Title: A Conversation With Tom Waits
Source: The Observer (USA), by Peter Silverton. November 23, 1992. Thanks to Larry DaSilveira for donating copies. Previously printed as: The Lie In Waits, VOX (USA), Peter Silverton. October 1992
Date: Paris, October, 1992
Key words: Joe Strummer, Kathleen, Elvis Presley, Bone Machine, Creative process, Frito Lay


A Conversation With Tom Waits


Tom Waits is in Paris(1) wrestling with the truth. As usual the truth is losing, but that's what happens when you're promoting your first album in four years.

To converse with Tom Waits is to be lied to, consistently, determinedly, entertainingly. 'I'll tell you all my secrets but I'll lie about my past,"(2) he once sang. Take that livid comma of a scar in the middle of his forehead. "Gee," he says, a word with an innocence on the page that it doesn't have on his lips. He doesn't know how he got that scar. He can't remember. He pauses, gives his eyes time to roam and his body to twist and untwist itself as he thinks. And then he can remember. A bullet went right in there. The scar marked the entry point and the bullet continued its journey through the Waits cranium until it emerged in the outside world from the back of his skull. "And I never felt better in my life," he growls into his morning coffee.

Or take the tale of his first meeting with Joe Strummer, when Waits played Ronnie Scott's in 1976(3) . The unknown Clash guitarist met Waits and turned up at the club to claim his promised free entry. Waits came to the door in a long dark coat, stared hard and blank at Strummer, then reached into his coat and pulled a full pint of freshly poured Guinness from an inner pocket. He drank it right off and told the doorman to let Strummer in.

It's a tale that evokes no memories with the modern Waits, but he loves it, he warms to it. "Gee, it's a great story. Yeah, the truth of things is not something I particularly like. I go more for a good story than what really happened. That's just the way I am. I'm a big liar."

What doesn't he lie about?

"Er, er." Waits pauses, searching for inspiration in the pattern of the table cloth, or perhaps just hoping I'll shut up, go away and leave him to enjoy the rest of the day with his wife and two children. "Whatever I tell you right now would probably be a lie."

Tom Waits has a new album and Tom Waits has to do some interviews, so Tom Waits is sitting on a warm, early summer day, at a table in a Paris street cafe. He is staying at a quiet, reserved and expensive hotel across the way. For him it was an early breakfast. For the rest of the Place des Vosges it was a regular Saturday lunchtime. Like the good American he is, Waits has a Coca-Cola and a large white coffee in front of him, and makes no attempt to speak French.

"Not a man's town, Paris, not a man's town," he chants now and again. As ever, he is scrunched in his chair, constantly twisting, turning and scratching in that way of his. His black motorcycle boots shuffle their way around underneath the table. And the grey tuft of facial hair, all that currently remains of the variety of whiskers Waits has experimented with over the years, stays pretty much where it always does immediately below his lower lip.

It's a somewhat unlikely setting for man whose reviews, inevitably, are shot through with clich�s about cheap booze and nicotine stains, Edward Hopper paintings and Jack Kerouac novels. Here he is, in one of the most distinctive remnants of pre-revolutionary Paris, a short walk from the Bastille, where a glass-walled opera house dominates the scene much as the prison once did.

If the real Waits matched the clich�s that surround him, he would have felt more at home in the area when its principal features were the prison and its most renowned inhabitant, the Marquis de Sade. Mention would have to be made of the time Waits announced his address as the fictitious junction of Bedlam and Squalor, or perhaps his long term (real) residence in Los Angeles' Tropicana motel(4), with its fine collection of antique junkies and splendid black swimming pool.

Alternatively, and equally likely, Waits could even be looking forward to a Sunday in the Place des Vosges, watching the French royalists turn up for their weekly parade in their neat blue suits, and their small children in neat blue corduroy shorts. Always corduroy--it's a royalist word, from corde du roy (king's cords).

Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Whatever his idiosyncrasies, and they are legion, Waits just isn't that kind of clich�. Even when he seemed most wrapped in obliqueness, Rickie Lee Jones, his girlfriend at the time, begged to differ. She believed what Tom really wanted was to live in a bungalow with screaming kids and spend Saturday nights at the movies. Which is, give or take a scream or two, more or less what he's got.

He's now a man of 42, with a wife of nearly 12 years who was once a script editor and with whom he now writes his lyrics. The former Kathleen Brennan has straight, fair hair and pale skin. She was once an Illinois farm girl who was familiar with the sight of dead cats hanging from doorways, and now she lives with Tom Waits in a small California town. And, no, she won't talk, although she will gossip and sip her tea.

