I always had a secret plan to make a waitress themed record one day, songs about customers, coffee, aprons, opinions, bosses, burgers, smiles, gritted teeth, exhaustion.
There’s a whole hit musical about it now, based on the indie film by the wonderful Adrienne Shelly, so I guess I missed that train. But I’ve been compiling a playlist for some years and so here it is - I know I missed some, but they’re songs I don’t like much. For such a popular career choice, there aren’t as many great songs as you would expect. Please go ahead and illuminate me on other good ones I may have missed in the comments.
I’ve done a lot of waitressing and although it can be gruelling work, I always enjoyed it, especially when the cafe/bar/restaurant let me choose the music playing, which they generally did, and also when they fed me. Great music and food make everything better. My son just started his first job and was asking me about my first jobs so I’ve been reminiscing.. .
From the age of 14, I worked Saturdays and after school a few days a week at Mamma Maria’s Pizza in Kings Cross, an absolute institution and known far and wide as the best pizza in town. It was a smash the pizza down on the bar on a tray rather than table service type place but it gave me a start in the art of customer service. Every night Mamma would grip my cheek between her thumb and forefinger and shake it, passionately telling me what a good girl I was and her moony eyed son Enzo would solemnly present me with endless perfect margarita pizzas in an effort to win my heart. I could’ve entered a pizza eating competition by the time I wound up working there, I could easily down three or four mediums a night and sometimes a spaghetti arriabiata to top it off, and expend it all with my endless teenage energy.
I also worked as casual waitress for hire for various private parties, including one fabulous event to honor Tiny Tim at the artist Martin Sharp’s notorious bohemian mansion Wirian - once a shelter from the storm and creative haven for Sallie Anne Huckstepp (amongst many others) after she blew the whistle on police corruption on live television. Martin Sharp assigned me to stay close to Tiny Tim and get him whatever he needed; he politely called me Miss Lo and was terribly sweet and gracious. Tiny Tim married a girl named Miss Vicki live on the Johnny Carson show before I was born, the second highest rated television event of the 1960’s after the Moon Landing.
I waitressed at another cocktail party in a mansion when I was fifteen, with a girl from school. We both wore mish-mash homemade French Maid style waitress outfits and traipsed around serving fancy drinks and canapes on trays, drinking as many as we could when backs were turned. I ended up running myself a bath, which I got into full clothed, in a bizarre attempt to sober up while various party goers wandered in and out chatting to me and fixing their lipstick and other bathroom things. No-one seemed bothered by a cheerfully drunk teenage waitress in the tub. Eventually someone called my mother, who kindly came and collected me in the middle of the night.
Writing this story made me think about Prince taking a bath with his pants on with Dorothy Parker, the dishwater blonde nightshift waitress on the promenade in The Ballad of Dorothy Parker who makes fun of him for ordering a fruit cocktail.
Not much later I began working at a French patisserie/restaurant opposite the super busy Paddington Markets, starting at 6am on a Saturday, and often knocking off at 6pm. Only very young women were employed there, and we were required to wear a very demure variation on a French maid/school girl uniform. We were on our feet all day and with the lack of supervision afforded us by how constantly busy the joint was, we started sneaking cakes and shovelling them down our throats for our own entertainment, keeping a secret running tab of how many we managed to eat in one day. I eventually won, eating all twelve cakes on the menu in one twelve hour shift, including the dodgy French Pudding, which we believed was made up of all the stale cakes from the week before, ground together and generally to be avoided. It was actually pretty delicious. The place was owned by an older French man and his extremely efficient young wife Sally, from Brisbane, who was expected to fake a French accent at all times. Or maybe it was by choice, but the only time I ever heard her drop it, was when I enquired what she’d be doing on Sunday, her only day off. She rolled her eyes, sighed and told me her husband made her to do the weeks ironing dressed in high heels and underwear on Sundays. Quel pig.
Everybody loves a waitress and they make great heroines.
White Trash Mamas, the band I played with in early mid 90s, embraced a waitress aesthetic from the start, wearing uniforms and banging on pots and pans for percussion. Our press release stated ‘We wear our uniforms in celebration of the working class sisterhood and preach the relief that rock’n’roll offers from the tyranny of everyday life’.
