Title: A Cluttered Harmony
Source: Los Angeles Times (USA). September 26, 2004. By Richard Cromelin. Also printed in Houston Chronicle: October 4, 2004 ("Tom Waits anchored solidly in the present on 'Real Gone'")
Date: Little Amsterdam restaurant, Petaluma CA. July/ August. Published: September 26, 2004
Key words: Real Gone, Billy Bragg, influences

Accompanying picture

Source: Los Angeles Times (USA). "A Cluttered Harmony". September 26, 2004. Date: ca. 2004. Credits: photography by Kim Kulish for The Times.


A Cluttered Harmony


Tom Waits dwells in a place where cynicism and hope collide -- and the bat guano's free. As always, it's a realm that's somewhat removed.

By Richard Cromelin, Times Staff Writer

The Little Amsterdam(1) sits incongruously in the rolling expanse of Sonoma County farmland, a low white building adorned with a Dutch windmill - a "fake" windmill, Tom Waits' assistant has specified in her directions.

The restaurant's interior looks like something Waits himself might have had a hand in decorating. Besides the clutter of farm implements and copper cookware and sombreros, antique radios sit gathering dust, and an old-fashioned curved bicycle horn hangs in one corner. A large fish patrols the waters of a murky aquarium near the table where Waits sits drinking coffee from a plastic cup. "Did you see the albino catfish?" he asks. "He apparently ate all the fish in the tank, and that's why he's so big."

The room is empty on this hot midweek morning, one reason the singer has come here to talk about his new album, "Real Gone."

Waits says he felt like "an unplugged appliance" when he moved to this area 15 years ago from Los Angeles. The big city's hectic pace and colorful denizens had fueled a body of work that made the unconventional, gruff-voiced singer one of the most admired renegades in pop music. Then he headed for the hills, where he's found domestic contentment without conceding any creative edge.

Since then, in fact, he's become even more a model of artistic independence, collaborating with his wife, Kathleen Brennan, on a series of albums, starting with 1983's "Swordfishtrombones," that explore his scrap yard symphonies and customized cabaret with a bracing sense of risk and freedom. He's also penetrated the high arts, teaming regularly with theater visionary Robert Wilson. One of their striking works, 1991's "The Black Rider,"(2) is in its North American debut engagement in San Francisco.

That's about an hour's drive from here, but it's a different world. Up here, Waits is just another local with a green thumb. He's slouching in his chair and exuding an air of supreme harmony with his surroundings when a small, wiry man with a wild silver beard approaches the table.

"Excuse me for interrupting," he says to Waits. "I know you're into some serious gardening. I'm cleaning up Spireto Ballatore's farm down there and I've got about a half a 40-gallon garbage bag of bat guano if you want it."

"Oh, bat guano! Good, good," Waits says with unnerving enthusiasm.

"Oh, God, I'd be definitely interested."

"OK, well, I'll just set the bag out in front of the last barn; you can pick it up there.""

Waits' benefactor departs, waving off the singer's offer of payment.

"It all comes down to bat guano," Waits says. "With that much bat guano around here, that puts you in a whole other category."

Leap into the mud

"Real GONE," which comes out Oct. 5 on the Anti label, keeps Waits in the whole other category he's long occupied musically. Raw, rustic, primal and immediate, it's a leap into the mud from the refined platform of its simultaneously released 2002 predecessors, "Alice" and "Blood Money," whose songs had been written for Wilson theater pieces.

Now Waits returns to the percussive clank reminiscent of albums such as "Bone Machine," thickened with vocal beats Waits recorded in his bathroom and turntable scratching by his 19-year-old son, Casey(3), the middle of his three children.

"Part of my compulsion is I'm unable to repeat myself in certain things," says Waits, 54, groping to describe the origins of "Real Gone." "Other people are nervous when they have to digress or deviate from the scripts, and I'm compelled to change things all the time.

"Those last albums were more meticulous, there was more ballads on them, and there was strings and all that stuff. You've been kind of staring into the water and now you want to do something that's liberating. I don't know how it really came about. You have to stay mystified by it yourself. I don't think it's something you ever want to totally control or understand. Intelligence is highly overrated."

Songs such as "Don't Go Into That Barn," a killer-on-the-loose thriller, lead into some scary woods. There are also some hard-boiled portraits of drifters and dreamers, and a spoken reverie about a family of circus freaks.

But the songs that give "Real Gone" its emotional wallop are the ones that unambiguously address the current political moment. "Day After Tomorrow," an acoustic ballad in the form of a soldier's letter home, is the most direct of all, but "Hoist That Rag," a swaggering saga of a band of mercenaries, and the ominous epic "Sins of the Father," with its line about "the star spangled glitter of his one good eye" and its allusion to a game that was rigged, resonate with a topical urgency.

"You know, I'm not Billy Bragg, but I'm not Liberace, either," Waits says. "Making songs about what's going on, first you have to inherently believe that they have genuine power to be part of a change. I'm not sure that I completely agree with that. At this point it's like throwing rocks at a tank...

"They're songs, you know. Sure, they are reflecting in some way what's going on. I'm watching and listening and finding things on the road and picking them up and sticking them in there. But I don't know that I completely believe that it in fact can make a difference. Sounds a bit cynical, but..."

