The wit and wisdom of Tom Waits

by Jim Higgins

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MCT)

5 August 2011


Tom Waits doesn’t exactly approach an interview as opportunity for self-disclosure. He’s more the hepcat who likes to play with the interviewing mouse.

Still, his interviews, at minimum, offer generous samples of his wit, and sometimes go on to make deeper observations about himself, music or the human condition.

In “Tom Waits on Tom Waits: Interviews and Encounters” (Chicago Review Press, $19.95), editor Paul Maher Jr. has compiled more than 50 interviews from Waits to “illustrate his creative progression through the years.” Maher has organized them chronologically around Waits’ albums, so they begin with “Closing Time” (1973) and go through 2008.

Interviews from some big publications such as Rolling Stone and the New York Times weren’t included, because the permission fees would have been prohibitive, Maher writes. That did not faze the editor:

“I have tried to include those instances in which Waits may have shared something truly unique with an interviewer. Waits does not put on more airs for a magazine like Vanity Fair than he would for a skateboarding magazine.”

Maher is not kidding about skateboarding magazines. His book includes a 2002 interview with Waits published in skateboarding mag Big Brother.

The public first heard Waits in the ‘70s as a beatnik, boozy singer-songwriter with a gravelly voice and a talent for wordplay, unafraid to share his respect for the rough-edged writer Charles Bukowski and the late Jack Kerouac. In 1974, a radio station interviewer asked Waits how he began doing spoken-word pieces:

“... the first time I heard any spoken word that I was really impressed with was an album called Jack Kerouac/Steve Allen — and he talked while Steve Allen played some stuff and he just talked over the top of it and it was real, real effective. I never heard anything like it, so I wrote a few little things.”

In that same interview, he praises Mose Allison as an economical songwriter he couldn’t help but love: “He’s like honey poured all over you.”

With deepening and variations, Waits mined similar musical and personal territory through “Heartattack and Vine” (1980). Though his fandom may have been modest compared to stars of the time, it included many musicians. Some would go on to record Waits’ tunes; a few would bring those songs to mass audiences and, I hope, make Waits some big green in songwriting royalties, including Bruce Springsteen with “Jersey Girl.” In an Elektra Records promo interview, Waits said of the Boss-ready song:

“I never thought I would catch myself saying ‘sha la la’ in a song. This is my first experiment with ‘sha la la.’ It has one of them kinda Drifters’ feels ... So, lyrically, I tried to do it straight-ahead, a guy walking down the street to see his girl.”

Then, over the next few years, Waits made changes in his life that resulted in a remarkable second act for his musical career. While working on the film “One From the Heart,” he met and married script editor and writer Kathleen Brennan, who would become a regular collaborator. He parted with his longtime producer and fired his manager. He also moved to Island Records, which welcomed his experimental impulses. His next studio recording, “Swordfishtrombones” (1983), expanded his instrumental palette well beyond the jazz/blues club sounds of his earlier records. Harmonium, calliope, homemade percussion instruments — anything that makes a sound can show up on a Tom Waits song now.

While Waits’ sound has changed, he didn’t become a brand-new person, even as a songwriter. The deeply romantic strain of his early music persists, sometimes aurally distorted, sometimes beautifully stated, in his later period. Some of his songs would have sounded completely natural and beautiful in the voice of Frank Sinatra, and if you believe what some have said, attempts were made to get Sinatra to sing some of Waits’ music.

Waits developed an ancillary career as an actor, with more than a dozen roles in films since 1978. In 1992, a radio interview asked him about portraying Renfield, the demented sidekick in “Dracula”:

“Well, you see a lot of people think that I ate these insects and I wanted to really set the record straight on that because I didn’t actually eat the insects, you know, I put ‘em in my mouth like I gave ‘em a carnival ride like a fun house. I put ‘em in the fun house and I let them move around my mouth and then I brought ‘em back out again. You know, I didn’t actually murder them with my teeth.”

