Title: Barroom Bard's Next Round
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (USA). October 3, 2004. By Joel Selvin. Transcript as published on www.sfgate.com. �2004 San Francisco Chronicle
Date: September 9, 2004. Telephone interview
Key words: Real Gone, studio, Kathleen, Ray Charles, family life, influences

Accompanying pictures

Source: San Francisco Chronicle (USA)/ www.sfgate.com. Date: Mission movie theater, San Francisco. 2004. Photography by Mark Costantini
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (USA)/ www.sfgate.com. Date: Mission movie theater, San Francisco. 2004. Photography by Mark Costantini


Barroom Bard's Next Round

Joel Selvin

Tom Waits sips coffee at the Formica counter of the Chinese takeout and doughnut shop, looking out on the intersection of Mission and 24th streets. A truck selling watermelon out of the back is doing brisk trade. An impatient ambulance pushes through the congested traffic, and the throngs making their way along the sidewalk pay no attention to the screaming siren. Waits smiles.

"Where I live," he says, "I can hear the birds' wings."

The brilliant songwriter doesn't appear in public much. Waits is a hothouse orchid who wilts at celebrity events such as the opening last month of his American Conservatory Theater musical "The Black Rider"(1) -- which he did not attend.

Over his 30-year career, Waits, 54, has proved to be not only one of the most original voices in American music but also one of the most enduring talents of his generation, the rare recording artist whose recent work is as fresh and challenging as anything he's done before.

He is an uncomfortable performer who plays only sporadic concerts. Unlike the dispirited, disturbed and dubious characters in his noirish songs, he spends most of his time living happily in rural Sonoma with his wife and their three children, emerging only occasionally from his semi-seclusion, in this case to talk about his new album, "Real Gone."

He prepared notes for the interview and consults the well-used notebook he always carries in his pocket. He speaks quietly, in a throaty rasp. He wears a black T-shirt, tattoos peeking out from the bottom of both short sleeves, long black pants and large, black boots with scuffed toes.

"For years, every time I went to St. Louis, there were so many people wearing red pants, I couldn't get it," he says, looking up from his notes. "I didn't get it for years. So many guys wearing red pants in St. Louis, and it takes a lot of guts to wear red pants. I mean really, really red pants. Then it all hit me -- the Cardinals. Red pants, not a red shirt, red pants. Believe me, it takes a lot of courage to wear red pants."

Old-time show business is on his mind. He looks down at the notebook again and comes back with the name of the 19th century French stage star who did vaudeville late in life.

"Sarah Bernhardt," he says. "She was playing Juliet in her 70s and had one leg. Barnum and Bailey bought her leg, the leg that was amputated, and they had it in a tank with some formaldehyde and fish. It was being displayed as the leg of Sarah Bernhardt, and at one point her leg was making more money than she was when she was playing joints. I always think of that when I get depressed. I think that's got to really hurt."

He sips his coffee and checks his notes.

"Why are theaters dark on Monday?" he says. "There are people who say it's because in the old days Monday was hanging day. Everyone wanted to be at the hanging, especially if you're an actor. Is there a better show than a hanging for an actor? They knew they couldn't compete. It's the beginning of the week. Of course, if you're being hanged, it's the end of your week. It's the beginning of everyone else's. That's a terrible thing to say, but it's true. We can't get to it until Monday -- how many times have you heard that?"

"Real Gone," Waits' fourth album in five years, comes in a period of relative productivity. His 1999 album, "Mule Variations," ended a seven-year hiatus from recording. He simultaneously released two albums, "Alice" and "Blood Money," in 2002. The same year, he contributed two songs to the soundtrack for the Debra Winger film "Big Bad Love," one of which, "Long Way Home," was recorded by Norah Jones on her recent album "Feels Like Home."

