The show was at the majestic Ohio Theatre. This was the perfect venue for him; a painted dome ceiling with intricate molding patterns created the ideal back drop for his absurdist vaudeville-like live show. Tom strolled onto the stage gliding around like a contortionist, often stretching and wiggling his fingers toward the audience as if to cast a spell on the eager crowd. By the end of the show, the jacket and vest combo he was wearing was covered in back sweat. Tom is a guy who puts it all on the table when he performs. Twisting his face muscles, stomping his feet, there were times it appeared as if he was he is speaking in tongues. During “Eyeball Kid” he casually put a glittery, Disco Ball hat on his head. The lights shone down on him and he started spinning around, sending reflections off the Disco Ball hat out into the audience. Then just as casually he took off the hat, as if this is a common thing people do all the time.
Tom played songs from through out his career with a focus on material from his recent albums Real Gone and Mule Variations. Often the songs were tweaked just enough to confuse the crowd for a few moments before people recognized the song. He performed a trippy Elvis/Nick Cave like version of “Lie to Me” with a cadence that made it seem like he had Tourette’s and the band swelling in and of the song. He even added a beat box break down to the song. Classic! He sent chills through my spine with a rendition of “The House Where Nobody Lives”. You could hear a pin drop as he explained “without love, it ain’t nothin’ but a house… a house where nobody lives”.
But it wasn’t all fun and games, Tom was there to educate. “We were just in Oklahoma” he told the crowd, “Oklahoma’s weird. They have some weird laws in Oklahoma.” He then gave a primer on Oklahoma law, for example, did you know in Oklahoma…
It’s illegal to eat in a restaurant, that’s also on fire.
It’s illegal to get a fish drunk.
It’s illegal to photograph rabbits during the week.
You learn something new everyday I guess. On the ride back, we pulled over to the side of the road. I located Ohio’s tit and gave the state a rather hard purple nurple. I issued a stern warning that if the state were to mess up another election, I would come back and upgrade the titty twister to a bitch slap. I apologized for being so crass, but that’s the way it has to be. Out of the corner on my eyes I could see PEHDTSCKJMBA moving onward across the highway.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jon Michals is a local filmmaker/producer whose work has been featured in Sundance and various festivals around the country. He recently produced and directed the video for the Bitter, Bitter Weeks song “Hanna.” Photographer Michael T. Regan is the staff photographer for the Philadelphia City Paper.
“There’s a common loneliness that just sprawls from coast to coast. It’s like a common disjointed identity crisis. It’s the dark, warm narcotic American night I just hope I’m able to touch that feeling before I find myself one of these days parked on Easy Street.” –TOM WAITS, 1976
BY JONATHAN VALANIA The Astro is a broken-down, drunk motel located about an hour north of San Francisco in Santa Rosa, near the arid, wine-growing region of the Sonoma Valley. It’s Tom Waits country – he lives somewhere around here, although exactly where remains a closely guarded secret. MAGNET booked a room at the Astro because the price is right, but upon closer inspection, it’s the ideal setting to await an audience with the man who elevates the down and out in song. The bard of boardinghouse madrigals. The man who reads the lines in people’s faces like a palmist, uttering the stories behind the wheelchair smiles and motel miles that map the crazy countenances of the characters that haunt his songs. Our room, as Waits puts it in the song “Ninth And Hennepin,” is “filled with bitters and blue ruin.” It’s a stomped-out cigarette butt of a place. The ventilator is broken, and it’s clear the oxygen has left this room years ago. There’s mold on the ceiling and a hint of urine in the air. A brick holds up the short leg of the bed, which is dotted with cigarette burns and mysterious stains. The faucet won’t stop dripping, and there’s a pubic hair clinging to the rim of the bathtub like a garnish. The swimming pool is filled with dirt and weeds. There is, however, free HBO.
The only other guest amenity is the comfort of knowing that the woman who checks you in also minds the cash register at the liquor store around back. It’s 10 a.m. and the residents are getting an early start, stocking up on their daily allotment of vodka, brandy and cigarettes. A little girl stands out front mimicking the happy-hour wobble of a drunk ambling down the sunstroked street “He bumped into a wall and now he’s skipping,” she says to nobody in particular. There are two kinds of guests at the Astro: those who are only staying for an hour and those who will never leave.
