Saturday, May 17, 2014

Napoleones Pizza and Tom Waits Early Years

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Hello and welcome back to Old Highway Notes. The last time we touched down on Highway 101 we visited National City, California. Between San Diego and the Mexican border it is the home of Mojo Nixon sidekick Skid Roper. But another legendary artist of Americana musician came from this same California town. His name? Tom Waits.

One of America's most unique performers, Tom Waits. has been described as the musical equivalent of Jack Kerouac's prose or Charles Bukowski's poetry. I like that description. Lyrically, Tom Waits songs paint pictures of the seedy side of modern urban life. He tells hard luck stories of drunks, hobos and prostitutes. Musically he considers his voice to be his instrument and it is a unique one. Raw and worn, whiskey rasped and smoke damaged his voice can be a bit of a warbled uneven croak at times, but always with a certain after hours rat pack vibe that lets you know a tumbler of bourbon is likely nearby.

He was not born in National City, but in Pomona, the  Los Angeles suburb that hosts the Los Angeles County Fair every summer. Perhaps that is where he the almost "evil carnival" sounds of some of his music took root. His family moved around a bit and his father was reported to be an unreliable alcoholic who could have later been a subject of one of his sons songs. At the age of ten, Tom's father left him and his mother and never returned. Moving to National City, his mother settled down to start a new life.

Like many children of divorce, Tom Waits felt that he had to assume duties as the man of the house. He was young and it took him a while but at the age of 15 he got a job. He found work as a dishwasher at a pizza place called Napoleones Pizza House. That pizza place was located on National Blvd. That is old Highway 101 on the north end of town. It was close to the San Diego Naval base and sailors on shore leave would flood the strip of bars on National Blvd. stoking the jukebox and behaving with the notorious abandon of sailors on leave.

The website Tom Waits Library gathered a nice collection of quotes made by Waits about Napoleones and his National City days from various song introductions, here are a few of my favorites:

Tom Waits (1974) introducing The Ghosts Of Saturday Night: "It's about National City which is primarily a sailor town, a suburb of San Diego, where the infamous Mile Of Cars is on National Avenue and at the north end of National Ave is the Burge Roberts Mortuary and the Golden Barrel, Escalante's Liquor Store, sandwiched in between a Triumph Motorcycle shop and Burge Robert's is Napoleone's Pizza House, it's been there for a good 25 years and I worked there when I was real young. I've worked since I was 15 there and I guess not till I was away from it for a long time I could really sit down and write something constructive about it. This is called Ghosts Of Saturday Night or Looking Out From Napoleone's." 

Tom Waits (1975) introducing The Ghosts Of Saturday Night: "After I quitted (I was working on a Mobil station) and I was fifteen, eh I started working as a dishwasher and a cook at a place called Napoleone's Pizza House. And eh, worked there for years, for Joe Sardo and Sal Crivello, and eh it was a gas. Ehm well, like every night about eh 4 o'clock in the morning, all the white vinyl booted gogo dancers and all the sailors would come over about a quarter o' four. And eh just about that time Joe would go out in front just to check out the traffic on the street. You know, he would like leave his paper hat and he'd fold his apron and he would go out and stand in front of Napoleone's. Across the street from The Golden Barrel and Escalani's Liquor and Mario's Pizza. There's a Shell station right on the corner, and a Westerner and a Club-29, and a Melody Club, Phil's Porno and Iwo Jima Eddie's tattoo-parlor. And there'd be a cab out there combing the snake..." 

Tom Waits (1975): "National City is this naugahyde town in Southern California and it's a sailor town, lots of vinyl white booted go go dancers, I worked until 4 in the morning in a pizza house as a cook, started off as a dishwasher, worked for Sal Crivello and Joe Sardo, worked there for 5 years as a matter of fact. That's where the mile of cars is, that's where I got snookered in a deal for $125, I bought a 1955 Buick Roadmaster down there."

Tom Waits (1999): "When I was fourteen I worked in an Italian restaurant in a sailor town. Across the street was a Chinese place, and we'd trade food. I'd take a pizza to Wong's, they'd give me Chinese food to bring back. Sometimes Wong would tell me to sit in the kitchen, where he's making all this food up. It was the strangest galley: the sounds, the steam, he's screaming at his co-workers. I felt like I'd been Shanghaied. I used to love going there."


Tom Waits (1983) on Soldier's Things: "I worked in National City in a crummy restaurant for a long time, full of soldiers most every night, tattoo parlor next door, country-and-western diner-dance type of place down the street, Chinese restaurant, Chinese laundry, pool hall all real close, walking distance. So I called up some of my memories of that time. Sit out on the sidewalk, wearing the apron, paper hat, watching the traffic go by, you know?" 

