|Title: Nightlines Interview
Source: "Nightlines" on CBC Stereo (Canada) conducted by Michael Tearson. 1985. Transcription from tape by "Pieter from Holland" as published on the Tom Waits Library.
Date: New York. Late 1985
Key words: Raindogs, John Lurie, Ralph Steadman, piano, Frank Sinatra, Robert Quinne, Keith Richards, Merle Haggard, Bruce Springsteen
Picture: Michael Tearson (date unknown)
CBC announcer: ... well speaking of "the far side of the crazy"... Within the 12 years since releasing his debut album Tom Waits has established himself as rock's paramount beat-poet. He has begun to make inroads as a movie star and record producer. For the past 2 years, the Los Angeles born and raised Waits has been living in New York. Which is where he cut his current album: Raindogs. New York is also where Michael Tearson spoke with Tom Waits, concerning Raindogs and other recent career developments. But "Nightlines" is where you can hear that special interview, and this is in 2 parts now. We'll begin with, I guess the first half: Tom Waits in conversation with Michael Tearson on "CBC Stereo"...
MT: It started with a phone call. Tom Waits an old friend whom I'd not seen in several years, had a new album coming out: Raindogs. His second for Island records. And of all people, he wanted to talk to me, Michael Tearson, about it! Well, on the appointed day I caught the train in New York and caught up with Tom around a friendly piano. See, he's a guy who often talks as eloquently with his fingers as he does with his voice. And all the time between, just melted away...
MT: The whole sound of what you've been doing has changed a lot since you got to New York city. I think it's a lot rougher, you get a lot more of that city sound and eh less... lushness since you left Los Angeles. That was evident on Swordfishtrombones, and it's surely evident on Raindogs. What are Raindogs?
TW: Eh... I don't know... you can get 'em in Coney Island. They're little eh... It's eh... They come in a bun. And eh... It's just water in a bun. That's all... It's a bun that's been... It's a bun without a hot-dog in it. (laughs) It's just... it's been left out in the rain and they're called a Raindog. And they're less expensive then a standard hot-dog... ... ... (starts improvising on the piano) No, a Raindog is a... is anybody who eh... people who sleep in doorways. People who don't have credit cards. People who don't go to church. People who don't have eh, y'know, a mortgage, y'know? Who fly in this whole plane by the seat of their pants. People who... are going down the road eh, y'know?
MT: You might say people who live in the margins?
TW: In the margins, yeah. In the margins... Who can't afford margarine.
(Raindogs - album version)
MT: I've had a chance listening to the record with 19 songs in it. Do you see the thing as a whole story type of an album?
TW: I don't know, cause at first I thought there was some place where y'know, all these people were held together with pain and discomfort and there was some y'know imported and domestic... place where they were all hooked up. I'm not sure, there does seem to be... for me there does seem to be some connection. I wouldn't say it's a linear story, it's more like an aquarium. But eh... so it's not really... anything y'know that takes you from the beginning and drops you of at the end.
MT: I hear a lot of sounds eh... odd percussive sounds, you know, that remind me of foreign talking. Things you hear coming up from the street in the night.
TW: Yeah... yeah... I don't know. I tried... You don't always get as close as you wanted. Some of the things you hear... it's not just New York. The things that you hear when you open your ears. When I'm writing I just eh.. I kinda give myself a downbeat and say: from this moment on the things that happen to me and the things that I see will go somehow fall into this hole I'm digging. And eh... and the things that I'm dreaming, emmm the blue shoes that fell off the green tractor, and the... broken window that came out through the yellow floorboards, that fell through the ceiling and eh.. I just kinda put it all together and from one moment on. So, it's like when it's raining, and you can't find enough things to catch it in. Y'know when it's not, you can stand out in the middle of the street and y'know eh in a dress and a funny hat and eh nothing's gonna make it rain. When you're writing the ideas somehow seem to come to you and when you're not eh... they don't. Y'know? It's like a... y'know. It's just always been like that for me. So I go through periods of spells. Or y'know... times when I'm more receptive.
