Tom Waits

All Stripped Down

Music Features Tom Waits
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Tom Waits should be giddy at the moment.

Last night—in his first performance in five years, at Vancouver’s intimate 2,400-seat Orpheum Theatre—he strolled onstage in his regulation baggy black suit and skewed pork-pie hat, all spider-limbed and spectral, and then tore through most of the primal-blues jackhammers from his new album, Real Gone. He employed a pedal-activated, digital-delay device to recreate the vast vocal percussions that drive the disc—woofing nonsensical syllables like “Acka, poom-poom” or “Boom chicky-tatta” and replaying them as looped backbeats. Waits was more than animated—his lithe frame twitched and shuddered to the jarring rhythms.

And he was generous, as well. Alongside stark new numbers like “Metropolitan Glide,” “Top of the Hill” and the guttural “Hoist That Rag” (all co-written/-produced with his wife, Kathleen Brennan), he tossed in crowd-pleasing classics like “Tabletop Joe,” “Heart Attack and Vine” and “House Where Nobody Lives,” a signature track from his stellar ’99 Grammy winner Mule Variations (his first for hip indie label, ANTI-). The show—featuring Marc Ribot on guitar, someone called Brain on drums, Larry Taylor on bass and Waits’ son Casey on percussion—heads to Europe next, before reportedly swinging back through America in early 2005.

Waits should be overjoyed about other things, too. Like the smash-hit, sold-out London and San Francisco runs of The Black Rider, with Marianne Faithfull trilling the Brecht/Weill-ish lieder he composed for playwright Robert Wilson. Or another Wilson-commissioned soundtrack, Alice, whose “Kommienezuspadt” closed the Vancouver set. Or his umpteenth feature-film appearance, jawing over java with Iggy Pop in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes. Or even “A Little Drop of Poison,” the delectable ditty he contributed to the Shrek 2 soundtrack. After disappearing from the recording scene for most of the ’90s, this gravel-throated minstrel is experiencing a comeback, a renaissance rocketing the 55-year-old right back to the singer/songwriter vanguard—turf he first staked out back in ’73 with his decadent Asylum Records debut, Closing Time.

But today, when Waits shuffles into King Fortune Seafood, a Chinese restaurant a few blocks from the Orpheum, he’s simply smiling about last night’s triumph. He’s comfortable with it, as he is all his other lauded coups of late, seemingly happy to be back, happy to be hitting the road again and flexing those stage muscles. Sure, he’s also become the pet character actor of top-flight film directors like Jarmusch, Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola. And during his 30-year career, his songs have been covered by everyone from The Eagles and Rod Stewart to Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen (who ironically chose “Jersey Girl,” Waits’ note-perfect spoof of the Boss and his working-class-isms).

But Waits is remarkably humble about all this. So when he sits down at a secluded corner table, he thoughtfully sips several cups of jasmine tea and contemplates-in yarn-spinning raconteur style-much larger issues. Like what his good friend Fred “Herman Munster” Gwynne told him before he passed away, back when they were acting together in Coppola’s Cotton Club. “He said that when he goes to heaven, and God says ‘What did you do while you were down there?’ he’ll go, ‘I got a little piece of film I’d like to show ya,’” chuckles Waits, whose steely, blue-eyed gaze is as hypnotic and unwavering as Rasputin’s probably was. “‘It’s just a little clip from a Bertolucci thing I did called Luna.’ Fred said, ‘That’s all I’m gonna show Him, not The Munsters stuff, just the Luna clip.’ And that was it, just a great little moment for him.” Waits immediately liked Gwynne, he recalls, because “he was a seeker—he was always on a quest.”

The same tribute could be paid to Waits. His melancholy work—initially peopled with Munster-type misanthropes—has grown increasingly numinous and metaphysical over the years. When he warns on Real Gone, “Don’t go into the barn,” he feels no need to spell out why—you can hear in his Doberman snarl that something quite tragic, possibly bloody, took place there. And he’s not interested in the incident itself—just the haunted funereal pall, the sense of threat left behind. But when Waits himself arrives at the pearly gates some day, what life moments would he show? After talking with him for over an hour, one feels that it might be his whirlwind romance with Brennan, whom he met while working on Coppola’s One From the Heart. She taught him how to rethink himself—that he didn’t need the headaches of a major label or the smarmy industry figures who went with it, that they could go it alone as a songwriting couple and find receptive outlets later, once the music was completed. That purity of vision—uncluttered by any accepted rules of rockdom—paved the path for Real Gone and its startling human-beatbox experiments. And for the new relaxation that’s swept over the Northern California-based Waits, even on the eve of his demanding new tour.

