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The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: At Home with Tom Waits in ’76

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Hell didn't exactly break loose when Richard Cromelin went to visit Tom Waits in Silver Lake, but Cromelin did come away with this great portrait of the professional barfly for the Los Angeles Times, date March 14, 1976——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

There's no place like Tom Waits' home. There's no home, at any rate, quite like Tom Waits' place. The Silver Lake court cottage looks like the neglected back room of a slumping thrift shop, its contents to be filed when there's room up front.

"You might see something here that I've been looking for for six months," Waits growls from amid the chaos," and I wish you'd tell me because I've lost a lot of things."

A bookshelf holding poetry volumes and vintage hardcover copies of Angry Young Men novels is the room's only concession of Kerouac's Visions of Cody and an album featuring Kerouac reading to Steve Allen's piano accompaniment receive no special treatment. They lie among the skin magazines, traffic tickets, discarded socks and shoes, beneath the Waits Towers — precarious piles of records, tapes, boxes and beer cans atop hidden pieces of furniture. The ashtrays overflow with Old Gold butts, and a huge neon sign proclaiming "Cocktails" leans into one corner. Waits, on a dare, unbolted it from the front of a downtown bar one night. It was heavy, but the demise of his '54 Cadillac's power steering has led to strong biceps.

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Tom Waits is one of the most critically admired writers and performers around and the object of a small but intense and growing following. Whether you're a friend, foe ("You are an insensitive bastard and I wish that I'd never met you," reads a sample of his fan mail. "Also you are extremely cruel and thoughtless") or of no opinion, you must concede he's a one of a kind.

Artistically, he's a specialist, the poet of the heart of Saturday night — "the dark, warm narcotic American night," he calls it in 'Putnam County'. His flair for pungent detail and his sensuous imagery bring vibrancy and dimension to his neon maze and its asphalt escape chutes (from 'Ol' '55', the Waits "signature piece" that he wishes weren't: "... I'm riding with lady luck/ Freeway cars and trucks/ Stars beginnin' to fade/ And I lead the parade.")

From the vantage point of the determined loner, he strolls the all-night diners, burrito stands, truck stops and Hollywood dives on a sacramental midnight mission, ending in a dawn that, for him, cracks like a bullwhip and turns the sky the color of Pepto-Bismol. Paul Bunyan used logs as toothpicks; for Waits, the parking meters are walking sticks.

The Waits recipe contains no artificial flavoring, and so no condescension toward the bleary characters who populate his night, threatening, amusing, comforting, sometimes loving. His turf doubles as an emotional landscape, where loneliness lurks like a mugger and lures like a hooker, and where polished chrome attains a rare beauty. Waits' distinction in an age of advanced artifice is that image and actuality correspond. When you find him hunched over the bar at a seedy Hollywood tavern, he's not slumming in search of a good album cover shot. The car isn't rented and dented for effect. He doesn't need a designer to give him the look of a piece of street-corner flotsam drifting in from the Great Depression. He's a natural, even if it does take a bit of effort.

Waits follows an aisle of debris to the bulky console hi-fi in the corner and slips on a Duke Ellington-Ray Brown album. Before he ambles back through the shambles he turns on the hot plate, starting a pot of water that will boil with a metallic tinkling sound for most of the late afternoon.

"I deal with the things that I know most about," he says, nodding his head rapidly to the music and grafting the beat into conversation. "You almost have to create situations in order to write about them, so I live in a constant state of self-imposed poverty. I don't want to live any other way."

"There's not much difference between what I appear to be on stage and what I am. I think people like that, that I'm not trying to pull a caper. It's easy for me, 'cause it's not such a large jump. I don't have to get into a costume. I'm in contact and I'm in context... But all of a sudden it becomes your image, and it's hard to tell where the image stops and you begin or where you stop and the image begins. Any image I have, it's just what I do, but it comes off as being very pretentious. When you're a bit in the public astigmatism, anything you do seems like you did it so somebody would see you do it, like showing up at the right parties."