MT: How much of a stretch of time does this album represent to you for writing?
TW: A couple of months. I worked on Washington and Horatio, a little basement boiler room. A place I was sharing down there with a couple of bands. The Lounge Lizards - John Lurie's band. John Lurie(1) played on this. He played on that "Walking Spanish" tune and is an actor and a sax player. Ehm... so it's a place where I can go at night and work and dream. So it's really fortunate to have that. So to organize my thoughts, yeah. But when you're writing you can bang on anything for an idea y'know? (hits a metal object). So... But I a place that was quiet... except for the water going through the pipes. And eh...
MT: Let me ask you about some of the songs individually and get some of your thoughts about them. "Singapore" reminds me a lot of "Hong Kong Blues", Hoagy Carmichael's song which [...?...] to have and have not.
TW: Oh, yeah! (laughs) Yeah, I love that song. Ehm... I was thinking about what would happen if Richard Burton got stranded in Hong Kong somewhere or... y'know. He's this burly English with... y'know? You know a sheet mantras of... somewhere in eh...somewhere off. y'know? Taiwan or Guam, Hong Kong, Canton, Shanghai eh Philippines, somewhere over there y'know? So I tried to imagine what would be going through eh... Make it like a Richard Burton number.
MT: With an exotic setting for immediate impact?
TW: Yeah. (laughs) You just dream things.
MT: And also sets up the ambience the follows through the rest of the record.
TW: Yeah, well I hope so. little storm at the end up there, I thought: Oh maybe that's a little pretentious to put a storm on the end of it, but I thought it worked.
(Singapore - album version)
MT: "Clap Hands" a violent little picture.
TW: Well I just kinda embedded a nursery rhyme. Just a eh... You know, eh: "Wine, wine, why the goose drank wine/ the monkey chewed tobacco on the streetcar line/ The line broke the monkey got choked/ we all went to heaven in a little row boat" yeah. "Shine, shine, a Roosevelt dime/ All the way to Baltimore and running out of time." Same meter, same... I just tried to imagine all these eh... these guys going up the A-train. All the millionaires in tuxedos shoveling all the coal into the... y'know? Everyone's hanging out of the window, y'know? Just kind of a little... dark little... kind of a Ralph Steadman(2) eh drawing.
(Clap hands - album version)
MT: "Cemetary Polka" is kind of a peculiar family portrait.
TW: Never talk about your family in public! That's... I learned my lesson, but I keep putting my foot in my mouth. And eh I'm gonna get calls from my auntie Mame. I gonna get calls from... uncle Biltmore, eh uncle William, uncle Vernon. All of them and eh... You know: "Your uncle Phil" y'know. It always happens, so... "Uncle Phil can't live without his pills/ He has emphysema and he's almost blind/ And we must find out where the money is/ Get it now before he loses his mind". That's something I heard from the dining room eh during a family reunion and I never forgot it...
MT: So these are real people?!
TW: Yeah! (laughs)
MT: It's hard to tell sometimes..
TW: Oooh, I don't know! (laughs)
(Cemetery Polka- album version)
MT: Now, I wanted to ask you about the "Tango Till You're Sore" tarantella.
TW: Oh yeah.
MT: Now, that's one of these off-beat kind of off-centre eh... things that...
TW: Oh yeah. (starts improvising on the piano)
MT: It's also one of the only places you play piano on this record.
TW: It is. Yeah, I had eh... I didn't go there very often y'know? I had a good band, I had eh... I didn't really feel compelled to sit down at the piano at all. I played a little guitar and I had... The piano always brings me indoors y'know? And I was trying to explore some different ideas and some different places in the music and eh... So the piano always feels like you know where you are. You can't imagine a piano out in the middle of the... out in the yard. Ehm... unless it's got some plastic over it y'know? You can...
MT: There hasn't been a lot of piano in either of the two Island records really.
MT: Does that mean you have been writing more with the guitar?