His records sell only modestly, but his songs have been done by the biggest names in the business -- Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Rod Stewart, the Eagles -- and Waits is everybody's favorite party guest, having made more than 100 appearances on other people's records, from old-time West Coast bebopper Teddy Edwards to modern classical composer Gavin Bryars. Waits once recorded a duet with Keith Richards.

With his zealous cult following stampeding the stores the week of release, his past three albums have all made midchart premieres. Never destined for MTV stardom or Top of the Pops success, Waits can nonetheless make releasing a new album a cultural event.

He recorded "Real Gone," his 19th album -- in stores Tuesday -- in what he called a "legitimate studio" in woodsy Forestville, as opposed to the abandoned schoolhouse in the Sacramento delta ghost town of Locke, where he recorded previously with a remote truck.

He recruited longtime associate Larry Taylor on bass, a journeyman whose resume extends back to '60s boogie kings Canned Heat, and drummer Brain, who used to bang away behind San Francisco thrash-punk band the Limbomaniacs, but most recently has been playing with Axl Rose in the current edition of Guns N' Roses. Bassist Les Claypool of Primus, who also plays on three tracks from the new album, introduced Brain to Waits. On guitar is downtown New York avant- gardist Marc Ribot, who adds a lot of funky, Cuban-flavored playing to the spare, gritty sound. Ribot, who has recorded with Elvis Costello, played on Waits' 1985 landmark, "Rain Dogs," and did some overdubs for "Mule Variations."

"You have to be careful with certain musicians because they're idiosyncratic," Waits says. "You have to dial them in very carefully. If you ask him for a little feedback, for example, you'll get an automobile accident. You have to qualify everything you ask for. It comes only in large."

Waits shares songwriting and production credits with his wife of 24 years, playwright Kathleen Brennan, his partner in every realm of his life. He's ready for the question about her role in their collaboration.

"She's like a heavy equipment operator and a clairvoyant -- it's rare you get that together," he says, flipping pages in his notebook to find his place. "She's something else -- tree surgeon and a ventriloquist, astronaut and private eye. You're always looking for those two things. A newspaperman and a bathing beauty. It's a combination that works for us, 'cause a lot of times, I'm in a stroller waiting to be pushed out into traffic. She's the one that'll do it."

He says he did not suffer over the recording process, finishing the album in a couple of months. Vocals were recorded live and many of the final versions were first takes. He ended up not using any keyboards on the record, although he brought everything he thought he might possibly use.

"My theory is if you don't bring it, you'll definitely need it," Waits says. "So I tell them to bring everything. Then we don't use it. I brought a piano and never even sat down on it. It didn't seem to fit."

The tracks groan and clang with a burglar's bag of strange percussion instruments and other mysterious, almost stray sounds. Waits gets his barnyard soundscape by overloading tape, slamming vintage microphones with information and singing the often bizarre "mouth rhythms" that fill the backgrounds of his songs.

Waits' 18-year-old son, Casey Waits(2), plays some percussion and scratches some turntables on "Real Gone." The college student has introduced the world of skateboard rap to Waits' already panoramic musical world view. Waits rattles off names from the graffiti underground such as Sage Francis, Aesop Rock, Vast Aire, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Weakerthans, Atmosphere, KRS-One. "He delves," Waits says. "All that stuff gets played around the house because that's what happens when you have kids. You stop dominating the turntable. I haven't had that kind of sway around here for years. 'Put on that Leadbelly record one more time, Dad, and I'm going to throw a bottle at your head.' "

Waits did offer one piece of songwriting advice that he tries when he finds himself stuck. "Take out your favorite line," he says. "It's hard to do. What you're doing is, you've only got one line and you're trying to hang everything on it. What you need is a better line."

Some songs need work; some write themselves. "Came out of the ground like a potato, always the best ones," Waits says. "Most of my songs are contraptions. Take the head off that doll and screw it onto the side of that washing machine. But the best ones come out just like a litter. I usually start with two tunes, put them in a room together and they have kids. There are usually two songs that are the parents of the rest. That's my theory."

