his eye for detail, refining his sense of rhythm as he began to work with real jazz musicians.

But even though the later songs read better — and yield more in reading — they stubbornly stick to the page. Songs are meant to live in the air; it's their nature to be perpetually unsettled and variable. Many words might be crammed into a few beats, or a few words allowed to spread out across measures (and Waits' music is more elastic than most). They live in performance: "The Piano Has Been Drinking" ("and the carpet needs a haircut / and the spotlight looks like a prison break / 'cause the telephone's out of cigarettes / and the balcony's on the make") depends on the woozy insistence of its melody to complete its meaning. "Step Right Up," with its frenzied string of sales pitches, or "Pasties and a G-string," with its desultory bump-and-grind beats, mean what they are, not what they say. "The Early Years" would be better if someone had paid some real attention to its production. I could even recommend it. But it still wouldn't be enough.

Singer-songwriter Tom Waits had nothing to do with this book, other than writing the songs that went into it.