TW: I guess it was some guitar and eh... I rented a little pump organ. It's a little harmonium, and I've been playing the accordion a little bit. I don't know, I've been trying to... It's interesting to write on instruments you don't understand. You know, I pick up a saxophone and bang on a drum... or eh y'know... eh trombone. Anything that I'm unfamiliar with, that is always eh... it's always good for your process. Y'know?
MT: You wind up with different ideas for melodies?
TW: Yeah, yeah. And kid's toys, you pick up the little instruments that kids have y'know? Bang on those... and it's... The piano always makes me feel like I'm...
(Tango Till They're Sore - live with Tom Waits at the piano)
(9th and Hennepin - album version)
(Big Black Mariah - album version)
MT: I wanna ask you about "Hang Down Your Head", it's a relatively straightforward kind of song.
TW: Yeah it's a popsong. A pop tune almost yeah.
MT: Little eh looong ago echo of "Tom Dooley"(3) I guess?
MT: I couldn't help of... I couldn't avoid thinking of that Tom!
TW: Yeah, eh "Hang Down Your Head" I mean it's "Please" y'know? But ehm... yeah Kathleen was whistling that and I said: what the hell is that? Y'know? And she said: Oh I don't know. So I made it... I put it down and took it in the studio. While I'm writing and while I'm recording, everything you seem to pick up during the process somehow ends up in there. You know, it's like a big vat. You know, you just start throwing things into it. So eh... that's funny, yeah.
(Hang Down Your Head - album version)
MT: It seems like a good time to ask you... There have been over the years, some attempts of covering your songs. Other people have done them, "Ol''55" has been done by a lot of people of course. Bruce Springsteen did that lovely version of "Jersey Girls".(3)
MT: Can you imagine anyone that you'd like to hear doing some of those things, or is that not even into your thinking?
TW: No, I don't think so much about it. But you like it when somebody does y'know? Eh the song is going out there and somebody's gonna hear them and it's a nice feeling. It's like eh holding pigeons y'know? But eh... I had a... "In The Neighbourhood" of that Swordfishtrombones was covered by a Dutch group(4). It's called "In the Stromcafe" (laughs) and it was funny.
MT: Did they translated it?
TW: Yeah: "Noahgsf sjniff jaegh, of fishta gettete, Ischnough...In de Str���mcafe..." and it was funny, I liked that!
MT: You know I've always had this odd thought of someone like a Frank Sinatra covering something like "Tom Traubert's Blues"(5) the Waltzing Matilda song. That always seemed to me like one that was PERFECT for Frank at this late day...
TW: At this late day! (laughs)
MT: Well, it's not the same Frank Sinatra that we had "Songs for swinging lovers" in the 50's you know?
MT: He's not the same guy anymore, cause neither are we.
TW: Well, I don't know. I've been waiting to hear from Frank. He doesn't call anymore when he's in town y'know? And I'm... I don't know, what are you gonna do?
MT: Well, he's a busy guy.
TW: Well, sure, I'm busy too! But come on Frank! We used to be... we used to be close. We used to be real close.
MT: "Blind Love" is a real cockeyed Country & Western song.
TW: That's a Country song, yeah! My first! (laughs) My firstborn countrysong I think really. With violins and everything... I like Merle Haggard and those guys y'know? Those roadhouse guys, I like... Robert Quine(6) played on that. He saved the song for me. I was about ready to dump it. Eh Quinne plays on albums y'know? He plays with Lou reed. And he came in and gave it that Jimmy Reed kind of a... a little bit of Jimmy Reed in there. And I was just "Goddamn, that's alright, cause I didn't know what the hell to do with it." It just had a bass and a guitar You know, I figured "Well maybe we ought to open this up and put a little story in here." You know, a little spoken (laughs) spoken part. And I thought I just played it a little straight. I thought it came off real straight. Cause I was down in Nashville and asked them down there and they said: "Forget it pall!" Y'know? You know: "You never get on the radio around here pall!" So eh, I don't know, I missed the mark. I thought ghee, I thought: "Ghee I've finally done it, we're gonna break out here and eh... " You know all these [...?...] you hear in the song. He said "No, It's a little tighter down there then you might... It's like "Jingles" y'know?
