|Title: A Conversation With Tom Waits
Source: Memphis Commercial Appeal (USA). January 21, 2007. Telephone interview by Bob Mehr. Transcription as published on Memphis Commercial Appeal site, �2007 commercialappeal.com.
Date: published January 21, 2007
Keywords: Orphans, Memphis, acting, Johnny Cash, Paul Anka, Bob Dylan, inspiration
A Conversation With Tom Waits
"How about that seven-legged deer?"(1) asks Tom Waits, by way of a greeting, over a crackling cell phone line. "This guy in Wisconsin hit something in his driveway, and it turned out to be a seven-legged dear with two separate male and female sex organs. They've never seen anything like it."
Somehow, I imagine Tom Waits starts a lot of conversations this way.
During the past 35 years, while working largely on the more interesting fringes of show business, Waits has cultivated a persona as an unreconstructed oddball obsessed with sideshow curiosities and junkyard sounds. But there, lurking beneath the carnival barker character and the rattletrap sonics, are the songs of one of America's greatest writers -- one need only hear Waits' breathtaking biblical redemption tale "Down There by the Train" for irrefutable proof.
Following a six-year recording hiatus, Waits signed with Los Angeles-based indie label Anti- in 1999, releasing the Grammy-winning, gold-record selling Mule Variations. Since then he's entered a serious purple patch, turning out three more sterling studio albums, capped by the release of 2006's multi-disc archival project, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards.
During the course of a nearly hourlong interview from his home in Northern California, Waits proves a nimble conversationalist, capable of providing serious insight into his creative process while salting the discussion with strange and seemingly improbable facts (the deer story, it turns out, is true).
He's occasionally cranky and frequently cagey -- particularly when asked about his famously reclusive wife and songwriting partner Kathleen Brennan. (All Waits will offer about his missus is a string of compliments: "She can play the piano like Fats Waller... sing like Maria Callas ... and she has a pilot's license.")
But like his music, there's something oddly ingratiating in talking to Waits, something familiar in his manner that quickly puts you at ease. At one point, he asks what it was that made me leave Chicago for Memphis, and I reply with surprising candor: "A broken heart."
"Oh, I see," Waits growls, not missing a beat, "ya limped into town."
Waits touches on a number of topics, from his memories of Memphis landmarks to his appreciation of Bob Dylan. But, mostly, he talks about songs and songwriting -- and for good reason. Late last year he released the three-CD, 56-track odds and sods set Orphans. Packaged as a lavishly designed hardback book, it pulls together Waits' contributions to a variety of compilations and tribute albums, rounds up numerous import-only tracks and introduces 30 previously unreleased songs.
Despite the rather daunting amount of material included in Orphans, the set has generated rapturous five-star raves across the board and sold briskly (a limited-edition version of the collection has sold out; a less costly "paperback" edition is still available). Waits, though, is modest in assessing both his enduring popularity and gifts as a songsmith.
"It's like how some people can sit down and solve a Rubik's Cube," he says. "Some people know how to build a radio from things laying around the house. Some people are good in the garden. You just find something that you love and also something that you're good at and you do it."
Q: This past August, you finally played Memphis after almost 30 years(2) -- what brought you back?
A: Well, I love Memphis. I used to play there more often. The first time I played there was with [Frank] Zappa. After that I played there with Leon Redbone at the Orpheum. I remember it because when we left the gig we went over to Lansky Brothers, the clothier. I thought it was a cafe. I figured what else could be open at 4 o'clock in the morning? But no, it was a clothing store. I bought hats and shoes. It was a wild night.
Q: The previous gig you did here was at a place called the Ritz in 1977(2) -- I guess people remember it because your rider stated that a stripper needed to be provided as part of the on-set decoration.
A: Oh gee ... boy, I don't remember that. It was on the rider, huh?
Q: This most recent concert was more of a family-oriented affair as you had your son Casey playing drums.
A: I got him cheap -- 'cause he's still living at home. He's been playing the drums since he was about 8. I don't know any kid who's 21 and really wants to be hanging out with his dad and all of his old friends. But he gets a kick out of it.
Q: Since you don't tour that often, it allows you to do other things, like acting. You've appeared in over 20 films; do you consider yourself an actor at this point?
