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Tom Waits: Eluding the Authorities

Tim Scherman
"Self-portrait" from

However many smokes he’s inhaled since childhood, Waits' trademark growl is a choice -- his first step to direct listeners' attention to the work of musical performance.

It's been decades since Tom Waits passed from minor cult hero status, a “romantic neo-beatnik poetic singer/songwriter" with a passionate but relatively small following, into a versatile artist whose work and figure are now widely recognized. More or less everyone who listens to music knows his voice, variously described as “gravely", “a distinctive raspy baritone", or more precisely, as one fan puts it, "how you'd sound if you drank a quart of bourbon, smoked a pack of cigarettes, and swallowed a pack of razor blades… late at night after not sleeping for three days" (Tom Waits v. Frito Lay). Literally painful to impersonate (trained singers can hardly imagine how Waits has maintained in his live performances), the voice carries with it the pain of the characters we've come to expect in his music -- the poor and the downtrodden, the reclusive man in the house on the corner, or his neighbor the truck driver, or the half-drunk sidewalk preacher, the wandering hobo, the circus freak. There was a time, from the beginning of his career in the early '70s to roughly 1980, the time of Heartattack and Vine and his marriage to Kathleen Brennan, when Waits' drinking habits and social inclinations actually matched those of the host of misfits in his songs, but since then, and arguably as early as 1975 when Waits confessed, flatly, “I just want to go up and be a caricature of myself on stage," the path of Waits' actual life and art have diverged from that of the ghostly persona that continues to haunt his public figure.

Even as the Waits “voice" has remained more or less a constant, listeners familiar with the arc of his artistic career may respect him more for his stylistic versatility than for a growl emerging from a rumpled hat and goateed chin. Brennan, his musical and lyrical collaborator, downplays that diversity, jokingly dividing Waits' oeuvre roughly in half between “Grim Reapers" and “Grand Weepers", but Waits credits her for pushing him in new directions, incorporating and adapting a whole history of musical idioms into his own sound -- from the work songs and rhythms behind American Blues found in Allan Lomax recordings to New Orleans Jazz; from the keywork of Hoagy Carmichael and Kurt Weill and Thelonius Monk to the electro-mechanics of Harry Chamberlin; from the psychedelic dissonance of Don Van Vliet to his own inventions in spoken word and percussion effects inspired by Ken Nordine and Harry Partch. As Luc Sante of the Village Voice wrote in a review of Waits' Mule Variations release of 1999, Waits has “collected and scrambled together what seems like every sort of music ever played in a bar in the 20th century."

It doesn't take a musicologist to recognize Waits' stylistic nods: one might take “Old Shoes", from Waits' first album Closing Time as a Dylan cover, for example, and we might be surprised when Waits drops the skull and bones percussion tools in his 1985 album, Raindogs, for a straight country riff in “Blind Love". One wonders, in fact, if Waits isn't just showing off this knack for stylistic appropriation in his aging but most recent album, Bad as Me, where we can hear a medley of Elvis, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley in “Get Lost"; or the unmistakable strum and croon of Roy Orbison floating behind “Back in the Crowd." The song entitled “Satisfied" on this album brings stylistic troping to a more literal level, responding directly to the Rolling Stones contrarily entitled anthem “(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction", even calling out “Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards" (in a video version, one can even see Waits suggest the Jagger strut). Of course, the lead guitar in that cut sounds especially Stones-like because Waits' longtime compatriot and collaborator Keith Richards is playing it.

Perhaps these two dimensions of Waits' artistic persona are now familiar to many -- let's call them the neo-beatnik and the stylistic “bricoleur". What hasn't been done, to this point, is to see the production and maintenance of these sorts of masks or identities as a symptom of a moment in the development of popular music in the US -- a moment when new technologies of music production and distribution, along with a body of law governing new relations among artists, producers, and the listening public, have combined to produce a dominant music culture whose sole source and end is profit. It's not new to claim this as one of the most heated and central topics of Waits' serious public pronouncements; what may be new is an attempt to see both the cultural “problem" and Waits' solution in the context of their particular point in cultural history. By doing so here, I want to offer a new way to understand the music of Tom Waits.

