Shooting his best pal, snubbing the ‘60s, bottled off by Zappa fans, selling a million albums at 50, it’s been a life in reverse for Tom Waits, the meths-voiced genius of picaresque polka-rock…
“He comes in for coffee sometimes. Reads some poetry. They told me he was a musician. Tom Wait. Never heard of Tom Wait.” Littler Amsterdam’s elderly owner shrugs. “So someone gave me his record. He sounds just like Clemens VandeVen.” He points out a photograph of VandeVen behind the bar. “That’s him. And that,” he points helpfully at the picture next to it, “is Tom Wait.”
You can see why Waits likes it here. An oyster bar so near the middle of nowhere it smacks of perversity (45 minutes outside sleepy Petaluma, California, former egg capital of America and the place they filmed American Grafitti), boasting a windmill, bullfighting trophies and pool tables, and run by an old Dutch seaman who takes it for granted Waits copped his licks from a guy in south Holland but still likes him well enough.
Sat at a table with a coffee mug and a bottle of water – “I haven’t had a drink in 12 years” – Waits looks relaxed. Looks, in fact, like he came in from fixing a truck: short-sleeved shirt, dusty boots, a face that’s sent the sun. “Well, I hate to overemphasise the importance of music sometimes because, as you get older, the more important question is, ‘Can you fix the truck, Tom?’ ‘Can you fix the toilet?’ ‘There’s some very strange sound outside, who’s that weird guy at the gate…?’” The sentence crescendos into a scary spoken word piece. Waits is comfortable spinning yarns. Shy folk, eager to deflect attention, often are. When his answers are less anecdotal, more personal, his hand reflexively covers his mouth and the sentences lose their structure. He’ll stop, tinker with the words and rebuild them as if they – like everything else about him – were a work in progress.
Sylvie Simmons: Real Gone is as different from Alice and Blood Money as they were from Mule Variations. Before you embark on a new album is there a deliberate process of deck-clearing?
Tom Waits: Well, you do the dishes first. You want it to be fresh in some way. I don’t want to repeat myself. It’s always a little bit of something old and something new except I don’t record with great frequency so, with the time that’s gone between records, you can’t avoid having gone through some changes. I think you get more confident with your process – even though you’re trying to change the process, you know? Because I don’t cook the same way every time. Sometimes I put the turkey in one side of my mouth and the tomato in the other side and I just chew it up in the car. Other times you spend the whole evening making a meal and it’s gone in 15 minutes. I don’t know, maybe it’s…a different identity that you get? Everybody has a growing edge – you know, where the growth stops on the plant and the new branch comes out?
SS: Your branch seems to have grown backwards. Where your peers get cosier with age, less likely to fuck with things or scare their listeners, you, at 50, get an indie deal, and alternative rock Grammy and make increasingly edgy albums. Challenging yourself or your audience?
TW: Myself. Fighting against decay. We all die kind of a toe at a time. But, I don’t know, some old fruit trees put out the best stuff…It wasn’t really a conscious thing, but I always figured that you get to be eccentric as you get older and people have to endure it. “Old Uncle Al has spittle around this chine, but that’s OK, he’s old.” I guess I’ve always admired people that are able to dance like there’s nobody watching – that’s kind of what making songs is trying to accomplish, to ignore the fact that it is being recorded.
SS: What is it with you and “old”?
TW: I wanted to be an old man when I was a little kid. Wore my granddaddy’s hat, used his cane and lowered my voice. I was dying to be old. I paid a lot of attention to old people. The music I listened to as a teenager was old people music. Yeah, I heard The Beatles, but I didn’t really pay attention. I was suspicious of anyone new and young. I don’t know, probably a respect thing? My father left when I was about 11 – I think I looked up to older musicians lie father figures. Louis Armstrong or Bing Crosby or Nat King Cole or Howlin’ Wolf – I never really though about it that way, but maybe it was that I needed parental guidance or something.
SS: Gerontophilia would have been a curious stance in ‘60s California?
TW: I was always kind of backwards in a lot of ways – in fact when I was a teenager I tried to get a job at a piano lounge at a golf course in San Diego. It was a little pathetic. I put on a suit, didn’t even know enough songs to pull it off really, I learned some Frank Sinatra and Cole Porter. But it was interesting that that was the world I wanted to be a part of, plaid pants and golf.
SS: And isolating in an era when the world was divided into “us” – young, long-haired, pot-smoking, guitar-laying, golf-clubbers.
TW: I was a rebel. A rebel against the rebels. I discovered alcohol at an early age and that guided me a lot.
SS: Didn’t the hippy culture intrigue you?