A: No, there are so many good actors, I don't think we need another one. I mean, wearing someone else's clothes and pretending to be somebody else is a little weird. It's a little like being on acid. [laughs] The idea is you're trying to be truthful under imaginary circumstances. And that's a bit of a riddle, isn't it? I'm no Charles Laughton. I'm no Vincent Price. But I love those guys.
Q: So you don't actively seek out parts?
A: What, like write a letter to a director: "Please, will you put me in your film?" Actually, I did write a letter to Peter Jackson. I sent him a copy of the [Daniel Johnston] song "King Kong" that I recorded. I thought maybe he'd want to use it as the theme for the movie or maybe over the closing credits. And I swear to God, I haven't heard back from him yet. I'm starting to get nervous.
Q: Your new collection Orphans has sold surprisingly well. Are you surprised?
A: Gee, I guess you always hope that the demand is going to be greater than the supply. That's the American way. Otherwise, you're forced to give copies away with something else -- like tires.
Q: One of the tracks on Orphans is your own version of "Down There by the Train,"(3) which Johnny Cash cut for his first American Recordings album. How'd that come about?
A: I had a friend who was playing guitar with him at the time, [guitarist] Smokey Hormel. Smokey said, "Yeah, Johnny's going to be doing other people's tunes. Send us down something." But the version on [Orphans] isn't the original demo I sent. I did my version with Larry Taylor at Prairie Sun or Sputnik Sound, or one of those places.
Q: Obviously, with Cash I'm sure it was an honor. But early on in your career you were pretty vocal in your criticism of people who did versions of your songs that you didn't like -- say, the Eagles and "Ol' '55."
A: Anytime somebody does your tune, it's a good deal. That's really why you wrote it. Otherwise it'd be so deeply emotional and personal, nobody else would be able to understand or relate. When you write a song, the idea is to build a road that someone else is going to drive on someday. I think as I've gotten older, I understand that better. Plus, I've butchered a lot of other people's songs myself, so it's only fair.
Q: Sometimes the least likely pairings of singers and songs work.
A: Right, how about Paul Anka doing that Nirvana song ["Smells Like Teen Spirit"]? Did you hear that? It was very cool. I heard words in that song that I'd never heard before. I heard him rhyme albino with mulatto, I thought, 'Wow, this is terrific.'
Q: Have you ever heard the bootleg tape of Anka berating his band about what they're wearing onstage?
A: Hey, I can relate. In the '70s I used to have to tell my band members: "Listen guys, no dashikis -- or you'll be shot on sight!" No dashikis, no tennis shoes, no white socks, no sailor hats. . . . The worst offenders were the ones wearing socks with sandals -- those guys were shot. They never worked again.
Q: I know you're a fan of Bob Dylan. I'm curious if you read his autobiography [Chronicles]? It seemed like he managed to reveal a lot but still somehow preserve the mystery about himself.
A: It was perfect. It wasn't a letter to his mother. It was a story, for God's sake, written by somebody who tells stories. No one really knows how much of it was true or not, and no one really should know. It doesn't really matter.
Q: Like Dylan, you made up a lot of your biography early on -- telling ridiculous tales about your background.
A: Well, it was partly truth, partly fiction. I don't think there's any such thing as "the truth," to be honest with you. As soon as something is spoken, once it's repeated, it never resembles the original remark because interpretation takes over and immediately you begin to change things. That's the folk process.
Q: Where do you draw your inspiration from?
A: You don't really know where your inspiration is going to come from. If you're drowning in the middle of the ocean, the sound of a helicopter would be rather pleasing. Other times, it's pretty annoying.
Q: But you've never really studied the way people write?
A: Well, the amazing thing about songwriting is that you don't really go to school to learn how to do it. You just learn by listening to other people's songs. You listen to Big Mama Thornton and Big Joe Turner and Big Irma Perkins. And Little Milton and Little Jimmy Dickens, Little Willie John, Little Stevie Wonder. All the littles -- and all the bigs. And then everything you somehow absorb you will secrete in some way.
Q: I guess there's no set rule to writing a great song.
A: Hey, songs are not logical. There's nothing logical about a song, whether it's "My Funny Valentine" or "Ode to Billy Joe." It doesn't make any sense how they come, you pull them out of the air -- you pull them out of your a**, really.
Q: Over the years, you've really mixed up the styles of music you do and the kinds of songs you write. Is that so you avoid falling into any set patterns?
