Title: A Mellower Prince Of Melancholy
Source: The Guardian. September 15, 1992 by Adam Sweeting. Transcription as published in "Innocent When You Dream", edited by Mac Montandon (Thunder's Mouth Press, 2005)
Date: The Limbo diner, San Francisco, published September 15, 1992
Keywords: touring, career, rap, 3rd Bass/ sampling


A Mellower Prince Of Melancholy


He might still dress as though he staggers around sniffing under dustbin lids, but now the self styled Oddball Kid refuses to play his old role of roughneck rock 'n' roller.

It's the bits Tom Waits leaves out of his conversation that are the most fascinating. His answers are like shapes drawn in sand with a stick. You have to guess what's in the middle. I asked him about a song called "Black Wings," from his new album, Bone Machine. "Well, it's a bit of a mmmm, er spoken word Noriega type number there," he slurs, in that raspy bumping along the bottom voice that haunted a million hangovers. Waits tips his head back, narrows his eyes, and delivers a searching gaze over the top of his granny spectacles, calculating the extent of his interrogator's gullibility.

I don't know," he adds (most of his answers begin with "I don't know"). "The songs are mmmm, ahhh, errr ... I dunno ... the title Bone Machine, I guess it's kinda from the fact that . . . urghhh . . . that there's certain ahhh . . . one of those things that you're not sure what it is, but that's what's good about it. I don't really know what it is, but it kind of reminds me of a superhero."

Grudgingly, Waits ekes out the information that "some of the songs deal with violence and death and suicide and the end of the world, and they're all strung together like old vertebrae."

For our meeting, Waits has picked a place called the Limbo Diner, on a corner in a featureless low rise district of San Francisco which could be anywhere Detroit, Miami, Los Angeles. The place seems to have nothing particular to recommend it other than Olympic sized coffee cups and a corner table from which Waits can keep a beady eye on the door. Waits has made the two hour drive into the city with his wife and co-writer, Kathleen Brennan, rather than encourage prowlers to come near their home out in the sticks, somewhere in Northern California.

"Urn, . . . I live in a little cow town now," Waits growls. "You probably will too someday. It's over that way." He waves an ungainly arm in a circle above his head. "There's a couple of other people living there, and I'm trying to get rid of them. Put the evil eye on 'em."

If you don't count his recently released soundtrack from the Jim Jarmusch movie, Night on EarthBone Machine is Waits's first album of all new songs since Frank's Wild Years in 1987. But, in the intervening period, he has been busier than ever. In 1988, there was the concert film and live album, Big Time(1). Waits put music to William Burroughs's libretto for the opera The Black Rider,(2) produced by Robert Wilson. He has written music for Wilson's production of Alice in Wonderland(3) , which will be premiered by Hamburg's Thalia Theatre Company in December. Of the eight movie roles he has notched up in those five years, the most prestigious is Renfield, in Francis Coppola's forthcoming picture, Bram Stoker's Dracula "It's a lurid, torrid film," he reveals.

Although life as a traveling musician must seem like a distant memory, Waits thinks he may eventually be forced to take the Bone Machine songs on tour, though he's not sure how. "Sometimes when I think about touring, I would rather be attacked by a school of hagfish. Hagfish eat another fish from the inside out. That's sometimes what touring does to you. You look like you're all right, but you've had all your guts eaten and you have no brain left.

"When I was twenty one, I was just happy to be on the road, away from home, riding through the American night y'know, out of my mind. Wild eyed about everything. Now, I think more about it, like what can we do that's cheaper, simpler and better? I think maybe we should just have a stage no bigger than a hatbox. I'll probably go on the road, With devil horns and angel wings and dry ice and a toy guitar(4). The band will all be cutouts."

His audiences are unlikely to contain the kind of characters who have peopled his songs about the underfed underbelly of American lowlife. He might still dress as though he staggers around sniffing under dustbinlids (porkpie hat, scuffed shoes, torn black jeans, free range goatee), but Waits is more or less filed under Literature these days, joining the line after Damon Runyon and Raymond Carver.

One could speculate that Waits needed to make his move into film and theatrical work to save himself from becoming a victim of his own seedy mythology. Francis Coppola once described him as "the prince of melancholy" (and hence the perfect choice to write music for Coppola's whimsical fable, One from the Heart(5)), but it looked for a while as if Waits was liable to seep away into the margins inhabited by the drunks, bums and con artists who shuffled through his early albums like Nighthawks at the Diner or Small Change. On-the-job experience as a dishwasher, bartender, and lavatory attendant had furnished Waits with such priceless curb level information as how to get a drink into your mouth when you're rattling with the d.t.'s (use your tie as a pulley), or how to render yourself invisible in the presence of policemen. His health was allegedly precarious for a time.