In broad cultural terms, to do this is to place Waits' career in the context of postmodernism, which, as cultural critic Fred Jameson has argued, should be seen as the dominant cultural logic of late capitalist economic and social relations. Setting Waits in this historical and cultural context, the purpose of this essay is to reveal, both in the forms of his music and in Waits' mode of self-presentation, an acute awareness of and a resistance to the effects of this mode of cultural production on his art and that of others -- effects which threaten to convert the downtrodden and forlorn characters that people his music into figures for sentimental consumption, or which might have us confuse allusions to the original idioms of American blues and folk music in Waits' work for attempts to sell them as exchangeable “styles". In fact for Waits, this threat appeared very early in his career, as his unique voice and persona emerged as precisely “recognizable" by a group of faithful listeners that became, for his record label, a “market" whose expectations began to determine what sort of music Waits should produce next time. “When people have a notion of who you are," Waits recalled of this period in his career, “they want you to stay that way... People always like to have continuity in their products and services. But music isn't breakfast cereal, or at least it shouldn't be" (quoted in Montandan, 209).

To some ways, Waits' complaint addresses a set of relations between art and the marketplace that hasn't changed much since the 19th century. At least since Edgar Allan Poe was writing in the 1830s (and the echoes between Poe and Waits are worth a paper in themselves), “art" has seemed to struggle for its own integrity apart from the market that gives it a place. More important, however, is what its economic incorporation has done to our perception of art over time. If in Poe's time it was valued for its “originality" or “genius," traceable to the mind and spirit of a unique individual, in the 20th century, modernists like T.S. Eliot lamented the way dominant values of “originality" and newness had made culture a self-obsolescent practice, feverishly out-innovating itself, forgetting in the process those greater and deeper traditions in which the history of our greatest art lay lost and wasted. Quite a few critics have honored Waits as one of those artists whose aim has been to rediscover and re-register, like the curator of some hobo museum, the sounds of “low life" our antiseptic pop culture has sent off to the junkyard.

But by the time we reach our own postmodern moment, anything like “preservation" or “restoration" is viewed as a rearguard practice, or considered immediately suspect by cynical audiences who regard “originality" as a fond illusion, and any idea of a reclaimed foundation or tradition is immediately greeted (in a now automatic cultural reflex) by claims for myriad exceptions or exclusions that reveal a pervasive groundlessness. If Waits or other artists would resist their incorporation into the marketplace today, they would seem to have to do so in this particularly amnesiac postmodern environment where these latter attitudes have become dominant -- where the game of turning artists into exchangeable images is, in Waits words, “just the business we call show." It may be, of course, that Waits is among a new set of artists whose methods and goals are now producing an emergent cultural logic “beyond" the postmodern, and I will return to this possibility later. Before that, I want to clarify how I think Waits' work still works, even in a postmodern context that threatens to convert every lyric into a potential jingle, every riff into a possible background for the latest Geico ad streaming before that podcast you just downloaded.

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One tried and true method of resistance to the appropriation of one's artistic integrity is to simply disappear into whatever mythic identity the market offers and somehow maintain a bodily (in this case, suburban?) identity “reserve" beyond its reach. Wait spent years producing such an identity in countless interviews -- rehearsing, for example, his birth in a taxicab, or the claim that he spent the long hiatus between his albums appearing in 1992 and 1999 in traffic school, or moving a hole in his yard. He has made the location of his home in the hills north of San Francisco a publicly advertised secret, pulling up on a surprisingly regular schedule in a hulking black Silverado or similarly comfortable conveyance to meet interviewers at truck stops like Jerry's along route 101 in Monte Rio, holding forth in a series of provocative evasions, then disappearing into the dusty crepuscule, à la Ethan Edwards at the end of The Searchers. In recent years the creation of his private persona itself (in a particularly postmodern self-reflexivity) has become a joke about reclusive artists he enjoys telling on himself. To questions about his late arrival to Neil Young's Bridge School benefit in 2013 he explained he had “every intention to stay home and work on my J.D. Salinger Halloween mask, but when Neil told me yesterday he was serving burnt cow's eyes on a flat tire and it's all gluten free, I invited myself."

