the Tom Waits that Tom Waits doesn't want you to meet: the "beat-up
wastrel" of his disowned jazzbo period. Mick Brown interviewed this version of Tom on his
first visit to Britain in mid-'76--Barney
Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
rocks backwards and forwards in his chair, pulls at a cigarette, draws deep,
then turns his face out of the smoke, back into the rumpled collar of his
is black and shiny, and in that respect matches his trousers, although you can
see they never made what you'd call a suit; the cap is battered and brown, and
might have been reconditioned in sump oil, and at third glance you'd guess that
Tom hadn't got round to shaving this week.
wanna be successful, and I'd be a liar if I said I didn't. I worked a lot of
jobs and I was pretty ambitious about throwing myself into the bowels of the
music industry, 'cos I was tired of working hack jobs, y'know? But the fact
remains you'll never go broke underestimating the collective taste and
attention span of the American public, which kind of substantiates the rumor
that I'm kind of a household word in Philadelphia - and that's it. Everywhere
else I'm kind of a legend in my own mind..."
slowly the legend is beginning to extend beyond the perimeters of Waits fertile
imagination. This week - on his first ever visit to England - he's playing
Ronnie Scott's. If you miss him, tough, because Waits is probably the most
delightful, original, outrageous and courageous manipulator of musical
mesmerisation you're likely to come across in a long time. Forget all the talk
that presaged his arrival about Waits being a "cult performer" or
worse, the "male version of Patti Smith" (a particularly asinine and
inaccurate description by one music weekly).
That sort of
thing is not only misleading, but in the long run liable to do Waits more harm
than the surgical spirit he would have you believe he swallows for breakfast.
Waits isn't the new spirit of rock and roll incarnate and he isn't the past,
present or future of anything but himself.
He is a
scruffy, beat-up, erudite wastrel who wears second-hand clothes and a permanent
nicotine-haze halo, and who's hobbies include drinking, playing the piano,
prowling around dark alleys, pool-halls and all-night bars and giving writers a
hard time. And if that sounds like a press-release it isn't, because as far as
I know nobody's written one yet, which is probably just as well as the only
person who could really write it right would
be Tom Waits himself.
in a pub in the Portobello Road, chain-smoking high-tar gaspers, tugging at a
goatee struggling through his four-day growth, with one ear cocked to the music
of a blind accordionist playing 'Amazing Grace' in the next booth. Waits
doesn't feel at home. The booth isn't Naugahyde, the beer's cold and the pub is
full of what Waits figures to be college students and businessmen in lee-sure
suits and it's almost fashionable, which isn't exactly Waits' beat.
telling his life story, and all he needs is a rolling, drunken piano, a
bass-player who doesn't suffer from vertigo when he hits the higher reaches and
a drummer born with soft-brushes in his hand, scatting in the background to
make it a song. If the truth be known that's probably how this particular
version of the life story was first told.
born in the back seat of a Yellow Cab in Murphy Hospital parking-lot at a very
young age. I had a regular childhood - pretty standard equipment. I learned how
to talk, then walk; got a few friends, a new pair of shoes, spare change in my
dropped out of High School when I was 16 and worked at a place called Napoleone's
Pizza House. It was on 9th and National, about a stone's throw away from Iwo
Jimo Eddie's Tattoo Parlor, and across the street from Club 29 and the Melody
Club and Birch Robinson's mortuary and Sorenson's Triumph Motorcycle Shop,
Escalini's Liquor and Phil's Prono. Then I worked as a plumber's helper, and
had a good job sweeping up. Then I was working as a cook and a dishwasher. I
was a kind of jack-off of all trades; I did everything - lock, stock and
first took to the performing arts he doesn't say.
always had a lot of ink-pens and hotel stationery on my person so I felt kinda
obligated to start writing - about peyote enemas and injecting marinated
herring wine-sauce into the jugular vein."
Was that the
fashion at the time?
at his goatee and takes a deep hit on his cigarette. "In my neighborhood
said that he then began playing around bars and clubs in the metropolitan area
of Los Angeles, accompanying himself on the piano, before finally ending-up on
stage on the "new talent night" at the Troubadour Club, where he was
spotted by Herb Cohen - a man who's karmic givens is to manage Frank Zappa. The
way Waits tells it he met Cohen in a bar.
it was outside a bar. It was real
cold at the time. He was exposing himself. Actually it was so cold he was just describing himself. He asked me for a
couple of bucks for a cup of coffee. That's how we met..."
Waits up with a new second-hand suit and a recording contract, and his first
album, Closing Time appeared shortly
afterwards. The cover of Closing Time shows
Waits slumped over a piano under a neon-blue barroom light, a pile of smoked
butts in an ashtray, an empty glass and some spare change on the music rest.
The scene is after-hours, but Waits looks more wistful than wasted, and the
album's songs reflect a soft, romantic, almost lovesick edge to his
sensibilities at the time.
contains a handful of classics: 'Lonely' - just Waits and his piano crying at
the moon; 'Martha' - a lush, haunting telephone connection with old memories;
and 'I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You' - a simple but beautifully
painted vignette about a first meeting. It all added up to a delightful debut,
but the production smoothed out a lot of the idiosyncratic wrinkles that Waits
would subsequently come to reveal.
Heart Of A Saturday Night followed, with Waits now out on the street on the cover, the battered
cap and ubiquitous cigarette, neon signs in the background, and a satin lady
giving him the nod.