File our stay under “Accidental Tourism,” a random touchstone to Waits’ boozy, flophouse residency at the Tropicana Motel(1) in the endless, doomed summer of Los Angeles in the ’70s. It was a simpler time then. A piano served as furniture, and down the hall lived Waits’ partner in grime, Chuck E. Weiss, “the kind of guy that would sell you a rat’s ass for a wedding ring,” joked Waits to an interviewer at the time. Weiss brought around Rickie Lee Jones, with whom Waits shared a brief creative and romantic dalliance. It was at the Tropicana that Waits forged the image that would stick with him through the years: a rumpled, bourbon-fed balladeer, holding up a drunk piano, eyes-closed, 80-proof chords dancing the tarantella with his bullfrog croak of a voice, pirouetting in the halo of smoke and stubble ringing the low-slung, tweed dude cap. Between regular tours opening for acts like Frank Zappa and the Rolling Stones, Waits would record the seven albums that would mark his early incarnation as a crushed romantic huffing the last remaining fumes of the Beat and jazz eras. On albums like The Heart Of Saturday Night, Small Change and Nighthawks At The Diner, Waits hung his weary, gonna-drink-the-lights-out persona on a dancing skeleton of upright bass and plaintive piano chords. It was a Tin Pan Alley full of hoboes and drifters, dancing girls and desperate characters, barroom wit and gutter poetry. Waits was the guy playing piano in the corner of the coffee shop in Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks. Unfortunately, it’s the corner that you can’t see.
Waits checked out of the Tropicana life years ago, though the image still clings to him like the stink of the cigarettes he doesn’t smoke anymore or the scent of the bourbon he no longer drinks. in 1980, Waits married Kathleen Brennan (then a script reader for Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios), whom he met while working on the score to Coppola’s One From The Heart. Brennan, who doesn’t care to be interviewed or photographed, has been his collaborator and muse – not to mention the mother of their three children – ever since. “She saved my life,” Waits says. It was Brennan who helped steer his musical direction into the deep left field of what has become known as the Island Years. Albums like Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, and Franks Wild Years play like a series of disembodied ham-radio broadcasts colored with otherworld instrumentation, clanking percussion and surreal street reportage. With all bare ruined choirs, Beefheartian sea chanteys and clubfoot klezmer orchestras wandering in and out, these records have that Barton Fink feeling in spades. The only element that remains from Waits’ ’70s singer/songwriter days is his voice. A voice that sounds like he was born old, born smoking.
An outsider amidst the facile pomp of ’80s pop, Waits stuck to the margins, striking up vital creative friendships with people like filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, downtown-NYC scenester John Lurie and Marc Ribot, whose impressionistic guitar playing has been a fixture on Waits’ recordings since Rain Dogs. In 1985, Waits acted alongside Lurie and Roberto Benigni in Jarmusch’s excellent prison-break buddy saga Down By Law, effectively establishing an impressive acting career. “I wrote that movie with Tom and John in mind,” says Jarmusch. “There’s a lot of Tom in his character. That whole bit about kicking out the window of a police car – I think Tom has had some experience with that.”
In all, Waits has appeared in more than 20 films, including Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Ironweed (a co-star billing with Jack Nicholson). Waits also tried his hand at theater, staging Franks Wild Years at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater in 1986. Recently, he reunited with Lurie for a highly amusing episode of cable-TV’s Fishing With John.
By the early ’90s, Waits had moved his family to Northern California and released Bone Machine, a dark blast of rustic surrealism, apocalyptic blues braying and killing-field hollers that won him a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Performance in 1992. (”He flipped out when he got the Grammy,” says Jarmusch. “He hated that. ‘Alternative to what?! What the hell does that mean?!’”) During this period, Waits also scored two Robert Wilson operas, The Black Rider (which features William Burroughs) and Alice In Wonderland, as well as Jarmusch’s 1992 film Night On Earth. A six-year hermitage followed, presumably spent pursuing his own brand of rural domestic bliss and exploring his fascination with rare and experimental musical instruments. He penned the foreword to Gravikords, Whirlies And Pyrophones, Bart Hopkin’s study of obscure and often homemade instruments, and contributed to Hopkin’s follow-up, Orbitones, Spoon Harps And Bellowphones(2) . Waits and Brennan also supplied the music for Bunny, an animated short that won an Academy Award this year. Recently, Waits collaborated with Mark Linkous on a track called “Bloody Hands” that’s slated to appear on the next Sparklehorse album.(3) He also produced, co-wrote and performed on Weiss’ Extremely Cool.
