|Title: Dirt Music
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald. (Australia), by Nigel Williamson. Transcription as published on http://www.smh.com.au/. �2002. The Sydney Morning Herald
Date: Flamingo Resort Hotel & Conference Center 2777 Fourth Street, Santa Rosa, CA. February/ March. Published: April 27, 2002
Keywords: Alice, Blood Money, childhood, acting, Kathleen
A beatnik, a misfit and a maestro, Tom Waits has been cool for 30 years, writes Nigel Williamson. You dig?
There's an American music encyclopedia which, after listing the usual biographical details and albums and chart positions, attempts to define the style of the artist in question. Under the entry for Tom Waits, is the following: Reflective, Confrontational, Ominous, Street-Smart, Sentimental, Boisterous, Gloomy, Confident, Quirky, Theatrical, Literate, Nocturnal, Eerie, Wry, Cynical/ Sarcastic, Bitter, Bleak.
When I read him this extraordinary list, Waits laughs a deep-throated chuckle of delight. "I've never seen that," he says. "But I promise I'll try to live up to it."
That would be a first. For most of his 30-year career, Waits has willfully refused to meet anyone's expectations. Instead, pursuing a maverick path as a rock 'n' roll outsider, bohemian intellectual and beatnik misfit out of his time who makes compellingly idiosyncratic music, untainted by fad or fashion.
Those he has influenced include Beck, Bruce Springsteen, Nick Cave, Gomez and P. J. Harvey. Most of them have sold far more records than he ever has. The same goes for a similarly long list of those who have enjoyed hits with his songs, from the Eagles to Rod Stewart.
Yet Waits's singular, uncompromising style and his deep, gravely voice - once described to his own satisfaction as Louis Armstrong meets Ethel Merman in hell -(1) has made him a cult figure.
His name is revered by the cognoscenti as one of the holy trinity of rock 'n' roll poets alongside Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. He is - in that somewhat clumsy phrase - the songwriter's songwriter, held by his peers in something approaching awe.
These days Waits records are rare events. But after releasing just two albums in the past nine years, next month he releases two on the same day.
It's a stunt that has previously worked to good effect for Springsteen and Guns 'n' Roses but Waits's publicist sternly explains the dual release is not a gimmick. The records contain songs written for two stage-plays - one about the relationship between the author of Alice In Wonderland and the little girl on whom the book was modeled, the other loosely based on the story of Woyzeck, previously turned into an opera by the Austrian composer Alban Berg. As such, they are distinct and individual works that could not have been yoked together as a double album.
Record company spin-doctors may have agreed on this line, but nobody seems to have told Waits. Or if anyone has, he's not interested. "Yeah, it's a little bit of a gimmick to kick 'em out on the same day," he growls. "How are they different? One's chicken. One's fish. But if you're going to turn on the stove you might as well make dinner."
It's a typical Waitsian comment from a man who invariably prefers a sharp quip to a straight answer. At 52 he still looks every inch the stumblebum beat-poet, familiar from the covers of such 1970s classic albums as Closing Time, Nighthawks At The Diner and Small Change. His dark suit is almost as crumpled as his face and his shirt looks as if the buttons are wrongly done up.
When he removes his battered hat, it is to reveal a shock of hair that grows in strange, out-of-control clumps. His head is a most unusual shape, but his elongated face is kindly behind its lines and creases.
Then there's the voice. A cross between a rattle, a whirr, a rasp and a bark. As an opening gambit, he issues a warning against making assumptions. About him or anything else. "Just because you like spaghetti doesn't mean you like ravioli," he wheezes.
We are in Santa Rosa, a tiny dot on the California map, which is Waits's home, about 100 kilometres north of San Francisco in the middle of the Napa Valley wine-growing region. The bucolic setting does not chime with the distinctly urban, nocturnal figure who has spent most of his adult life in Los Angeles and New York chronicling the dark, seamy underbelly of the city and its cast of desperadoes and depressives. Asked why he'd left the city, he told one interviewer it was because he likes to pee outside.
"But the real reason is I got kids," he admits to me. "I came out here to settle down and raise them. That's all."
Once the drink went with the territory of his songs but he hasn't touched a drop in eight years. Equally, for years he was seldom seen without a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. Now he's given that up, too, and he attributes his healthy living to the influence of his wife and musical collaborator, Kathleen Brennan. "I wouldn't be here at all if it wasn't for her," he says simply. "I'm living proof that marriage is good for you."
Born in San Diego, Waits didn't move to Los Angeles until 1971. His first record appeared two years later, making him a relatively late starter. This has fostered a widely held impression that the hippie idealism of the 1960s - the decade in which he spent his entire teen years - somehow passed him by. It's a notion he's keen to dispel, although only partly.
"I loved the music of the sixties - the Beatles and the Stones. Lots of people," he insists. "But when you're trying to find an original voice, you look [in] a lot of different places to discover who you are and find something that's uniquely you. And to do that you take a little bit of something from whatever you can find."
