Title: A Conversation With Tom Waits (Swordfishtrombones)
Source: Island Records music industry white label 12" promo. Producer: Steve Bekoff. Executive Producer: Michael Tearson. Transcription by Risto Etelaaho as published on Seth Nielsen's Tom Waits Digest
Date: September, 1983
Key words: Swordfishtrombones, Francis Thumm, Charles Bukowski, Tenkiller Lake, Celbi

Record front cover: A Conversation with Tom Waits (Swordfishtrombones). Photography unknown


A Conversation With Tom Waits (Swordfishtrombones)


It was originally an opportunity for me to chronical the behavior of a mutant dwarf community and give it a feeling of a Russian march. People banging on steam pipes, thousand boots coming down on a wood floor at the same time. That chorus of men singing, kind of a 'Dr.Zhivago'-feel to it. It was the way I originally perceived it. I abbreviated some of the scope and wanted bass marimba to give it kind of an exotic feel. So, you get the note and you get that kind of a tall wood clang with the attack. That's Victor Feldman on bass marimba, Larry Taylor on acoustic bass, Randy Aldcroft on baritone horn, Stephen Hodges on drums and Fred Tackett on electric guitar. I had some assistance from a gentleman by the name of Francis Thumm, who worked on the arrangements of some of these songs with me. Who plays gramolodium(1) with the Harry Partch Ensemble headed up by Daniel Mitchell. So he worked closely on most of these songs. But I originally saw this... the theme for some late night activity in the steam tunnels beneath New York City. Where allegedly there are entire communities of ladies and gentleman living under difficult circumstances beneath the subways. When I was a kid I used to stare in the gopherholes for hours and hours sometimes. I tried to think my way down through the gopherhole and imagine this kind of a 'journey to the center of the earth'-kind of thing.

"Shore Leave"
It's kind of an oriental Bobby Blue Bland approach. Musically it's essentially very simple. It's a minor blues. I tried to add some musical sound effects with the assistance of a low trombone to give a feeling of a bus going by, and metal aunglongs the sound of tin cans in the wind, or rice on the bass drum to give a feeling of the waves hitting the shore. Just to capture the mood more than anything of a marching marine or whatever walking down the wet street in Hong Kong and missing his wife back home. I worked in a restaurant in a sailor town for a long time(2). It's Porkcola National City. So, it was something I saw every night. It was next to tattoo parlour and country&western dance hall and a Mexican movie theatre. So I imagined this Chinese pinwheel in a fireworks display spinning, spinning and turning and then slowing down. As it slowed down it dislodged into a windmill in Illinois. That same of... and then looked down on us. A home. Where a woman is sitting in the living room sleeping on chairs with the television on. When he's having eggs at some grumulant joint, you know, thousands of miles away.

"Dave the Butcher"
This is an instrumental piece. It's a... actually I tried to find gallopy. Was it possible? So, I ended up playing on the B-3 organ. Well I wanted that carnival feeling on it. Kind of a nightmare alley with Tyrone Power and John Blundell. Kind of a monkey on wood alcohol. It was originally inspired by a gentleman who did tremendous amounts of religious things in his house and worked at a slaughter house. I was trying to imagine what was going in his head while he cut up load of pork loin and got completely out of his mind with a meat cleaver. I don't think it's going to get a lot of airplay. Unless we put a nice vocal on it.

"Johnsburg, Illinois"
My wife is from Johnsburg, Illinois. It's right outside McHenry and up by the ching-a-lings. She grew up on a farm up there. So it's dedicated to her. It's real short. Somehow I wanted just to get it all said in one verse. There are times when you work on a song and end up repeating in the second verse what you already said in the first. So I thought I would be more appropriate if it's just like a feeling of a sailor somewhere in a cafe, who opens his wallet and turns to the guy next to him and shows him the picture while he's talking about something else and says: "Oh, here. That's her." and then closes his wallet and puts it back in his pants. It relates in some way to "Shore Leave" in the sense that it talks about Illinois. So thematically I was trying to tie it into "Shore Leave".

"16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought-Six"
I tried to get a 'chain gang work song'-feel holler. Get a low trombone to give a feeling of a freight train going by. It's Stephen Hodges on drums, Larry Taylor on acoustic bass, Fred Tackett on electric guitar, Victor Feldman on brake drum and bell plate and Joe Romano on trombone. So, I wanted to have that kind of a sledgehammer coming down on anvil. Originally I saw the story as a guy and a mule going off looking for this crow. He has a Washburn guitar strapped on the side of his mule and when he gets the crow he pulls the strings back and shoves this bird inside the guitar and then the strings make like a jail. Then he bangs the on the strings and the bird goes out of his mind as he is riding off over the hill. So I tried to make the story a bit impressionistic but at the same time adding some very specific images in there. I worked a long time on this. The feel of it was really critical. I added snare and we pulled the snare off 'cause it made it shuffle too much. I liked the holes in it as much as I liked what was in them. It was a matter of trying to get that feeling of a train going. Originally I tried it just with organ and bass. Then I was afraid to add too much to it 'cause sometimes you get a feel that's appropriate. If you try to heap too much on it then it crumbles into the strain.

