About halfway through an hour-long conversation on phone lines that occasionally crack and fizzle as if they are being gnawed, the talk turns to moles.
“In the mole community, they honor and decorate moles for having tunneled beneath great rivers,” Tom Waits says, a propos of nothing, in his inimitable dirt-road voice. “They bring those moles flowers and food. They live out their life like a decorated soldier.”
A minute earlier, the reclusive Waits was talking about a 1,000-pound Vietnamese catfish. Before that, a giant tuber. All of these arcane topics have precisely nothing, and everything, to do with “Orphans,” the three-CD boxed set that gathers obscure and never-released tracks in one to-die-for collector’s package. Anti- Records releases “Orphans” Tuesday.
You could say Waits is the king of making mountains out of molehills, of turning idiosyncrasies and eccentricities into artistic statements and masterpieces. Colorful metaphors and offbeat tangents have been the 56-year-old singer/songwriter’s calling cards since the early ‘70s, when he was a beatnik crooner at Los Angeles’s Troubadour nightclub. The Southern California native has built an extraordinary career out of taking the path less traveled: singing about Jersey girls, barflies, and barnyards, and portraying fly-eating vampire buddies, weapons mechanics, and escaped convicts.
“Orphans” isn’t so much the next stop on that road as a way station, a place to take stock and refuel. The 56 cuts include newly recorded songs and old tracks from compilations and soundtracks. They’re grouped into three discs: “Brawlers” are pieces of rock ‘n’ roll resistance; “Bawlers” are hymns, waltzes and ballads; “Bastards” are experimental flotsam and jetsam.
“It was mostly that I was afraid if I didn’t get them all in one drawer somewhere that I was going to lose them,” Waits explains, speaking from his home in California’s wine country. “Some of them I did: Had to buy ‘em from a guy in Russia who had some tapes.”
Waits is a yarn-spinner. On “Orphans,” he sings about Palestinean suicide bombers, adulterers and murderers. He also covers the Ramones, Kurt Weill, Jack Kerouac, Daniel Johnston, and Leadbelly. It’s hard to know when he’s serious and when he’s pulling your leg. Long ago, Waits created himself as a character: a gravel-voiced hobo bard capable of breaking out of a mumble into such heartbreaking songs as “Downtown Train.” Midcareer, the rascal got married, had kids, and moved to the country, where he reinvented himself as an old bumpkin.
“I felt like an unplugged appliance when I first came here,” he says. “I’m settled in now. Now it’s hard to get me out of here. I keep all my money in a coffee can in the back yard. I have a gun and a big porch and about nine dogs. My neighbors, they’re all afraid of me. I have big tires that are painted white, and I wrote `no trespassing’ and `keep out’ on all the tires, put them all around.”
The signs, of course, are metaphorical and meant to keep prying reporters and fans away. Waits has shrouded his life in mythos in part to keep it private. “Most of the really great artists in the world you’ve never even heard. They’re too shy,” he says with some envy.
At this point, Waits is talking about one of his favorite topics: Kathleen Brennan, his wife and collaborator.
“Kathleen’s my eyes and ears and everything. She has a pilot’s license, she can sing like Maria Callas, she’s a bathing beauty, she’s a treehugger, and she can fix the truck. She was a roofer for a while. She worked at a funeral home and was going to be a nun. She’s done a million things. She’s a jack-of-all-trades.”
Brennan changed his life. Waits was on the verge of becoming a dissolute, alcoholic, artist cliche when he met the playwright through a film studio a quarter-century ago. She whisked him out to the country; he has said that she also made him sober. He has released some of his best albums since their marriage: ‘85’s “Raindogs,” ‘92’s “Bone Machine,” and ‘99’s “Mule Variations.”
When Waits describes the creative process of putting together “Orphans,” he uses metaphors of domestication. “It’s like making dinner for somebody. At first I was going to make it really really crude. Then I said, `Oh God, you probably should straighten up here a little bit. People are coming over.’ That’s usually what happens. You go, `Oh, that’s enough, that’s done. Don’t do anything else to it, don’t touch it, just leave it alone, it’s fine the way it is.’ Then you start arguing about, `oh no you better change your shirt.’ And slowly it develops into something.”