TW: Well I had a shot a friend of mine – by accident. I was shooting cans in a canyon and he walked in front of me and my gun went off and hit him in the hip and it came out the inside of his leg. He was fine. The first thing he said to me – his name was Pat Gonzalez – was “Tom ,why did you do it?”, like it was a Western. I picked him up – fortunately he was smaller than me – and ran three miles, put him in the car, drove him to the hospital. While he was recuperating, he had people come and visit – a cousin who had been in San Francisco and he had hair down to here, an earring, everything – really bizarre to see. I became curious about San Francisco from that point on. When I went up there to City Lights bookstore, looking for Jack Kerouac, determined to find someone at least who used to know him. I knew the bars he went to from the books, so I used to go look around. I remember meeting Lawrence Ferlinghetti, got his autograph on a book, and I would go and sit by the window with a cup of coffee and look out at the street and spend hours there trying to conjure up that world. I think that was my first entrance into youth culture – but I was a little late on that one.
SS: The right age for Vietnam though?
TW: It was weird. I had a very low lottery number and I wound up being a fireman for three years – in the forestry service, way out in the sticks on the border between Mexico and California. I learned how to dig a hole in the ground and bury myself so the fire would burn over me. Never had to use it since, but I’m ready.
SS: Your first record label, Asylum, represented the West Coast, post-hippy, singer-songwriter mafia. How did you fit into that clique and how did it inform your music?
TW: I was very suspicious of organised crime – or organised groups. Afraid of going in there. I genuinely didn’t know where I fit in. I look around me and saw the artists who most people would assume I should fraternise and create some bonds with, but I didn’t know what to do. My manager worked with Zappa, so I went on the road and opened for Frank Zappa for a couple years – really hard time, very disturbing, with 3,500 people united together chanting “You suck”, full-volume, in a hockey arena. But I think I wanted some resistance. So that I would really be genuinely committed to what I wanted to do, I didn’t want it to be too easy. It wasn’t.
SS: So you dug a hole and let the fire burn over you?
TW: Right, that’s what I did. I was the opening act for a lot of different people they assume you’ll be compatible with – Martha And the Vandellas, Buffy Sainte Marie, Bonnie Raitt.
SS: They must have had an odd idea who you were.
TW: I wasn’t sure at that point if I knew who I was either. Even though I was recording by that time, I was flailing about, trying to find my own voice.
SS: When do you feel you found it?
SS: By your second album, The Heart Of Saturday Night, we got glimpses.
TW: It was very ill-formed but I was trying. There was spoken word on there. I don’t know, in those days I think I really wanted to see my head on somebody else’s body. It was that kind of deal. When I was writing, I kind of made up my own little Tin Pan Alley so I could sit at the piano, like a song-writer, with a bottle and an ashtray and come out of the room with a handful of songs, as they did.
SS: Why piano, not guitar?
TW: I don’t know – my father was a singer, mariachi music was his big love, and Harry Belafonte, so I learned all these Mexican folk songs when I was a kid – Woody Guthrie too. And music really is a language, so maybe when I was learning Spanish as a kid I felt at the same time I had a propensity for music, because he was showing me things on the guitar. My dad – his name’s Jesse Frank, names after Jesse and Frank James, a double shot there of rebellion – he was really a tough one, always an outsider. He slept in the orange groves and learned Spanish at a young age. If you went to a restaurant in Mexico with my dad, he would invite the mariachis to the table and give them two dollars for a song, and then he would start to sing with them and he would wind up leaving with them, and we would have to find our way back to the hotel on our own, and dad would come home a day later, because he fell asleep on a hilltop somewhere looking down on the town.
SS: A very romantic picture.
TW: Very romantic, but it’s in there with a lot of documentary footage where the lighting is not nearly as good. But my dad – I think it was a rebel raising a rebel. That’s kind of what my kids are dealing with right now – when your mission is really to be immovable and filled with guidance and assurance and an ability to look over the hill and see what’s coming? So somewhere in the conflict of all that is where I am.
SS: Mexican music rivals Jewish music in extravagant sentimentality. Fuse that with that cinematically romantic image you just painted of the past and you get a big part of your music.
TW: Maudlin and schmaltzy. Oh yeah, I’m aware of that. My wife [co-writer Kathleen Brennan] electrocutes me every time I do that.
SS: She has a schmaltzometer?
TW: She really does. And I have to be careful – “Am I slipping into self-parody here?” “Is this worthwhile or just a lame exercise?” The song she really hates is Saving All My Love For You, off Heartattack & Vine. “What is this bullshit?” I’m happy to have it pointed out. “If I have egg on my face, tell me,” and she does. Because – I don’t know where songs come from, some of them come from incantations, some from talking in tongues. Writing songs, you’re the instrument. You know, you’re really working on yourself.
SS: Many of your songs exist in an idealised, romantic, neon-lit, pre-60s America. Did you invent this world as a place to create in, or do you inhabit it as much as possible day-to-day?