In a surprise move, Waits left Island Records last year and signed a one-off deal with the punk-rock Epitaph label. Mule Variations, his first album in sever years and possibly his best, finds him moving full circle. The cubist blues of his Island records is still there, along with the American primitivism of Bone Machine and the grainy flicker of his soundtrack work. Waits can still make the piano weep with just his voice, as he does on “The House Where Nobody Lives” and “Take It With Me When I Go.” And he can still kick like a mule; as “Big In Japan” and “Filipino Box Spring Hog” can attest. Mule is hardly Franks Mild Years. Some may complain that there are no great surprises here, but when you reinvent the wheel, well, sometimes you’ve just gotta ride on it awhile. This music is built to last. Who else is making recordings this harsh and masterful 25 years into a career?
Arriving at the Astro, Waits pulls up in a 1985 Suburban, an unlikely ride for a man known for driving cars made before Kennedy was assassinated. “I refuse to call it a Suburban – I call it a Bourbon,” he says, and compliments MAGNET on its taste in accommodations with a wry smile. He’s dressed head to toe in dark blue denim, a lived-in pair of boots and his trademark porkpie hat – a rabbit-fur Stetson he bought in Austin while in town for a rare live performance at the recent South By Southwest festival(4) . We head over to the nearby Mission Cafe, an unassuming greasy spoon, for eggs and sausage. Still a bit morning groggy, his voice sounds an even rougher grit of sandpaper than on record. Laughing easily with a chesty wheeze, a pair of reading glasses perched low on the bridge of his nose, Waits looks almost fatherly as he dispenses bits of folk wisdom, oddball factoids and good old-fashioned horse sense from a beat-up notebook he brought with him. Though the camera tends to add a few miles to his face, catching the shadows in the lines, in person Waits looks younger than his 49 years. The advantage of being born an old soul is that you never really seem to age. You just become a classic.
Tom Waits: When I was comin’ down here, I was thinkin, of all the cars I had in my life. I’m drivin’ this ‘85 Suburban, kind of a Men In Black car. I started thinking about it because I got a letter from the daughter of my neighbor, who sold me my first car, a ‘55 Buick Special. From there, I got a ‘55 Buick Roadmaster. I had a ‘56 Ford Wagon, beige. Somewhere in there I had a ‘59 Volvo.
MAGNET: You don’t strike me as a Volvo guy.
No, it wasn’t me, but somebody was trying to get rid of it, and he wanted 5100 for it. And he was a cop, so I said, “I’ll take it,” Had that sloped back, that scoliosis back. I had four Buicks: a Special, a Century and a Roadmaster and a ‘65 T-bird. Had a ‘59 Dodge wagon; it was gorgeous. A ‘56 Mercury convertible, a ‘54 Caddie, black – they said it was in The Godfather, and I think I paid more for it because of that. Godfather prices, that’s what they said. Had two Caddies, a ‘54 Coupe De Ville and a ‘52 Caddie, blue and white. A ‘64 Cadillac, champagne color – bought it in Montana. My wife drove it back out, no air conditioning, it was 120 degrees. She’s still mad about that. [Reading from his notebook] Most American auto horns beep in the key of what?
Key of C?
You cheated! You were looking at my notebook! The key of F. [Reading from his notebook]. You know, more steel is produced for the manufacture of bottlecaps than auto bodies. There’s a national thirst going on here. When gentlemen in medieval Japan wished to seal an agreement, they would urinate together and criss-cross the streams – that was an early contract… Recently, a Korean fisherman was arrested for feeding his wife to a school of sharks after getting into a heated argument; it’s still against the law to use your wife as bait in Korea.
Let’s talk about shoes.
All I wear now is engineer boots. Before that, I only wore pointy shoes and I destroyed my feet. My feet are now in the shape of a pointed shoe. I have a lot of room on either side in these boots, and I have to put newspaper in there. But I lived to see the pointed shoe once again emerge as a footgear leader. That was exciting. When I started looking for pointed shoes, I used to go to Fairfax on Orchard Street in New York City, one of those little pushcart guys. I’d say, “You got any pointy shoes?” They would go way, way in the back and come back with a dusty box, blow the dust off the top and say, “What do you want with these things? Give me 20 bucks. Go on, get outta here!” And that was the beginning. From there, I saw it grow into a burgeoning industry, a pointy industry. The ultimate was the pointy toe and Cuban heel. But I was younger then. Now, I go for comfort and roadability.
What about suits?
I still don’t pay more than $7 for a suit. when I first went on the road, I was very superstitious; I would wear the same suits onstage as I wore off. A lot of times, we would leave early in the morning. I hated the whole ritual of getting dressed, so a lot times I would just lay down on the bed in my suit and my shoes, ready to get up at any time. I would just put the blanket over me and sleep in my clothes, I did that for many years. I stopped after I got married. My wife just won’t have it. Whenever she goes away for a couple of days, I put on a suit and get in bed but she can always tell.
