• Chester B Simpson

"No photos till you drink with me!"

Updated: Apr 17

My photo assignment of Tom Waits for BAM magazine, November 29th, 1977.


On a Tuesday night, I had a photo assignment for BAM magazine, a singer-songwriter, Tom Waits down at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco.


Tom was a piano lounge musician from San Diego and he was performing on stage that night with a stripper. He had a very distinctive voice with a burlesque sense of comedy and song and dance.


A real seedy character entertainer like I hadn't seen before.


He and the stripper were highlighted with one spotlight and a prop looking like a light post which makes it difficult to photograph. But I took some photos anyway. Afterward, I proceeded backstage to get some portraits of Tom for the magazine.


There he was surrounded by friends and a cult-like following of fans, talking with his distinctive gravelly voice and taking swigs out of a bottle of bourbon.


I politely waited until nearly everyone had left and I introduced myself asking him if I could do a portrait?

He smiled a big grin with his unbrushed teeth and handed me the bottle, saying "No Photos until you drink with me!"


I was not a bourbon drinker.


His teeth were so dirty, but I didn't want to seem unfriendly, and hoping that the alcohol would kill anything, I grabbed the bourbon and took a few big swigs. We talked about music, and his tour while we passed around the bottle until we finished it.


Tom said, "Time for the photos!" cause he had to leave.


I posed him with his cigarette hanging out of his mouth with his hat pulled down low, but didn't take that many. I could always feel when I had gotten some good pix from the photo session and I was really drunk by now.


I thanked him for the experience of hanging out with him and drinking and I poured myself into my car's backseat and passed out. Hours later I drove home with a pounding headache and a smile knowing I captured a special avant-garde music artist.


Check out my photographs from this story: Tom Waits Gallery

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