Title: Beatnik Bard Waits Uses Twin Cities As Source For Songs, Stories
Source: Star Tribune (Minneapolis/ USA), by Jon Bream. Transcription as published on Star Tribune
Date: New York. August 27, 1999
Key words: Minneapolis, Epitaph, Public image


Beatnik Bard Waits Uses Twin Cities As Source For Songs, Stories


Jon Bream/ Star Tribune

In the 12 years since Tom Waits has been to downtown Minneapolis(1) , the Orpheum Theatre has been remodeled and deemed "historic." The nearby intersection of 9th and Hennepin -- immortalized in a 1985 Waits song(2) -- still has an adult bookstore, below one of those hotels-by-the-week that doesn't give a good-night chocolate or frequent-flier mileage. As for the rest of the intersection. . . .

"I heard the corner has changed rather dramatically from the way I remember it," said Waits, who will return to that intersection this weekend for two sold-out concerts at the nearby Historic State Theatre (also remodeled since 1987). "Which I guess is the nature of progress and urban development." Waits is something of a landmark himself, judging from the response to the CD "Mule Variations," his first disc of new material since '93. It's the best-selling album of his 27-year recording career -- and arguably the best album of 1999 so far.

An American original, Waits is part beatnik bard, part flimflam man. A curmudgeon one moment and a sweetheart the next, he has written songs made famous by Rod Stewart ("Downtown Train"), the Eagles ("Ol' 55") and Bruce Springsteen ("Jersey Girl") as well as strangely twisted tunes once described as Bertolt Brecht-does-Leadbelly. In conversation and onstage, he tells spellbinding tales like your long-lost oddball uncle who once ran away with the circus. And, out of the blue, Waits will toss in a non sequitur nugget, such as the fact that the Pentagon has more restrooms than any building in the world because it was built in the days when separate "colored" facilities were required.

Minneapolis is one of only five cities he's visiting on his first concert tour in 11 years. Waits, a Californian, said he likes the city: "I'm a creature of habit; I don't like going to new places where I have no coordinates or any history."

During a phone interview last week from New York, Waits said he has fond memories of the Twin Cities, the source of many stories as well as the songs "9th and Hennepin" and, of course, 1979's "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis." He remembers when Mickey's Diner(3) , the round-the-clock dining car in downtown St. Paul, closed in his honor -- perhaps the only time it's ever been closed -- for a party thrown by his record label in 1975. He objected that regulars were being turned away and insisted that they join the party.

"There was a guy who left and went home and got all dressed up and came back," Waits recalled. "He put on a really wild jacket and, like, striped tie. He was hoping to get on camera."

Then there was the time Waits was in a late-night cafe in Minneapolis and "I got in the middle of a pimp war. There was like this 11-year-old pimp defending himself with a handful of silverware against live ammunition, which was rather dramatic. He would reach into the drawer and grab a handful of forks and hurl them out into the street and then he'd duck behind the counter, and then you'd hear like an automatic weapon, and the mirror inside would crack and hit the ground. None of us were armed. And on the jukebox they were playing 'Our Day Will Come.' "

For the record, will Waits -- married for 18 years and the father of three (ages 5 to 15) -- come clean about that hooker's Christmas card?

"I plead the Fifth," said the ol' nighthawk, who drank many a fifth in his time. "The elements of a story usually come from different places. You put 'em together like a model. No, I didn't actually get a Christmas card, but it's more like an impression of events that have happened."

Back to Gin Pan Alley

"Mule Variations" is a fresh-sounding throwback to his romantic style once described as Gin Pan Alley, with some of his warped experimental genre-blending mixed in. Among the 16 tunes, "Picture in a Frame" and "Come on Up to the House" are as heartwarming as some of his mid-1970s material, and the loveless "House Where Nobody Lives" is the best George Jones song that the country great never recorded. There's a sense of purpose among the songwriter's characters, even if they are loners, wanderers and lost souls.