As a 2014 interview with John Stewart shows, sometimes he simply has to state the case baldly, knowing that by now his ceaselessly ironic tone will transcend even the most flatly sincere delivery:

Stewart: I'm just absolutely delighted to see you. I was struck -- when I met backstage your wife, your family -- how unbeaten by life you are. You just seem vivacious and… and… I used to listen to your music and think “boy I'd really like to lie in the street half-dead with that guy." Waits (smiles): It's an act.

At some point very early on in his career, in fact, Waits's persona and its difference from whoever Waits “really" is became an obligatory focus of writing on Waits, at least in reviews and interviews, where the media's knowledge that they are being conned has passed for information they are never able to provide. “His press kit reads like a rap sheet on a guy with nothing but aliases," writes Robert Sabbagg of the Los Angeles Times (quoted in Montandon, 69). “With Waits there's no way to tell what's real and what's imagined," another reporter writes; “In the flesh, just as on his albums, he's able to evade you, make you wonder what he invented… where fact meets fiction"(quoted in Montandon, 56). In what seems very much like a perfectly postmodern acceptance of his replacement by a media-generated image, Waits has incorporated this intrusive cat-and-mouse game into songs like “What's He Building In There", whose lyrics catalog the sketchy bits of evidence used to paint a neighborhood recluse into the image of a deviant, a criminal, even a murderer, or “Bad as Me", a list of rambling ID cards: “I'm the blood on the floor, the thunder and the roar, I'm the boat that won't sink, I just won't sleep a wink", the point of which seems to be that “we" are what we see in others. When piqued, Waits scoffs at attempts to see behind his persona, telling one reporter “I mean, I could tell you anything: 'Helen Keller made an appearance in the last tune, and it's sung by her mother.''(Oh, okay).' Your mind will make sense of anything" (quoted in Montandon, 216).

Of course many in the industry know how to get Waits to drop the mask very quickly, precisely by engaging the subject of his leadership in taking a public stance against the industry's conversion of music into commerce, and some artists' willingness to sell out. Responses to such questions can produce a genuine rant, and one wonders if interviewers shy away from the subject more to keep their work light and fun or for fear of their being associated with aspects of the industry that Waits so resents. When asked about why today's musicians are more willing to have their music used in advertising, Waits' response -- “I don't know -- they're high on crack" -- might begin a more complex analysis, since he admits without his own copyrights to his early work, he, like others, “is not in control" of what happens to it. His unreserved derision goes to those “in it for the money, period" who pollute listeners' personal, historical associations through music with commercial relations.

In October 1988, when Frito Lay ran a commercial for its new SalsaRio Doritos featuring a Tom Waits sound-alike, Waits discarded all irony and sued the company for voice misappropriation and false endorsement in the Superior Court for the State of California and was awarded $2.6 million in damages (Waits v. Frito Lay). Almost perversely, Fritos had gone ahead with the ad even after advertising executives warned the company that in response to an earlier offer he'd received, Waits had expressed his adamant disdain for the commercial use of his voice; that the imitation of Waits voice was far too accurate for listeners not to mistake it as Waits' own, not to mention the fact that the song they'd imitated was “Step Right Up", Waits' scatted send-up of commercial hucksterism from the mid-'70s. An appeal of the decision to the 9th Circuit was denied, but it's important to note that it was based on legal definitions of “distinctiveness" of voice and of the difference between “voice", which is legally protected, and “style" which, Waits' lawyer agreed, was not. Artistic integrity, as such, was not considered.

More than a decade later, Waits' sued again for the unauthorized use of his work -- this time for an Audi car commercial screened in Spain in the year 2000. The judgment in Waits' favor, not handed down until 2006, was a landmark decision in European courts protecting the personality and reputation of writers and authors, acknowledging an artist's voice as his creative work. Still, when asked to comment on this latter victory, he sighed with exhaustion, “There are things I would rather be doing... But in a way," he added, "you're building a road that other people will drive on. I have a moral right to my voice. It's like property -- there's a fence around it, in a way.'' Justifiably proud to have created precedent others might rely on, Waits repeats the words “in a way" as a hedge against his ironic position: for even if he has used the very legal system that undergirds a system of property rights to defend his integrity as an artist, retaining his image as his own specifically as his “private property" simply duplicates the logic of late-capitalist alienation he's been implicitly rejecting since the '70s. Admittedly, $2.6 million bought Waits some freedom to do “what he'd rather be doing", including two very challenging stage projects with theatre director Robert Wilson in mid-'90s, but if his goal is to jam the machinery of postmodern style reproduction long enough to alert listeners and other artists to what they've been missing, finally, the law is not Waits' most effective weapon.