In Waits's case, this meant going back to an earlier generation - to the Beats, be-bop, jazz poetry and the blues men of the Mississippi Delta. Ask him to name his heroes and he rattles off Jack Kerouac, Charley Patton(2), Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Miles Davis and Theolonius Monk before he adds the 1960s names of James Brown, Bob Dylan and Captain Beefheart. Kerouac and the Beats were a particular source of inspiration.
"By the 1960s the Beats seemed rather forgotten. I felt forgotten so I thought maybe I should hang with all these other forgotten guys," he says. "But who knows why you gravitate to one thing or another? Why do you like pork and beans? Some of it's psychological. Some of it's family. Some of it might be rebellion against the things all your friends are listening to. I listened to Frank Sinatra for a long time. That really made them mad."
Significantly, his father left when he was 11. The young Waits, desperate for an adult male role model, found that when he visited friends he didn't want to spend time with them at all. He preferred to seek out the company of their fathers. "I'd end up sitting in the den talking to their dads. Eventually they'd start putting on records so I was listening to old timers' stuff. I felt like an old man when I was about 12 and I couldn't wait to grow old."
By the release of his first album Closing Time in 1973, Waits was 24. Bearded and bohemian, he looked like he'd put in double that time in sleazy cocktail lounges in the company of life's losers and misfits, listening to their stories. Yet somehow the songs, many of which were strongly melodic, created the erroneous impression that he was a member of the West Coast, cocaine-snorting, denim-cowboy crowd, alongside the likes of Jackson Browne and the Eagles. When the latter covered his song Ol' 55 on one of their albums, it only reinforced the connection.
Yet it was not company in which he felt comfortable. "Being seen as part of a crowd bothered me. Those are all great people but I didn't identify with them. So I set out to find my own path," he recalls. "It's much easier to give in to certain patterns and currents that shape us all. It's much harder to swim the other way."
By the next album, 1974's The Heart Of Saturday Night, Waits was paddling furiously against the tide. The songs were soaked in the mythology of jazz and the Beats, influences drawn from another era. The familiar but enigmatic Waits persona was in place. Somewhere between Sinatra and Beefheart with liberal doses of Kerouac and Lenny Bruce thrown in for good measure.
A series of critically acclaimed albums followed and his songs began to attract the attention of other artists. Rod Stewart had a hit with the melancholy ballad Tom Traubert's Blues and for a while it appeared that Waits was on the point of mainstream acceptance. But the middle of the road was not where he wanted to be. Instead, by 1980 he'd moved off into uncharted territory, making a series of increasingly experimental albums such as Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs, full of unconventional time signatures, horns, marimbas and a junkyard orchestra of instruments fashioned from household utensils and pieces of furniture.
"At a certain point I got interested in unusual sound sources," he says. "I'm still fascinated by that. I started bringing things into the studio that I found at the side of the road to see what they sounded like. I started wondering what would happen if we deconstructed the whole thing. I like things to sound distressed. I like to imagine what it would sound like to set fire to a piano on the beach and mic it really close and wait for the strings to pop. Or drop a piano off a building and be down there waiting for it to hit with a microphone. I like melody. But I also like dissonance."
Does he think that if he had taken a different turn, he might have sold as many records as Bruce Springsteen, the Eagles and Rod Stewart, all of who have covered his songs?
"I don't know about that," he says amiably. "If you're eccentric then you're eccentric. I don't think I ever got to a crossroads in my life when I could have done that. That was their destiny and it wouldn't have fitted if I'd try to put that on."
Over the last 20 years Waits has remained defiantly outside the musical mainstream while wielding considerable influence within it. He's also enjoyed a sporadic parallel career as an actor, appearing in movies such as The Cotton Club, The Outsiders, Ironweed, Mystery Men and Robert Altman's Short Cuts. "But I'm not an actor. I do some acting. There's a difference," he insists. "It's not the life I want to have wearing someone else's clothes and saying someone else's words, although I'm fascinated with the creative process."
He has found the world of musical-theatre far more rewarding. In 1986 he and Brennan wrote the stage musical Frank's Wild Years(2), which was staged by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. Then, in 1993, he teamed up with the avant-garde director and writer Robert Wilson on a musical version of the German folk tale The Black Rider. Both his new albums, Alice and Blood Money, are also Wilson collaborations.
The songs on Alice were written for a 1994 stage production(4) in Hamburg, although he's only just got around to recording them. Blood Money is more recent. Both reflect Waits's taste for all things noir-ish. Alice, he says, is about "repression, mental illness and obsessive-compulsive disorders". Blood Money deals with "the descent into madness and ends in murder and suicide. They're both strange little operas in the sense the word 'opera' really means work," he says. "And believe me it was a lot of damn work. Working with Wilson is like being in the slave galley."
Yet although the themes are dark and many of the songs are dissonant, both albums also include several tender ballads. "Yeah, I like to hear a beautiful melody telling me something terrible," he says. "Kurt Weill was the master of that. Mack The Knife has a beautiful melody." At which point he starts singing gently into the tape recorder. "But he's talking about this terrible crime. And that's so out there. It's really revolting and revolutionary and nobody knew what to make of that. It changed popular music."