A: "Falling" in any way is not a good thing. As soon as you say you're falling into anything, you're in trouble. It's like asking: "Do you want to be cremated or do you want to be buried?" Personally, I think I'd rather be creamed(4), but it's not an option. I would like to see that offered as a small alternative to cremation, though. Then they could put you in a can, put the ingredients on the back and add an expiration date.
Q: Yeah, but then the FDA will have to get involved.
A: You're right, it's a government thing. Forget it.
(1) Seven-legged deer: "Oh, dear! A seven-legged deer MUD LAKE, Wis., Dec. 14, 2006 (UPI) -- A Wisconsin man said a "weird deer," a nub buck with 3- to 4-inch appendages growing on its legs, may earn him some bucks. Rick Lisko killed the buck when it ran beneath his truck as he drove along his driveway near Mud Lake, Wis. When Lisko investigated, he noticed two appendages growing from the hind legs and one on a front leg, the Fond du Lac (Wis.) Reporter said. "It's a pretty weird deer. It kind of gives you the creeps when you look at it," Lisko said. "I guess it's a real rarity." Tasty, too, said Lisko, who ate some. A state Department of Natural Resources warden who tagged the deer and the processor who later skinned it both said they hadn't seen a deer like it. Lisko said the deer also had female reproductive organs but that claim could not be verified because Lisko gutted the deer before it was tagged and skinned. The unusual animal may bring financial rewards to Lisko, who said Bass Pro Shops expressed interest in mounting and displaying the deer in one of its nationwide stores." (Source: United Press International. December 14, 2006)
(2) Played Memphis after almost 30 years: Memphis shows:
- Mar. 2, '74: Venue unknown. Memphis/ USA. Opening for Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention (not verified);
- Jul. 8, '74: Ellis Auditorium. Memphis/ USA. Opening for Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention;
- Nov. 2, '77: The Ritz Theatre. Memphis/ USA. Jerry Swift (owner of the former Ritz): "Waits' concerts took a turn to the theatrical in '76, when he started touring with a street lamp for a set and making some unusual requests of club owners. The Ritz show was no exception. "When the contract came in, I was looking over the rider," Swift says with a salty chuckle. "It had the usual stuff -- food, drinks, and things like that. And then I saw, 'The club owner must provide a stripper on stage.' I called and asked, 'What's with this stripper shit? This is Memphis, and I don't know if we can do that.'" Fortunately for Swift, a man by the name of Art Baldwin had recently arrived in Memphis with a bevy of exotic dancers imported from Tacoma, Washington, and one of the Tacoma girls was available for the gig. According to Swift, there wasn't any actual stripping involved. The dancer just had to dress like a streetwalker and hang out under the street lamp. A bit of bumping and grinding was requested during "Pasties & a G-String," where Waits lasciviously shouts, "I'm getting harder than Chinese algebra!"... Of Waits that night, Swift recalls, "I thought he was a homeless man looking for a handout. He looked like one of the winos who would come in if somebody left the backstage door open. I said, 'Hey, what do you think you're doing,' and he looked up at me and said, 'Well, I'm performing here tonight.'" (Source: "The Second Time Around - After a hot one-night stand in 1977, Tom Waits pays Memphis a courtesy call".The Memphis Flyer. Aug. 3, 2006. By Chris Davis)
- Nov. 3, '78: Orpheum Theatre, w. Leon Redbone. Memphis/ USA;
- Aug. 4, '06: Orpheum Theatre. Memphis, TN/ USA. "It's good to be back in Memphis," Tom Waits said shortly after taking the stage before a sold-out audience at the Orpheum, the singer-songwriter's first concert in Memphis in 29 years. "I gotta say, though, what happened to Lansky's? Did it move to Florida or Cuba?" An audience member soon set him straight on Elvis' favorite clothier, now at The Peabody. But just mentioning it displayed a light, personal touch from Waits, who all night deftly balanced his dark, macabre tales of dropouts and burnouts with humorous riffs on coffee bars and unemployment line bums." (Source: "Rarities like Waits are worth the time". By Mark Jordan. The Commercial Appeal. August 6, 2006)
(3) Down There by the Train: read lyrics Down There By The Train.
(4) I think I'd rather be creamed: routine as regularly used during the Mule Variations tour of 1999/ 2000.