"Alternative to WHAT?"

If part of Waits' resistance to the commodification of his voice was to gain legal control over it, his frustrations with the system of which the meaning of his art was becoming the effect long predated the kind of economic success that could purchase a relative autonomy from the system. Indeed, from almost the beginning, Waits' resistance has inhered not in legal proceedings or public statements on behalf of artistic integrity but in the form of his music itself. In an interview following the release of Small Change, still some years before he would leave Bones Howe (who also produced Sinatra, Elvis, and the Monkees) he'd come to realize that the music business is just like … the restaurant or casket business." But “instead of spouting my views in Scientific American on the vulnerability of the American public to our product-oriented society," he explained, “I wrote “Step Right Up."

Waits' work creates unstable isotopes of sound that challenge listeners to change their expectations for what has passed as pop.
It's not that Waits discovered a more efficient “delivery system" for his critique of a culture of copies, for the history of musical style and culture has proven itself every bit as insistent on codes of rules and patterns of appropriate behavior as the legal system that had given him only economic control of his image and art. “There is a certain veneer to jazz and to any music," Waits explained in an interview, “after a while it gets traffic rules, and the music takes a backseat to the rules. It's like aerial photography, telling you that this is how we do it." Rather, what has allowed Waits to make musical form his resistance to the commodification of his work is a complex strategy that arguably presages features of art beyond the postmodern. Refusing generic divisions (for example, that between overt cultural critique and jazz) along with the kind of consistency that would allow the market to reproduce an accurate image of his work, Waits has given even his recorded work the ineffable, unreproducible, “had to be there" feel of performance. In its almost total abandonment the idea of an art one can trace back to an “original" genius who would “own" it, Waits' work inaugurates an authorship that is collaborative, spontaneous, and multivalent. Encouraging the musicians around him to find shades of difference in an industrial environment that must categorize him as “Alternative" (“alternative to WHAT?!" Waits once shouted at his collaborator, Jim Jarmusch), his work is less to write music than to create an environment in which musicians challenge him, and he challenges them, creating unstable isotopes of sound that challenge listeners to change their expectations for what has passed as pop.

Since the mid-'80s, the phrase Waits has used to describe the resistance of his work to mere consumption or stylistic appropriation is “the hair in the gate", a phrase he claims to have borrowed from Richards (who likely borrowed it from Warhol) that in the hands of linguists like Jakobson or Shklovsky might connote the phatic use of language, or language that refers to the medium of communication itself (e.g. ,“look, I'm typing"). Now common in the discourses of film and photography, the reference invokes the idea of literal dirt and hair one might see in the corner of a film as a celluloid film passes through the gate of the projector, the effect of which is to draw our attention away from the image represented and to the fact and conditions of its representation, its celluloid medium, the production of the illusion, and the work of the artist. Put enough hair in the gate, and it becomes almost physically impossible to see through the medium to the image and its effect, to consume it without reflection. Our attention is diverted to the medium of the artwork's production -- even to the decaying body of the artist, shedding hair. Rolling Stone's Anthony DeCurtis claimed this “kind of self-consciousness" kept Waits from becoming popular in the first decades of his career. “It is not an American thing," he explained, authoritatively missing the point I am suggesting here, that in fact, Waits' whole aesthetic seeks to revise the way Americans listen to music (Under the Influence).

In musical terms, “the hair in the gate" takes myriad forms in Waits' work. The first is most obviously his vocal style, which given the threat of Waits' displacement by the “brand" by which he has become known may seem less a resistance to and more a symptom of a postmodern culture that diverts every index leading to history or authentic human creation into a self-reflexive channel-- back to a “style" that can then be packaged and sold. But listen to Waits' early songs, which reveal a relatively smooth baritone with perfect pitch and a tremendous range, and you realize that however many smokes he's inhaled since childhood, the trademark growl is a choice, and it is perhaps the first step Waits took to arrest listening consumers and direct their attention to the work of musical performance.