TW: Gee I don’t know. The line is blurred sometimes. But I have a very different life when I’m not on the road or in the studio. My role in the family is very different to my role in that world – ball games, graduations, family reunions. I think perhaps when I was younger I was much more hesitant to leave my world that I drew nourishment from to write, and now I feel like I can go back and forth between the documentary and the romantic comedy, you know?
SS: Blue Valentine was your most mannered album, as far as that “Tom Waits” world goes – aside-effect of the film acting you started doing around then?
TW: I used to think I was making movies for the ears – writing them, directing them, releasing them. Kind of making a fiction in a non-fiction world. Taking the real world and then getting rid of certain things that I didn’t want to be there and adding certain things that I hope would have been there. I was overly maudlin and romantic and I really hadn’t grown up. I still very much lived in a fantasy world. But I like that Blue Valentines song. Still play it sometimes. Somebody asked me to play that at a wedding recently.
SS: Do you hire yourself out?
TW: No, no, no, it was a friend’s wedding.
SS: When you’re cast in a film, it’s according to who and what the director – not you – think you are. What have you learned about yourself from the roles you’re offered?
TW: I don’t know. You see I don’t really think of myself as an actor. I do some acting, like I do a little plumbing, I do a little electrical, I do a little instrument repair. The only thing, when I’m making songs, is I’m the actor in the songs. “What’s the voice for this song?” “What should this guy be wearing in this picture?” I have a few I try on and then I land on the right one.
SS: You said on Blue Valentine you hadn’t grown up. On Heartattack & Vine you sound like you’d aged 30 years. Were you trying to wear your old voice out as an excuse to get a new one?
TW: I didn’t know any way of finding a new one, but I know I was anxious to reach a new channel, and sometimes we don’t know how to do that. You’re like a wound-up toy car who’s hit a wall and you just keep hitting it. I was very self-destructive. Drinking and smoking and staying out all night long and it wasn’t good for me so I sounded like I had been screaming into a pillow. You know, I needed to shift gears – I knew that I wanted to change but I didn’t really know how to do it. I got married there, right after, in 1980, so that was really the kind of end of a certain long period of my life.
SS: In 1983 you released two albums that couldn’t have been more polarised: the Tin Pan Alley sentimentality of the Coppola soundtrack One From The Heart and the free-form musical madness of Swordfishtrombones. What was going on?
TW: That was my wife. She had the best record collection – she thought that I was going to have a really great record collection and was sorely disappointed. I hadn’t really listened to Captain Beefheart before, even though I worked with Zappa. I was such a one-man show – very isolated in what I allowed myself to be exposed to. I was like an old man, stuck in my ways. She helped me rethink myself. Because my music up to that point was still in the box – I was still in the box; hadn’t unwrapped myself yet. She let me take my shoes off and loosen up – back then I was still wearing suits to the park. I think from that point on I really tried to grow. Growth is scary, because you’re a seed and you’re in the dark and you don’t know which way is up, and down might take you down further into a darker place, you know? I felt like that: I don’t know which way to grow. I don’t know what to incorporate into myself. What do you want to take from your parents? What did you come in with? What did you find when you got here? I was sorting all that out.
SS: When Keith Richards guested on Rain Dogs, what would a fly on the wall have seen?
TW: Oh man…! I was going to work with the people I’d always worked with, but they were in LA and I’d moved to New York. I remember somebody said, “Who do you want to play on the record? Anybody…” and I said, “Ah, Keith Richards” – I’m a huge, huge fan of The Rolling Stones. They said, “Call him right now.” I was like, “Jesus, please don’t do that, I was just kidding around.” A couple of weeks later he sent me a note: “The wait is over. Let’s dance. Keith.” And he comes in with a guitar valet, who brought in 700 guitars and 300 amps. And I was “Oh Jesus…” Shy? Entirely shy.
SS: You weren’t tempted back to the bottle?
TW: Well you really can’t keep up with Keith. He’s from a different stock. I didn’t realize it at first, but then I met his father and I understood. His dad looked like Popeye. He had the little corncob pipe and the wink in his eye – oh man! I was real nervous and trying to not be afraid, but he’s a real regular, a gentleman, and we had a lot of fun. He just loves to play. He’ll play at four o’clock in the morning, play until the bottle is gone, like an old troubadour, or until they can’t remember any more songs or they turn out the lights and tell us to leave.
SS: You worked with another one-off, William Burroughs, on The Black Rider. Most vivid memory?
TW: Every day at about three o’clock he’d start massaging his watch, like he’s trying to get the big hand to move with the heat of his fingers because around 3.30 or 4 o’clock it’s cocktail hour. We went to his house and hung out for a couple of days. I saw some of his shotgun paintings – he puts up plywood and shoots it – and we’d talk about the story and all these songs just started occurring to him, “Take off your skin and dance…” From Burroughs I learned a lot about reptiles and firearms.
