Title: A Double Shot Of Waits
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada). May 7, 2002 - Print Edition, Page R1 by Carl Wilson. Transcription as published on http://globeandmail.ca/. �2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc
Date: Telephone interview. Published:May 7, 2002
Keywords: Alice/ Blood Money, recording, Calliope


A Double Shot Of Waits

Back with two new albums, the whisky-voiced artist remains one of today's most lauded songwriters. Just don't tell him he's made a difference, writes CARL WILSON

Tuesday, May 7, 2002 - Print Edition, Page R1

There was this propaganda poster in Russia in the thirties," Tom Waits recites: " 'Today, you play jazz. Tomorrow, you will betray your country.' "

Many yesterdays ago, the 52-year-old musician did play jazz, perched behind a piano and a bottle while string and horn sections dressed his busted bebop ballads in rumpled suits and ties. Today, he builds musical bombs to lacerate the soul, melodic conundrums from the global salvage yards, as heard on the two separate albums he releases today, Alice and Blood Money(1) .

Tunes to plot subversion by, certainly. But the day we speak, world news is grim and Waits is wondering if there's a deeper betrayal in singing songs for a living. And I want desperately to convince him otherwise.

These first new albums since his Mule Variations in 1999 collect songs from two postmodern operas Waits created with his wife, Kathleen Brennan, and director Robert Wilson at the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg. Wilson's balletic plays were easy to write for, he says from his long-time rural roost in northern California: "It was already music for the eyes." But it was wearing to have other people singing the songs. "They either elevate it or they butcher it, very little in between." Recording well, it seems, is the best revenge.

Alice draws on a 1992 show based on Alice in Wonderland and its author's real-life fixation on little Alice Liddell. It is mostly parlour music, so delicate and sepia-toned it seems to issue from a ghostly Victrola, which Waits corrodes with the drip of his famous rust-bucket vocals.

Blood Money lives mostly at the harsher end of the Waits emotional scale. From Wilson's adaptation of Georg Buchner's Woyzeck, which comes to New York next fall,(2) it's the tale of a soldier who goes insane after he is played false by the army and his girlfriend. It screeches and roars through rhythmic arrangements for pump organ, sax, bells, bass, drums and a four-foot-long seed pod from the Indonesian Botang tree that Waits's musicians shake like a baby rattle from hell. And its message is brutally clear: Misery is the River of the World ("everybody row!"), Everything Goes to Hell, "life's a mistake all day long . . . you'll never get out alive."

From outside, Waits looks like a man with an enviable marriage, career and even hobby (acting in films like Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law, Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula, Robert Altman's Short Cuts). So where does all the pessimism come from? Is it merely theatrical?

His reply takes me aback. "The whole world's on fire right now," Waits says. "And it makes you wonder what you're doing is making jewellery for the ears. When was the last time you sat in a room and everyone sang the same song? . . . There's a lot of things that have to happen first before you turn on a record player. You need to be warm and fed. "I don't doubt the power of it, but I think an over-inflated sense of yourself and the value of what you do would lead you to believe writing a song is going to change the world."

I'm speechless. Here I am on the phone with Tom Waits -- a scenario I would have dreamed of at age 14 -- and he's telling me his work is useless? Of course, anyone who doesn't work for Doctors Without Borders feels irrelevant sometimes. But Waits certainly changed my world. As a small-town teenager, stumbling on him led me to bop and free jazz, punk rock, country crooners and even Harry Partch(3), the mid-century hobo composer. He pointed me to old movies, surrealism and railroad lore; his acrobatics with American vernacular stretched the possibilities of words.

"I'm interested in the migration of seeds," Waits says. "How different influences wind up commingling and then become part of the lexicon."

He was my crowd's tutor in the lyricism of liquor and tobacco. We were fascinated with his failed romance with Rickie Lee Jones, their songs signalling to each other in code, as we worked out what grand adult passion was about, how life is turned into art. And of course, his songs became our envoys of romance, our solace in heartbreak. I ended up wearing battered fedoras right into university.

Did it matter that it was Waits instead of Bon Jovi? I think so. His mix of bleak intellect and tender feeling taught us that wallowing is about burrowing all the way through an emotion, to its absurd underbelly.

What we didn't grasp was that the wastrel who roomed at Hollywood's Tropicana Hotel,(4) dreaming in film noir, was practically a kid himself. On his 1973 debut Closing Time, he was 23. He only sounded like a wise old sailor, as his youthful personas and bad habits got tried on in public.

"Most people get their information about you from things you tell them," Waits says. "You can tell them your dad was Nikolai Tesla and you were raised by Helen Keller and slept with John Wilkes Booth, and they'll say, 'Wow, no kiddin'?'

"A lot of people would garner from my songs that I eat dirt and leaves and drink gasoline and sleep under a car," he says, laughing. "Yeah, that's all true."

And then, boom: He got married, quit drinking, fired his manager, had babies, and put out 1983's radical Swordfishtrombones. Some fans balked; my home-town bookseller warned me, "It's terrible. Totally devoid of Waitsian emotion." (How many people become adjectives by age 33?) In fact, it blew off the barn doors.

Swordfishtrombones opened with a coal-mine clank and a gruff bark: "There's a world/ going on/ underground!" As this ragbag album of marimba mambos and sinking-ship sea shanteys announced, Waits was going to lead listeners down rabbit holes and give guided tours. Over the next two decades -- through Rain DogsFrank's Wild YearsBone Machine and his movie appearances, not to mention Rod Stewart's sterilized hit version of Downtown Train -- his following swelled. Mule Variations sold more than a million copies.