But Tom'll talk about his wife's help with songwriting. Difficult working with your wife, is it? "Sure, we beat each other up over stuff, but when you got kids and you live together, you do everything together. So why not, you know, write together?" What does she bring to lyrics that wasn't there before? "A whip and a chair. The Bible. Book of Revelations. She grew up Catholic, you know, blood and liquor and guilt. She pulverises me so that I don't just write the same song over and over again. Which is what a lot of people do, including myself."

And he's now a man with two small children(5), although... well, true or false, let him tell the story "I was in Memphis about three weeks ago, for a wedding. While I was there I went to Graceland. It's like a sideshow. It's like the ultimate sideshow on a carnival. Paying to go in and look at a room where people used to drink and get loaded. I would have rather seen his pickled head in a jar. Then I would have felt like I got what I paid for. We walked by the grave. My little boy said: 'I wish they'd dig him up and take all his teeth out so I can make a necklace.' I don't think anybody had thought of that yet. Elvis's teeth necklace."

And he is also now a man who's had an international hit record, thanks to Rod Stewart and his convincingly-melodramatic version of 'Downtown Train'.

Waits is on a two-week trip to Europe, in part on holiday, in part to see a Seville production of Black Rider(6), the opera he has worked on with Robert Wilson and William Burroughs. He calls it a "contraption", using his favourite word of the moment. He usually has a favourite word of the moment which he likes to sprinkle in a fair number of suitable sentences.

Then came promoting the record. "No, not this," he thinks out loud. "Oh Jesus, I should have been a butcher." He doesn't crave attention, affection and encouragement as much as he used to - though you should doubt that kind of statement when it comes from the mouth of a professional performer. He says it anyway, pointing out his own contradictions as he goes along. "At times it feels like a rain dance. But I don't like it when it rains anyway. So here I am trying to get it to rain." It's a long time since it rained. Bone Machine, titled as a reference of sorts to the human body, is Waits's first album for four years, and his first album of new songs for five.

"Never thought about it before. I don't know how long it's been. It takes a while to get started. I collect ideas and I usually got them on me somewhere. It's just a matter of getting them all in one place. The songs came kind of fast. If you think you've got one in you, you take a fly at it. I think recording can sometimes be a violent operation. I think recording studios sometimes can be like a slaughterhouse, where you have some ideas you want to try and wrestle with. Many times you end up with a lot of feathers. A dead bird and a mouthful of feathers. It's not easy for me. Music is like a living thing. You don't wanna murder it." He really does say "wanna".

"You don't wanna splatter it all over the walls. You wanna go into certain worlds; you wanna go into a teardrop or go through a hole in the crack in the plaster. You wanna go someplace you've never been before and sometimes those journeys are successful and sometimes you're left with just dead bodies all over the meadow. Sometimes you realise you didn't bring enough supplies, you're outta water. But I love the process of it all. It's a bit like taking a pill. If you're doing it right, there's nothing in the world that's as thrilling. Songs are really simple. You hold them in your hand. I can make one right now and finish it. But because they're so simple, it's like bird watching, you know. You gotta know something about birds or you won't see anything: just you and your binoculars and a stupid look on your face.

"You have to make yourself some kind of an antenna for the songs to come to you. So you have to make yourself a kind of a musical yourself. You have to be of music and have music in you; some way for songs to continue to want to live in you, in or near you. You gotta be real quiet sometimes if you wanna catch the big ones."

What were the signposts on the map for Bone Machine? "Well, certain areas you wanna cover. There was a certain kind of end-of-the-world aspect we wanted. "The first track, for example: 'The Earth Dies Screaming'.

"Sometimes you think it's going to be seven feet tall with rocks glued to it and it turns out to be something else. You don't always come back with what you set out to find. You have an imagination about it and the reality is very different. Sometimes a song just comes out of nowhere. Other times you chase one for a couple of days and wind up with nothing. Then you have to bring them back from where you found them. And sometimes they escape. Sometimes they die. Sometimes they get sick first and die. Sometimes they kill you."

It's a clattering, clanging, thumping album with a menagerie of percussion-a conundrum(7) , for example, which is "like an iron cross with these metal things hanging off. You hit it with a big hammer. Real hard. It's like hitting a dumpster." Elsewhere the record features Keith Richards(8), co-author of one track - "He's a real gypsy. Music stalks him" - and the chamberlain(9), an analogue forerunner of the synthesizer. "It's a contraption, you know," he explains, using that favoured word.

