Tom Waits’ 70s work tends to get looked down on when compared to his 80s work as the undisputed “king of hobos.” Everybody knows Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs are absolute masterpieces, but there is a tremendous charm to his earlier work, especially on an album like Small Change or the pseudo-live Nighthawks.
That said, the title track of Small Change stands tall with the best work of Waits’ career. During “Small Change,” Waits takes his time, with just Lew Tabackin’s mournful sax in the distance, to describe an unpleasant scene with his unique attention to detail. Small Change, the gangster, has been shot dead in the street, but Waits seems more interested in the aftermath. This street corner is filled with an entire cast of characters, much like later songs such as “Singapore,” but the scope here trumps that.
Surrounding the spot where Small Change got “rained on” we have whores with “eyes like stilettos” and fire hydrants that plead the Fifth Amendment. Waits focuses on the scene without ever getting into the exact details of the murder; the man is dead and there is nothing changing that, he’d rather focus on things like what horse he had circled in his racing form, or who stole his hat, and what product the gypsies are pushing across the street. The song is one of defeat, and we never get the details that we want. The only bone Waits throws us is that “someone will head South until this whole thing cools off,” but honestly you could have assumed that yourself, and it becomes less an offering of information as a bitter inevitability. The details are definitely small, but Waits’ overall scope makes this poem into an epic.