MT: That's another one that Keith Richards plays on.
TW: Yeah. He's a killer. Well I always loved his songs and his voice. You know "You Got The Silver"?(7) You know that one?
TW: Oh man! He has that fragile voice (Keith Richards imitation) "Baaaby!" And a real eh... Oooph!
MT: He has always had the cracks built into the voice.
TW: Yeah, he's a real animal. He's a real gentleman. The way he moves and the way he... I really was just lucky, he was... They were coming here to do a record so... to finish up a record to mix an album. So I just... I got lucky. I thought: "What have I got to loose?!" So this would be a good song for Keith Richards. And he came! He came and did it! You know? I was like... (laughs)
MT: It turned out he had been listening to your stuff?
TW: I don't know. He said he knew the last album with that Swordfishtrombones. He knew that a little bit, yeah. You know, he's a... giant y'know? So you figure... this guy probably only listens to opera or something y'know? Yeah like THAT y'know. So how's he ever come across anything I've ever done, yeah. (laughs)
MT: Well, he's always been one guy who takes in a lot of different kinds of influences.
TW: Well, he travels too. He's real international. The stuff that appeals to him and the stuff that he integrates into his own ideas. And he still stays in Kansas and Oklahoma and, y'know plays that real dirty... y'know? He's in St. Louis and Iowa and Bulgaria and Hong Kong and he's got it all in there.
MT: Well, it's all music.
TW: Yeah it's a place where Nigeria meets Louisiana...
(Blind Love - album version)
MT: What kinds of stuff does Tom Waits listen to, when he's not trying to write his own ehm... What's fun listening for Tom Waits?
TW: Eh gosh I don't know. Lot different kinds of things... I mean I listen to eh... I listen to the radio... eh sometimes. You can learn from anything I guess. Eh, I like songs when they come through a wall and you hear them wrong. You just pick up a piece of it you know? When you distort the things that you are hearing and... New York's good for that, things coming up of the radio outside through the traffic and in the window and... That's good.
MT: Have you ever written a song with somebody else doing it in mind, directly?
TW: Oh yeah "Blind Love" I figured Merle Haggard could do that. Y'know? "Say, send that right over to Merle!"... "Hey, you get Merle on the phone for me!"
MT: Have you sent it over to him?
TW: Eh no, I probably should!
MT: I think you should.
TW: No, I don't really think like that. Cause I figure, y'know you throw these things out there and you don't really know what they're gonna mean to who and you're usually wrong when you try and play them for something that you thought would happen and I hate to be disappointed. So I'd rather just say: "Well, here's some stuff that I scribbled down, we'll just throw it out of the window and see what happens." Y'know?
MT: Anyone ever asked Tom Waits do do a commercial?
TW: (mock bravery) Yeah, the money wasn't good enough. Y'know? Yeah, they wanted me to do the one for American Airlines. And I said; "Well if I'm gonna sell out, you got to get the money up!" Y'know? "I got to be able to retire on this. Cause I never gonna be able to work again."
MT: Let me ask about one or two of the songs on Raindogs again. "Gunstreetgirl", I hear a little bit of "Danville Dame"[?]...
TW: Oh yeah? That was a ... yeah a revelation. I tried to make it a tale in a tale, y'know? Where is the end of this tale? Y'know? There's: "Telling everyone they saw the went thataway". There's this girl tied to a tree with a skinny millionaire and a guy coming into Baker with a pistol and a... So I just tried to throw it all in there and make it like eh... "What the hell's going on around here?!" Y'know? It's like when you wake up in the middle of the night and you try to remember something that you don't, you remember just pieces of things? Y'know? But yeah, I liked that, I liked that one too.
MT: "Union Square" right after, is kind of a real flipside to that.
