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Arts and Entertainment

This Bus Tour Explores '70s L.A. Through The Eyes Of Tom Waits

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We wrote about this tour last year and are happy to see it coming around again. Though the stops are the same, Esotouric's Kim Cooper told LAist to expect more videos than in previous versions of the tour, plus an expanded presentation on The Bags, the punk rock outfit that got into a fight with Tom Waits at Canter's.

If you've ever wanted to experience L.A. like Tom Waits—who hasn't, right?—then this Saturday is your chance. It's time for Esotouric Tours' annual Crawling Down Cahuenga: Tom Waits' L.A. Bus Tour.

Led by San Francisco pop critic David Smay, the tour begins downtown and winds through Hollywood and Silver Lake before returning to its origin in the Arts District.

Esotouric Tours are a little different than the ones constantly being hawked on Hollywood Blvd. Kim Cooper and Richard Schave lead tours of a forgotten, seedier Los Angeles. Cooper describes their tours as "a sophisticated spin on the idea of the guided L.A. bus tour: true crime, social history, literary lore, architecture, urban theory, spirituality and a little bit of rock 'n roll." Waits-expert Smay has been working with Cooper for a long time, co-editing two music history works, Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth and Lost in the Grooves. Smay wrote a 33 1/3 book called Swordfishtrombones about the Waits album of the same name, and Cooper said she "immediately saw the narrative potential for the book to become a bus tour." This worked out for Smay, who had done a lot of research that he couldn't fit into the book.

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This year's tour will be the group's seventh Waits-themed tour, giving a historical and musical depiction of what life was like in downtown L.A. and Hollywood in the '70s.

"There's no songwriter from L.A. that covers L.A. the way Tom Waits did," Smay says. "The Doors, The Birds, etc. They're not talking about La Cienega and Cahuenga. He was really as close to a poet laureate that you get, along with Bukowski."

As downtown changes, so does the tour. Smay says they used to begin at King Eddy's, but it no longer opens early enough. They used to end at Clifton's, but the famous diner is currently closed for renovations.

"We started giving the tour when downtown was still perceived as being dirty and scary and a place many of our passengers were not familiar with," Cooper says. "Now, we regularly have downtown loft dwellers getting on the bus, and our guests don't think twice about meeting the bus in the Arts District. And of course, many old buildings along our route have been lost to redevelopment or altered beyond recognition. Happily, that hasn't happened to any of the core tour locations… yet."

Passengers can expect to learn about Skid Row and SRO Housing in reference to the Ralph Waite film On the Nickel, for which Waits wrote and performed the soundtrack. They'll also visit legendary recording studio Sunset Sound; see where Waits' former home, the Tropicana Motel (now a Ramada); learn about the time Tom Waits got in a fight with a punk band at the Troubadour; and visit spots from Waits' "In the Neighborhood" video in Silver Lake. The bus is also equipped to play music and video clips to help illustrate the narrative.

Smay says he looks forward to the tour every year, as he gets to meet new Tom Waits fans with their own experiences. "It's just fun to bring a lot of depth and context to something you're already interested in," he said.

Guests should expect the tour to last about four hours, with occasional stops, including one at Canter's for complimentary coffee and cookies. Bring a snack, wear comfy shoes and get ready to learn everything you ever wanted to know and more about Waits and his L.A.‚ or what Smay refers to as "an inexhaustible subject." Tour information and tickets ($63) can be found here.

If you can't make this tour, look out for the 'Echo Park Book of the Dead,' which Cooper described as a true-crime tour that's going to be "completely unhinged." They also conduct tours on the life of Beth Short (the Black Dahlia), and Raymond Chandler (with added bonus information about secrets cults and a real-life Philip Marlowe). Their tours were the result of The 1947 Project, which documented one entire year of true crime in L.A. 1947 was an eventful year, featuring one of history's most notorious and mysterious murders, The Black Dahlia case.