Heart Of A Saturday Night pointed the way to the essential Waits with the songs being allowed to
unroll in inebriated fashion as the singer took his first steps into the
smoke-haze dark, narcotic American night, pursuing life's most mournful shadows
- hookers, waitresses, trucker's girls, sailors - the Ghosts Of A Saturday
Night - with Waits himself the sly dog with a heart of butter, cruising down
the byways and highways, high on the sheer righteous bittersweet joy of it all:
Diamonds on my windshield
And these tears from heaven
I'm pulling into town on the Interstate
With a steel train in the rain
And the wind bites my cheek through the wing
It's these late nights and this freeway flying
That always makes one sing.
It was a
neglected masterpiece - and still is.
And so to
the third, Nighthawks At The Diner -
a live set - with yet more picture-postcards from the nether-regions of the
American Dream, shot with wry, sardonic humor, spilling over imagery, touched
with an almost reverential feeling for the flotsam-and-jetsam substance of
into his beer and ruminates on a definition for his singular vision. "I'm
a curator, an imagist, a collector of nocturnal emissions, improvisational
adventures and inebriated travelogues. I'm a pedestrian piano-player; an
unemployed service-station attendant. What I deal with is Americana, man. My
environment up until this point is very American; it's diners, bars, lounges,
warehouses, Patty Hearst, Charlie Manson... there's a wide variety of things
that beg to be dealt with in the States, but when it comes down to it the whole
creative process is your own neurosis and your own psychosis - it's hard to pin
down, hard to describe.
of the people that can discuss it at length are people that can't write. When
you really hunker down, screw your wig on tight and slip me a little crimson,
Jimson, it's really a solo effort, something you have to do all by yourself. I
keep my ears and my eyes open, man; I draw on things that are around me. I take
a lot of raw material and forge it into something that's meaningful."
material that lends itself to interpretation by anybody other than Waits -
although the Eagles actually attempted a stab at 'Ol '55' from Closing Time. Waits doesn't appear to
hear you when you ask him how he felt about that, head down in his collar,
attention wandering now as if there are 15 different ways he'd rather be
spending his time. But the word "Eagles" triggers a response.
are probably one of my least favorite groups. I don't find anything there at
all, but, y'know, opinions are like assholes - everybody has one. You may like
'em; I think they suck, so shove it up your ass with a wah-wah brush and break
it off, go around the corner just you and me, over to the Blarney Stone and
under the tree... they're making the bucks.
think they are the 70's reasonable fascimile
of the Four Freshmen or the Crew Cuts. They're a living, breathing example of
where the public is at now. People wanna listen to something that doesn't
bother them, that doesn't make them think.
wanna go right down the middle, and, man, it all comes down to social
pressures, it really does. It takes a certain amount of courage, if you're a
kid, to make up your own mind... if you're 14 years old and living in New York
City and you like Mantovani you'd probably keep it a secret, y'know? You
wouldn't go over somebody's house and say 'Hey man, let's put on a little
Mantovani'; they'd all laugh at you.
just saying that whatever you like you should stick up for it. America is going
through a huge musical identity crisis right now. People are looking for
somebody to tell them who to like; they don't know."...
listen to Charles Bukowski, Thurman Gould, Clarence Frogman Henry, Hubert Selby
Jr., Neal Cassady, Oscar Brown Jr., Harry 'The Hipster' Gibson, Professor
Longhair, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Milt Jackson, Mose Allison, Gil Evans,
Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny and Dennis Mercer, Jerome Kern - did I say Jerome
Kern? - Jerome Kern...
rock music on the hit parade. It's hard to avoid. Most of the current pop music
is like P.M. - programmed music shopping music, like stuff you hear in
elevators. P.M. also stands for prolonged masturbation. I find a lot of it
about as exciting as watching paint dry somewhere, although I guess the records
are good for keeping dust off your turntable..."
growing popularity - in Philadelphia and at least a few points East and West,
has left him unaffected. He wants to be successful all right, but his main vice
he insists will still be cleaning products - "Anything that's harmful if
swallowed and if a rash develops discontinue use and consult physician
immediately. Anything that has written on the bottle 'Do not operate machinery'."
never did any narcotics. I've got more access to 'em now than I ever had, but I
just ain't interested. Women? Yeah, I go out chasing skirts. Never been
married; the closest I ever got was being best man at a friend's divorce. But
I'm not gonna change my environment and I don't plan on having it changed by
never been what you'd call fashionable. I mean when getting laid depends
entirely on what's in your record collection or on your bookshelf or in your
wardrobe I can see how those kinda things might affect you, but it's not
something that I'm really that concerned about. I got my own friends, my own
the same time I still feel I can go anywhere I want. If I want to go to the
f--kin' Rainbow Bar and Grill on Sunset Strip and beat up a transvestite then I
Is that his
idea of fun? Waits lights another cigarette and throws a dangerous squint at
don't have fun really. I had fun once - in 1962. I drank a whole bottle of Robitussin
cough medicine, got in the back of a 1961 powder blue Lincoln and went to a
James Brown concert with some pardners. We got in the back of the fence with
some wire-cutters. I haven't had fun since then.
don't like the word 'fun' - it's like Volkswagen, or bell-bottoms, or
patchouli-oil or bean-sprouts; I just don't like the word. It rubs me up the
wrong way. I don't go out and have fun; I have an educational as well as an
entertaining evening, but I don't have fun. My idea of an educational evening?
Sitting around with a bunch of unemployed biology teachers..."
first time in the entire conversation Tom Waits throws back his head and laughs
- a laugh like a Mac truck wheezing over in a parking-lot on a night colder
than a Jewish-American princess on her wedding-night...
walking down the street, we pass Patti Smith, shopping for bargains. Patti
simply says, "Hiya Tom", like they were next-door neighbors. Waits
just waves his beer and keeps on walking. "I'm not affected or trying to
create an image", he says. "I'm just cheap". Well, you can't put
a price tag on honesty...
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- Tom Waits
- Tom Waits