Another method of achieving “the hair in the gate" is found in Waits' technique of adopting styles, forms, and even references that audiences recognize only to present them in what might be called “inappropriate" musical or lyrical contexts that produce what I have elsewhere called a “translated" feel, “the disquieting suspicion that somewhere here we are missing something" (Scherman, 293-94). At times this effect is achieved through tensions between style -- or the traditional content of a given musical form -- and sense. With its throat-tearing chorus and the open distortion of Marc Ribot's guitar, “Hoist that Rag", for example, delivers an auditory violence that tells us this song is a critique of American military imposture (“stick our fingers in the ground, heave and turn the world around"), but behind it all, the beat of a happy mambo that could equally be taken for macho celebration of power is unmistakable. We may be relieved that a suicide doesn't happen in the eerily spoken “The Ocean Doesn't Want Me Today," but before we can categorize it as a powerful male representation of an inner monologue from Shakespeare's Ophelia or Chopin's Edna Pontellier, we notice Waits' queer nasal delivery, giving listeners the distinct sense that he has recorded the song while wearing a diving mask and snorkel.

In “Walking Spanish" those unacquainted with prison slang gradually learn the phrase refers to a prisoner's walk to the electric chair or gas chamber, but even as we are invited to share in the inmates' pride that the condemned “never sang when he got hoodwinked -- they tried it all but he never would", Waits' setting of the scene in a swinging beat and the flaring accents of New Orleans Jazz makes us question what is to be “celebrated" here in the killing of a man. If that's not enough, the song iconoclastically concludes, “Even Jesus wanted just a little more time, when he was walking Spanish down the hall" -- a metaphor the Bible tells us might be literally true, delivered in a context pretty foreign to Easter sermons.

The reference to Jesus in “Walking Spanish" is one of many, and the more one listens, it becomes clear that the Bible is one of two referential spaces Waits regularly returns to in ways that generate the jolt of incongruity in mismatched content and context, disallowing anything like “easy listening." “Black Wings" from Bone Machine may provide the most obvious example. While the opening lines promise a traditional religious reference base “You take an eye for an eye / a tooth for a tooth / Like the say in the Bible", what we get very soon is a darkly gothic Jesus in a sinister translation of the transition from the passion of Christ (“he's not there for he has risen") to the Acts of the apostles, or a scene where rumors of a black shadowy figure circulate to horrify the apostate: “one look in his eye / And everyone denies / Ever having met him". Of course, those of us who grew up Christian may recognize the apostle Peter here (who denied knowing Jesus three times), but the tune, along with the confusing combination of claims that the black winged figure “once saved a baby from drowning", and “once killed a man with a guitar string", stalks the earth under a “moon that's a cold chiseled dagger". all of it delivered in a narration more hissed (and low) than spoken, leaves us unable to classify the song as purely referential, or for that matter irreverent. Waits' upbeat jazz translations of the gospel shout like “Chocolate Jesus" (Mule Variations) “Jesus Gonna Be Here" (Bone Machine) and “Way Down in the Hole"(Frank's Wild Years) seem to evoke religious references more or less traditional, but then we trip over the refrain to “Heart Attack and Vine," (“That ain't no devil, that's just God when he's drunk") and return to our uneasiness.

The second referential space where Waits frequently plays with listener expectations is that of the nursery rhyme, or more generally the songs and contexts of childhood -- where the effect is something like happening upon a five year old girl in pigtails in a hash den or playing on the corner next to a bevy of prostitutes. Either way we can't quite concentrate on either point of focus. “Heart Attack and Vine" again provides a classic example, beginning with the rhyme “liar liar with your pants on fire", and later a reference to “doctor, lawyer, beggarman, thief" all in the context of a bums contemplating another hit (“this stuff will probably kill you / Let's do another line") as they hang out on the title's punned street corner. In early Waits, the effect is more creepy; for example, “$29.00, whose “little black girl" barely survives her un-narrated rape, but “A Sweet Little Bullet with a Pretty Blue Gun" is the most difficult to think about.


