|Title: Conformity Is A Fool's Paradise
Source: Time Out London (UK), by Ross Fortune. Photography: Perou. Transcription by Luke Martin as sent to Raindogs Listserv discussionlist. April 24, 2002
Date: Flamingo Resort Hotel & Conference Center 2777 Fourth Street, Santa Rosa, CA. February/ March. Published: April 24 (- May 12), 2002
Keywords: Alice/ Blood Money, mouse tambourine, Massive Attack, Mahalia Jackson
Conformity Is A Fool's Paradise
Cover: Redefining the American Hero: In these troubled times, does the US outsider still have a creative voice?
Tom Waits - for decades now the Alternative Voice of America - is back, with two new albums. Here, we talk music, mice and matrimony with the man who still embodies the least bushy side of the most powerful nation in the world. And then we canvassed opinion on other key US anti-heroes...
Interview: Ross Fortune. Photography: Perou.
Suite 101, the Flamingo Hotel, east on Fourth out of Santa Rosa, Northern California Tom Waits thrums his fingers on the table. Scratches his chin. Casts around the room -piles of CDs, a cased guitar on a couch and a glass coffee pot plonked before him, stained brown. 'One more thing, if I could,' he ventures, his voice a softened growl 'I did just want to say a few more things about my wife because she's been a real integral part of my work for a long time.' He gives the pot a swirl. 'It actually started in 1980, we got married at the Always And Forever Yours wedding chapel in Watts(1) at two in the morning, and our collaboration is almost as old as our marriage and I hope just as strong. We quarrel and all that, and she'll rail against me. It takes a long time to trust somebody long enough to let them stand up to you and tell you what they think. But she has an amazing imagination and is someone I trust immeasurably.'
Tom Waits' career splits neatly in two. Before he met his wife Kathleen Brennan (on the set of Francis Ford Coppola's 'One From The Heart') he was the boho bar-room bum, romantically chronicling a lowlife Algren and Bukowski styled world - and doing it gloriously. But by the late'70s, the character he had created (and the life he was living) was threatening to trap him. 'Actually, it was trying to kill me,' he says. After he met Brennan, things shifted subtly but significantly. 1983's 'Swordfishtrombones' stands as his most pivotal and influential album. Since then over numerous other albums, a bunch of film roles (for the likes of Coppola, Jarmusch and Altman). a musical score ('Night on Earth') and the 'operachi romantico' 'Franks Wild Years' - his music has continued to deepen and darken. He even quit drinking a decade or so ago. Now he no longer smokes either. Does he miss the bar-rooms? 'Nah,' he drawls. 'I heard better stories in the AA meetings, to be honest with you.'
*The fabulous invalid*
Waits and Brennan's latest work together involved American theatre director Robert Wilson They wrote the songs for his production of Georg B�chner's 1837 German play 'Woyzeck' (their third such collaboration, following 'The Black Rider' in 1989 and 'Alice' in 1992)(2).'Woyzeck', which premi�red at the Betty Nansen Theatre in Copenhagen in November 2000, is an extraordinary work - bold, haunting and strikingly expressionistic; a Miro painting come slowly to life. Or, as Waits prefers it, 'like opening up your eyes underwater.' He gets up to make more tea. Shouts over, 'Y'know, there's a reason they call theatre the fabulous invalid...Sitting in a dark theatre from 8:30 in the morning till midnight every day, for weeks. Boy, you realise then what they mean by work. But Wilson's a challenging guy, makes you dig really deep.' He sits back down with a grunt. 'And he's dyslexic and has an attention deficit disorder, just like me, so he's found a way to communicate that is very powerful.'
Wilson's production (in Danish) relies on the songs (in English) to drive the story 'He doesn't really like words: explains Waits 'I think he thinks of words as like tacks on the bedroom floor in the middle of the night when you're trying to make it to the bathroom.' 'Blood Money' (featuring the songs from 'Woyzeck') is one of two new Tom Waits albums released next week. The other, 'Alice" comprises the newly recorded, previously unreleased songs from the acclaimed 1992 Wilson/Waits/Brennan production which explored the relationship between Reverend Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, and Alice Liddell, the young girl who inspired' Alice in Wonderland'. Though record company complications precluded its release at the time, Waits is philosophical about the delay 'Well, y'know, time is always a collaborator with music,' he says 'Invariably, you record things when they're new, but it's not necessarily the law.'