Speaking of the road, are you going to tour for this record?
[Assumes mock belligerence] I’m not gonna tour. I want to be set up with a theater like those guys in Missouri, and people come to me. The Wayne Newton Theater. The Trini Lopez Theater. I want my own, a little tin shack with a marquee and a work light, six chairs and a dirt floor. I can see it – I know exactly what it looks like. I’ll play six nights a week. You come to see me. [Paging through his notebook]. I got some things for you – you’ll like this. You ever hear of a bombardier beetle? A bombardier beetle, when disturbed, defends itself by a series of explosions. Actually five individual reports from his rear end, in rapid succession, they are accompanied by a cloud of reddish-colored, vile-smelling fluid.
I’ll have to be careful. Do you still smoke?
Gave it up. I’m like everybody else, quit a hundred times. It’s a companion and a friend. I would smoke anything in the end. I would take a pack of cigarettes and dig a hole in the back yard and piss on them and bury ‘em. Dig ‘em up and hour later, dry them in the oven and smoke. That’s how bad I had it.
Do you still drink?
Now, is this of interest to your readers? We talked about the pointed shoes, the smoking – I have a feeling you’re trying to steer me into the bars … I just got an image of one of those emergency-wall things that says “Break In Case Of Emergency,” and inside is the beverage … I gave it up, gave it up. I haven’t had a drink in six years.
You have a new movie coming out called Mystery Men. What’s the premise?
It’s about low-rent superheros. There’s a guy named the Shoveler. And there’s the Bowler, who has the skull of her famous bowler father sealed in this polyurethane bowling ball. There’s the Blue Raja; they make their own costumes and never get a chance to save the day. I play Dr. Heller, a weapons scientist they come to for firepower. Sounds like a blockbuster.
Who’s in it?
Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Hank Azaria, Paul Reubens, William Macy, Eddie Izzard, Geoffrey Rush. Directed by Kinka Usher, who was a prince. I don’t know why I agreed to do this except he made the whole thing sound like a softball game.
By the way, great English accent as Renfield in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
They say I should be doing Shakespeare instead of all this pop-music crap.
How did you meet up with Jim Jarmusch?
Met him around the time of Rain Dogs. He stuck out. His movies were like Russian films, like nothing anyone had ever seen before. For me, they were like the hair in the gate. You know when you used to go to the movies and a big hair would get stuck in the projector, and you would sit there and watch that piece of hair? You would lose the whole plot for a while. So, he was the hair in the gate.
The episode of Fishing With John is a hoot. How did you hook up with John Lurie?
John’s an unusual guy. Met him in New York around the time of Rain Dogs. I did [Fishing] because of John. But once I got down there, I wanted to kill him. He knows this. It was pretty pathetic. A fishing show. High concept – the idea is that it doesn’t matter if we catch anything, which is the whole idea of fishing, anyway, getting out in the woods and being together. Just an excuse to hold something in your hand and look off into the distance and talk about life. We caught nothing, which is embarrassing. It got to the point where we bought fish from fishermen in a passing boat, which was humiliating. And I got seasick and sunstroke — I was an unhappy guy for most of it. But it turned out to be funny anyway. John is an excellent composer and musician, can pick up anything and play it. We’ll be walking along and he’ll pick up a piece of irrigation pipe and very seriously ask you to hold one end of it while he tries to get a sound out of it. He’s like a kid, a cross between a kid and a wizard – a kizzard. Great nose, too.
Let’s talk about the new record. You told journalist Rip Rense(5) that the title comes from something your wife says when you’re being stubborn: “I didn’t marry a man – I married a mule.” And the fact that you were going through some “changes.” What changes?
Electrolysis. I had a lot of unwanted hair removed. Went through aromatherapy. I’m third-year medical school now – love it!
The first song on Mule Variations that struck me was “What’s He Building?” I got kind of a Unabomber(6) image. We seem to be living in a time when the guy next door may be building a fertilizer bomb in his basement.
Guess it’s the rat theory: There’s too many of us, and we’re going crazy because of the proliferation of the human manifestation. You go down the freeway, and ail of a sudden there are 350,000 new homes where there used to be wilderness. They all have to go to the bathroom somewhere, they all want toys for their kids, they all want eggs and bacon and a nice little car and a place to vacation. When the rats get too plentiful, they turn on each other.
In the song you mention a town called Mayors Income, Tenn.