SS: Like you his aim wasn’t too good…
TW: Right! For me, working with him was a chance to go up on the wire without a net and you really find out what kind of resources you have. Because you’re with someone who has a whole community inside of them. It was heavy.
SS: When you’re writing for the stage rather than a record, do you keep in mind that it’s something that will change, depending where and when it’s staged?
TW: With an album, you fix it – you can wait until it’s exactly like you want it and then freeze it in time – but doing a piece of theatre is almost like putting a circle of rocks right here and then coming back in tow weeks, expecting them all to be in the same place. But you still try to fix it, give it a skeleton – you should be able to know that it’s an alligator or it’s a flamingo even though it’ll change position – and you work as if opening night is the night when it will all be fixed in resin forever, so you’ve got to have your whole look down and don’t forget your hat. But as soon as you leave, everyone goes “I hate the way that fucker made me sing that song. He’s gone now, so I’m going to do it how I want.” That’s human nature. I’m the same way if I’m in a play. I’ve been in some plays and when the director’s gone it’s, “Whew it’s mine now. What’s he going to do, come up in the middle of the show and take my hat off? Hell no!”
SS: Were you surprised to find yourself in middle age, signed to an indie label and selling a million copies of Mule Variations?
TW: Oh yeah. It was my first record for them and I had no idea what was going to happen, I was excited but I wasn’t really sure where I fit in – an almost exclusively punk label and here I am, like 50, am I some old fuddy-duddy trying out a new haircut? But they convinced me that I belonged there and that what I was doing was perfectly valid, and that gave me confidence. Because what I do is kind of abstract – I work on things that are in some way invisible. Yeah, the room’s filled with instruments, but to process things that are invisible. So I break a lot of eggs. And I leave the shell in there. Texture’s everything.
SS: There’s some interesting textures on the new album – your vocal sounds like a loop impersonating a tortured rhythm instrument.
TW: Yeah yeah. But it wasn’t a loop. The trouble with a loop is once your mind realises that it’s a loop it stops listening to it, just like you stop looking at the pattern on that tablecloth. There’s no reason to continue to stare at that pattern. So every three or four bars you have to do something different. I would do it until my throat was raw – Ook, kakkk kakk – sweating, eyes all bugged out, hair sticking up, in the bathroom with a little four-track, singing in the microphone at night while everyone’s asleep. I was making sounds that weren’t words but once I listened back I could actually determine certain syllables. It was like going back in time with the language where the sound came first and then slowly it shaped itself around items and experiences. I’m one of those people that if I don’t have my knees skinned and a cut on my hand, I don’t really feel like I’ve had much of a day’s work. That where the title came from – the blues thing, like I’m really gone.
SS: Real Gone is what MOJO calls the obituaries.
TW: I’d better be careful then. Kathleen made up the title. She said: “All these people on the record are leaving. You’re not going to be leaving, are you?”
SS: If you do, do you think you might finally come back and play Britain?
TW: It’s not that I don’t like the UK, I just don’t like to travel. (Smiles) I’m a really grumpy guy. (END)
How to BUY… Essential Tom Waits, decade by decade. By James McNair.
THE BURLESQUE ‘70s ONE Small Change * * * * (Four stars) ELEKTRA / ASYLUM, 1977
Conjuring an eventful night on the town with barroom and burlesque show pit stops, Small Change has a Beat writer’s flair for scansion. The sleazy sax-appointed noir title track is choice, while on Pasties And a G-String, Waits confesses he’s “harder than Chinese Algebra”. The record is lent extra kudos by a trio of ‘50s jazzers including Shelly Manne on drums.
THE BRECHTIAN ‘80s ONE Swordfishtrombones * * * * * (Five stars) ISLAND, 1983
Having relocated to New York, changed label, and fallen for Kathleen Brennan, Waits made an entrancing, sonically distinct record that tipped the hat to Kurt Weill and left-field composer Harry Partch. With its eerie carny feel, instrumental Dave The Butcher sounds utterly psychotic. The waltz, Town With No Cheer, meanwhile, has bagpipes and a “Freedom Bell”.
THE APOCALYPTIC ‘90s ONE Bone Machine * * * * (Four stars) ISLAND, 1992
‘Bone machine’ as a synonym for the human body, Waits tackled mortality, apocalypse and suicide while pummeling an ugly-looking percussion rack called The Conundrum. Primal blues guitar and pecks of atavistic banjo cement the Southern Gothic feel of Black Wings and Murder In The Red Barn, while Keith Richards guests on That Feel.
By Sylvie Simmons