This leads him off on a tangent about the preponderance of attractive young women among television news presenters. "People like to see bad news coming out of a pretty mouth. In Russia they've now got topless newscasters. There's this naked girl telling you the most horrible news but everybody's tuning in. I bet it's going to take off. Topless news is going to be everywhere."
For most of the past two decades, Waits's songs have been co-written with his wife Kathleen. She hates the spotlight and has never been interviewed, so I ask how the partnership works. "You wash. I'll dry," he says characteristically. "Gee, I don't know. If you're compatible it works. And if it works you keep doing it. And it's always good to get another opinion. People say a camel is a horse designed by committee. But for us the committee is good."
His eldest son Casey drums in his band(5), the latest to follow in the footsteps of a rock 'n' roll dad in a line which includes the offspring of Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Leonard Cohen and Stephen Stills.
"If you grow up in the mortuary business, you're probably going to be an undertaker," Waits reasons. "It's kind of inevitable because you're going to get a lot more help if you go into the family business. I told him if you want to be an astronaut I can't help you."
He admits to being flattered that his music has influenced other artists, but asked whether there is an identifiable school of songwriting, that can be called "Waitsian"? "I dunno. It's a good place to get to. When you make music you want to be part of the migration of all those seeds. I'm a result of that and I'm in the soup with everyone else. That's the good thing about putting a record out. You shoot it out there and it's nice to see it comes up somewhere else."
The list of those who've covered his songs includes not only Springsteen, Rod Stewart and the Eagles but also Natalie Merchant(6), Marianne Faithfull, Dion, Bob Seger and the Ramones. Some of the covers are "really gorgeous", others "plug ugly". But either way it's "a good thing", he holds. "Like someone saying, 'gee, I love those meatballs. Can I get the recipe on that?"'
In terms of contemporary heirs to the Beat poets, he perhaps surprisingly cites rap and hip-hop. "I listen on the radio and I love the rhymes. They kill me. These are guys who probably flunked out of English class but they're real gifted wordsmiths. It's an incredible thing."
Interview over, we cross the road for a bite to eat in a classic 1950s-style American diner. Waits orders a bowl of soup and says he wants to say more about his wife. "Her opinion means a lot to me. She's from an Irish-American family and has a completely different sensibility. Grew up on a farm. Wanted to be a nun," he says between slurps. "I'm a lot more conservative than she is. You know, those Catholic girls. She's something else. But these records wouldn't have been possible without her. Nothing would have been possible without her."
After 21 years of marriage it's a rare and touching display and she has clearly been Waits's rock in a life spent swimming against the tide. He nods at this. "But maybe I haven't swum against the tide as much as I would like to think I have. There are degrees of being an iconoclast or a rebel, if you want to call yourself that. I don't think I'm that much of a freak."
Maybe not. But as he orders another pot of tea, the enigma that is Tom Waits remains intact.
Blood Money and Alice are both released on May 6 on the Epitaph label.
(1) Louis Armstrong meets Ethel Merman in hell: this description first popped up in 1988 (Mixed Bag, WNEW New York. Date: October, 1988): "[DJ] Listen Tom, your voice is certainly one of the more idiosyncratic instruments in music. I've seen it described as everything from the sound of a terminal tobacco fiend to ah, Louis Armstrong and Ethel Merman meeting in hell(6) . [TW] Watch it, pal. [DJ laughs] You're on the fightin' side of me. [DJ] What's your favorite description of your voice? [TW] I never heard that one: "Ethel Merman and and - [DJ] - "Louis Armstrong meeting in hell." [TW] "Meeting in hell." That's pretty good. [DJ] I can show you where it's from at some point."
(2) Charley Patton: "Charley Patton is considered, with some justification, to be the archetypal Mississippi Delta Blues singer, but he can equally well be thought of as a songster, in view of wide-ranging repertoire - blues, ballads, spirituals and popular songs - that he displays on record. However he differs from contemporaries like Mississippi John Hurt and Mance Lipscomb in that he used the blues as a vehicle for an intensely personal music expression. Many of his recorded performances are so powerful as to be unsurpassed within the genre. Patton was born in Hinds County, central Mississippi, probably in April, 1891." Further reading: Charley Patton at American Music Archives.
(3) The stage musical Frank's Wild Years: Frank's Wild Years (the play) premiered on June 17, 1986 at Chicago's Briar Street Theatre. Further reading: Frank's Wild Years.
(4) The songs on Alice were written for a 1994 stage production: Alice (the play) premiered on December 19, 1992 at the Thalia Theater, Hamburg/ Germany. Further reading: Alice. Woyzeck (the play) premiered November 18, 2000 at the Betty Nansen Theatre in Copenhagen/ Denmark. Further reading: Woyzeck.
(5) His eldest son Casey drums in his band: Casey-Xavier (born 1985). Casey played drums on "Knife Chase" (Blood Money, 2002). He co-wrote "Big Face Money" (Hold On, 1999) and played drums on that track too. He also joined in on drums during the Mule Variations tour in 1999 (The Hague/ Holland June 21: "Big In Japan").
(6) But also Natalie Merchant: "These Are Days", Natalie Merchant & 10,000 Maniacs. 1992 (Ger, Elektra, EKR 156CD). Song covered: "I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You" (CD-Single)