Came to me in a dream. Two towns. The other one, same dream, Miner’s Prayer, W.V.
You collaborated with Kathleen on most of the songs on Mule Variations. Can you describe how you two write together? Is she a musician?
Excellent pianist, plays contrabassoon, classically trained. Used to play recitals with all the relatives around, and she would start the nocturne and then go off and everybody would cock their ears like the RCA dog: “That ain’t Beethoven anymore.” She’s free-floating. She doesn’t seem to be pulled in any one direction. You see, we all like music, but what we really want is for music to like us, because it really is a language and some people are linguists and speak seven languages fluently, can do contracts in Chinese and tell jokes in Hungarian.
Getting back to the names of places, St. Louis seems to pop up a lot, in “Hold on” from the new record and “Time” from Rain Dogs and you’ve mentioned it a lot in interviews. Ever live there?
No, never lived there. It’s a good name to stick in a song. Every song needs to be anatomically correct: You need weather, you need the name of the town, something to eat – every song needs certain ingredients to be balanced. You’re writing a song and you need a town, and you look out the window and you see “St. Louis Cardinals” on some kid’s T-shirt. And you say, “Oh, we’ll use that.” [Paging through his notebook] There is still a law on the books in Kentucky that says you have to take a bath at least once a year, so we left Kentucky. They were too pushy.
I understand that you cover the walls of the studio with maps when you record.
Makes it more like an expedition.
Where is “The House Where Nobody Lives”?
That was the house I used to go by when I would drive my kids to school, abandoned and the weeds were literally as tall as the trees. At Christmas time, all the neighbors in the area kicked in and bought some lights for it. It was kind of touching. It was like the bad tooth in that smile of a neighborhood.
What about “Big In Japan”? How big are you in Japan?
Haven’t played there in a long time. Last time I was there(6), I was on a bullet train, had my little porkpie hat, my pointed shoes and my skinny tie. There was a whole car of Japanese gangsters dressed like Al Capone and Cagney, really zooted. Everyone says, “Don’t go in there, don’t go in there,” but it was the only place with seats – everybody else was huddled together like cattle. And they are in this huge air-conditioned car, with tea and little cookies and six guys sitting around talking with cigars. I said, “Fuck, I’m gonna go in there and sit down.” And I did. It was like this big, heavy stand-off, then they all started laughing, we all tipped our hats and did that little bow. It was pretty funny. Then I brought my guys in and we all sat down, my mob with the Japanese mob. They always want me to do ads for underwear and cigarettes, but I never did them. I did one and I’ll never do it again. I used to see celebrities doing ads and my first reaction was, “Aw, gee he must have needed the money. That’s tough.” When somebody was on the slide, they would do an ad.
You successfully sued Frito-Lay for doing a commercial with a guy to sounds and acts just like you.
This guy from Texas got paid 300 bucks to do me. That was his specialty, anyway, that he does this perfect impersonation of me. And they did this whole thing around “Step Right Up,” and every now and then they would say “Fritos” or whatever. And afterward, the guy felt so bad, he came out as our star witness. We won $2.5 million. David beats Goliath.
Let’s talk about some of the characters in the songs on Mule Variations. Who is Big Jack Earl?
Tallest man in the world. Was with Barnum & Bailey. If you see old archival photographs, they used to put him next to some guy that was like a foot tall. Big hat, tall boots. That’s why “Big Jack Earl was eight-foot-one and stood in the road and he cried.” Imagine a guy eight-foot-one standing in the middle of the road crying. It breaks your heart.
What about Birdie Joe Hoaks?
I read in the newspaper about this gal, 12 years old, who had swindled Greyhound. She ran away from home and told Greyhound this whole story about her parents and meeting them in San Francisco. She had this whole Holden Caufield thing, and she got an unlimited ticket and criss-crossed the U.S. And she got nabbed.
What did they do to her?
They took her bus pass, for starters. I don’t think she did hard time. Me and my wife read the paper and we clip hundreds of articles, and then we read the paper that way, without all the other stuff. It’s our own paper. There is a lot of filler in the paper and the rest is advertising. If you just condense it down to the essential stories, like the story about the one-eyed fish they found in Lake Michigan with three tails, you can renew your whole relationship with the paper.
There’s a line in “What’s He Building?”: “You’ll never guess what Mr. Sticcha saw.”