If he listens to other people's music at all these days, it's old favourites or the rap stations. "I love rap. It's raw and hollering and violent. Black music in America is the only music that's changing and evolving. Maybe that's not accurate. It just seems that black music is a living music as opposed to a dead music. It's growing and it gets angry and then it shuts up and it breaks windows and it disappears and it comes back."

Truth or story-telling? "When I'm talking about ideas or music, I'm telling you how I feel. I'm very sincere about the things that I'm talking about."

To say there are two Tom Waits is scarcely original, and maybe not even true, but it's not something he'd necessarily dispute.

"Yeah. I'm like a ventriloquist. You end up doing it in order to survive. So you never have to be where you say you are. It's just simpler after a while. You have at least two rooms in your house. And you're never in both at the same time."

But there's also a third Tom Waits, the one who cropped upon an American TV ad for Doritos Fritos(10). "They imitated my voice. The guy who did the voice was like a fan of mine who does an impersonation of me and lives in Texas; plays in a band." Waits sued, eventually winning a judgment in his favour of $2.5 million dollars, but of course it's still in appeal. The impersonator was Tom's star witness.

"He felt so bad that he did this. He knew when he did it he was doing a bad thing. But he vindicated himself by helping us win the case.

"I haven't seen a dime. These things go on forever and forever. Never get involved in litigation. Your hair will fall out, your bones will turn to sand. And it will still be going on.

"It was like throwing a rock through a window-but you wait for five years to hear the sound. Litigation is like picking up a glass of water with a prosthetic hand. It's very frustrating, and you'll never get it to your lips. But when you have to, you have to. If somebody burned your house down, you'd have to do something about it."

But what does the future hold?

"I think about: the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on your snout. A snake just crawled in your eye. I can't wait till the worms are eating me. That's a big dream."


(1) Tom Waits is in Paris: July/ August, 1992

(2) 'I'll tell you all my secrets but I'll lie about my past": quoting from "Tango 'Till They're Sore" (Rain Dogs, 1985)

(3) When Waits played Ronnie Scott's in 1976: Ronnie Scott's Club, Soho/ London. May 31 - Jun. 12, 1976
- Tom Waits (1987): "That was a tightrope. The rope was round my neck. Nightmares. Playing a lounge in the middle of a golf course with this nomadic audience all waiting for a Moroccan jazz combo. That was a rough gig. Two weeks! Man, I had to dry out after that one. That was like spending two weeks at somebody else's grandmother's house. It was miscasting I was miscast." (Source: "I Just Tell Stories For Money" New Musical Express magazine (UK), by Sean O'Hagan. Date: Travelers Cafe/ Los Angeles. November 14, 1987).Further reading: Performances

(4) Tropicana motel: The infamous now defunct Tropicana Motel on Santa Monica Boulevard (West Hollywood) where Waits lived from 1975 to 1979. Further reading: Tropicana Motel.

(5) He's now a man with two small children: "Kellesimone" born September 1983 (some sources claim this to be October 1983). "Casey Xavier" born October 24, 1985 (some sources claim the right date to be September 1985).

(6) A Seville production of Black Rider: Teatro Central Hispano (Expo '92), Seville, Spain, July 8-10, 1992 (Wilson production). Further reading: The Black Rider

(7) Conundrum: Percussion rack with metal objects. Made for Waits by Serge Etienne. Further reading: Instruments

(8) Keith Richards: Waits and Richards collaborated on: - The album 'Rain Dogs'. Album released: September, 1985. Guitar, ("Big Black Mariah", "Union Square", "Blind Love"), backing vocals ("Blind Love"); - The album 'Bone Machine'. Album released: August, 1992. Co-writer, guitar & vocals ("That Feel");

(9) Chamberlain: should be spelled: "Chamberlin": The Chamberlin was the original US keyboard instrument from which the Mellotron was copied, designed by Harry Chamberlin in the USA during the 1960's. The Chamberlin used exactly the same system as the Mellotron for playing back tape samples yet had a sharper more accurate sound. Compared to the Mellotron, the Chamberlin is a bit harder to play, requiring a rather heavy and consistent hand on the keys. Further reading: Instruments

(10) Frito-Lay: Further reading: Waits vs Frito Lay