Napoleones on Google Street View

Tom Waits featured scenes of San Diego life in many of his early albums, but Napoleones got its own song. From the 1974 album The Heart Of Saturday Night, Waits describes the early mornings when the party was over."Ghosts of Saturday Night (After Hours at Napoleone's Pizza Parlor)".Lyrics cited from TWencyclopedia:

A cab combs the snake, tryin' to rake in that last night's fare
And a solitary sailor, who spends the facts of his life like small change on strangers
Paws his inside pea coat pocket for a welcome twenty-five cents
And the last bent butt from a package of Kents
As he dreams of a waitress with Maxwell House eyes
And marmalade thighs with scrambled yellow hair
Her rhinestone-studded moniker says "Irene"
As she wipes the wisps of dishwater blond from her eyes

And the Texaco beacon burns on
The steel-belted attendant with a ring and valve special crying
'Fill 'er up and check that oil
You know it could be your distributor and it could be your coil'

The early morning final edition is on the stands
And the town crier is crying there with nickels in his hands
Pigs in a blanket, sixty-nine cents
Eggs, roll 'em over, and a package of Kents
Adam and Eve on a log, you can sink 'em down straight
Hash browns, hash browns, you know I can't be late

And the early dawn cracks out a carpet of diamonds
Across a cash crop car lot, filled with twilight Coupe Devilles
Leaving the town in the keeping
Of the one who is sweeping
Up the ghosts of Saturday night 



In 1970, Tom Waits began performing around San Diego. In November he would have his first paid gig at the Heritage Coffee House in San Diego. He would also begin taking the Greyhound bus up what was once Highway 101 to Los Angeles. From there he would take the local city bus to Hollywood where he would perform at the legendary Troubadour Theater open mic nights that attracted the cream of the LA country rock scene such as the Eagles, Jackson Brown, Linda Ronstadt, and James Taylor, who was living in Hollywood at the time. Talent scouts and studio owners would drink and hang out with the up and coming stars and the no name artist who showed up to get their 20 minutes of fame.

In 1971 he got tired of the commute and moved to the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles. And that is where we end the story of Tom Waits in National City. Shortly after moving to LA he was signed by Asylum records. He would produce seven records for them that we drunken boozy affairs and often painted noir images of the late nights he lived in National city when the fleet was in and the cabs would cruise the night. His success afforded him the opportunity to become as degenerate as the characters in his songs.Many of the songs of that era were reminiscent of his San Diego/National City days. To our play list we add...

Album: The Heart Of Saturday Night Tom Waits
  • New Coat Of Paint 3:23
  • San Diego Serenade 3:30
  • Semi Suite 3:29
  • Shiver Me Timbers 4:26
  • Diamonds On My Windshield 3:12
  • (Looking For) The Heart Of Saturday Night 3:53
  • Fumblin' With The Blues 3:02
  • Please Call Me, Baby 4:25
  • Depot Depot 3:46
  • Drunk On The Moon 5:06
  • The Ghosts Of Saturday Night (After Hours at Napoleone's Pizza Parlor) 3:16


The 1980's would move Tom
further from his San Diego days. In 1980 he married Kathleen Brennan, a screenwriter, whom he had met while working on the set of the Francis Ford Coppola movie One from the Heart. With his new wife's encouragement, he gave up drinking. Unimpressed by the small size and lack of variety other than jazz in his record she encouraged him to explore a wide variety of unusual recording from  her collection. It included such items as German film scores, Asian percussion, and Captain Beefheart. In 1983, he would release Swordfishtrombones on Polygram records. At her suggestion, the record was made and released without any consultation or approval of his agents, music label agents, or really anyone except himself. It signaled a new sound, leaving behind his sloppy drunk crooner persona and becoming more of a cinematic storyteller with a variety of musical influences. It would be very successful and signaled a new stage in his career that included a fair amount of film work both in soundtracks and on screen, several very successful albums for Polygram, the creation of many one-of-a-kind musical instruments and an evolution in the public eye from being a cult classic drunkard to the status of a mythical storyteller who defines a down and out side of America with as much authority as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, or Woody Guthrie. In 2011, he was inducted into the rock and roll hall of fame and still continues to perform and record.



His turning point album gets the playlist addition this week...

Album: Swordfishtrombones Tom Waits

  • Underground 2:01
  • Shore Leave 4:18
  • Dave The Butcher 2:20
  • Johnsburg, Illinois 1:33
  • 16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought-Six 4:33
  • Town With No Cheer 4:28
  • In The Neighborhood 3:07
  • Just Another Sucker On The Vine 1:46
  • Frank's Wild Years 1:54
  • Swordfishtrombone 3:08
  • Down, Down, Down 2:16
  • Soldier's Things 3:20
  • Gin Soaked Boy 2:24
  • Trouble's Braids 1:18
  • Rainbirds 3:13


Thanks for joining us
for this weeks Old Highway Notes. Next week we will be returning to Miami and Interstate 95. Two weeks out will take us back to Chicago on Route 66 where the blues just keep on coming. Then, in just 3 short week s we will return to San Diego County and the route the old Highway 101 took before the Interstate changed things. Until we meet again, keep looking for the heart of Saturday night.




Mileage Stats



Route 66: 0 Miles/1 State/523 Tracks/95 Videos/23 Posts
Highway 101: 13  Miles/1 State/459 Tracks/156 Videos/17 Posts
Interstate 95: 0 Miles/1 State/10 Tracks/23 Videos/5 Posts

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