Waits’ growling, gravelly Satchmo-meets-hobo voice was too tasty for a snack company to resist, and resulted in a payday for Waits. Frito-Lay wanted to use Waits’ jazzy patter song “Step Right Up” for a commercial, but he turned them down. Frito-Lay hired a sound-alike to record a similar song. Waits sued and won, and ultimately was award $2.375 million. He is vigilant about keeping his music out of advertising, making him more of a musical lone wolf with each passing year.

The growl is not Waits’ only voice, as he proved in the remarkable Steppenwolf Theatre production of “Franks Wild Years” in 1986 in Chicago. The play was a vehicle for Waits to sing his songs for more than two hours each night, accompanied by a small onstage band, without relying on his bullhorns and other vocal distortion tricks. It was one of the most remarkable shows I’ve ever seen.

While still guarded about his personal life, Waits has opened up thoughtfully in recent years about the music he makes, as in this 2006 interview with Pitchfork’s Amanda Petrusich:

“I’m usually more concerned with how things sound than how they look on the page. Some people write for the page, and that’s a whole other thing. I’m going for what it sounds like right away, so it may not even look good on the page. But I’m still a word guy. I’m drawn to people who use a certain vernacular and communicate with words. Words are music, really. I mean, people ask me, ‘Do you write music or do you write words?’ But you don’t really, it’s all one thing at its best. Sometimes when you’re making songs you just make sounds, and the sounds slowly mutate and evolve into actual words that have meaning.”

Of course, Waits still has his sense of humor:

“AP: Do you have a favorite sound?

“TW: Bacon. In a frying pan. If you record the sound of bacon in a frying pan and play it back it sounds like the pops and cracks on an old 33 1/3 recording.”

Blessedly, Maher’s book includes a detailed index. Thank you, editor and publisher, for not stinting on that essential appendix for a browsable book like this.


A Tom Waits playlist

For readers who are new to Waits, here’s my recommended playlist of songs (in chronological order of release) to check out. It leans heavily toward the two albums I consider his best: “Rain Dogs” (1985) and “Mule Variations” (1999). This is just one listener’s opinion. Other Waits fans could give you a very different list.

1. “Ol’ 55” (Closing Time)

2. “Step Right Up” (Small Change)

3. “Better Off Without a Wife” (Nighthawks at the Diner)

4. “Romeo Is Bleeding” (Blue Valentine)

5. “Jersey Girl” (Heartattack and Vine)

6. “Downtown Train” (Rain Dogs)

7. “Walking Spanish” (Rain Dogs)

8. “Cemetery Polka” (Rain Dogs)

9. “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” (Bone Machine)

10. “Hold On” (Mule Variations)

11. “What’s He Building In There” (Mule Variations)

12. “Picture in a Frame” (Mule Variations)

13. “Table Top Joe” (Alice)

14. “Make It Rain” (Real Gone)

15. “Hoist That Rag” (Real Gone)

16. “What Keeps Mankind Alive” (Orphans)

Covering Waits playlist

Big-name performers have kept Waits in gas money by recording his songs, including Bruce Springsteen (“Jersey Girl”), Rod Stewart (“Downtown Train”) and the Eagles (“Ol’ 55”). Here are my favorite recordings of Waits songs by other performers:

1. “(Looking For) The Heart of Saturday Night,” Holly Cole

2. “Way Down in the Hole,” Blind Boys of Alabama

3. “The Piano Has Been Drinking,” Dan Hicks and The Hot Licks

4. “Red Shoes by the Drugstore,” The Wedding Present

5. “Down Down Down” The Hell Blues Choir

6. “Dead and Lovely,” Southside Johnny

7. “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” Ramones

What Waits listens to

In 2005, Waits picked 20 favorite albums for The Guardian, from Sinatra’s “In the Wee Small Hours” (1955) to Captain Beefheart’s “Trout Mask Replica” (1969) to the cheerfully titled “16 Prison Songs: Murderous Home Alan Lomax Collection” (1997).

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