Waits, 26, rates his childhood as "standard" and recalls high school in San Diego as a social playground where he was torn between his brainy acquaintances and those making the boozing, cruising scene. "I finally went with the hoods," he says, "and watched my California Scholarship Federation plaque melt subsequently."

He began making recreational pilgrimages to Tijuana and laid considerable groundwork in his five years on the graveyard shift at a San Diego restaurant. "I knew when I was working there I was going to do something with it, yeah. I didn't know how, but I felt it every night."

Waits was a cultural misfit in the Swinging '60s: "I didn't have black lights or Jimi Hendrix posters or sand candles, so I was really going through an identity crisis. I felt a little misplaced." His discovery of the Beat writers came as a breath of fresh air and furnished a strong stylistic impulse that surfaced recently on Nighthawks at the Diner, his third Asylum album.

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On the record, cut with an audience in the studio, Waits breaks the mold of the conventional singer-songwriter and presents himself as a be-bop raconteur, a scatting storyteller and spontaneous, rapid-fire imagist reciting to the fourth-gear highway rhythms of a smoky jazz trio. The inescapable first impression is that of the '50s jazz-and-poetry format, but Waits is leery of the term poetry and thinks that too much is made of his Beatnik connection.

"I hate that reference because of the stigma that's attached to it" — Maynard G. Krebs with some bongos. I'm not having a vicarious '50s thrill or trying to come off like Manhattan Transfer. Stylistically, most writers and performers draw from wherever they can. There's all kinds of resource out there. You suck it up if you can. You should be thirsty for it, whatever it is, and then integrate it into what you're doing now."

"I don't like the word poetry and I don't like poetry readings and I usually don't like poets. I would much prefer describing myself and what I do as: I'm kind of a curator, and I'm kind of a night-owl reporter. Maybe a little bit of Damon Runyon in me or something... I always had a great appreciation for jazz, but I'm a very pedestrian musician. I get by. I like to think that my main instrument is vocabulary."

Waits was 19 when he moved north and started the Troubadour hoot-night hustle. "I was as ambitious as hell. I wasn't any good, but I was ambitious, and I thought I was better than anybody, and I sucked raw eggs. But you have to think that way. To let an audience intimidate you is musical suicide." He gradually honed his stagecraft — "hanging cut, listening to stories, picking up ideas, one-liners, jokes" — and eventually developed his highly individual stage persona and style.

"A performance is not real life," he asserts. "I mean, to light up a cigarette here is one thing, but to light one on stage is a whole other world. I have to be completely aware of the figure that I cut on stage. I'm a caricature of myself up there. It's just an exaggeration of my own personality."

"That's very important, personality, and most performers don't think about it, I guess. Maybe most performers don't have one, or else they don't know how to show it to you on stage, which is the hardest thing in the world to do and come off unpretentious. It really has to be choreographed and calculated... to make it look spontaneous. I'm an entertainer, just like Rodney Dangerfield is an entertainer. I have one prop, an old suitcase, and the rest is just creating an illusion."

"This is where I live when I'm at home," he says, his eyes rummaging through the rubble. "I don't have designs on affluence. I'm not eccentric, I don't think I know what I'm doing. I'm just trying to be bona fide, and not have to compromise my integrity too much. It's a lot easier to deal with being an underdog than it is being a household word. I'm a legend in my own mind, a kind of tumor in my own mind. I'm not on the verge of national prominence or anything."

"I tell you, though, I'm real big in Philadelphia. That's all I know. Anyplace else surprises me. Philadelphia boy" — a halting James Dean smile flits across his face — "in Philadelphia I get recognized at intersections."

© Richard Cromelin, 1976

Read way more on Tom Waits — and on artists from Aaliyah to ZZ Top — at Rock's Backpages. 20,000+ articles by the best writers from the finest music publications of the last 50 years.

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