He downplays his highly personal approach to music. "I'm not original," he says. "I'm doing bad impersonations of other people. I like to sound like Ray Charles(3). Who wouldn't? So you're hearing my poor, failed attempt at a Ray Charles impersonation."

Waits grows extraordinarily fevered fans. One fellow stood up and ran out of a Mission Street coffeehouse when Waits walked in, only to return a few minutes later, huffing and puffing and carrying a program from "The Black Rider" he fetched from his apartment for Waits to sign. Because of the personal nature of his work, these people often think they know him.

"People want to drink with you," says Waits, who has been sober for 14 years despite continued references to drinking in his writing. "Immediately. But I think it's good to have 'em think you're down here when you're really over there. I'm kind of a ventriloquist. You don't want to get confused with the dummy. It's easily done."

In his youth, he may have more closely resembled the characters in his songs, living in a sleazy $9-a-night Hollywood motel called the Tropicana(4) and eating breakfast in the coffee shop late every morning. He is no longer that guy, but he carefully keeps his private life separate from his public persona.

He used to own big old American cars like his '64 champagne-colored Cadillac, but now he drives an anonymous black Chevy Suburban. He is an accomplished pizza chef who, as a teenager in San Diego, spent five years working in a pizza parlor(5) ("I thought I was going to go into the restaurant business," he says). He grows his own heirloom tomatoes and sends homemade canned tomato sauce to his friends for Christmas.

"People want to believe that they feel you're sincere," he says. "That part's important. They want to know they've got the real thing or at least a dead ringer for it. I dunno how it works. I'm lucky. Not like Liberace or those guys who can live in the business. I don't think there's anything there to eat. Your life is ultimately something else. So I usually go upstream. That's where I get my ideas. I get songs for nothing and I sell them to you. Don't cost me anything. No overhead. Growing by the side of the road."

The next morning, Waits phones. There were some points he feels needed elaboration. He'd taken some more notes. He was thumbing through the pages of his notebook.

"Family and career don't like each other," he says. "One is always trying to eat the other. You're always trying to find balance. But one is really useless without the other. What you really want is a sink and a faucet. That's the ideal. Sometimes you do want it to fill up. Other times you want it to go down the drain. You usually don't get that luxury."

He wanted to reflect on some of his influences, although it's hard to see what doesn't influence someone whose work encompasses the dirty blues of Howlin' Wolf and the Broadway operettas of Bertolt Brecht, the detective fiction of Raymond Chandler and the burlesque dancing of Lily St. Cyr.

"Yeah, it all goes in, most of it melts, so it's really rather invisible, " he says. "I still listen to Mabel Mercer, James White, Captain Beefheart, Big Mama Thornton, Willie Dixon, Johnny Cash, Big Joe Turner ..." His voice trails off.

"My wife says I can run on anything when it comes to what I put in my creative tank," he says. "I can run on anything, but don't get stuck behind me. "


(1) American Conservatory Theater musical "The Black Rider": San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater hosted the only North American engagement of "The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets," as the kickoff of its 2004-05 season at the Geary Theater. September 3 extended to October 10, 2004.

(2) Casey Waits: Casey Xavier Waits played on the 4-track album 'Hold On' (1999). Drums and co-writer ("Big Face Money"). The album 'Real Gone'. Album released: October 3, 2004. Turntables (Top Of The Hill, Metropolitan Glide), Percussion (Hoist That Rag, Don't Go Into That Barn), Claps (Shake It), Drums (Dead And Lovely, Make It Rain). Production crew. Casey also stepped in a couple of times for Andrew Borger (drums) during the Mule Variations Tour (Congresgebouw, The Hague/ The Netherlands. June 21, 1999)

(3) Ray Charles: Charles died at 73, in Beverly Hills, California on June 10, 2004 (3 months before this interview)

(4) Tropicana: read full story The Tropicana

(5) A pizza parlor: read full story The Heritage