"Town With No Cheer"
When my wife heard that for the first time she said: "Oh gee, you must have loved her very much." So I said: "Wait a minute. This is not a love song. This is about a guy who can't get a drink!" It's about a miserable old town in Australia that made the news when they shut down the only watering hole. We found an article about it in a newspaper when we were over there and hung on to it for a year. So I said: "Ah, I'm going to write something about that someday." and finally got around to it. That's a freedom bell upfront just trying to get a feel of a ghost town, tumbleweeds and that kind of thing. It's basically a folk song.

"In The Neighbourhood"
Side one closes with "In the neighbourhood". It has that salvation army feel. All things signed. Have a drinking song.
I was trying to bring the music outdoors with tuba, trombone, trumpets, snare, symbals, accordian. So it had that feeling of filiniesque type of marching band going down the dirt road. And with glockenspiel to give it a feeling of a kind of a demented little parade band.

"Just Another Sucker In The Vine"
Another instrumental. It's myself playing the harmonium and Joe Romano on trumpet. I tried to give a little 'Nino Rota'-feel(3) to it. Kind of like a car running out of gas, you know, just before it makes the crest of a hill and it starts to roll back. And.. Alright. I tried to picture two Italian brothers in small circus arguing on the trapeze. One of them with a bottle of ten high and it's leotard. Doing the dozens on each other and throwing insults as they cross each other in the mid air. Or the feel of a band on the deck of Titanic as it slowly goes under. The title is really kind of a lyric to it, it's like you know... Actually I originally planned to write a lyric called: "It's more than rain that falls on our parade tonight". But I thought it was more effective as an instrumental and it also sets up "Frank's Wild Years".

"Frank's Wild Years"
Charles Bukowski had a story that essentially was saying that it's the little things that drive men mad. It's not the big things. It's not World War II. It's the broken shoe lace when there is no time left that sends men completely out their minds. So this is kind of in that spirit. Little of a Ken Nordine flavour. Ronnie Barren alias Rev. Either from New Orleans, Lousiana, on Hammond organ and Larry Taylor, originally with Canned Heat, on dog house(4). I think there is a little bit of Frank in everybody.

That's the title song. It has kind of a Cuban night club feel to it. It's a story to try and give an overview of a character. We tried it with a lot of different ways. It was arranged differently with electric guitar and drums. We had trombone on it and trumpet and ended up.. We.. I had to discard most of what we had done and completely rearrange it just to get it as simple as possible. So that it just kind of rolled and allowed me to tell the story over it without any interruptions. Tenkiller Lake, that's in Tulsa, Oklahoma. So, "He came home from the war with a party in his head and an idea for fireworks display."

"Down, Down, Down"
It's best described as Pentecostal revron man. I was stranded in Arizona on the route 66. It was freezing cold and I slept at a ditch. I pulled all these leaves all over on top of me and dug a hole and shoved my feet in this hole. It was about 20 below and no cars going by. Everything was closed. When I woke up in the morning there was a Pentecostal church right over the road. I walked over there with leaves in my hair and sand on the side of my face. This woman named Mrs. Anderson came. It was like New years eve... Yeah, it was New years eve. She said: "We're having services here and you are welcome to join us." So I sat at the back pew in this tiny little church. And this mutant rock 'n' roll band got up and started playing these old hymns in such a broken sort of way. They were preaching, and every time they said something about the devil or evil or going down the wrong path she gestured in the back of the church to me. And everyone would turn around and look and shake their heads and then turn back to the preacher. It gave me a complex that I grew up with. On Sunday evening they have these religious programs where the preachers they are all bankers. They get on with these firing glasses and 700 $ suits. Shake their finger at America. So this is kind of my own little opportunity at the lectern.

"Soldier's Things"
...He has footnotes about character called the Celbi. The theory is that if somebody rides a bicycle long enough eventually the bicycle becomes 30% human and you become 70% bicycle. It's like the things that you have in your pocket. If you are carrying them there long enough, they take on certain atomic human characteristics. Sometimes you go to a garage sale or you go to a pawn shop or anywhere and look through other peoples things. Shoes in particular, that have walked around with somebody else inside them for a long time, seem to have...Seem to be able to almost talk. So, it's just trying to string together different items that... Instruments are always like that. After you come home from...This guy comes home from service and "everything's a dollar in that box", you know.

