By Greg Kot Tribune music critic November 21, 2006
Tom Waits turns small gestures into grand events.
At his concerts, he transforms a handful of glitter into a show-stopping gesture. On record, he fashions entire worlds out of instruments rescued from a flea market. Now, he has turned a little housecleaning project into a three-CD collection, "Orphans" (Anti), that contains 54 songs, including an astonishing 30 new recordings.
The tunes are divided into three loose thematic groups: "Brawlers," "Bawlers" and "Bastards." The discs, which arrive in stores Tuesday, began as an attempt to round up one-offs that Waits had recorded for movie soundtracks, theatrical projects and tribute albums over the last 20 years. The project expanded as Waits continued to record steadily since the release of his last studio album, "Real Gone," in 2004.
Why put out this bounty of new material all at once? "Next year, I'll be on to something else, so better get me when I'm hot," Waits says in his carnival-barker rasp. "My mind's like a grasshopper, you know."
But this is hardly the product of a scattered mind, or a collection of leftovers. On the contrary, "Orphans" is a defining statement, the kind of album that summarizes and culminates an era in which Waits evolved from a saloon balladeer into a sonic adventurer, the writer not just of resonant songs but of surreal mini-movies for the mind. The collection ranges across the demented rockabilly of "Lie to Me," the mischievous balladry of "Little Drop of Poison" and the devastating resignation of "The World Keeps Turning." There are covers of a Frank Sinatra ballad, two Ramones punk tunes, Brecht-Weill cabaret and a Charles Bukowski poem. And there is the most overtly political song of Waits' career, "Road to Peace," which documents a suicide-bomber's attack and its aftermath.
In an interview with the Tribune, Waits discussed the making of "Orphans" (his longtime songwriting collaboration with his wife, Kathleen Brennan) and the day he decided to bet on himself.
Q. It's apparent when you sing something like [the Frank Sinatra standard] "Young at Heart" that you can croon. But you use your voice more like an instrument. When did you start thinking of it that way?
A. There's a backstage to your vocal activities, and then there's an onstage. Then slowly you find that there's a way to incorporate things you do off-road or stuff you do to amuse the children or scare the dog. It's just as valid. The idea of doing that beat-boxing with my voice, I do that with my son in the car. He'll take one part, and I'll take the other.
Q. You've got that human beat-box thing going on "Spidey's Wild Ride." Has hip-hop had an influence on how you sing?
A. Yeah. Hip-hop is still kind of the Old West. It's a reasonably unsettled territory and truly the cutting edge of blues. They're still trying to put hot sauce in a milkshake. No one is going to pull you over and give you a ticket for it because it's still defining itself.
Q. You also cover a couple of Ramones songs. Do they rank up there as songwriters with some of the other people you cover, like Brecht and Weill?
A. Oh, God, yeah. There's a trick to playing in a rudimentary fashion like that and staying true to what originally inspired you. Everyone wants to see someone that loves what they do and do it well. They were that. They sound like a big motor.
Q. What makes their voice unique to you in a song like "The Return of Jackie and Judy"?
A. I wanted to try and T-Rex it somehow. It's a weird lyric. Who the hell are these people? Every time you wrap yourself around somebody else's song you're going to bring yourself to it. You're going to turn it inside out. You remove stuff and replace stuff. It's like when you think about songs you know and you've heard. If somebody just holds a gun to you and says what do you want to do? Gloria! I'll do "Gloria" right now! [Sings] G-l-o-r-i-a! Gloria! You don't know why it's in your head or how it stayed there that long or when it would come out if somebody pushed you. You don't really know. It's song logic. It's not really rational.
Q. Other artists have covered tons of your songs. Are there any you particularly like?
A. [The Gun Club's late singer] Jeffrey Lee Pierce did one that I thought was pretty good a long time ago. He did "Pasties and a G-String" and I got a kick out of that. Johnny Cash also did a song of mine ["Down There by the Train"]. That was a hoot. He changed some stuff. It must have needed changing. I dug that.
Q. It doesn't bother you when they take liberties with the song?
A. Not much. It's not you. Songs have been written since the beginning of time. The first guy on Earth probably made a bowl and the next guy probably made a tune about the bowl. Songs migrated like jokes. News traveled in songs. They were profound and they were essential. Songs would reach you from a long ways away. We would all have a hand in it. We were part of the process too. You learn it and then you forget a verse and add a verse and change it so it fit your town better. Change the gender. It was too violent for the kids? "Take the murder out. Just make him hit him in the head." Before you know it, the corners get worn off and everyone has something invested in it.
Q. People talk about your sound and your production and your voice, but it's really about the songs for you, isn't it? If you had to define yourself in one word, would "songwriter" be it?
A. I don't know. I guess. All right. Let's see. Astronaut? Brain surgeon? Architect? World leader?
Q. C'mon. You'd love it if people were still singing your songs 100 years from now.
A. You hope that you're building things that are going to last. You don't really know that. It's just making a song. It's not like I'm saving lives or changing the world.
Q. Don't underestimate yourself. People talk about songs being lifelines.
A. Well, they're fishing for a compliment, see.
Q. Bono thinks you can change the world with a song.
Q. The singer in U2.
A. Oh, right. OK. Like "Kumbaya"?
Q. OK, you're not buying it. But I'm going to stop you here. It sounds like in "Road to Peace" you would like to change the world. How did you write it?
A. It came right out of The New York Times. It fell right out of the paper and onto the tape recorder. It's a hot topic and there were a lot of things in the article that moved me. All those lines [about the youthful suicide bomber] like, "He studied so hard, it's as if he had a future, he told his mother he had a test that day." Those were things I couldn't throw in the fireplace, so I thought maybe we can patch this into something without sounding too stiff. But then again that's probably the strength of it, that it reads like a news article.
Q. You sound angry. You haven't written too many overtly political songs. But it sounds as if some kind of line had been crossed in your mind that you had to do this.
A. I guess. "Boy, now we're really in trouble ... even Tom got mad."
Q. What did Kathleen think?
A. She was all for it. But she was throwing in her two cents all over the place. Sometimes we put on the boxing gloves and come out fighting. My wife is a really great musician and composer. She's much more adventurous than I am. She's always trying to disrupt the whole thing and take it apart and put it back together with its tail in the wrong place. She's much more questioning and critical. I'm like, "OK, I'm done, done, done." It's something you learn how to do after a while. It's like a sack race. Once you raise kids together writing songs with your wife is pretty easy.
Q. You started collaborating with her on "Swordfishtrombones" , an album that got you dropped from your first label. It must have been like, "Wait a second, what did I get myself into here?"
A. They [the label executives] said, "You're going to lose all of your old fans and you're not going to get any new ones either."
Q. When you hear something like that from your "boss" it's got to be discouraging.
A. Yeah, but it's always important to bet on yourself. Someone will dare you: "You'll break your neck if you try to jump that." Sometimes that's all you need to strike out on your own. They didn't know that they did you good.
Q. So how do you feel about the stuff you did pre-Kathleen, back in the '70s? A lot of your fans still love it.
A. I sound like a kid to me. It's just like looking at pictures of yourself from years ago. ... For a lot of people the early stuff is where it was strongest, and they've gotten kind of safe as they go. I felt like I started out rather safe and gotten more adventurous.
Q. So losing some fans didn't bother you?
A. I don't really follow the direction of my audience. They follow my direction. It works better with me driving.
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