Title: Enigmatic Waits Survives, Thrives
Source: The San Diego Union-Tribune. By Rip Rense. November 1, 1985. Transcription by Dalsh 327 as sent to Raindogs Listserv Discussionlist June, 22, 2000
Date: telephone interview: November, 1985
Key words: Raindogs, New York, Franks Wild Years, Keith Richards


Enigmatic Waits Survives, Thrives


Every few years or so, Tom Waits has a baby, and an album. Or rather, his wife has a baby, and Tom has an album. In 1983, it was Swordfishtrombones and a little girl -- in the same month. Now it's Raindogs and a large boy -- in the same month(1).

Father, baby and album are all doing fine.

In the record-bin sense of things, Waits is an enigma, an anomaly -- and all those words that mean it's hard to understand his survival. He does not do what everyone else does. He never did -- not even in the early '70s when he wrote songs like "San Diego Serenade," with sweet, poetic words like:

"Never saw the morning till I stayed up all night/ Never saw the sunshine till I turned out the light/ Never saw my hometown till I stayed away too long/ And I never heard the melody till I needed the song ..."

Further, Waits does not sound like anyone else. His voice is still a marriage of rasp and growl, with occasional affairs with howl and whisper. He does not sing like Edith Piaf.

Allegedly born in a taxi, Waits did at one time call San Diego home. He worked as a fry cook(2) and a janitor here, if memory serves, but those days are long past. He's in New York now, which he terms "living inside an engine."

Raindogs, his 10th LP, was recorded there. Remarkably, the album is selling fast. No, in an era of Prince, the Eurythmics, Cyndi Lauper and the Boss, this is not remarkable. It is astonishing. Tom doesn't even dye his hair.

"The album is kind of my impression of a lot of things that have happened to me since I moved to New York," said Waits, reached by phone. "Particularly the summer in New York, when half of the city sleeps outdoors in a doorway, and so many of them are completely deranged. The place really does take on a rather surreal quality." There are 19 tracks on Raindogs. The vision is sweeping and varied. Lyrically, it's a light year from the likes of "San Diego Serenade": "Well, the smart money's on Harlow/ And the Moon is in the street/ The shadow boys are breaking all the laws/ And you're east of East St. Louis/ And the wind is making speeches/ And the rain sounds like a round of applause ..." -- from "Time."

Critics are calling Raindogs Waits' best ...better than his 1975 masterpiece, Small Change, or his Academy Award-nominated sound track for "One From the Heart."(3) They're mumbling about this being an "artistic breakthrough" and all that second-guessing kind of stuff. One critic called it "the missing link between Captain Beefheart and Dr. John."

Said Waits: "I don't know ...Somewhere between Rod Steiger, Jake La Motta, Dock Boggs, Moms Mabley, Elizabeth Browning. I don't know if it's a missing link to anything. It's a record album."

The LP is a collection of sound-sculpted word-sketches about disenfranchised souls, and some nice tunes. There is some fairly scalding rock 'n' roll on it, and some unabashedly melodic ballads. One of the tracks sounds like Mahler's First (second movement) vs. "Chim Chim Cheree."

Another one sounds like James Brown vs. the Night Monsters. Keith Richards is on the album(4), and so is Chris Spedding. Some of it is poetry, some of it is hilarity. The imagery is abstract and direct, sentimental and raving, as absurdly juxtaposed as vagrants on Madison Avenue.

"The contrasts in this city are so devastating," Waits said. "In terms of color, fabric, economy, tragedy and comedy -- all crying in the very same beer. It really gets very direct. At first, it drives you crazy, and you try to retain what you had when you came here. You end up laughing at things that appalled you at first. You end up having to get some on you, in order to survive."

Waits has done more than survive. He's positively flourishing. Besides the LP, he will have a prominent role in Jim Jarmusch's follow-up to "Stranger Than Paradise,"(5) and will star in "There Ain't No Candy Mountain," a Robert Frank-directed feature about a young New Yorker who seeks out a reclusive Les Paul-like figure in Nova Scotia. Further, Waits and wife Kathleen Brennan have written a musical called "Frank's Wild Years,"(6) which will be performed next summer in Chicago, followed by a run in New York. Waits said he plays a "sort of demented drum major." Translation: he stars in it.

"It deals with the crumbling dreams of a despondent and hopeful American from a small town -- a place called Rainville," said Waits. "Somebody shot the `G' off the population sign with a 20-gauge, and it's been Rainville ever since. It's what happens after Frank leaves. He goes to Las Vegas, tries to make a big splash as an accordion player/entertainer, ends up despondent and penniless, and dreams of his way back home. Naturally.