The albums are classic Waits. They sound like nobody else. The Eagles and Rod Stewart might have had hits with covers of his songs(3), but these days Waits is out on his own. Pioneering. Digging back and digging deep. Dylan has long explored his American roots. Springsteen latterly, too. But nobody crafts archetypal American music like Waits. Brennan dreams it and he sculpts it, 'My feeling is, to a certain degree, all sounds are music,' he says. 'And of course it's your job to decide what you think's appropriate for the project and what's not. If you realise that, when you hit this furnace with the leg of a chair as hard as you can, you get a better sound than you do on your drum set, then you're going hit the furnace with the chair.
'I like my music with a little bit of grind and grime and rind I like it with the pits and peel. I remember those early Bob Dylan bootlegs that were so difficult to hear The quality of them was so bad that it actually added to the mythology. It's like when you listen to an old Caruso 78, and you hear the scratches and it sounds like he's trying to reach you from the bottom of a mine, and you feel like you want to help him.'
Only one track on the two new records features guitar.(4) 'The electric guitar thing is so overused,' he explains 'They show up on everything, it almost seems like it's the guiding force of popular music. Without it I wonder what people's music would sound like. So, it was like tying one hand behind your back just for the helluva it. See how you do. See if you can electrify some of these other instruments, or get them to be just as expressive. I mean, there's a reason guitar is in everything - it's portable, it's powerful, it's potent and it comes in so many different forms, and it's simple to play. I still love it, but we tried to omit it on these records to see what will happen.'
Instruments utilised include piano, cello, pump organ, hand bells, circular violin, spring drum, marimba, calliope, timpani and mouse tambourine. l ask about the mouse tambourine and he laughs. 'Oh, you know what,' he says, bending over and rolling up his right trouser leg 'See these boots here, they have this buckle,' He wiggles a small silver buckle at the top of his black motorcycle boot. 'Well, during most of the songs I was tapping my foot and there was a lot of room mics in the studio, and so when we listened back to all the songs my wife's going, "What the hell is that?! That *tsk tsk tsk...*"' We just couldn't figure it out. Finally, she said, "Dammit it's those boots. I told you not to wear those boots. It's on everything!" And she got so upset!' He laughs. 'We tried to get rid of it and couldn't, so finally we just had to call it the mouse tambourine.
*Gifts and special powers*
While music nowadays generally tends towards the ever more superficial, Waits explores new sounds, creates different worlds, mines hidden seams. His is a whittled and whorled carnival fare of slingshot polkas and steam whistle waltzes, sheet metal hues and dirty rural scrapings. His songs are physical and real, rich and earthy, made from skin and bone and shank and mud. 'It's important to travel your own path,' he says 'Conformity is a fool's paradise. I think I'm influenced by people just like everyone else is, but I try to fight the urge to conform. I keep wanting to use turntables and stuff, but my wife says no, she says that's going to be like a ducktail eventually, or a flat-top or Mohawk. And I struggle with that. I can't really tell. My boy has turntables. He was doing it the other night. He had that speech that Bill Clinton gave where he said, "I did not have ssss-sssex with that ww-W-W-Www-woman", and he had a beat going, *boop-t'cha, boop-t'cha*. He's always goofing like that. But I go my own way. Try not look at it as a business. I'm kind of on my own quest, and I'm still able to make a living, so I'll keep doing it...
'I mean most musicians don't go to school, they listen to records. They sit down at one point next to a record player and put their ear up there and try to write the words down and wonder, "What the hell's he doing on that thing?" and try to learn off it. And I assume somebody at some point will do that with my records. I hope they do that with my records, 'cause that's what they're for. It's a natural cycle to the whole experience of evolving as a musician yourself, you hope others evolve. I love slave songs and work songs and jump rope songs, all those early beginnings, and where it's going and where it is now and where it'll be in ten years.'
The next Waits album is likely to feature a collection of lost songs - outtakes from 'Mule Variations', tracks he's contributed to various sound tracks - 'a lot of obscure stuff. The mooted collaboration with Massive Attack, meanwhile, is still a possibility. 'We had a correspondence through the mail. They sent a track, I liked the track, then I got in the studio and things got too busy but we'll do some thing down the road, we just haven't pulled it together yet but we will'
And what's he listening to now?
'Well, l really like Wu Tang Clan, those guys kill me. And there's this guy named Bob Log(5), you ever heard of him? He's this little kid, nobody even knows how old he is, wears a motorcycle helmet and he has a microphone inside of it and he puts the glass over the front so you can't see his face, and plays slide guitar and it's just the loudest, strangest stuff you've ever heard. You don't understand one word he's saying.' He laughs 'I like people who glue macaroni on to a piece of cardboard and paint it gold That's what I aspire to, basically.' He sits back and grins a crooked grin. Pure Tom Waits.