TW: That's just real straight... y'know? Keith played on that again too. He played that eh... y'know eh... (laughs) that guitar. Gheesus! You know, he leans forward at like eh... almost eh... at like 2 o'clock. You know? I mean if this was like... 10 till 2, y'know? He leans so far forward, he must have a string attached to the back of his neck and it's run up and it's being held to the ceiling and it keeps him from falling flat on his face. It's unbelievable. He had these old shoes of... looked like a dog chewed 'em up. And eh he was drinking this eh Rebel Yellow sour mash whiskey and... he looks like a pirate. He's a killer.
MT: He's looking healthier. He went through a phase of course... when he looked like death went over him with a match.
TW: Well, it's all part of the down-the-road y'know? I mean we all have that to look forward to. He's got it behind him! (laughs)
MT: How many days of work did he put in the studio with you?
TW: Just one night! (laughs) He came in... but eh...I guess about eh... I don't know. About 9 o'clock and we worked till about 4 in the morning.
(Union Square - album version)
MT: "Downtown Train"
TW: Yeah, that's kind of a pop song. Or an attempt at a pop song (laughs). You know? (sings: la-la -la-la-laaa).
MT: It's got some other people playing on it. G.E. Smith from the Hall and Oats band, Tony Levin on bass...
TW: Yeah... Ehhh... all nice guys.
MT: How did you bring those particular players into this one?
TW: Ehm... Well, they were all well paid...
MT: That helps...
TW: ... believe me... (laughs) A triple scale. All real nice guys. I tried that song with the other band and then... It just didn't make it. So you can't get the guys to play like this on some of the stuff. I just couldn't find the right guys.
MT: It also gives the album a different kind of dimension there.
MT: A little bit of a different sound.
TW: Yeah a little bit. Yeah, that was hard to do cause I wasn't sure where I was going. It was kinda unfamiliar.
(Downtown Train - album version)
MT: I have to ask you about the Springsteen cover of "Jersey Girls". How did you first hear that and how did you first react when you heard it?
TW: I don't know when I first heard that. Oh I got a tape... yeah. I heard it on the eh... I don't know, I guess I heard it on the radio. Yeah, I heard it on the radio. I said: "Yeah, that's a pretty good song there." (laughs) Yeah, I did what I could to help him out. As far as I'm concerned he's on his own now. Eh, I've done what I can for his career and eh... y'know? Well, I liked it, I really liked it. And I heard it a lot, it was on some jukeboxes and that's kinda nice too, y'know? Yeah, it was a good feeling. And I liked the way he did it. Yeah, I liked it a lot. Yeah, he's a real nice guy.
MT: He's always been a real down to earth kinda guy.
TW: Yeah, yeah.
MT: Now that Raindogs is finished, how do you feel about it?
TW: Eh, well there's some stuff I would have done different but y'know... I don't; know, I like a lot of the things on it.
MT: There's a lot of songs there. There's 19 songs.
TW: Yeah boy!
MT: And adds up to somewhat 50... 55 minutes. That's a lot of music for your money!
TW: Yeah, well you got a good point there Michael... yeah... I mean, you get more for your entertainment dollar. I think that's very American. I don't know. The songs... let's see what happens to them. You know? Eh, my songs don't get on the radio a lot so it... ehm... I think that, you know... Maybe... Maybe, you know, people that are played a lot, write different kinds of songs because you know your audience. You know your audience is very... everybody is meant to hear this y'know? I don't know.
MT: But at the same time those people might tend to write songs to fit a mould and that's something that's clearly not happening with Raindogs. The songs take their own shapes and lengths to suit.
TW: Yeah. Well I think that's good. I think that's... Cause songs are... should have their own anatomy that suits the story or whatever, I think.
MT: You know, thinking back over 12 years that we've known each other, I don't remember you EVER being really completely satisfied with a record once it was out.
TW: Yeah, I don't know. Cause I guess that, you immediately... you start work on another one to try and correct the mistakes you made on the one that came before. But I played with some people that I really liked very much. So I... the whole process was very enjoyable.
