Title: A Flea In His Ear
Source: City Limits magazine (UK), by Bill Holdship. May 12-19, 1988. Photography by Tony Barrat. Thanks to Kevin Molony for donating scans. Also published as "Tom Waits: Town Crier" Creem magazine, January 1988.
Date: Traveler's Cafe/ Los Angeles. Early 1988
Key words: Public image, Commercial success, Commercials, Musical transition, The Pogues, Waits name

Magazine front cover: 1985 or earlier. Photography by Steve Tynan (?). Thanks to Kevin Molony for sending this scan

Accompanying pictures
1988 or earlier. Photography by Tony Barrat/ A.J. Barrat. Thanks to Kevin Molony for donating this scan
1985 or earlier. Photography by Steve Tynan. Thanks to Kevin Molony for donating this scan


A Flea In His Ear


In Ironweed, Tom Waits plays a hobo no-hoper. But offscreen, the singer tells Bill Holdship, his days of whine and roses are past.

I'm a little nervous - and I don't get that way often. But I've heard Tom Waits can be a difficult interview. Certainly, he's the most mysterious man I've ever had to profile. A lot has been written on this eccentric singer-songwriter, but no-one seems to know much about him. People do know that, with his last three albums, he's produced some of the best experimental music this decade. One could even call it 'psychedelic' - and it sounds nothing like Echo and the Bunnymen. But then, he wasn't always this way. I trailed Waits round small clubs during mid-to-late '70s, and people were calling him an heir to the Beat generation then. he used to amble out looking like a wino: the king of vagrant you'd find in any major city's 'mission' district, but playing piano and singing behind a standard '50s jazz trio. He had a perpetual cigarette in his mouth. His voice had more gravel than Louis Armstrong (whose tones he sometimes used to mimic). And he wrote songs about dreamers with broken hearts - hookers, strippers, alcoholics and the like. His beautiful, haunting melodies had the same effect on listeners as a Stephen Foster ballad or the saddest Christmas song.

Tom doesn't smoke anymore, but he's still singing about broken dreamers. Except that the music's gone a bit weird. Critics have made Captain Beefheart comparisons. But, looking way beyond Beefheart, Waits is one of the most amazing synthesists making music today. He takes his stuff from all over the place, employs all kinds of instruments and vocal effects - and makes it all work within the confines of a song. Yet none of this means Waits has lost his ear for melody, as anyone can testify who's heard the absolutely gorgeous 'Hang Down Your Head' from his Rain Dogs LP (on Island Records), not to mention the sad 'Cold Cold Ground' and 'Innocent When You Dream' (which sounds a perfect Christmas song) on the wonderful Frank's Wild Years (also Island). Waits often takes sentimental elements and mutates them. Other songwriters respect him immensely; his work has been covered by artists from Bruce Springsteen to Marianne Faithfull and his albums rock, glide, bop and weep. They're unlike anything else you'll hear on vinyl today. Frank's Wild Years began as a play produced by Chicago's fringe actors' co-op, the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, in 1986. Waits' wife Kathleen Brennan wrote most of the dialogue; he wrote the music and played the lead character. The story concerns Frank, a singer and entertainer who enjoys some minor success but ends up destitute, sleeping on a park bench - just another broken dreamer.

Now the conceptual package is on the edge of becoming a movie, which is unsurprising given Waits' second career in films. this week he opens in Hector Babenco's Ironweed, in a role which reprises his earliest, boho-hobo self. And previously Waits played in several flicks by Francis Ford Coppola (Rumble Fish, The Cotton Club and One From The Heart, which he also scored). he's also tackled a major role in Jim Jarmusch's Down By Law plus cameos in Robert frank's Candy Mountain and Sylvester Stallone's ill-fated Paradise Alley. Of course, Waits fans know all of this - and Britain has plenty of those. Presumably the full houses that packed his three nights at Hammersmith Odeon this autumn(1) would envy my present perch in the funky Traveler's Cafe, a neighbourhood coffee shop in L.A. I called for directions yesterday, saying I was due to meet a friend. 'Who? Tom Waits' came the gruff reply. Well yeah. 'It's my office,' Waits now explains.

Innocent When You Dream?

Waits is indeed a tough cookie when it comes to interview time. He's tired of talking music and his view of movies is monosyllabic. Sometimes, he's serious, but brief; other times, I can't tell if he's putting me on or not. 'Cuban-Chinese. That's what I'm doing,' he says when you ask what his live act is like. Or, he contends 'a slaughterhouse' is his chosen environment in which to write. He says 'DJ Pancake' is his favourite writer and notes he's been focussing on air-conditioning units and light fixtures these days. He coughs up the words 'I don't know' a hundred times. But the most telling moment is when I ask - since all his characters are dreamers - if he thinks dreams are really a good thing. We sit in silence while Waits studies my face for several seconds. 'Ask me another question,' he finally says.