Mr. Sticcha was my neighbor(7) when I was a kid. He didn’t like kids and he didn’t like noise. All the kids would go past his house yellin’ and making noise, and you would see his fist out the window and he’d threaten to call the cops. His wife used to say, “You’re gonna give him a heart attack if you keep this up.” And he finally had a heart attack and he died, and his wife told us that it was our fault, that we had killed him as a group. We all had to distribute that guilt and live with it, and it was upsetting: “Sticcha died and we killed him.” We might just as well have plotted his murder.
“Cold Water” is a kind of a hobo anthem. You ever sleep in a graveyard or ride the rails?
I have slept in a graveyard and I have rode the rails. When I was a kid, I used to hitchhike all the time from California to Arizona with a buddy named Sam Jones(9) We would just see how far we could go in three days, on a weekend, see if we could get back by Monday. I remember one night in a fog, we got lost On this side road and didn’t know where we were exactly. And the fog came in and we were really lost then and it was very cold. We dug a big ditch in a dry riverbed and we both laid in there and pulled all this dirt and leaves over us Ike a blanket. We’re shivering in this ditch all night, and we woke up in the morning and the fog had cleared and right across from us was a diner; we couldn’t see it through the fog. We went in and had a great breakfast, still my high-water mark for a great breakfast. The phantom diner.
In “Black Market Baby,” you call the baby in question a “Bonsai Aphrodite.” Great line.
Kathleen came up with that. We know this little gal who’s just a gorgeous chick, but she’s about four-foot-10, looks like she’s been bound, like the Chinese do with feet. Kathleen said, “She’s a Bonsai Aphrodite.” It was Patricia Arquette. We told her about that, she said, “I love that, I’m gonna open up a Flower shop and call it Bonsai Aphrodite,” which she did. But, apparently, it didn’t last, went under.
There’s a great line in “Picture In A Frame”: “I’m gonna love you ’till the wheels come off.”
That’s prison slang. Means until the end of the world.
I notice that the Eyeball Kid has the same birth date as you.
Just a coincidence. The Eyeball Kid is a comic-book character. Actually, it was Nic Cage that reintroduced me to comic books. I hadn’t thought about comic books since I was a little kid, but he seemed to carry that mythology with him. It was inspiring to see him keep alive some of those principles that we associate with childhood, to the point where he named himself after Cage, the comic-book hero. But I was trying to imagine what it would be like for a person with an enormous eyeball for a head to be in show business. If Barnum & Bailey were still around, I imagine he would have thrown in with them.
The tour would be sponsored by Visine or Bausch & Lomb.
It’s a metaphor for people that get into show business, because they usually have some kind of family disturbance or are damaged in some way or another. I had a manager when I was a kid, I threw in with a guy named Herbie Cohen, who worked with Zappa. I wanted a big bruiser, the tough guy in the neighborhood, and I got it.
You said that, not me. I got to be careful what I say about Herbie. I’ll wind up in… court.
Speaking of the business end of things, why did you leave Island Records?
It started changing a lot. (Former owner Chris) Blackwell’s gone. For me, it’s about relationships. And when Blackwell pulled out and started his own company, I lost interest.
What do you think of all the consolidation that has been going on with the major labels, cutting staff and artists?
I think you should fight for your independence and freedom at all costs. I mean, it’s a plantation system. All a record company is is a bank, and they loan you a little money to make a record and then they own you for the rest of your life. You don’t even own your own work. Most people only have a small piece of their publishing. Most people are so happy to be recording, which I was – you like the way your name looks on the contract, so you start signing. I got myself tied up in a lot of knots when I was a kid.
Your deal with Epitaph is for one record, where you license the record to the label for a limited time and then ownership reverts back to you. I don’t know how aware you are of the Internet, but there is this technology called MP3 that basically allows artists to put songs on the Net and people can download them and burn their own CD’s, essentially cutting the record companies out of the equation.(10)
I don’t know what I think about that. I don’t know about the Internet. I’m not on that. I’m way behind. I have a rotary phone. Progress is compulsive and obsessive, I guess. I get the feeling that people aren’t leaving their homes. They are sitting in front of their computer desks and everything comes to them from their screens. That’s what the whole nation really wants, but anything that is that popular or easily accessible is usually not good for you. It’s like tap water is not good for you; it’s recycled piss and chemicals, that’s all. There is a reason that a bottle of water costs more than a gallon of gas. And what’s the biggest enemy of computers? Water. And the computers are trying to eliminate all the water. I don’t know where I’m going with this. I guess we’re in the middle of a revolution and nobody knows where the rocks are going to fall. The record companies are terrified. But I don’t want to be a record company. Too much paperwork, and I get too many calls already. Plus, ! have two teenagers, and if I was a record company, you would never be able to get through.
