A Tom Waits tune is liable to open with a clown driving a rusted out caddy with a broken headlight and a dead hooker in the trunk. And then, in a voice of gravel and old timber soaked in rotgut bourbon, he somehow turns this horror show into something at once transcendent and sweet. Much more than a poet of the streets, he’s the dharma bum who can transmute down at the heels grotesqueries into the lyrical and even the spiritually fecund.
Dressed like the surly lounge piano player he once was, Waits’ career of nearly half a century has given such iconic albums as Raindogs, dark musicals like Franks’ Wild Years and numerous performances in film (my favorite being his turn as the Devil in Terry Gilliam’s Imaginarium). The man himself has largely remained in the shadows, using the iconography of seedy hotels and hobo love songs without making it clear what was personal anecdote and what was extended metaphor.
Paul Maher Jr.’s incredibly complete collection, Tom Waits on Tom Waits: Interviews and Encounters, doesn’t pull its subject out of the shadows so much as it follows him there. The book contains interviews, articles and critical commentary on Waits and his work dating back to 1973. Maher organizes this warehouse of material by dividing it according to album release. And, there have been a lot of those, some you know well and some only the most dedicated Waits fan has had a listen too.
Waits developed his cult following in the ‘70s with albums like Blue Valentine. In those days, he was a threadbare cartographer of the territory between the pool hall, the flophouse and the tattoo parlor, the place he later called “ragwater, bitters and blue ruin” where the girl at the bar has “a tattooed tear” and “razor sadness that just gets worse with time.” As more than one interviewer notes, the line between what he sang about and how he lived became increasingly blurry.
In 1980, he met Kathleen Brennan. Brennan became not only his wife, but his musical collaborator. He stopped drinking so much. He never truly left the streets but his music became more experimental, weirder, and more open to a wide range of influences. In his 1983 album Swordfishtrombones, you start to hear found sounds, dirges, marches, even the influence of the graveyard poets.
Ironically, this experimentation began a period that brought Waits his greatest success. Of course, this does not mean mainstream stardom. One of the more depressing aspects of this collection is that most of the interviewers have to introduce Waits to their audience. But maybe that’s not too depressing. Tom Waits would simply not be Tom Waits if he had somehow become more than a cult figure. In fact, its more or less impossible to even imagine him as something other than this, or that even he would want it any other way.
Maher’s choices for this collection gravitate toward material that focuses on Waits’ as a personality rather than critical work concerned with songwriting and performance. Waits the teller of tales, often very tall ones, is who we end up meeting and, like a number of enigmatic artists, its not always clear where the truth of his biography begins and ends. A number of interviewees had some fun just trying to guess what was true and what was false.
In these early years, only occasionally do the interviewers and critics really seem to get Waits to tell any real secrets about himself. In a rare moment of connecting his biography to his songwriting, Waits told the Dallas Morning News in 1977 that “San Diego Serenade” was about a girl he knew. “I was crazy about her… so was her husband. But that went the way of all flesh.”
And that’s all you get. After that, its some grumpy ruminations on death and dying combined with a run-down of jobs he’s supposedly held, some true and some Waitsian fairy tale (such as his claim that he was once “a labor organizer in a maternity ward”).
This changes over time. I mean, you wouldn’t want to say Waits becomes more mellow. Interviewers admit their nervousness in dealing with him in even recent years, almost as if they are sitting down over coffee with some mythical trickster liable to pull them down a rabbit hole into his alternative universe of freight trains, three time losers and sad-eyed sideshow dropouts.
He certainly becomes more forthcoming. In the last decade, he has occasionally, if briefly, spoken about his father, a figure who disappeared in his childhood and has clearly haunted him since. And, overall, some of the sudden coldness and distance that early interviewers reported seems to be gone, or at least tempered by his trademark unsmiling humor and easy, informal politeness.
He still plays around and some of the interviews, to many Waits’ fans delight, turn into a kind of Tuesdays with Tom, an experience as weird as such a thing would be. Want to hear the mad bard on the origins of the two-piece bathing suit, the relationship between civil war era songs and hip-hop, or his love for Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone? It’s all here.
We even get a bit of Waits on politics in recent years. This is unusual for him, as he has, thankfully in some ways, steered away from commenting on current events. But the invasion of Iraq and George W. Bush’s administration seems to have changed that.
Even when getting political, Waits is equal parts Lincolnesque humor and William S. Burroughs metaphysic. “I think the real problem was that Bush really wanted to be the commissioner of baseball and that job was not available,” he quips, adding that America, became a place where “We’re at a cross roads everyday. I could jump out of the window right now instead of just looking out it.” Ponder that last statement a bit and I think you’ll discover it’s the secret history of the last decade or so of American life.
Absolutely required for Waits fans old and new, this pile of interviews is a magic mountain of weird. A few will complain that there’s not more critical commentary on the music. But for many of us, the music is what we know, already. We’ve just wanted to meet the strange old wizard who conjured it all. Maher’s work has made that possible.