I do what I often do when I start feeling nervous - clutch my pad of paper and crib my questions from there. Well, Tom also has a notepad he takes from an inside jacket pocket, and he starts a lot of time fixing his heavy-lidded eyes on his little book.
'Possible titles for next LP,' he intones. 'Pitch Black. The world I Hate To Live In. I'm just trying these out on ya. They Only Kill Their Masters.'
That was the name of a movie, Tom.
'Oh well, that's out then. How about For Crying Out Loud? I'd like to do something harder. Something like jail poems.'
Is that your notebook?
'Yeah. Phone numbers. Grocery lists. You've got one; I got one too.'
I put my notebook back in its pocket. 'Is there something I ought to be asking you?
'Maybe who won the World Series in 1957.'
Do you know who won?
'I think it was the St Louis Cardinals. But lemme tell you what I think.' Waits hunkers down in his plastic booth, the aging upholstery creaking under his frame. In probably most cases, I'm old enough to be the father of your readers, Y'know I'm almost 38 years old. You're asking me very focussed questions on my work. Well, I thought you were going to ask more things that tie into something your readers might be interested in. These days, magazines are like nightclubs - people pick this up every week who don't know who I am.'
You really think so?
'Who's on the cover this week?'

Bye-Bye Boho Beat

Let me answer a question with a question: where do you think you fit in the scheme of public perceptions?
'I don't know.' Waits pauses and sighs. 'The kind of thing I'm working on now, I would hope in some cases - I don't want this to sound pretentious, but it may earn me a bit of youth particularly in Europe, you know, I have much more of a younger audience, an audience that sort of began with Swordfishtrombones. In America, I have a lot of people who've been listening to me, seeing me, since 1972' 'They want me,' he says 'to come out unshaven, drink whisky and tell stories about broken-down hotels. You know, Hoagy Carmichael-style. What I'm trying to do now incorporates certain ethnic influences, but it has a harder edge than that. I'm not a commercial artist. I don't get a tremendous amount of airplay. But it seems I reach a certain amount of people by talking to magazines. You'd be more apt to see me in a magazine that you would hear me on the radio. 'It's kind of strange. It's kind of like reading about a bird in an electronics magazine. You hope that you'll be on radio, but radio is so changed now. It's like mainstream network stuff, the demographics of it. Except for a few struggling stations with a limited range and format.' 'I mean, you can glue decals all over your head that say "Coca-Cola" and "Pepsi" and advertise cigarettes and underwear. That's one way to get across. You know, like race drivers that have every product known to man tattooed across the side of their car. And a lot of groups choose to align themselves with big companies to underwrite their tours. I hate that shit.'

Have you been asked to do commercials?
'Sure, yeah, but I don't do that. It's just not something for me.'

You did go through a definite change in your musical style.
'Well, I had to! I was really at an impasse. My head was exploding. How dramatic the case has been is probably more personal than anything else. I gave myself a reprieve, you know? I was headed for the electric chair. It's hard because when you do music to make your living - and you have something that is going over - you start to inhale all the ridiculous American capitalist concepts of maintenance. That what you do is in some way a kind of product.' 'Keep making the Quaker Oats. Keep loading your wagon. So, I don't know. I felt like what I was doing was becoming difficult to keep doing. And, in many ways, I haven't changed that all as much as I'd really like to. But that has to come naturally.'

Sunglasses After Dark

A lot of people mistook Waits for the role he was playing then, the Ironweed character, who really did live in transient hotels and hang out in bars. You were playing a role, weren't you, Tom?
Waits is chewing the ice from his drink. 'Well, I think you have to. It's one thing if you manufacture recliners or radios. But when you, yourself, are what goes out there, you have to have something to protect you. People say terrible things about you - or else you get great praise. And it doesn't really mean anything because it's not personal. They're relating to something that you put out there in the window, put a light on it, and a price tag next to it.' 'If someone thinks you're great, it's not really you they think is great. And if they do a hatchet job on you, it's not really you. So the best thing to do is to protect yourself. Put on a moustache and sunglasses and stripes in your tie. Shave your head, change your name - and then keep the rest of you off the side for your friends and family. Otherwise, you're in a shooting gallery. Stick your neck out, and they'll skin you, hang you on the wall, and throw back the bones. So you have to focus on your own work. That's what's important, your own growth and development.'
'It happens on every level,' he continues. 'Whether it's Elvis Presley or whoever. That's why a lot of people end up writing about what they're going through inside the machinery. I think you have to focus on other things and keep as open as you can to different musical influences. That's what I'm trying to do.'

Frank's Wild Years - which, by the way, is a best-seller in Britain - seems to fit in with all of this.
'Well, it's a story about a guy who went out to be an entertainer, left a small town, went to Vegas, had this song 'Innocent When You Dream'. And a year later, he had taken the same song and turned it into "You're In A Suit Of Your Dreams" to advertise suits in an all-night clothing store. And that is the type of thing that happens.'

It's like in 'I'll Take New York', where you sing 'They'll name a street after me'. As though that were the biggest thing one could get out of life.
A smile curls round Waits' lips. 'Yeah, if you're lucky. Hollow dreams you know.' 'Well, it's another song about New York. Those others try to make it bigger or prettier, but in this case I was trying to make it more like something from the Jerry Lewis Telethon - something the song and the singer are cancelling out as it's happening. You're singing "I'll Take New York" and someone's stealing your billfold. It's like the guy singing in the middle of Times Square, with his pants around his knees.'