Mule Variations is your first record in six years. There were rumors floating around that you weren’t putting out records or performing because you were sick.
No, I’m not sick, but it’s interesting that rumors of that nature would circulate. Rumors of my death were greatly exaggerated, as they say. The rumor was that I had throat cancer.
Bone Machine had a lot of death in it. And there’s that song on Mule called “Take It With Me.” Beautiful song. This is an absurd question, but I’ll ask it anyway: Are you afraid of dying?
[With mock bravado] Who me? Naw, bring it on! Come on! Who me? I don’t wanna go. I gotta rake the leaves first. I got a lot of things to do. I’m like that guy who said on his deathbed, “Either that wallpaper goes or I do.” Famous last words. My favorite epitaph is the town hypochondriac’s: “l told you I was sick.”(11)
In 1976, you were quoted in Newsweek(12) as saying, “There’s a common loneliness that just sprawls from coast to coast. It’s like a common disjointed identity crisis. It’s the dark, warm narcotic American night I just hope I’m able to touch that feeling before I find myself one of these days parked on Easy Street.” Twenty-three years later, here you are with a wife and kids and a house in the country, a tidy nest egg from Frito-Lay(13) – Easy Street by most any standard – and still you seem to be at the height of your creative powers and popularity. Your career strikes me as a model for how to do it the right way in a business cluttered with bad examples.
OK, thank you. I’m just improvising, like everybody else … I never thought I would live out in the sticks. But now I’m the mean old man next door. Voila. I’m Mr. Sticcha. I got a whole collection of baseballs that have been hit into my yard, and I’m not giving them up for nothing.
- (1) Flophouse residency at the Tropicana Motel: Further reading: Tropicana Motel.
- (2) Contributed to Hopkin’s follow-up, Orbitones, Spoon Harps And Bellowphones: Orbitones, Spoon Harps & Bellowphones. Bart Hopkin. September 15, 1998. Label: Ellipses Arts (Ellipses Arts 3610). TW contribution: “Babbachichuija” (first release)
- (3) To appear on the next Sparklehorse album: the track “Bloody hands” has not yet been released. Waits appeared on “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Sparklehorse (Mark Linkous). August 28, 2001. Label: Emd/ Capitol/ Parlophone. TW contribution: vocals/ train whistle on “Dog Door”. Mark Linkous. Further reading: Sparklehorse
- (4) At the recent South By Southwest festival: March 20, 1999 South by Southwest music conference (SXSW ‘99) “A late Evening With Tom Waits” at the Paramount Theatre. Austin/ USA. Tom Waits: vocals, piano, bullhorn. Smokey Hormel: guitar, banjo. Larry Taylor: bass. Stephen Hodges: drums
- (5) Journalist Rip Rense: “Tom Waits: A Q&A About Mule Variations” Epitaph promo interview (MSO) April, 1999, by Rip Rense (also re-printed in “Performing Songwriter” July/ August, 1999)
- (6) Last time I was there: January 1977 (Small Change tour): - Chip White: “We went to Japan one time. We went to Japan and he met a lady over there, and there was some confusion because she got kind of friendly and everything and she thought that he was asking her to marry him – to get married but he was not asking her to get married. So then we go back to California and we’re playing at the Roxy on Sunset Strip one night with Jimmy Witherspoon. There were the two bands. We’re playing and a strange thing happened because a car crashed into a telephone pole and knocked all the lights out in the club, completely blacked out and just at that moment this lady came from Japan to meet him. It was incredible because everything got dark and somebody’d light candles and then she walked in just when we lit the candles. So it was strange. And then we thought they’d fix the power but they could not fix the power so all the clubs – everybody went out in the streets and they were drinking and smoking – so the whole Sunset Strip is like one long party and he’s there with this lady from Japan that’s gonna marry him. But he’s not gonna get married.” (German/ Swiss? interview with Chip White – date unknown. Transcription by Gary Tausch as sent to Raindogs Listserv Discussionlist, August 8, 2001)
- (8) Mr. Sticcha was my neighbor: as mentioned in “What’s He Building?” (Mule Variations, 1999)
– Tom Waits (1993): “I used to make skateboards out of plywood and go down to a roller rink called Skate Ranch and buy just the wheels. We used to skate down this hill called Robert Avenue and it was a great curve and you dug up a lot of speed. It went by our neighbor Mr. Stitcha. He lived in the beauty of the curve, where all the momentum culminated in a beautiful slough of cement. It took you right past his house but as close as you could get to his porch. Mr. Stitcha drank to excess. This was common knowledge in the neighborhood. He had the thick glasses and the red face and the red wine stains down the front of his t-shirt. That’ s like I look now. Anyway it was the only place to get that kind of speed and thrill, so the front of his house became sort of a festival for all the skateboarders in the whole area. On Halloween he had a heart attack and died on his front porch and we were all told he died because we skated by his house and that each and everyone of us killed him in our own way. And we were all left with the memory that we all had a hand in his murder. It was like a Shakespeare thing, everybody had their hand on the knife. So I carry this with me, but I just want to say here and now, in Thrasher Magazine, that I did not kill Mr. Stitcha. It took a lot of therapy and it took a lot of liquor. Mr. Stitcha rest in peace.” (”Tom Waits”. Thrasher Magazine: Brian Brannon. February, 1993)
- (9) A buddy named Sam Jones: Name checked in “I wish I was in New Orleans” (1976) “And Clayborn Avenue me and you Sam Jones and all.” He’s also mentioned on the booklet of the album “Nighthawks at the diner”: “Special thanks to Sam (I’ll pay you if I can and when I get it) Jones.”