The title comes from a recitative from Waits' critically endorsed previous album(7)Swordfishtrombones, but the characters come almost from Waits' front porch. To find inspiration, he had to do little more than look out the windows of any of the nine places he's lived in New York since moving there three years ago.

"The whole city is like your bathroom. People have to get so crowded in together that they erect invisible walls around themselves. You have to keep moving. They keep pulling things out from under you. It's like an emergency ward. You come out of your door, and a guy literally falls into you, having a stroke. A woman wearing nothing but a blanket, bald as an egg, is singing `Strangers in the Night' in the middle of 14th Street."

And the "raindogs?" "Yeah," growled Waits. "You see all these dogs out on the street looking lost. They kind of look up at you like: `'scuse me sir, can you, uh, ...(deep voice) can you help me? 'cause the rain has washed away all the scents; the way they got wherever they got. So they can't find their way back home.'

"Most of the people in the stories are people who made a turn here, made a turn there; went through a door and somebody picked 'em up and they went down the road. Before they knew it, they were lost ...`Singapore' is like that. Richard Burton in, uh, ...Taiwan." "We sail tonight for Singapore/ We're all as mad as hatters here/ I've fallen for a tawny Moor/ Took off to the land of Nod/ Drank with all the Chinamen/ Walked the sewers of Paris/ I danced along a colored wind/ Dangled from a rope of sand/ You must say goodbye to me ..." The music is as textured and whimsical as the words. It sounds twisted. Wrenched. Forged. Hammered. Conducted with a broken bottle. Waits' ideas of orchestration and engineering are simply not normal.

At various times on Raindogs, the listener will hear bowed saws, violins, horns, lujon, paradise drums, trombones, farfisa, clay pots, temple blocks, banjos ...On one track, somebody is beating on a chest of drawers.

"The main thing I found," Waits said, "is that a lot of things can be obtained later in the recording process. I'm one of those guys who likes to get it now. If you're looking for a certain sound or a certain color, it feels like it belongs to you more if you killed it and ate it -- rather than purchased it and pulled it out of a box. I still feel compelled to bang on things in a room until I hear the sound I want. "Then the sound becomes your own, rather than something you can obtain for a nominal service charge."

One such rare sound was the sinewy guitar of Keith Richards. The Stone was in New York when Waits, a longtime appreciator of the Rolling Stones, called him "on a lark." He had written a couple of Richards-like tunes -- "very animal-like," Waits said.

One on which Richards appears is a menacing thing called "Big Black Mariah,"(8) which was explained as being about (take your pick) a fabled New Orleans madam, the police, a hearse or Mr. Death. Richards is a natural for it.

"He came down, and we played until about 4 in the morning," Waits said. "Went through a bottle of Rebel Yell. Sour mash. Lighter fluid. He's, uh, ...something. He has a guitar valet. And it's unbelievable. Goes everywhere with him. Like a twisted version of `Arthur.' It was quite astonishing to behold. It was really a great experience for me."

There is little on the record to offend the people clamoring for censoring pop music -- probably -- although Waits had an opinion on the subject anyway. He doesn't like it.

"I feel you ought to be able to say whatever you want on a record. I don't know. Once you start putting tape over people's eyes and sticking rocks in their ears, painting their mouths shut, there's no place for it really to end."So they'll put stickers on albums, saying `Harmful if swallowed'? Or 'If rash develops, discontinue use'? I would say it's an infringement on free speech, isn't it?"


(1) Now it's Raindogs and a large boy -- in the same month: "Kellesimone" born September 1983 (some sources claim this to be October 1983). "Casey Xavier" born October 24, 1985 (some sources claim the right date to be September 1985).

(2) He worked as a fry cook: further reading: Napoleone Pizza House

(3) One From the Heart: further reading: One From The Heart

(4) Keith Richards is on the album: Guitar, ("Big Black Mariah", "Union Square", "Blind Love"), backing vocals ("Blind Love")

(5) Jim Jarmusch's follow-up to "Stranger Than Paradise": Down by Law (1986) Movie directed by Jim Jarmusch. Shot on location in New Orleans in 1985. Plays main role as DJ Zack. On soundtrack: "Jockey Full Of Bourbon" and "Tango Till They're Sore".

(6) A musical called "Frank's Wild Years": Further reading: Franks Wild Years

(7) A recitative from Waits' critically endorsed previous albumFranks Wild Years from Swordfishtrombones

(8) Big Black Mariah: further reading: Big Black Mariah