National City, California

Ghosts of Saturday Night (After Hours at Napoleone's Pizza House) by Tom Waits

Pigs in a blanket, sixty-nine cents
Eggs, roll 'em over and a package of Kents
Imagine this:

It's 2 a.m. on a Saturday night in 1965 as a 16 year old Tom Waits stands at the dish sink of Napoleone's Pizza House in National City, California. The young man listens as the sailors and go-go dancers pour out of the nightclubs shouting wildly amongst each other as cars cruise and streak along the strip, and shadier figures slink through the shadows on their way to carrying out nefarious errands. The entire scene is like a lyrical incubator with Waits at the very heart of it. The voices and the engine growl, the cigarette smoke and the whiskey, dishwater and laughter and jeers; all of it sinks into the pores of his brain. And as it does, a distant music rises in his imagination: splintered melodies, a snarling voice, the faraway echoing sound of shattered glass and battered trash cans. Imagine, just imagine the genius' mind at work in that modest place, transmuting those impressions into a lifetime's worth of music.

For all the enigmatic oddness of his music, Waits has never been one of those reclusive misanthropes who refuses to discuss the origins of his songs. When it comes to Napoleone's Pizza House, he's said plenty. In discussing his memories of that early job, he recalls that he knew he'd incorporate that place and those memories into his music eventually, though he wasn't sure how.

For roughly five years he labored as a dishwasher and cook under the employ of Sal Crivello, who still runs the place today and keeps a picture of himself and Tom above the jukebox. Waits recalls that Napoleone's was "a stone's throw away from Iwo Jima Eddie's tattoo parlor and across the street from Club 29, Sorenson's Triumph motorcycle shop, and Phil's Porno. I thought I was gonna be a cook. That's about as far as I could see. But what also happened was that I was mystified by the jukebox, and the physics of how you get into the wire and come out of the jukebox. That's where that came from. I'd listen to Ray Charles singing 'Crying Time' and 'I Can't Stop Loving You,' and I'd think, goddamn, that's something."

But the story isn't so simple as an ambitious kid striving to "escape" the doldrums of working-class life. Waits has reported that the late nights working at Crivello's were the happiest of his life. A testament to both Waits' fond memories of Napoleone's and the musician's authenticity, he called Crivello on the phone after hearing that the pizza house owner had been mugged. This was after Tom had already hit the big time and was long gone from National City.

National City itself has changed a lot since Waits left. The mile-long stretch of bars and tattoo parlors has been replaced by the famous Mile of Cars, and the street name was changed to National City Boulevard. Interestingly, the city originally started as a 26,000-acre stretch of land dubbed by the Spanish "the Ranch of the King." After Mexico won independence from Spain, they renamed it "Ranch of the Nation." It's the second oldest-standing city in San Diego County, California.

The song was released on Waits' second studio album, 1974's The Heart of Saturday Night. Rolling Stone has it at No. 339 of its 500 greatest albums of all time, which is the highest ranking Waits holds on that list.

The passing of time has granted a new significance to Waits' "ghosts" of Saturday night. The song memorializes an American culture that has largely disappeared. It's an echo from a time when drinking heavily and often was simply a lifestyle choice, not a disease; when men and women piled into smoky bars and cruised unnamed backstreets, unmonitored by surveillance cameras. This was after the death of the '60s Flower Power movement, when the revolutionary energy that had gripped the nation was already finding outlet in less idealistic and more hedonistic forms; yet it was before the threat of AIDS destroyed the casual hook-up scene. In short, it was a time and a place that had never been before and will never be again, and it's hard to imagine a more fitting dirge for the sliver of the universe's continuum than the inimical Tom Waits' "Ghosts of Saturday Night (After Hours at Napoleone's Pizza House)."

Jeff Suwak
March 2, 2016

Comments: 2

  • M. Watts from New Orleans, LaJeff, I love the way that you get to the heart of a story in lieu of an oration or personal account being freely given by its subject. Not only in this piece, but others I have read as well. I am the type of researcher who interprets origins and experiences by asking never-ending series of questions to anyone who will endure my fervent curiosity. You really have a knack for absorbing detail, and using facts to make imaginative, yet likely inferences about things. Nice work, buddy!
  • T.l. Gray from Carrollton, GeorgiaGreat article, Jeff. I really loved the bluesy sounds of this one.
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