So what kind of footage would the man choose to screen? It might not be Luna, but it’s damned close. So sit back and dim the lights … 4, 3, 2, 1—roll clip.

Paste: Interesting menu here … Like that old National Lampoon fake Chinese menu, with Twice Chewed Lobster in Hissing Sauce and Sweet ’n’ Sour Land Shrimp …

Tom Waits: Nobody chews my lobster but me, I’ll tell ya. But you’ve heard about regular people who’ve been in car accidents or suffered a stroke or something, or had some kind of injury at work, like a blow to the head. And as a result of the injury, they are now gourmands. They crave only the most exotic foods. And they’re usually working-class people, so all of a sudden at the dinner table, you’ve got Fred Flintstone getting very effete, until his whole family doesn’t know who in the hell he is. They’re like, “What—did you have your brain replaced?”

P: This first question is rather odd, but bear with me. Have you ever seen the Joe Dante film Gremlins? Or met Dante at all? Because there’s actually a Nighthawks-era Tom Waits gremlin in the film, murmuring to himself in the gremlin bar. Or at least it looks that way.

TW: No! Really? I dunno—I probably have seen it somewhere, ’cause I’ve got kids. But I’ve never sat down and watched it front to back.

P: Well, that shoots down my whole theory.

TW: Backup! Do you have backup for this?

P: I’m smarter than I look. I’m curious about how your persona—or early perception of it, at least—has become intertwined with pop culture.

TW: Gee, I dunno … That’s a tough one. My own personality intertwined with pop culture … Oh, the character. Yeah. But I don’t have a lotta contact with it—I’m on the road a lot. But you mean unshaven, cigarette, eggs and whiskey, sleeping ’til three in the afternoon? I don’t know where that fits into pop culture, because I’m not really an expert on pop culture. But it’s kinda like a Cantinflas character. But it’s a ventriloquist act, ya know. There’s me, and then there’s that. And that’s not me.

P: I’m left with all these remarkable visuals of you, though. Like you working that chewing gum as the diner guy in Rumblefish, saying “Think about it—35 summers …” and trying to keep Rusty James in line.

TW: Rumblefish—I love that picture. Yeah, that was a good moment, really cool. Francis just said “Write your own dialog.” He says, “I’m not even gonna tell ya what to say—man, this is your diner, this is your apron, your spatula. I’m not gonna give you any lines. You just make it all up.” So it was fun. And that’s what I’d rather do in every picture, ’cause I can’t remember lines. … But the “35 summers” thing—it was because I was 35, I’d had 35 summers.

P: And then there’s the image of you as Renfield in Dracula, eating what appeared to be real bugs.

TW: Oh, yeah—I did eat bugs! They have a bug wrangler on every film, ya know. If there are bugs in the movie, there’s a bug wrangler. And they were mealworms. Protein, ya know. But I’ve eaten earthworms as a child.

P: But mealworms have huge pincing mandibles. They bite back.

TW: So you have to kill ’em with your jaws. You have to kill ’em first. And the wranglers don’t like it, ’cause these are their little actors. “Floyd! He’s been with me for 30 years! In the name of God, what have you done?” I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a bug wrangler on a film, but I found out.

P: When did you first start to realize that you’d formed your own stark visual identity?

TW: Gee, I dunno. But like any business, whether you’re a fisherman or you repair refrigerators or you’re an airline pilot or a lion tamer, at a certain point you realize you have to ask yourself a question—“Can I parlay this into a business? Can I make money off this?” And at a certain point you realize—yeah, I can take this somewhere. But it’s always a gamble. What I was really pursuing was my dream of it all, about being in music. I was in music, ya know. The way it appears visually, or whatever perspective from other people’s vantage point is one thing. But mine’s from the inside. I have all these heroes, and I love music and I wanna be a part of it. I’ve been inspired, and now hopefully someday I’ll get an opportunity to inspire somebody else. And that’s how it works, really. People who make songs don’t go to school to learn how to do it. You sit down next to the record player, and you write down the words and try and figure out these changes, and that’s how everybody does it. And as far as whether you think you can make it, well, there are levels of “making it.” For me, I was happy to be making another record, going on the road, putting the band together and doing it.

P: But you’ve always understood the importance of other art besides music—books, films, paintings. And you have to seek them out. As a kid back in Indiana, I learned that early—we really had to fight for culture out there.

TW: That’s why so many American presidents come from the Midwest—because it’s so flat, they have to dream. Roy Orbison? I said, “Where’d you get that voice, man? What—did you listen to opera all your life?” And he goes “Nah, man—if there was a dance a hundred miles away on Saturday, I heard the sound of the dance coming across the plains, and by the time the voice reached me, it was all watery. So when I was a kid, that’s the way I wanted to sound, like those dances sounded.” … I thought that was a fascinating little anecdote …

P: But you understand, appreciate the thrill of discovering a good book or movie. I just saw The Black Rider for the first time, with Marianne Faithfull singing your songs, and I can’t believe I’ve lived this long without discovering Robert Wilson’s work. And it had such amazing detail, like one of the actors bending his middle fingers inward for every scene. I don’t know why.