With Cold Chisel’s Breakfast At Sweethearts, Don Walker painted a soulful song portrait of the slightly intimidating and resilient Anne-Maria, dealing with drunks and bands stumbling into Kings Cross go-to Sweethearts for breakfast after a long night on the tiles, turning her forever into Australia’s most iconic waitress. I used to go to Sweethearts and wonder if it was her unsmilingly taking my order… Hey, Anne-Maria/It’s always good to see her/She don’t smile or flirt/She just wears that mini skirt/Drunks come in, a paper bag, Brandivino/Dreams fly away/As she pulls another cappucino… (Breakfast At Sweethearts, Cold Chisel 1979)
Waitresses are independent, they run their own race, stand on their own two aching feet. I first heard Freddy Fender’s plaintive version of The Girl Who Waits On Tables (yep, she used to wait for him at home) and was so glad for her that she got away from that boring, toxic scene and got out amongst the jukeboxes and the tips.
The character of Sylvia, the music loving waitress just finding her own feet, in Lucinda Williams’ The Night's Too Long who still resonates like someone you once met and really liked, daydreaming about the new life she’s going to make for herself just as soon as she can….I sure hope she found it… Sylvia was working/As a waitress in Beaumont/She said ‘I’m moving away, I’m gonna get what I want/I’m tired of all these small town boys/They don’t move fast enough/I’m gonna find me one who wears a leather jacket/And likes his living rough’….
I love Joni Mitchell’s setting of the scene in Barangrill of Three waitresses all wearing/Black diamond earrings/Talking about zombies and Singapore slings, apparently written after a memorable visit to a late night truck stop, where an attendant sung to Joni when she wouldn’t sing for him.
Bob Dylan already proved he knows the way to a waitress’s heart in my personal favourite Sweetheart Like You (I wrote deeply about the impact of this song on me in my very first Substack essay here) but his epic Highlands might be the greatest story of an encounter with an uber cool waitress ever written:
I'm in Boston town in some restaurant/I got no idea what I want/Or maybe I do but I'm just really not sure/Waitress comes over, nobody in the place but me and her/Well it must be a holiday, there's nobody around/She studies me closely as I sit down/She got a pretty face and long white shiny legs/I said "Tell me what I want"/She say "You probably want hard boiled eggs"/I said "That's right, bring me some"/She says "We ain't got any, you picked the wrong time to come"/Then she says "I know you're an artist, draw a picture of me"/I said "I would if I could butI don't do sketches from memory"/Well she's there, she says "I'm right here in front of you/Or haven't you looked?"/I say "All right, I know but I don't have my drawin' book"/She gives me a napkin, she say "You can do it on that"/I say "Yes I could but I don't know where my pencil is at"/She pulls one out from behind her ear/She says "Alright now go ahead draw me I'm stayin' right here"/I make a few lines and I show it for her to see/Well she takes the napkin and throws it back and says"That don't look a thing like me"/I said "Oh kind miss, it most certainly does"/She say "You must be joking", I said "I wish I was"/She says "You don't read women authors do ya?"/At least that's what I think I hear her say/Well I say "How would you know, and what would it matter anyway?"/Well she says "Ya just don't seem like ya do"/I said "You're way wrong"/She says "Which ones have you read then?"/ I say "Read Erica Jong"/She goes away for a minute, and I slide out, out of my chair/I step outside back to the busy street, but nobody's goin' anywhere …
Donna Summer and Chrissie Hynde could duke it out for title of Best Fake Waitress in Rock.
Former Applebee’s waitress turned country star Margo Price says “I prepared for this role my whole life. I played a waitress in a diner with a low life boss in my new music video for “A Little Pain”.’
Other notable mentions for great waitresses in rock are the one who was working in a cocktail bar when Human League first met her in Don’t You Want Me (You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar/When I met you, I picked you out, I shook you up/And turned you around/Turned you into someone new), the one Warren Zevon told us he went home with in Lawyers Guns & Money; (I went home with the waitress, the way I always do How was I to know, she was with the Russians, too?) … and Maria Muldaur’s Waitress In A Donut Shop, an unforgettable album title and cover image - the album features the song Sweetheart, the only song I’ve found written from the point of view of the waitress herself. I might have to fix that.
Loudon Wainwright 111 sums up the working night of a nightclub waitress with great empathy and acuity in Tip That Waitress, a song to live by if ever I heard one:
Tip that waitress, she's been waiting on you/Skip the small change slap down a dollar or two/Her arches are aching her lower back shot/Her varicose veins hurt like hell when it's hot/Her uniform' too tight, tasteful it's not/She knows the specials, and they are not a lot/The cook is on qualudes, the busboy deals pot/If she had a real job she'd quit on the spot/So tip that waitress…
Tell someone to keep the change, have a nice day, come back soon!
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A good waitress can right a wrong day., for sure.