Your wife is obviously a writer as well.
'Yeah, we co-wrote a lot of the songs [Frank's Wild Years] together. She also did that painting inside the cover of the new LP(2) . Kathleen's Irish-Catholic, from Dublin. I rescued her from the nunnery.'

Are you serious?
'Absolutely. She was going to be a nun. We've been married seven years.'

Waits and Brennan met in Ireland, where, later, Tom discovered the Pogues.
'I love The Pogues' he enthuses. 'They're it, they're really it. I love those guys. I'd love to do a project with 'em. I love the group, love Shane's voice. Still.. he ought to get his teeth fixed.'

Ireland's literary side also appeals.
'The names, you know. It's like Callahan is from "calloused hands". Waits is really Scotch-Irish too - and Waits was the guy who came out in town at the end of the night and said "All is Well"(4) . And sang out the town news and put the street lights out. So they called him "a waits". He sang, like a town crier.

You love the people you met in Ireland?
'Yeah, they drink a bit, but there's nothing wrong with that. It keeps you honest.'

Some of 'em, Tom, would call you a genius. What would you say to that?
'Oh, Jesus, no! Squirming on his plastic seat, Waits suddenly seems embarrassed. 'God. I don't even known what a "genius" is. I guess a genius is someone who can stay out of jail. Uh, come to think of it, I don't think I know.'

With that, Waits drops a few bills on the table, just like they do in movies when the man's in a hurry to leave. Up and out of the booth, he jerks his thumb at the ceiling light.

'See what I mean?' he cackles. 'Lighting fixtures! You'd probably never have noticed, if I hadn't pointed it out. Pay more attention!' With that as his parting shot, Tom Waits is out the diner door.

'Ironweed' opens Friday, May 20, at the Odeon Haymarket.


(1) Three nights at Hammersmith Odeon this autumn: November 19-22, 1987 Hammersmith Odeon. London/ UK

(2) That painting inside the cover of the new LP:

(3) And said "All is Well":
- "From medieval times up to the beginning of the 19th century, every British town and city of any note had a band of Waits. Their duties varied from time to time and place to place, but included playing their instruments through the town at night, waking the townsfolk on dark winter mornings by playing under their windows, welcoming Royal visitors by playing at the town gates, and leading the Mayor's procession on civic occasions. Their instruments also varied, but were for the main part loud and penetrating wind instruments such as the shawm, which was so closely associated with them that it was also known as the Wait-pipe. Waits were provided with salaries, liveries and silver chains of office, bearing the town's arms. As a result of the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, Waits were abolished, though their name lingered on as 'Christmas Waits', who could be any group of singers or musicians who formed a band in order to sing and play carols for money around their town or village at night over the Christmas period. Unfortunately, it is these largely amateur musicians who have become associated in peoples' minds with the name 'Waits', when they have heard of them at all, rather than the important civic officers and accomplished musicians who were true Waits." (Source and further reading: The Waits Website)
Tom Waits (1985): 'I don't think it's that important to tell the truth,' he once said. Like the boy who cried wolf, he is disbelieved even when he's being honest. Waits, I'd said, was an unusual name. 'Well, he deadpanned, my name was Waitsosky and then we dropped the -osky." Oh really, said gullible me. TW: "No, Waits is a musical term. It's the guy that puts out the lights at the end of the day and sings all the stories of what's happened in the town.' Disbelievingly, I laughed. The dictionary put me right." (Source: "The Sultan Of Sleaze", YOU magazine, by Pete Silverton. Date: New York. Early October, 1985).
Tom Waits (1992): "My name is in all the music dictionaries you know. "Waits" - those are the people who go through the city singing carols and singing the story of the day and putting out the lights. The town crier. All is well, it's 10:00 and all is well and Mrs O'Malley's cow has died and Charles Foster was hit by a train and Bill Bailey was run in with his own sword. The quintuplets are now three years old. That's what my name means in the music dictionaries." (Source: "Telerama Interview", Date: September 9, 1992).
Tom Waits (1999): ''My name defines a calling as well. The Waits traditionally turned out all the lights and put the town to sleep. I've spent a lot of time researching the meaning of names. ''Hmmm . . . ,'' he adds, as if intending to continue the thought. He doesn't. He was clearing his throat." (Source: "Talking With Tom Waits Is Like Trying To Converse With A Ghost In A Fog", The Toronto Star (Canada), by Greg Quill. Date: August 19, 1999)
Margaret Moser (2002): What is Waits, English? TW: Scotch-Irish, I think. Waits is a musical term. A "waits" is the man who put out the lights at day's end and sang the song of the day. "It's 8 o'clock and all's well." Then he told the things that happened that day: Somebody's cow ran away, Mrs. Ferguson was found bound and gagged in the barn, it rained like hell ... whatever. That's what a waits was." (Source: "This Business Called Show'. Austin Chronicle (USA) Vol. 21, No. 26. May 10-16, 2002 by Margaret Moser)

"The Waits, and may they continue to wait!"
St. Stephens cartoon by Tom Merry. December 25, 1886