Frank's Wild Years(6), "un opera romantico, in two acts," signalled Waits's acknowledgment that you didn't have to live the life when you could externalize it as theater. He and Kathleen Brennan wrote the play as a "Parable of one accordion player's redemption and baptism and as a starring vehicle for Waits, and it was staged by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The accompanying album was like a radio dial spinning between Memphis and Tijuana, Detroit and Havana. Waits had reached a pinnacle of the picaresque.

Questions aimed at provoking career analysis or self assessment get Waits measuring the distance between himself and the exit. "I don't like direct questions, I like to talk," he complains. My suggestion that he's slipped into the arms of the arty, highbrow set is not welcomed. "Hey, highbrow, lowbrow, y'know ... I'm the Oddball Kid. If you're an artist, you feel there's a shorthand you hope you've developed with whatever the process is. People who try to intimidate you with the vernacular of what they do usually are insecure about what they do."

And what does he love most? "I'm interested in words, I love words. Every word has a particular musical sound to it which you may or may not be able to use. Like for example 'spatula,' that's a good word. Sounds like the name of a band. Probably is the name of a band."

It's logical, then, that Waits should be an enthusiastic fan of rap. "You know what I love about rap? All those guys flunked English. It's so beautiful that it's words that have given them power and strength and courage to articulate the things they're talking about, the anger and the braggadocio and their years of exile and slavery. These are the guys that had real trouble in school, 'cause some of them are real bad kids. Bad bad neighborhoods, man. Guns there are like fingernails or teeth you have to have them. I identify with it because I love words."

Waits also heartily approves of sampling records and pilfering noises (Bone Machine uses a homemade percussion gadget called the conundrum,(7) and there's hardly a sound on the record that isn't scuzzed and battered and distorted), so it's a pity he felt he had to take action against rappers 3rd Bass(8) for allegedly stealing his song, "Down in the Hole." "They probably think I'm a real prick, but I said listen, you didn't take like boom ching boom, you took a whole song."

What about rap's violent, misogynist tendencies? Waits shrugs. "Frank Sinatra is more down on women than the rappers are. People are always gonna step on other people's toes, and they're gonna have to bark and say something about it when it happens. Music is like a big trunkline. It's like a big ocean of blood. It's art versus commerce, ideas versus rhetoric. It's like a freak show sometimes, and other times it's like an emergency room. Other times it's like a church."

And other times it's a good deed, like the benefit concert(9) Waits appeared in after the L.A. riots. It's always as well to expect the unexpected, but an older, more socially responsible Tom Waits is stretching it a bit. I wondered if he felt he was becoming a pillar of society. "Oh Jesus. A pillar? Goddamn. No." A man of probity, even? "No," he says. "I'm waiting, like a spider."


(1) Concert film and live album, Big Time: further reading: Big Time

(2) The opera The Black Rider: further reading: The Black Rider

(3) Wilson's production of Alice in Wonderland: further reading: Alice

(4) With devil horns and angel wings and dry ice and a toy guitar: referring to the videos for "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" and "Goin' Out West" Further reading: Filmography

(5) One from the Heart: further reading: One From The Heart

(6) Frank's Wild Years: Further reading: Franks Wild Years

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

(8) 3rd Bass: concerns the song "Flippin' Off The Wall Like Lucy Ball" from the album "The Cactus Album" (1989, Def Jam). Further reading: 3rd Bass fan site

(9) Like the benefit concert: May 30, 1992. Concert appearance for the LA Riot Benefit at the Wiltern Theatre, Los Angeles/ USA. Tom Waits: vocals, piano, guitar, bullhorn. Larry Taylor: upright bass. Mitchell Froom: keyboards. Stephen Hodges: drums, percussion. Joe Gore: guitar. Band introduced before 'Red Shoes'. Chuck E. Weiss and the Goddamn Liars, Fishbone, and Los Lobos on 'Temptation' Tom Waits (1993): "We played on a bill with Fishbone in L.A., and I was worried, that oh god, I'm gonna have to play for their audience and they're gonna have to play for mine, and I think they're two totally different audiences, because they have a mosh pit and the whole thing, they're hanging off the rafters. I was afraid to play on the bill with them, and I got there I met 'em and they were great. The show they did just changed me, it really changed me. It was so loud, it was so electric, it was just loaded. Really, it combed my hair and gave me a sunburn. They fly, yeah. That's when you realize that music, it does something physically to you. It can actually lift you and throw you around." (Source: "Tom Waits Meets Jim Jarmusch" Straight No Chaser magazine Vol. 1 Issue 20 (UK), by Jim Jarmusch. Date: October, 1992 (published early 1993)). Further reading: Performances