MT: And you got a real challenging record that can stand up to a lot of listenings and take people to a lot of unsuspected places.
TW: Oh, I hope so. I hope so. But the next... there were some songs that didn't make it on there that I liked too. One called "Bethlehem P.A." y'know? That was Bob Christ, of Bob Christ Chevrolet, right here in beautiful downtown Bethlehem P.A. (laughs) That didn't make it on there. Another one called "Dressed Up In Rags" and eh "Skeleton Bones" that didn't make it on there. Eh "Marie Antoinette's Last [...?...] - Famous Last Words" So, there were some that didn't get on there. And I said: "Oh well, maybe we could build a fin on top of it". Y'know, we could put those right there... But eh, I don't know what it's gonna do. You just send it out there and make sure his tie is on straight and comb his hair, y'know? "Be sure to zip up your fly and polish your shoes" and to the bus stop and...
MT: That's one reason we've had this hour with a lot of the songs from the record, and eh hope that people like what they hear and they wanna hear some more. And it's called Raindogs. Tom Waits has a new album on Island Records.
TW: (laughs). Okay, nice talking with you Michael.
(Bride Of Raindogs)
CBC announcer: Tom Waits in conversation with Michael Tearson That interview took place in New York, with Waits occasionally at the piano and as he mentioned has his latest album out, his Raindogs. We've been playing it here on "Nightlines"
(1) John Lurie: Lurie, John - Lurie and Waits got acquainted in 1983, as Waits was temporarily living in New York and working on 'Swordfishtrombones'. Further reading: Who's Who?
(3) Tom Dooley: Tom Dooley (Written by: Frank Warner /John Lomax /Alan Lomax): "Chorus: Hang down your head, Tom Dooley. Hang down your head and cry. Hang down your head, Tom Dooley. Poor boy, you're bound to die I met her on the mountain. There I took her life. Met her on the mountain. Stabbed her with my knife (Chorus) This time tomorrow. Reckon where I'll be. Hadn't-a been for Grayson, I'd-a been in Tennessee (Chorus) This time tomorrow. Reckon where I'll be. Down in some lonesome valley hangin' from a white oak tree (Chorus)."
(3) Bruce Springsteen did that lovely version of "Jersey Girls": Live 1975-1985. Bruce Springsteen, 1987 Label: Sony Music/ Legacy Records.
(4) "In The Neighbourhood" of that Swordfishtrombones was covered by a Dutch group: Stamcaf�/ Een Lied Voor Jou. Willem Duyn. 1984. CNR (Holland) 142.074 (in Dutch: "Stamcaf�") Further reading: Covers by Song
(5) Something like "Tom Traubert's Blues": Further reading: Tom Traubert's Blues, full story
(6) Robert Quine: A founding member of the groundbreaking punk rock ensemble, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, Quine has gone on to collaborate with a diverse array of musicians during his career, including: Lou Reed, Brian Eno, John Zorn, Matthew Sweet, Tom Waits, Lloyd Cole, They Might Be Giants, and Marianne Faithfull. Further reading: Robert Quine official site
(7) You know "You Got The Silver"?: from Let It Bleed, The Rolling Stones, 1969. This was the first time Keith Richards sang the entire lead vocal. Lyrics for: You Got The Silver: "Hey babe, what's in your eyes? I saw them flashing like airplane lights You fill my cup, babe, that's for sure I must come back for a little more. You got my heart you got my soul You got the silver you got the gold You got the diamonds from the mine Well that's all right, it'll buy some time. Tell me, honey, what will I do When I'm hungry and thirsty too Feeling foolish, and that's for sure Just waiting here at your kitchen door? Hey baby, what's in your eyes? Is that the diamonds from the mine? What's that laughing in your smile? I don't care, no, I don't care. Oh babe, you got my soul You got the silver, you got the gold It's just your love, just leave me blind I don't care, no, that's no big surprise."