TW: You wanna know why? ’Cause Wilson choreographs every physical movement that you see onstage. He does it first. Every finger, every eyelash, every hair, every jaw—everything. And then he shows them how he wants ’em to do it, and when he wants ’em to do it, and then he winds it up like a clock. And lets it tick, tick, tick, tick. And there are marks all over the stage, for where you have to be for light. And if you’re not where you need to be for light, well … When it comes to choreography, Wilson’s just amazing. And it’s all timed to the pit, all the musicians in the pit. I mean, I’d seen Einstein on the Beach at BAM—it was like nine hours long, and you had to go out and get coffee and come back, take a nap for awhile. It was the strangest experience—more like being on a long flight to Hong Kong. You wake up and people are in different positions, the light’s different. Then you go back to sleep or read a little bit—very strange. But Wilson’s more like an inventor, a real visionary, and he’s meticulous about what he wants and doesn’t want. It’s not a democracy. That’s why what you’re seeing is a very specific vision from one man’s mind—you’re not seeing a collaboration.

P: So how do you write music for such a perfectionist?

TW: You know, you kinda sit in the dark at a long table for several different workshop periods. It’s almost like being at Cape Canaveral—that kinda feeling, ya know? And you’re watching the stage with him, plus you’re dealing with a lot of sleep deprivation, because you’re working long hours with bad coffee and no food, no windows, in a strange country, with jetlag. And I think that goes into the work, as well. You’re in a state. But everyone trusts him so much—he’s like a professor, like the best professor. For me, in all my years in school—nothing like Wilson. Like you’ll always remember a particular teacher? I’d say Wilson is my teacher. I mean, I didn’t go to college. But there’s nobody that’s affected me that much, as an artist.

P: What are some key lessons he taught you?

TW: I dunno. That’s a good question. I never really boiled it down like that. I remember once, he had a huge explosion in the theater—he’d asked somebody to get rid of a particular piece of furniture onstage, and it was still there 30 minutes later. And he said, “Get that chair offstage or I’m gonna throw it in the ulster!” He was so irate. And if he wants to do music for a particular scene, he does the music, on a microphone. He just starts making sounds—he goes “Bž-bksh, meeee-oowr! Whooo-eee, plow-plow-plow-plow, koo-tee-koo, bleerm, bleerm!” Know what I mean? You make things right now. It’s not a magical thing. You’re at the edge of the cliff and it’s time to jump. And you just have to trust that you won’t hit the rocks.

P: Did that give you the initial idea for your human beat-box sounds that ½nally materialized on Real Gone?

TW: It did, yeah.

P: Which you put to good use last night onstage. You’d bark out something like “Acka, poom-poom,” hit a digital-delay pedal on the floor, and it’d repeat as tape-looped percussion.

TW: Yeah. And the device stopped working halfway through the show. It’s called a Boomerang. I just go “Acka, poom-poom,” and it becomes something I can sing over.

P: And Real Gone feels like a continuation of the wild percussive experiments of Bone Machine, one of your most important albums.

TW: Yeah, I think so. It picks up maybe where that one left off. A lot of people think it picks up where Rain Dogs left off, but I dunno. But hopefully, you get better as you go, get more refined. I write songs a lot quicker now.

P: And you’ve also learned how to constantly reinvent yourself. Not for the audience’s sake, of course, but to keep yourself interested, amused.

TW: Well, that’s really the goal, isn’t it? You have to keep yourself interested, and you have to be endlessly curious. And I may be a bit more eccentric, and I don’t really care what people think. And to a large degree, I don’t care what anybody thinks. Because I have my own kinda world I’m in. When you start worrying about intervals, that’s when you know you’re a composer. When you lay awake at night, worrying about a particular section of a song. Like last night, I was looking at the wall and the light was really low, and one eye was kinda cockeyed. And it looked like a skull with a big cloud coming out of its head, and a hand with a white glove. And I thought, “Well, that’s pretty out there for this hotel, to do something like that!” And then I looked at it again in the morning, and it was a bouquet of white roses. But it was out of focus. So that’s what I do when I’m making stuff up. I don’t see what’s there. I learned that when I was little. We had drapes, and the drapes had all these water stains on ’em. But there were also patterns, like leaves and camels and all that stuff. But there were all these really dramatic water stains, and I thought the water stains were part of the design of the fabric. And there were all these shapes, so I made my own shapes out of ’em. And I still do that. When I’m looking at any kind of pattern, I’ll find, say, noses or something.