It was his new wife and collaborator who pushed him to pursue his more arcane urges. Because Brennan shuns the limelight, the former Hollywood script consultant's contribution is underrated, but Waits calls her "the brains behind Pa," without whom he's nothing. He writes from the newspaper, she writes from dreams. He washes, she dries. Even in marriage, Waits gives us an unconventional model for us to aspire to.

Besides their creative progeny, the couple has three live ones, Kelle (now in college), Casey and Sullivan. No word yet on whether the Waits kids have artistic aspirations or are fleeing to accountancy and police school. Waits likes his privacy, and has cut back on live shows (he may play a few major cities to support Alice and Blood Money) and media. "There are too many magazines about people. Why don't we take more interest in the lives of animals? I guess it's because we dominate," he sighs. "We don't care."

What he does enjoy is recording. "In order to put something living into it you have to be very agile," he says. "It's like sneaking up on a bird. Most people record the feathers and throw away the bird." To avoid that, he says, "You want musicians that will eat with their hands and drink out of a creek without a cup. It's kind of like method acting with your instrument. . . . I'll say, 'Play like your hair is on fire, Charles,' and you want someone to nod wisely as if he's been asked to do that before and succeeded."

And Waits always drags in his collection of outrageous instruments.

"I like bringing things in that I've never recorded before -- things that have never been recorded before."

On Blood Money, he solos on a 57-whistle, 1929 circus calliope. Where did he get it? "All these calliope guys live in Iowa, for some reason," he says, "and they're a grumpy group. If you don't know your calliopes, they want nothing to do with you. I made the mistake of describing the whistles as 'pipes' -- and the guy hung up on me!

"They're earsplitting loud. They suggest that you play it with earplugs, but I think, what's the point of that? You're supposed to hear it from five miles away. . . . When you depress a key you feel this whoosh and this pressure, that tells you you are allowing a great volume of pressurized air into a chamber. It's like you're pulling on a lunch whistle at a factory. Then it opens up and screams -- " And at this point, to my unutterable delight, Waits unleashes a monkey howl.

Alice's chamber nocturnes, meanwhile, rely on the Stroh violin(5), with a metal cone attached to its bridge for amplification. The resulting sound is a tintype image, half violin and half Satchmo cornet, which Waits again illustrates vocally. (Tom. Waits. Is. Singing. On. My. Phone.) It's ideal for tunes such as Lost in the Harbor, an exquisite parable of the mutual misconceptions between two communities.

"That's the Humpty Dumpty situation, looking over one side of the wall and the other -- 'over here,' 'over there,' " Waits says. "It's East Berlin-West Berlin, Palestine and Israel, Northern Ireland. That [enemies] are really kind of neighbours as well." The harbour is the meeting point. "It's about conflict resolution."

A-typically, it even includes a moral: "The wall won't come down/ Till they're no longer afraid of themselves," Waits sings. "If you don't believe me, ask yourselves." And there's the purpose he's looking for. His work proves by example that there's nothing to be gained by avoiding your own darkest, weirdest, most sentimental impulses. He makes you want to become your own most improbable invention.

That lesson has influenced countless young musicians, from Beck to Ron Sexsmith to Tricky. "It's nice to see some of what you've put out there returning," Waits admits. "It raises my self-esteem -- to know that you're going into the blood system and giving someone a cold."

From experience, he knows failed imitation is how artists discover their own voices, even their own clich�s. Lord knows Waits has his.

"You need to free yourself from the confines of what you think you should be doing," he says, "and explore your limitations as well as the heights." That applies to any struggle, including the one to not stutter at your idol on the telephone.

"I try not to let any of it go to my head," he demurs, "but sometimes that's impossible. I have my own life, and then I do this concentrated stuff of making a record and going on the road and doing interviews. That's my job." Then, one last time, Waits surprises me: "Some people work in the sewer, some people do tight-area excavations. We've all got something. You write for a newspaper -- that's pretty cool. I bet you never expected when you were a kid for that to happen."

Man, can he say that again.

Copyright � 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.


(1) Alice and Blood Money: Alice (the play) premiered on December 19, 1992 at the Thalia Theater, Hamburg/ Germany. Further reading: Alice. Woyzeck (the play) premiered November 18, 2000 at the Betty Nansen Theatre in Copenhagen/ Denmark. Further reading: Woyzeck

(2) Which comes to New York next fall: Woyzeck staging at the Harvey Theatre (Brooklyn Academy of Music) New York/ USA (performed in English as part of the 20th Next Wave Festival) Oct. 29 - Nov. 03, Nov. 05 - 10, Nov. 12 - 16

(3) Harry Partch: San Diego multi-instrumentalist. Developed and played home made instruments. Released the album" The World Of Harry Partch". Major influence for the album 'Swordfishtrombones'. Partch died in San Diego, 1974. Further reading: Partch, Harry 1Partch, Harry 2Partch, Harry 3;

(4) Hollywood's Tropicana Hotel: Further reading: Tropicana Motel

(5) Stroh violin: a violin with a brass horn appendage. Tom Waits (2002): "The Stroh is a violin with a horn attached to the bridge. And you know, you're aiming at the balcony and it was designed before amplification so the string players could compete with hornplayers in the orchestra pit." Q: And it's a very rare instrument, I was reading? Tom Waits: "They still make 'em. You know, you can get 'em out of a catalogue. But they're no longer as popular as they were, but they were essential and there were probably fist fights in the orchestra pit before the Stroh. Cause now a lot of people consider 'em obsolete but hey, when I see the word obsolete I get in line." (Source: "Interview with Tom Waits". Triple J's 2002 (Australia) radio show hosted by Richard Kingsmill. Date: Telephone interview. Aired: May 12, 2002). Further reading: Instruments.