This Business Called Show

Tom waits for no man

Tom Waits at the Paramount Theatre, SXSW '99
Tom Waits at the Paramount Theatre, SXSW '99 (Photo By John Carrico)

"If he doesn't respond to a question, move on to the next one." Such was the succinct advice offered by Tom Waits' publicist on talking to the man. Good thing he was in a jovial mood.

Tom Waits scarcely needs introduction. Very little of his music is traditional rock & roll, yet he's an icon in that world with his hipster growl, jazz beats, and halting lyrics. He's never cracked the charts on his own, but his songs have been covered by everyone from the Eagles and Rod Stewart to Austin's Jon Dee Graham. His film roles are as memorable as his film scores, but as infrequent as his live appearances.

Not so with his recent recordings. After three acclaimed studio LPs in the past decade (Bone Machine, Black Rider, Mule Variations), Waits is releasing two discrete albums at once, the melancholic soundtrack Alice and the eccentric Blood Money. Why two at once? Waits is blunt. "Might as well make more than one pancake."

Austin Chronicle: Where are you, in an office or a small room fielding calls?

Tom Waits: I'm out on my own recognizance in the day room, gluing pieces of macaroni on cardboard and painting it gold. After that I get to make a belt that says, "Whipped by the forces within me" on the back.

AC: What about those little potholders on a loom?

TW: They say I'm not ready for that yet. It means I have a secret wish to handle things that are hot and they have to keep me away from the stove. They make nice gifts, though.

AC: Lucinda Williams sends her best. She's a longtime friend and I know you like her music, too. What is it you like about her songwriting?

TW: Aw, she's a great gal! I saw her last gig in California and she was just amazing. Had 'em in the palm of her hand. It was thrilling. She's confessional with style. It's as much about what you leave out as the things you put in.

AC: What held up Alice for 10 years?

TW: When we were doing the songs, all the tapes were in my briefcase. My car was broken into and someone stole the work tapes of the show. They realized they had something that might be worth some dough so they ransomed it, and I paid $3,000 to get it back. Not a lot of money, was it? I was a little insulted.

AC: They could have stuck you for at least $10K!

TW: I think they wanted fast cash and no arguments. Along the line, the tapes got copied and the bootleg got out. At the time, I wasn't interested in recording anything at all. I was taking a break from the whole damn business, so it went south. The songs sat in a box, and I thought they were worth looking at again.

AC: Speaking of Alice, what about John Hammond's Wicked Grin. Wasn't that like a Through the Looking Glass project? Your songs, done by someone else, with you producing, many of your musicians ....

TW: Well, I love John, and it was difficult to say no. I'd never done anything like that before, but it worked out. I loved the way he did "Murder in the Barn." Augie [Meyers] was great on it, too. Say, where is Sulphur Springs? That's where my father's from.

AC: It's kinda northwest from Austin.

TW: My dad left there in the Thirties. Came west, because in those days, if you had any kind of bronchial problem, they'd say, "Aw, move to California!" Jesse Frank Waits.

AC: What is Waits, English?

TW: Scotch-Irish, I think. Waits is a musical term. A "waits" is the man who put out the lights at day's end and sang the song of the day. "It's 8 o'clock and all's well." Then he told the things that happened that day: Somebody's cow ran away, Mrs. Ferguson was found bound and gagged in the barn, it rained like hell ... whatever. That's what a waits was.

AC: At your Paramount show here in 1999, you had sheets of notebook paper with partial lyrics written down. I grabbed what I thought was a song list at the end and it was the lyrics for "Singapore."

TW: Well, I have a hell of a time remembering words, so they pop back.

AC: It was encouraging, because although you didn't play "Singapore," it felt like you were willing to improvise, not just stick to a here's-the-album-and-six-other-hits performance.

TW: That's not me. I don't have that wish to fill the Jell-O mold of songs. There's a reason people use the expression "capture" when they talk about songs, because you're trying to capture something, take it alive. And so you want to keep it alive.

Songs. If they're all done, ya record them. If they're not used, you can always cut 'em up and use 'em for bait. To catch other songs.

AC: Your biography says you'll go into the studio with your wife and collaborator Kathleen, she'll submerge herself in newspapers and books and then look up and say something that becomes a song.

TW: She'll say, "More of that crap?" [laughs] She'll say, "Give it a rest, old man!"

AC: So, she keeps you in line!

TW: Yeah! You know, you find a way to work together, like borrowing the same $10 between two people.

AC: Do you have a stash of old songs?

TW: A good butcher uses every part of the cow. I've got pieces of things hanging around. If I still remember it, I'll hang on to it, otherwise it just walks through my head and falls off a cliff. Everybody likes working off fresh material, but no, I don't keep a seed bank. I keep titles written down.

AC: Do you remember the woman scolding you at the Paramount because the concert was for SXSW attendees?

TW: Yeah, she was pissed off she had to wait and some folks couldn't get in. I certainly didn't mean to create any ill will. The Paramount was smaller than I thought it would be.

AC: You were cool about it. You said, "Well, you're here, aren't you? Enjoy the show." And it pretty much shut her up. It amazes me that people still think music should be free.

TW: It's expensive noise. It's nothing but wild sounds that have been civilized into time signatures and tunes. And definitely the most expensive of all noises.

AC: Are you an Internet person?

TW: No, no, no!

AC: You and Lucinda. Last cavemen to the fire. What kind of a kid were you? A reject, comic book geek, or class clown?

TW: I couldn't wait to be old. I had a cane at a very young age. I used to imitate old men. When I went to my friends' houses, I didn't want to talk to them, I wanted to talk to their dads. About real man stuff. Like insurance. The lawn. That was more interesting. And their dads' record collections were much hipper than my friends'.

AC: You have a good face for film. It catches light and shadow the right way. You can be the old guy behind a bar or down in a cell.

TW: [laughs] In a cell. Well, at a certain age you get the face you deserve. When photography was new it must have been rather mystifying. People were superstitious about it, that it might steal something from them. No one understood it. Some kinda voodoo.

AC: A good photograph is like voodoo.

TW: So's a record. Something happened in a room, 80 years ago for three minutes. You can sit down right now and put your ear on that and hear exactly what happened in the room and be moved. Pretty amazing.

AC: Your new albums are going up against Limp Bizkit and Sheryl Crow for a piece of the pie. You know, for ...

TW: ... attention. Yeah. "Pick me! Listen to me!"

AC: What's gonna make them pick you?

TW: I don't know ... it's a popularity contest. "Hey, I'm the one in the pink vinyl pants waving my yellow hat!"

AC: When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up? You didn't think, "I'm gonna be an eccentric musician."

TW: An eccentric musician? [laughs] I thought I'd stay in restaurant work where I belonged. I liked washing dishes because everyone leaves you alone. You can listen to everything going on in the room, and the stuff you hear when you're washing dishes is priceless.

I remember sweeping around the jukebox and saying to myself, "How do you get in that jukebox? How do you come out of there? The pay is a lot better than sweeping, I'll bet."

I dunno. Everybody in this business called show has something peculiar about them that they've been made fun of for or singled out in an unpleasant way or made to feel like they were not good enough to fit in. And at some point, you realize, "Well, dammit, fine! Maybe I can make some dough off of it. I have one eye and a bad leg and a funny way of dancing or talking or standing and my nose whistles and my hair came in wrong."

Show business. That's for me. I'll take it. end story

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