It would be wrong, however, to say Brennan has cleaned up Waits’ act. “I’m much more traditional; she’s much more revolutionary,” he says.
In fact, the artist has gotten weirder with age. His earliest recordings were his most accessible. Now, he makes whole albums where he eschews his old friend the piano, making music with homemade instruments, barn tools, or simply by using his mouth, human beatbox style. “I like to make melodies up without an instrument, like you’re drawing in the air with your finger. More like the choreography of a bee.”
With three kids in their teens and 20s, the influence of rap techniques on Waits’ music is inevitable: “Hip-hop is still the Wild West, it’s unsettled territory,” he says. “It’s still OK to put hot sauce in a milkshake.”
It’s a curious image: the grizzled outcast as father figure. But Waits long ago settled into family life. “Kids fit their parents, I think,” he says. “So I got picked.”
He wrote one of the greatest child’s-eye songs of all time: “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” - although his rebel soul undoubtedly identified with the song’s sentiment as his own: “I don’t want my hair to fall out ... I don’t wanna be a good Boy Scout.”
Waits paints a picture of a cacophonous, loving, democratic household. “If you don’t have kids you can sit around and listen to your own records. `Take this sh—off dad; if you play one more Leadbelly song… .’ Slowly my songs don’t dominate the household. You loosen up a little bit. It’s just like fashion or food or humor or dancing - you let out the old and bring in the new.”
Waits’ son Casey plays drums on “Orphans.” Other musicians include Charlie Musselwhite and members of the Clubfoot Orchestra. The new tracks were recorded in various studios, including Waits’ barn.
“My idea is you write two songs, you put them in the room together, and they have kids. And if at the end of the song it didn’t work, you cut it up and use it for bait to catch other songs. Some of these are songs that fell behind the stove. And some are songs that were inspired by those others.”
Waits also has a formidable acting career, having starred in “Down By Law,” “Coffee and Cigarettes,” “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” “Mystery Men,” “Ironweed,” “Domino,” and more. He’s written songs and scores for countless movies. But he finds film-making frustrating.
“With music and films, by the time they get to you, they’re at the end of their money and patience and then they want a tune and they don’t want to pay much for it and they want it by the weekend and they think that the song will eventually maybe save the film. It’s usually an awkward enterprise. Sometimes you hit it.
“I’m not really an actor. I haven’t really figured out how to do it. If you have a small part you spend a lot of time just getting up to speed and you’ve only got a few scenes to do it. It’s like jumping on a moving train and then jumping off, and trying to act like you’ve been there all along. Most of the time you’re just trying to stand up and get your balance.”
Songwriting is Waits’ talent and calling - even when he’s discounting its importance. “Making up tunes, I don’t know why people make such a big deal out of it. I’m not an astronaut, I’m not a brain surgeon. There’s times when songs are everywhere, there’s times when they’re not. When you raise kids together, making tunes is simple.”
Waits is the son of schoolteachers, but he himself dropped out of high school. Being an autodidact is part of his persona. So is being an anachronism: he was a jazz singer in the rock era; now he’s a luddite in the digital age. Ask him who he’s listening to and he answers: “Crying Sam Collins. Roosevelt Sykes. Memphis Minnie. Jack Teagarden. Oh, those guys aren’t around anymore! The interesting thing is they ARE around, which is the beauty of recording. It’s pretty mystifying if you think about it, that in a three-minute period of time, somebody’s musical life is captured forever on a little black disc. Put the needle down and it’s as fresh as it was the day they made it. ...
“Most people are doing bad impersonations of other singers. That’s all I’m doing. James Brown, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan - people like that, rolled into one. You can’t really sound like anybody other than yourself. In the attempt to sound like somebody else, slowly you start sounding more like yourself. That’s your journey as an artist, to find out who you are.”
Waits’ legendary mystique is grounded in the everyday lives of forgotten people and songs. He has always sung of and for the people who live on the streets or in fleabag hotels, or who ride the rails, or fish their meals out of rivers. Songs, he says, are made like anything else: by tinkering.
“The origins of them are very ordinary. And that’s what’s important to remember. You make these tunes, you have to put things in them that are kind of like a little voodoo doll: a little bone, a little hair. My theory is you’ve gotta put the names of towns, something to eat and some people in there. And above all, weather.”