But still, for someone who has two children near draft age, there was that need to weigh in.

"I guess. To a certain degree. Gingerly. There's a point where you realize to say nothing is a political statement... So I tried to put something in there... I don't know, I'm cynical and I'm also hopeful."

Circus of sound

At the other end of the scale, "Real Gone" also revels in the raw, rhythmic drive of mutant funk and R&B on such songs as "Shake It" and "Continental Glide."(4)

It all flows from the circus of sound at the Waits estate.

"You heard the Skip James comin' from the garage where your dad's makin' a footstool," Waits says, describing the clamor. "And at the same time some Missy Elliott came in from upstairs down into the kitchen and someone was makin' with the pots and pans. Sometimes things just do naturally come together. You just have to know how to draw a frame around it."

Waits has his obvious influences - the blues and Captain Beefheart, the Beat Generation writers and Kurt Weill, field hollers and torch songs. But there are hidden ones that are just as important.

"The thing about influences, most of it goes in and it melts. I mean, can you really hear Jimmie Rodgers in Howlin' Wolf? When he does that yodel, that was his failed attempt at a Jimmie Rodgers yodel. Most of the people that are really influencing you, no one would necessarily see. They've really become just stains on your undershirt.

"I can't sing like Harry Belafonte, but I love him. If I told you all I'm doin' is trying to sound like Harry Belafonte, you wouldn't get it. And I want to play piano just like Liberace. And dance like, I don't know, Fred Astaire and James Brown. Most of us are contraptions that we made."

Waits' publicist(5) comes into the restaurant and tells him it's time to drive to a nearby hotel for a radio interview, but he asks her to wait and pulls out a small, worn notebook filled with childlike scrawls and cartoonish drawings.

"Give me a few minutes, just in case there's a couple of things I want to make sure I said," he says, thumbing though the pages. "It's answers looking for questions."

He stops and examines an entry, then looks up.

"An ostrich's eye is actually bigger than its brain. Isn't that amazing?" He seems entranced by this information. He pauses a beat, timing his tag line like a stand-up comic.

"Again, intelligence is highly overrated."

Influences and inspiration
"The thing about influences," Tom Waits says, is "if you make them too obvious, it sounds like you're ripping somebody off. If you make them too obscure, nobody gets the connection." With that disclaimer, Waits comments on some of his key influences.

George and Ira Gershwin : When I was a teenager, I thought those were the most harmonically complex and melodically interesting songs. I used to study them. How ... did he find that? ... They were like folk songs, with some Stephen Foster in there, but at the same time they were very current for the time.
Liberace: He was really the poor man's Arthur Rubinstein. He was a vaudeville act. It was kind of like Rev. Ike. He was saying, "You too can be drenched in rubies and diamonds. Step forward and touch the hem of my garment." And those arpeggios! He was really the arpeggio king. I realized when I started playing piano that you get a lot out of an arpeggio. It's like waving your hand with a fistful of glitter and then letting a little bit out as you throw it.
Harry Partch : I'm drawn to anybody who kind of creates his own world. He once said, "Once there was a boy who went outside. That was me." He said, "I went outside of music." He seemed to be as affected and influenced by Chinese lullabies as he was by things he saw written on water tanks on the side of the railroad. He put, disparate elements together.
Mabel Mercer: Just her voice and a piano. Gals like her and Bricktop. You could just feel that - they were sitting on a stool, with a smoke and a drink. They always gave you a sense of place and they were great at pacing. You get that same kind of pacing from Little Jimmy Scott, who does more with his cuffs on his coat, the way he throws his hands up in the air.
The Pogues: They've got a box set coming out and I got to write a little thing for them.... They sound like they've always been there. They're like pirates, I guess. They seem to deliver all their songs with a throw-away flourish, which always seems to make them seem much more valuable.
Bob Dylan: A planet to be explored by everyone.... He's had a real profound effect on me as a songwriter, and everybody I know who writes
songs. That almost goes without saying.
Captain Beefheart : I don't know anybody that doesn't see him as a pioneer. He still sounds fresh, it still sounds reasonably unexplored, because he had such a unique voice.
Lord Buckley: He was an observer of the human condition and a genuine communicator. It was music. Words are music. People say, "What comes first, the words or the music?" Well, as soon as you got words you have music.


(1) Little Amsterdam: further reading: Little Amsterdam

(2) The Black Rider, is in its North American debut engagement in San Francisco: San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater hosted the only North American engagement of "The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets." September 3 extended to October 10, 2004

(3) Casey: Casey Xavier Waits played on the 4-track album 'Hold On' (1999). Drums and co-writer ("Big Face Money"). The album 'Real Gone' (2004). Turntables (Top Of The Hill, Metropolitan Glide), Percussion (Hoist That Rag, Don't Go Into That Barn), Claps (Shake It), Drums (Dead And Lovely, Make It Rain). Production crew. Casey also stepped in a couple of times for Andrew Borger (drums) during the Mule Variations Tour (Congresgebouw, The Hague/ The Netherlands. June 21, 1999)

(4) Continental Glide: should read: "Metropolitan Glide"

(5) Waits' publicist: that would probably be Tresa Redburn of "DEPT 56" (Woodland Hills, CA)