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Q&A: TOM WAITS

Highlights from Issue 28: 20 Interviews

Photograph by Danny Clinch

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Friday, October 27, 2006

CALL AND RESPONSE: TOM WAITS
(EXCERPT)

The full Stop Smiling Interview with Tom Waits appears in
Issue 28: 20 Interviews

By Katherine Turman

Tom Waits sums up the fierce fascination fans have for all things Waitsian: “If you spill something, they want it.” That’s probably because even Waits’s detritus is cooler than other artists’ best efforts. And it’s part of the raison d’être for his three-CD assemblage, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards, a career-spanning effort released by Anti- in November. A read between the lines of Bastards helps illuminate what makes Waits tick. In “Children’s Story,” he recites, in his world-weary rasp, “Once upon a time there was a poor child with no father and no mother / and everything was dead / And no one was left in the whole world / Everything was dead / The moon was a piece of rotten wood / The earth was an overturned piss-pot / And he was all alone…” Waits ends the narration with a throaty chuckle. Deadpan, dark, but possessed of a wicked humor, Waits’s arcane appeal incites in journalists a frenzy to invent new adjectives to capture and describe the nearly 40-year, multifaceted career and life of Thomas Alan Waits.

Even when Waits claims he’s telling the truth, he may not be. He’s a master yarn-spinner, a teller of tales tall and small. And though much is made of his persona, it seems the persona and the man have become one. But facts are facts: Waits was born on December 7, 1949 in Pomona, California, grew up near San Diego, and in 1971, signed to Asylum Records. Nineteen records followed from 1973 to 2004 on various labels, garnering, along the way, Grammy Awards, Academy Award nominations, film roles, a wife/collaborator in Kathleen Brennan, three children, and the adoration of a large and very rabid cult of cultural dissidents who elevated Waits to living icon status. As a folk hero, Waits’s name is part of the pantheon of boho coolness populated by such contemporaries, and collaborators, as William S. Burroughs, Robert Wilson, Charles Bukowski and Jim Jarmusch.

If Tom Waits is impossible to categorize, he is certainly easy to like. When he’s relating a story or singing — as opposed to merely answering a question — his voice gets even more resonant, more dramatic, wrapping a deceptively quixotic cocoon around the listener. He uses music biz terms like “added value” with a deadpan irony and understated emphasis, waxes ecstatic on strange and unusual facts about insects, and, as records from Swordfishtrombones to Frank’s Wild Years attest, creates one-of-a-kind aural soundscapes that open a gargoyle-guarded gateway into an alternate universe. For these reasons and many more, Tom Waits is rightfully revered — and sometimes feared.

Calling from his home in rural Sonoma County, California, Waits was by turns shy, thoughtful, uncomfortable, teasing, amusing, endearing and just plain cool. He’s the kind of guy you’d want to spend a late afternoon with in the gloomy half-light of a near-empty bar — with plenty of quarters for Waits to control the jukebox and conversation. But we happily settled for an early evening on the phone.

Stop Smiling: What made you decide to tour again?

Tom Waits: I don’t know what made me go out. We played a lot of “villes.” I worked with a guitar player, Duke Robillard, who started a group called Roomful of Blues and the Fabulous Thunderbirds. He is a great blues guitar player. My son played drums. Then there’s Larry Taylor, who has been with me for years, and who used to play with Canned Heat and Jerry Lee Lewis — he’s played with everybody. Then on keyboards was Bent Clausen. I really wanted to find out if I like doing this. I wasn’t really going out to make money. I’ve been doing it for a long time, and it’s usually a lot of headaches, and the physics of most of the auditoriums is maddening from night to night. It’s what everybody deals with. It kinda rattles me, and I usually end up a nervous wreck by the end of it. So I wanted to see if I could go out and actually enjoy playing. That was the whole objective of it. And I did.

SS: Would your feelings about playing qualify as stage fright?

TW: I don’t know if it’s stage fright. I’m always afraid things will go wrong. Plus, when you’re taking this whole thing and you’re moving it all around the country, it’s always awkward. It’s like, for me, moving somebody who has been in an accident, you know. “Don’t move me, don’t move me,” that’s the first thing the show says to me at the end of rehearsal. “Whatever you do, don’t move me, I like it here.”

SS: Maybe the country singers in Branson, Missouri who have their own theaters have the right idea.

TW: I’ve thought of that Branson deal. I’ve discussed that with other artists. Just the idea that you don’t go on the road, they go on the road and come to you. Makes perfect sense to me. Getting out in front of all those people, after a while, if you’re well prepared, it’s fun. I’m not always well prepared. But this time I was, so I think that was a big part of it.

SS: Like you, I’m a native Californian. Do you draw inspiration from other places, or do you prefer home?