– Tom Waits (1988): “I hitchhiked to Arizona with Sam Jones while I was still a high school student. And on New Year’s Eve, when it was about 10 degrees out, we got pulled into a Pentecostal church by a woman named Mrs. Anderson. We heard a full service, with talking in tongues. And there was a little band in there – guitar, drums, and bass along with the choir.” (Tom’s Wild Years Source: Interview Magazine (USA), by Francis Thumm. October, 1988.)
– Tom Waits (1999): “I have slept in a graveyard and I have rode the rails. When I was a kid, I used to hitchhike all the time from California to Arizona with a buddy named Sam Jones. We would just see how far we could go in three days, on a weekend, see if we could get back by Monday. I remember one night in a fog, we got lost On this side road and didn’t know where we were exactly. And the fog came in and we were really lost then and it was very cold. We dug a big ditch in a dry riverbed and we both laid in there and pulled all this dirt and leaves over us Ike a blanket. We’re shivering in this ditch all night, and we woke up in the morning and the fog had cleared and right across from us was a diner; we couldn’t see it through the fog. We went in and had a great breakfast, still my high-water mark for a great breakfast. The phantom diner.”(”The Man Who Howled Wolf” Magnet magazine, by Jonathan Valania. Astro Motel/ Santa Rosa. June-July, 1999).
- Tom Waits (2002): “Actually I had some good things that happened to me hitchhiking, because I did wind up on a New Year’s Eve in front of a Pentecostal church and an old woman named Mrs. Anderson came out. We were stuck in a town, with like 7 people in this town and trying to get out you know? And my buddy and I were out there for hours and hours and hours getting colder and colder and it was getting darker and darker. Finally she came over and she says: “Come on in the church here. It’s warm and there’s music and you can sit in the back row.” And then we did and eh� They were singing and you know they had a tambourine an electric guitar and a drummer. They were talking in tongues and then they kept gesturing to me and my friend Sam: “These are our wayfaring strangers here.” So we felt kinda important. And they took op a collection, they gave us some money, bought us a hotel room and a meal. We got up the next morning, then we hit the first ride at 7 in the morning and then we were gone. It was really nice, I still remember all that and it gave me a good feeling about traveling.” (Source: “Fresh Air interview with Tom Waits”, Fresh Air with Terry Gross, produced in Philadelphia by WHYY. Date: show aired May 21, 2002)
- (10) Cutting the record companies out of the equation: Further reading: Waits v. MP3.com
- (11) l told you I was sick: Patrick Humphries quotes Waits in an unidentified Sound Magazine interview from 1976 by Mike Flood Page: “I used to listen to a lot of records by a guy called Lou Short. He made a lotta albums in the forties and nobody knew who he was. He used to pay to have them made. But everybody in Baxter, Putnam County knew who he was. And he was the town hypochondriac. I mean, there’s a breeze coming up and he’s got a little sniffle… Anyway, the town hypochondriac finally upped and died, and on his tombstone… it said ‘Lou Short Died’ and on the bottom it said ‘I told you I was sick!’” (Source: “Small Change, A life of Tom Waits”. Patrick Humphries, 1989. Omnibus Press. ISBN 0-312-04582-4).
- (12) In 1976, you were quoted in Newsweek: “Sweet and Sour“. Source: Newsweek magazine, by Betsy Carter with Peter S. Greenberg. Date: June 14, 1976.
- (13) A tidy nest egg from Frito-Lay: Further reading: Waits vs. Frito Lay