P: There’s a really sad adage that says the older we get, the less we look up in wonder at the world—the more beauty, or the appreciation of it, gets trampled underfoot.

TW: See, that’s where we’re at—we have a deficit of wonder. I think it’s because of computers. When I ask people questions now, they get on their computer—“Gimme a few minutes and I’ll let ya know …” And I’m like, “Noooooo!” I want ’em to wonder about it, man! I don’t wanna know the answer—I just want ’em to wonder about it.

P: That’s slowed down, while the rest of technology keeps speeding up. To the point where you can’t just watch a CNN news broadcast—you have to multitask to read the endless bulletins at the bottom of the screen.

TW: First of all, I don’t have a TV, so I am so out of it. Now the only show I’ve seen in the last 15 years, I swear to God, is Pimp My Ride. And somebody sent me that on tape. And I thought, “Man, I hope this is #1, ’cause I just love it.” But I don’t have any TV. And there really is no such thing as multitasking. You can only do one thing correctly at a time. So if you’re gonna do seven things, each one of those things is getting one-seventh of your time. Even though you’re doing ’em at the same time. That’s why my phone is a camera, my watch is a rifle—it’s just insane. But they’re selling us on this stuff, and it’s affecting everything, even the election. Touch-screen voting? Forget about it—what’s more corruptible than computers?

P: Wait a minute! No TV? That means you’re missing some great new shows this season, like Lost and Desperate Housewives!

TW: I heard they’re good. But I’m afraid of incorporating all that into my diet—I’m afraid it’d just send me off. I dunno, it’d be like eating Styrofoam. You remember in the old days, when you’d send away for something from the back of a cereal box? And you had to wait for 30 days, and it was coming from Battle Creek, Michigan? Life is different now, because in the time that it took for it to arrive, a lot of wonder took place. I remember wondering about the town of Battle Creek—What’s it look like? Is it like the North Pole? Who lives in it? Is there an actual creek?

P: And finally, the postman arrives like on The Simpsons and goes “Here it is, kid—here’s your stupid spy camera!”

TW: You know what I did when I was little? You could get a signet ring with your initials on the ring—a silver one. You send in the form and they’ll send you a ring—it was unbelievable. So I wanted the ring, I sent it in, the ring comes. So I’m wearing the ring, but three weeks later, 17 cases of salve show up, in shoe-polish-shaped cans. I was required to sell 17 cases to friends, relatives, neighbors, but it was in small print. And I was like, six, and so scared to death—I thought I was gonna wind up in jail, ya know? It was my very first conflict.

P: In our neighborhood, a kid sent away from a comic book for a ‘Scary, realistic-looking seven-foot-tall Frankenstein.’ But when it arrived, it was just a 7’-long sheet of plastic with a cheesy monster printed on it. He hung it from his upstairs window anyway and pretended to like it.

TW: Nobody really wants to know … Well, do you really wanna know how magicians do their tricks? You think you wanna know, but you don’t. And when you do, you wish you didn’t. But you can’t un-know it. You can’t un-ring a bell. There are things I just don’t wanna know. And I think that’s probably true with regard to myself, as well—there are things people don’t wanna know about me. They wanna continue to wonder about me, and I think that’s fine. I promote that. So over the years, I’ve usually given untrue answers to things. Just because—well, why not? Truth. Truth is overrated, as well as intelligence is overrated. Don’t ya think?

P: I think it takes a certain degree of smarts to appreciate both the abyss and beauty, like you seem to do, album after album. To understand that the grotesque is just as important as the sublime.

TW: I think my wife probably opened me up to that. I used to tell my wife, “Baby, I’m just meat and potatoes,” and she’d say, “Oh, the hell you are!” But she’s the one who does deeply contemplate the mysteries of life and tries not to contribute to the troubles of the world. I used to think that if you talk about death, that it would come to visit you. Now I think it’s the other way around. And it is all around us, all the time. Or maybe I’m just getting older and starting to embrace that …

P: Bowie once said that the two key questions an artist is faced with once he hits 50 are: How much time do I have left? And what the hell am I supposed to be doing with it anyway?

TW: Bowie’s right, he’s right about that. What am I supposed to be doing? Those are the really big questions, and I haven’t figured ’em out. And you can’t live in show business—there’s not enough protein there, ya know? Career, family—they’re always in some ways somewhat symbiotic, and at the same time diametrically opposed. But I’m OK with those questions now. Or maybe I have a lot of answers that are looking for questions. Yeah—that’s it, in a nutshell. All my answers are just answers looking for questions.

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