"I have a relationship with melody and at the same time also with dissonance," Waits said of his musical styles. "It's part of the kind of polar opposites of each other that I carry in me. Two dogs fighting all the time. I think I have two audiences out there: People who want to hear me go out there and just scream and stomp and talk about liquor. And people who want me to get very tender and sentimental and sensitive and vulnerable. It's all part of it."

Waits, who turns 50 in December, quit drinking and smoking years ago. On record and over the phone, his voice sounds less parched but still as gravelly as a country road.

After nearly three decades in the music business, he's now traveling a road paved by punk rockers. "Mule Variations" was released by Epitaph Records, home of the punk pop of Pennywise, Rancid and the Offspring's blockbuster "Smash." Never one for following the conventional practices of the industry, Waits is happy with tiny Epitaph after stints with two major labels, Elektra and Island.

"I'm providing some adult supervision on the label," he joked. "They're small and passionate, and they haven't gotten old and cynical." And he won't wait another six years before making his next album.

Character actor

In addition to his music career, Waits has been a character actor since 1978, appearing in several films, including "Rumble Fish," "The Cotton Club," "The Fisher King," "Short Cuts," "Bram Stoker's Dracula" and this year's "Mystery Men." He also wrote the music for Francis Ford Coppola's "One From the Heart" and has contributed songs to several movies, including "Dead Man Walking."

Sometimes it's hard to distinguish the character from the character actor. Did he really spend all that time in fleabag hotels, or did he just make up these dead-end characters that inhabit his songs? And, if he stayed in those places, why did he put himself in such potentially unsafe situations?

"When I was younger, I didn't see it that way. I saw it as adventure. I think 'unsafe' is something you start perceiving as you get older or become a parent. I was in my 20s, I was on the road all the time, I was living out my dream.

"I stayed in hotels where I thought stories grew. I'd get a chance to inhale all those things that happened in rooms before I was born. My idea of going on the road was not the Holiday Inn or Hyatt House. It was some kind of older dream, like a vaudeville dream."

After listening to "Mule Variations" and hearing Waits talk for nearly an hour, it's obvious that he's a romantic at heart -- with a warped curiosity. He's the kind of guy who will stop every time he sees a Ferris wheel or roller coaster, even if it's a "fold-up carnival." When told about the Minnesota State Fair, his voice glowed over the telephone. There's the double Ferris wheel, the head of Princess Kay of the Milky Way sculpted in butter, crop-art portraits of celebrities with seeds glued on plywood -- and maybe a Waits song in there somewhere.

� Copyright 1999 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.


(1) Since Tom Waits has been to downtown Minneapolis: November 01, 1987 Orpheum Theatre. Minneapolis/ USA (Franks Wild Years tour). Further reading: Performances

(2) Immortalized in a 1985 Waits song: "Ninth And Hennepin" from Rain Dogs, 1985. Read lyrics: Ninth And Hennepin

(3) Mickey's Diner: on 1950 West 7th St, St Paul, Minneapolis. This little red and yellow diner has been featured in numerous movies. On the National Register of Historic Places, it has served everyone from Arnold Schwartzenegger to the down and out since it opened in 1939. There are only 18 stools dotting the chrome and Formica counter and a few booths. "Mickey's Diner has been serving breakfast to Minnesotans for more than 60 years. The only known dining car of its type to survive in Minnesota, it was prefabricated in New Jersey, shipped to St. Paul by rail and installed in the heart of downtown. Despite the proliferation in recent years of fast-food chains and franchised restaurants, the diner remains a successful business, in part due to its unique atmosphere. Inspired by streamlined railroad dining cars, Mickey's sports a symmetrical facade clad with yellow and red porcelain steel panels, a horizontal band of plate glass windows and a projecting neon sign with Art Deco lettering. The interior of the diner features stainless steel, mahogany and mirrored fixtures. A glass vestibule, added when the diner was installed, protects patrons from harsh Minnesota winters." (Source: "Minnesota Historical Society", Copyright � 2001)

Mickey's Diner