Three years ago, interviewed prior to the release of 'Mule Variations', he appeared slightly stiff, a little uncomfortable. After six years away, it was as if he was playing the role of Tom Waits. This time around he seems more open, more at ease. Looks lean, tanned and healthy, too. At the end of the interview he even handed out gifts - a Mahalia Jackson CD and a bag of chocolate covered raisins. While he was rummaging through his stuff we got to joking around. I asked him if he could have any super power, what would it be? 'Oh gee, I don't know.' X-ray vision? 'Yeah, x-ray vision's good' Or you could fly, or travel forward or back in time? 'Oh yeah, those are all good ones as well' But you can only have one. 'Jeez, well, I love the Silver Surfer and the Incredible Hulk, Eyeball Kid(6), all those guys I don't know, maybe it would be interesting to go back in time,' He pauses, foot tapping fast. 'You know what what I would like to do is have a special power to find things that were lost. People would come to me because they lost their purse in the '50s, left it in a cafe. Say, "Have you have any idea where I could find it?" and I would help them. If they lost a pocket knife that they really loved, or toys from childhood, I would be the Finder Man. "Let's get the Finder Man," they'd say. Yeah, the Finder Man, that'd be me.'
*'Blood Money' and 'Alice ' (both Epitaph/ Anti Inc) are released on May 6. Robert Wilson's production of Woyzeck runs at the Barbican from Sept 27 to Oct 5.*
(1) We got married at the Always And Forever Yours wedding chapel in Watts: There is actually such a wedding chapel on West Manchester Av. in L.A. Further reading: Always Forever Yours Wedding Chapel.
(2) Following 'The Black Rider' in 1989 and 'Alice' in 1992: The Black Rider (the play) premiered March 31, 1990 at the Thalia Theater, Hamburg/ Germany. Further reading: The Black Rider. Alice (the play) premiered on December 19, 1992 at the Thalia Theater, Hamburg/ Germany. Further reading: Alice.
(3) The Eagles and Rod Stewart might have had hits with covers of his songs: On The Border. The Eagles, 1974 Label: Elektra/ Asylum LP 1004. Song covered: "Ol' '55". (Re-released by Elektra Entertainment in 1990). Storyteller (Complete Anthology). Rod Stewart. October, 1989 Label: WEA/ Warner Bros. Records (25987). 4CD set. Song covered: "Downtown Train". Downtown Train. Rod Stewart. March, 1990 Label: WEA/ Warner Bros. Song covered: "Downtown Train". Unplugged And Seated. Rod Stewart. March, 1993 Label: Warner Bros.Rrecords. Song covered: "Tom Traubert's Blues". A Spanner In The Works. Rod Stewart. June, 1995 Label: Warner Bros. Records. Song covered: "Hang On St. Christopher". If We Fall In Love Tonight. Rod Stewart. November, 1996 Label: WEA/ Warner Bros. Song covered: "Downtown Train". Stars On Classic, Rod Stewart. Classic Dream Orchestra. May, 1997 Label: Ariola (Germany). Song covered: "Tom Traubert's Blues". The Very Best Of Rod Stewart. Rod Stewart. November, 2001 Label: Warner Bros. Records (compilation). Song covered: "Downtown Train".
(4) Only one track on the two new records features guitar: This statement is not correct: "Everything You Can Think" (Electric guitar by Larry Taylor), "Kommienezuspadt" (acoustic guitar by Larry Taylor), "Table Top Joe" (acoustic guitar by Larry Taylor, electric guitar by Joe Gore), "All The World Is Green" (acoustic guitar by Tom Waits), "God's Away On Business" (electric guitar by Tom Waits and Joe Gore), "Knife Chase" (electric guitar by Larry Taylor), "Lullaby" (acoustic guitar by Tom Waits), "Starving In The Belly" )electric guitar by Tom Waits), "The Part You Throw Away (acoustic guitar by Tom Waits), "A Good Man Is hard To Find" (acoustic guitar by Larry Taylor)
(5) And there's this guy named Bob Log: "School Bus" (1998) liner notes: "When Bob Log III was a child, he lost his left hand in a boating accident. It was soon replaced with a monkey paw, and a new guitar style was born. "It's my own personal style, see," Log says, "the paw moves much quicker than a normal hand, so my real hand has to flop around a lot to compensate." And what about the helmet? "What helmet?" he asks, his voice muffled by a helmet. Further reading: Bob Log III Official Website, Bob Log III at FatPossum.
(6) Eyeball Kid: loosely based on the comic-book character created by Australian writer and artist Eddie Campell. Further reading: Eyeball Kid