TW: I like going to guitar shops, pawnshops and salvage yards. I really like to go to hardware stores to see what they got out there, especially in Europe. I bought a two-by-four guitar in Cleveland. Everybody has a two-by-four lying around his or her yard. Send me a two-by-four and I’ll make a guitar out of it. You don’t see a lot when you’re on the road, needless to say. You see the gig and the town on the way in and the town on the way out, but there’s something sort of exciting about that at the same time — the stealth. You come in and sting ’em and go. That’s what I call it. It sounds like a rockabilly title.

SS: Wasn’t Asheville, North Carolina the home of the inventor of the Moog synthesizer?

TW: I don’t know. Bob Moog started making Theremins toward the end. Interesting man. My first experience with a Theremin was this gal Lydia, the granddaughter of Leon Theremin, who was living in Russia. We were in Hamburg doing Alice, this Robert Wilson thing. So we wanted a Theremin player, and someone said, “I know Lydia,” and she came in and she looked like a little Russian doll, a traditional Russian sweater, and her Theremin looked like a hotplate. And inside, all the connections were held together with cut-up little pieces of beer cans that she twisted around the wires to hold the connections together. And the aerial was literally a car aerial from like a Volkswagen. And when she played, she sounded like [violinist] Jascha Heifetz.

SS: That brings us to these three CDs that I’ve been trying to absorb. Twenty years ago, all 54 of these songs would have been on cassette tapes.

TW: Oh, yeah. It would have been a mess. It’s kind of overwhelming. Mainly, I was afraid I was going to lose all this stuff because I don’t really keep good records. I don’t have a big vault or a real organized room with all my stuff. I don’t know. Maybe like you, I imagine, when I want something, I can’t find it. And when I don’t need it anymore, I find it. So I wanted to get this out. A lot of the stuff I bought from a guy in Moscow who had this stuff on a CD that he’d collected. It was weird: black market stuff from a guy in Russia. Some of it I never had the original or the DAT or the multi-track or even the half-inch. I just did it and then, you know, sting ’em and go. I’m starting to get more archival as I get older. “Oh, we better hang on to this, honey. We’ll need this in our old age. We’ll use it as a coffee table.”

SS: When you were a kid, what kind of stories were read to you? Nothing about the world being an “upside-down piss pot”?

TW: An “overturned piss pot.” I added that line. [Recites] “He is there to this day, all alone.” Most children’s stories have a dark element. There’s the two brothers: One was kinda slow in the head, not very ambitious, and the other one left home early and got lost. They’re always sad or frightening. Most of them are cautionary tales. When my kids were young, I would make stories up and say, “Give me the elements, what do you want in there? Okay, a tree, a polar bear and a typewriter. All right.” That’s how we usually start. Stories kind of tell themselves, especially when you’re searching for the next chapter. It’s kind of a real condensed version of what you do when you’re really writing. When you’re writing for kids, you have to come up with stuff on the spot.

SS: On Real Gone, you had “Day After Tomorrow.” On the new CDs, there’s the song “Road to Peace” with the underlying political message. Where did the song’s message come from?

TW: The New York Times. When you read the paper every day, it’s hard to avoid that seeping into your consciousness. That was written not long ago. A lot of these were recorded within the last year. It’s new stuff. I don’t want to go into the origin of everything, but for me, they’re from questionable sources. I didn’t put any liner notes in because I didn’t want to overexplain it. That one is a Bukowski poem, “Nirvana,” and that “Pontiac” — that’s my father-in-law’s. If you go down to the market with him, you’ll get that speech. Different every time. More cars, different cars, if he sees a Lincoln or a Hudson or an Impala, it gets him going.

SS: You mentioned Bukowski — have you seen the film adaptation of Factotum?

TW: No. I’m glad his stories are getting turned into movies. I’m a big Bukowski fan. What you really want to do is be valid and vital and in some way, here and after you’re gone: to still remain a presence and influence and still be able to sprout and bloom and bear fruit. I guess that’s what everybody wants.

SS: You covered the Daniel Johnston song “King Kong.” Is that because you like the song, or Johnston himself?

TW: Well, Jim Jarmusch played me his version of “King Kong,” and I tried to stay as true to that as I could. If you hear the original, you’ll see what I mean. I got all his records. I thought I’d really discovered this: it’s real outsider art. The interesting thing about outsider art is that it’s such big business. These outsider artists are creating false biographies for themselves, saying they’re victims of mental illness and child abuse, and they grew up poor in the South and they’re creating these false backgrounds. You aren’t really qualified as an outsider unless you’ve had no formal art education, so you have to prove that you have no art education at all. It’s an interesting turn of the tables.

 

The full Stop Smiling Interview with Tom Waits is in Issue 28: 20 Interviews

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