"Gin Soaked Boy"
It's a bit of a Howlin' Wolf -feel. It's Fred Tackett on electric guitar, plays good slide. Tried to get that 'rrrrr'-thing. Tried to get the vocal sit way back to recreate the recording conditions that existed prior to advanced technical capabilities. We had it recorded by one round microphone. So, your dominance on the track depended entirely on your distance from the microphone. Also get a room-feel. So Biff Dawes(5) miked the room with several of these contact mikes on the glassnet type on thing. So it got a real sense of the air of the place. It has a bit of an old feel to it.

"Trouble's Braids"
It's Victor Feldman on African talking drum, Stephen Taylor on parade bass drum and Larry Taylor on acoustic bass. It has a bit of a Mongolian feel. Try to get the image of trouble being this little girl. Pull on trouble's braids. He should chase you around and about a guy who's in trouble. Our hero is at this point being pursued by blood hounds. So he stays away from the main roads.

Is the final song on side two. It's myself at the piano and Greg Cohen on acoustic bass. It's a real pleasure to work with him. We have a mutual intuition and it's really good to hear him again. Francis Thumm(1) helped me with glass harmonica introduction.
It's kind of an epilogue to the story. After he floats down the stream on an old dead tree. It's kind of... you know...It's a morning you hear the birds and it starts to rain and he's off on another adventure somewhere. I wanted to close the side with an instrumental to give the hero room to breath. Yeah, that's all...the end.


(1) Francis Thumm/ Chromelodeon:
 The Chromelodeon was never used on any Tom Waits record. Harry Partch built his Chromelodeon in at the University of Wisconsin. Reeds are inserted for a 43-tone-to-the-octave scale. Thus, an acoustic octave covers that many keys and reeds, successively, and measures some three and a half keyboard octaves. The scale is in just intonation, and each tone is a frequency ratio to a fundamental, shown on the keyboard by colors. With the thirteen sub-bass reeds, and the stops for higher and lower tones in the second cell row, the total range of the instrument is from the lowest piano C to the third C# above middle C, slightly more than five acoustic octaves.
- Tom Waits (1983): "Lately I've found an appreciation of Harry Partch who built and designed all his own instruments and died several years ago in San Diego. His ensemble continues under the name of The Harry Partch Ensemble, a friend of mine, Francis Thumm, plays the chromelodeon." (Source: "Skid Romeo" The Face magazine #41, by Robert Elms. Date: Travelers Cafe/ Los Angeles. September, 1983)
- Tom Waits (2000): "I have a good friend, Francis Thumm, who used to play the chromelodeum with The Harry Partch Ensemble and he has been a music teacher for a lot of years, he has been a profound influence on me. He is a river to his people." (Source: "Tradition With a Twist" Blues Revue magazine No. 59 (USA). July/August, 2000 by Bret Kofford)

(2) I worked in a restaurant in a sailor town for a long time: further reading: Napoleone Pizza House

(3) A little 'Nino Rota' - feel: Italian born musician/ composer. wrote several operas and ballets and countless works for orchestra, but is probably best known for his scores for the cinema. His work in film dates back to the early forties. His filmography includes the names of virtually all of the noted directors of his time. First among these is Federico Fellini. He wrote all of the movie scores for Fellini's films from The White Sheik in 1952 to The Orchestra Rehearsal in 1979. Other directors include Renato Castellani, Luchino Visconti, Franco Zeffirelli, Mario Monicelli, Francis Ford Coppola (Oscar for best original movie score), King Vidor, Ren� Cl�ment, Edward Dmytrik and Eduardo de Filippo. He also composed the music for many theatre productions by Visconti, Zefirelli and de Filippo. Further reading: Nino Rota CollectionNino Rota at Imdb

(4) Larry Taylor, originally with Canned Heat, on dog house: longtime friend and collaborator since 1980. Further reading: Who's Who?

(5) Biff Dawes: - Engineer for: Van Morrison (assistant engineer), John Stewart, Bob Dylan (Street Legal), Woody Herman, Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Percussion Profiles, Frank Sinatra, USA For Africa, Blondie, Richard Pryor, Rollins band, Huey Lewis & The News, Pat Benatar, Motley Crue, Mitch Hedberg, Megadeth, John Lee Hooker, Great White, Matthew Sweet, YES, Devo, Loverboy. Westwood One's Chief Engineer (Design FX Audio). Further reading: Who's Who?