Beginning “it's raining, it's pouring", and later reminding us of the evening prayer “now I lay me down to sleep", it narrates the murder of one those “little girls with sweet little dreams" at “that place on the drag, the Gilbert Hotel, with a couple letters burned out in the sign". When we discover how young “small change" is in the song of that name off Blue Valentine (no more chewing gum or baseball cards, or overcoats or dreams), it's just sad: his “headstone is a gumball machine". Waits' anti-tribute to Disney's Snow White in “Heigh Ho" sets the elves cheery tune “Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho, it's off to work we go" in the chamberlain's dark minor chords, its originally saccharine chorus nearly drowned out by railroad rhythms and Optigan sound effects. If one imagines Brennan and Waits singing ironic lullabies like this and other “Bastard" adaptations (off Orphans) to little Sullivan Waits as they tuck him into bed, they've succeeded in their effect. (Sullivan, who like his brother Casey has his own musical career, is actually credited for guitar work on the album.)

One of the most arresting effects preventing the easy appropriation or consumption of Waits' lyrics is their frequent rhythmic dislocation (what some musicians call “back phrasing"), purposely misaligning syllables of words with beats of music, or simply packing too many beats into a measure. This effect achieves a kind of realism in songs like “New Years Eve", which depicts domestically dysfunctional moments around midnight on the holiday with a halting rubato of “Auld Lang Syne", cleverly evoking a sense of the celebrants' collective inebriation. More haunting, perhaps, is the eponymously tricky chorus to “How its Going to End", where the insistent pizzicato rhythm of background strings is matched with a rhythm of the title phrase differently each time it arrives, so that we never quite know… well, you get the gag.

In all, the point is not that these distortions, dissonances or realignments making up “the hair in the gate" make Waits' music “unlistenable". Rather, my claim would be that they enact what we might call after J.L. Austin a musical performativity, making it difficult, if not impossible, for listeners to consume these songs -- redirecting us instead, in a material sense, to what we are listening for, and if it's what we think we know, Waits won't let us hear it. Indeed, with all the allusions to what might be called the resistance of defamiliarization and self-reflexivity to capitalist consumption, the “separation" of elements in Waits music that makes their transparency impossible, I imagine some readers may be thinking all I've done is turn Tom Waits into a latter day Bertolt Brecht. While it might bear repeating, in theoretical terms, that we cannot will ourselves back to modernist foundationalism or referentiality or for that matter to modernist defamiliarization in an age whose set of reading assumptions make such moves impossible, perhaps the point is better made by saying that it's hard to do Brecht's trick in an age when the word “Brechtian" has become a familiar term designating yet another well-used style or mode that might be adopted and sold in the cultural marketplace. When David Fricke warns readers of his Rolling Stone review of Waits' Mule Variations that they will find all these songs still in the “Brecht-does-Lead Belly" school, he's more likely looking for a clever label, and not a description of how Waits' work works.

Similarly, we might want to applaud Waits' attempt, in his work's insistent referentiality, to recover a uniquely American series of traditional musical idioms that we have lost, but again the danger of such a claim in an environment that would turn authentic “idiom" to mere “style" would be the way differences between copies and originals still tend to “get lost" in our predominantly depthless culture. Waits' work, described as “alternative" by the market, is probably better described by the term “anti-", even if that happens to be the name of his record label -- not because it counters market forces in some utopian fashion, but for the way it performs like anti-matter in contact with the everyday, simultaneously destroying itself along with its commodity form, and leaving behind the positive energy of that reaction -- what Richards and Waits call on a song from Bone Machine, “That Feel", which once given, can't be pawned, traded away, sold, or lost.


Works Cited

Montandon, Mac.Innocent When You Dream: The Tom Waits Reader.New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2005.

Scherman, Timothy.“Translating From Memory: Patrick Modiano in Postmodern Context." Studies in 20th Century Fiction 16/2 (1992).

Waits v. Frito Lay, 978 F. 2d 1093 (9th Cir. 1992)

Waits, Tom.Under the Influence>.DVD. 2010.

The Tom Waits Library -- Grand Weepers, Grim Reapers -- Biography. Website. Accessed Sept 15, 2015.

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