Music Feeds’ Love Letter to a Record series asks artists to reflect on their relationship with the music they love and share stories about how it has influenced their lives. Here, Skyscraper Stan celebrates the fantasy land of Tom Waits’ second album, 1974’s The Heart of Saturday Night.
Auckland-raised, Melbourne-based singer-songwriter Skyscraper Stan has attracted a modest but loyal audience over the last decade. Listeners have been drawn to the lyric-centric songwriting and genre elasticity showcased on Stan’s two LPs. The artist’s latest single with backing band the Commission Flats is the politically minded ‘Let Me Be Frank With You’ – watch the song’s official music video at the bottom of this page.
Skyscraper Stan’s love letter to The Heart of Saturday Night
Skyscraper Stan: The Open Late Cafe did exactly what it said on the sign. For decades, it stood on the corner of Ponsonby and Richmond, serving milky coffee and microwaved nachos to drunks until four in the morning. My mother remembers going there in the days of the Gluepot and other ghosts of Auckland’s musical past.
It was an iconic shopfront. The hand-painted sign – a cursive “Open Late” above a steaming coffee cup – straddled the awning, pointing down the road towards Three Lamps. In the windows, yellow light bathed a wooden bar where couples ground their lips into swollen clown smiles and university students fell asleep.
In my last year of high school, I worked front-of-house at the Open Late. For seven dollars and forty cents an hour, I would scoop chilli beans, froth milk and mop up vomit. The chef would smoke over the gas hobs and the kitchen hand couldn’t speak English. An epileptic Brazilian worked the counter with me, and twice I had to clear the cafe as she convulsed on the floor. The owner was an enormous woman with a pet pig, to whom she fed all the left-over corn chips, pancakes, ice cream and beans.
I made some questionable romantic decisions that year. I got drunk for the first time. I made plans for my future, cancelled them, made them again. I learned about the kindness and the cruelty of night time in the big city – and in my father’s CD collection I discovered an album with a cracked jewel case and a collection of songs that described the life I imagined I was living.
Like most teens of the time, I had a Panasonic CD walkman; shockproof. While I stacked the chairs and mopped the floor, I would listen to the title track ‘(Looking For) The Heart of Saturday Night’ and Ponsonby Road would transform into Manhattan. I’d dream of poetry and imagine myself as a beatnik – dirty, destitute and proud. Then I’d skip back to ‘New Coat of Paint’, swipe a litre of feijoa juice from the fridge and bounce my way home singing, “Fishin’ for a good time starts with throwin’ in your line.”
The Open Late is gone now. Gentrification caught up with the neighbourhood. The sign was taken down, the wooden bar was removed and repurposed somewhere else. White paint hides the old brickwork and racks of t-shirts line the walls. My own plans sobered in a similar way, sanitised and tempered by time and experience.
I grew to understand that, like my teen self, Tom Waits was just playing a part when he wrote those songs, building a romantic ideal to live in for three and a half minutes at a time. Still, even today, whenever I pass those windows, I hear the opening bars to that title track. The soft bass, the lazy guitar and the sound of traffic in the background.
Well, you gassed her up, behind the wheel
With your arm around your sweet one in your Oldsmobile
Barrelin’ down the boulevard
You’re looking for the heart of Saturday night
Skyscraper Stan – ‘Let Me Be Frank With You’
Skyscraper Stan is the artist in residence at Lulie Tavern in Melbourne this month. Catch him performing live every Friday night across November – details here