Thursday, July 22, 2021

Chuck E.'s in Love - RIP Chuck E

The Hollywood threesome that captured our attention in the late 70s was Tom Waits, Rickie Lee Jones and Chuck E. Weiss, who essentially became the most famous of the three, an accidental celebrity. In 1977, $65 bought a week at the seedy hipster paradise called the Tropicana on Santa Monica Blvd., just up the street from Barney's Beanery. Chuck E. slept on a couch, I suppose, or in the other bed. It's an assumption on my part, but as a compatriot hit up for quarters for the cigarette machine at the Troubadour on a regular basis, I can assume that he didn't have 65 bucks a week. "Chuck E.'s in Love" wouldn't be released for several more years, but the content of what may be the all time hippest single in pop history was already established. Waits, on the breadth of his first four LPs, but particularly on the success of Small Change, was already an established singer/songwriter, playing gigs at the Troub and at McCabe's in Santa Monica.

Tom and Cassandra Peterson (Elvira)
Let's Rewind. Waits' previous album, Nighthawks at the Diner (1975), was recorded at the Record Plant studio with an audience to capture the ambiance of a live venue. It was a pretty telling album. Of it he said, "I was sick through that whole period. I'd been traveling quite a bit, living in hotels, eating bad food, drinking a lot — too much. There's a lifestyle that's there before you arrive and you're introduced to it. It's unavoidable." 

Small Change (1976) found Waits in a cynical and pessimistic mood, with songs like "The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) (An Evening with Pete King)" and "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart (In Lowell)." These were the songs that established Waits as a rock icon (including, of course, "Tom Traubert's Blues"). With Small Change Waits became a poster child, a poet laureate for off-kilter American cool and took his act overseas. Rickie Lee wasn't yet a part of his life. 

That would change one fateful night at Doug Weston's Troubadour. Rickie Lee sang a short set of songs (including "The Moon is Made of Gold," only recently recorded for the album Balm in Gilead) following the performance of an obscure singer-songwriter named Ivan Ulz, who was instrumental in introducing several members of The Byrds, but little else. That night led to Tom's room at the Trop and a lifelong friendship of collaboration (if only temporary intimacy). Rickie never left and somewhere along the line, Chuck E. showed up.

Then suddenly Chuck was gone, vanished. I went to the Troubadour and no one hit me up for a drink or for change. Every once in a while somebody'd say, "What happen to that guy?"

"Chuck E? I dunno."

Story goes that Chuck E. finally called Waits from Denver where he'd fallen in love with his cousin. When Waits got off the phone he said to Rickie, "Chuck E.'s in Love." Instrumental in the success of the Viper Room, just down from the Whiskey, Chuck E. Weiss's career as a singer/songwriter has never equaled his fame as that character in Rickie's story, the ending of which is fictional; there was never any relationship between the two. Chuck E. was "never in love with the little girl singin' this song."

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