In the 1970s, Tom Waits combined a lyrical focus on desperate, lowlife characters with a persona that seemed to embody the same lifestyle, which he sang about in a raspy, gravelly voice. From the '80s on, his work became increasingly theatrical as he moved into acting and composing. Growing up in southern California, Waits attracted the attention of manager Herb Cohen, who also handled Frank Zappa, and was signed by him at the beginning of the 1970s, resulting in the material later released as The Early Years and The Early Years, Vol. 2. His formal recording debut came with Closing Time (1973) on Asylum Records, an album that contained "Ol' 55," which was covered by labelmates the Eagles for their On the Border album. Waits attracted critical acclaim and a cult audience for his subsequent albums, The Heart of Saturday Night (1974), the two-LP live set Nighthawks at the Diner (1975), Small Change (1976), Foreign Affairs (1977), Blue Valentine (1978), and Heart Attack and Vine (1980). His music and persona proved highly cinematic, and, starting in 1978, he launched parallel careers as an actor and as a composer of movie music. He wrote songs for and appeared in Paradise Alley (1978), wrote the title song for On the Nickel (1980), and was hired by director Francis Coppola to write the music for One from the Heart (1982), which earned him an Academy Award nomination. While working on that project, Waits met and married playwright Kathleen Brennan, with whom he later collaborated.
Moving to Island Records, Waits made Swordfishtrombones (1983), which found him experimenting with horns and percussion and using unusual recording techniques. The same year, he appeared in Coppola's Rumble Fish and The Outsiders, and, in 1984, he appeared in the director's The Cotton Club. In 1985, he released Rain Dogs. In 1986, he appeared in Down By Law and made his theatrical debut with Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in Frank's Wild Years, a musical play he had written with Brennan. An album based on the play was released in 1987, the same year Waits appeared in the films Candy Mountain and Ironweed. In 1988, he released a film and soundtrack album depicting one of his concerts, Big Time.