|Title: For Waits City Life Is Small Change
Source: The Houston Post (USA). December 12, 1976 by Bob Claypool. Thanks to Ken Langford for donating scans
Date: Decenber 12, 1976
Keywords: Texas Opry House, touring, Small Change, Chelsea Hotel, Charlie Dutton
For Waits City Life Is Small Change
Perfect. Tom Waits, the nighthawk jive-spouting throwback to the Golden Age of the Hipster, was sitting alone and bleary-eyed in the motel coffee shop.
There he was, tucked in amidst all the plastic and leatherette decor, clad in a vintage suit that was probably rejected by Goodwill, a graying, rumpled excuse for a white shirt, a cloth cap so well-used it looked moldy, a thin, loosely-knotted 20-year-old tie and absolutely wrecked black loafers.
He looked like no one else in the place, yet seemed quite at home, even content, as he huddled protectively around a cup of coffee and sucked deeply on a filter cigarette. This was Waits' kind of place. In four albums he has written sympathetically and knowledgeably about such diners and the kind of people who inhabit them - people who, like himself, were just having eggs and sausage breakfasts at 4 p.m.
"Yeah, man, night life, what can I say? I just got up," he croaked in that raspy, tobacco-sanded voice of his. I assured him there was no need to explain - I hadn't been up all that long myself. But, the minute I began to ask questions, in the most conversational manner possible, Waits seemed to withdraw, to coil in upon himself. The coffee cup became the central part of his existence, as he wound himself around it, looking as though he were afraid someone was about to steal it from him.
His head dipped low over its warmth, and the bill of the cloth cap hid his eyes. When he did look up, it was only to throw suspicious glances at me or the tape recorder. This went on for a good 20 minutes, as Waits provided stock answers, "hmmms" and "ahhhs" to every question. He seemed to be feeling me out, and it was a long time before he finally began to open up a bit.
NO, HE SAID, the gig at the Texas Opry House(1) wasn't all that bad. Loud, of course, but that was to be expected in places where "the bar and the showroom is in the same room."
"Ahh, touring's weird anyway," he said. "I get stuck with a lot of experiments in terror, y'know, you can't help it. I've played, literally, in everything from toilets to big rooms, from colleges to city auditoriums. I roll with it. I've been an opening act for all kinds of people(2) - Martha and the Vandellas, Frank Zappa, Billy Preston, even Buffalo Bob and the Howdy Doody revue."
There was resignation in Waits' laughter as he told this. What could he do, after all? In today's music business, he is considered, well, an "individual," and no one seem to know where to classify him. In a day when John Denver and Michael Murphy are making a fortune singing about the joys of country livin', Waits writes poetic numbers about the pleasures of dingy urban experience - all-night cafes, cheapo strip joints, rundown hotels, flying down the freeway in the rain and the perennial search for the "heart of Saturday night."
The usual tag for him is a "hipster" or even "beatnik" (some of his most obvious influences are Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso, along with other street-life poets such as Charles Bukowski, Hubert Selby Jr. and Nelson Algren). It's a comparison Waits doesn't like very much.
"I can't possibly be what used to be called a beatnik," he snorted. "It's a stigma that people attach to you. Everyone needs to categorize, pigeonhole an artist so they can be able to understand him in reference to everything else. In the record stores, they file me in the 'mis-kel-laneous' bin, either that or just under 'XYZ.' That's where I get categorized."
WAITS ADMITTED that even though the road was tough, he did all of his writing on it.
"I wrote everything on the last album, 'Small Change,' in two weeks while I was in London. In fact, I wrote 20 songs, and we used 11. Wrote 'em in two weeks and recorded the album in five nights."
So what did he do when he got off the road? What was his life like at home in L.A.?
"Oh, I hang around airports," he grinned slyly. "I go down there to meet new people, hang around the baggage claim. Y'know, I take my car apart, then put it back together. I don't do much, it's all just 'Days of Our Lives,' like sands through the hourglass. As the world is turning on you and you're falling off the 'Edge of Night'... hmm... hmm.
"Naw, when I'm at home. I live in a hotel(3) - I rent a room there. I used to have a little apartment in downtown L.A. but I gave it up 'cause I'd go on the road, come back and find somebody had broken into it and everything. I don't have all that much valuable stuff, but it was a pain, so I moved into the hotel."
Waits grew up in L.A. Both parents were teachers (his father was born in Sulpher Springs), but Waits didn't particularly appreciate school.
"Naw, it was another big pain. I was kind of an amateur juvenile delinquent - I finally just dropped out of high school and went to work. I started working in a restaurant when I was 14(4). I worked all the way through high school - bus boy, cook, janitor, plumber, maintenance man. I was never voted 'Most Likely to Succeed' in school, but, what the hell. I'm glad I wasn't! I looked forward to goin' to work. That job gave me the freedom to take off at five in the afternoon and come back at five in the morning, no questions asked.
"SO, I'VE ALWAYS hung around the kind of places I write about. My circuit hasn't changed, it's just that I'm dealing with it a little closer to the bone now."
The latest album, "Small Change," contains several humerous numbers - typical Waits jazz-poetry and finger-snapping pieces such as "Step Right Up" (a superb hustler's spiel that includes every sucker-'em-in sales pitch you've ever heard) and "Pasties and a G-String" (a satirical tribute to strippers). But the title tune is something else - a grim, depressing account of a street murder, the unmourned death of a nobody. The song was laden with incredible images of violence, something missing from Waits' work up to now.
"Yeah, I just... I don't know, maybe I'm gettin' to be more of a pessimist," he said. "It was the first time I ever covered a homicide, and the incident is a true one. I was in New York City, stayin' at the Chelsea Hotel, and a young cat was shot and killed across the street from the restaurant where I was goin' to eat - just as I walked in the door. It happened two years before I wrote anything about it. I just didn't know how to deal with it, y'know"
"I was just trying to deal with the whole murder thing in New York, the whole ambience... It's all just like 'so what?, somebody got shot and killed, I don't care.' By the time you read it in the newspapers, it's gone. I mean, a newspaper doesn't weep, it's not wet, it doesn't bleed, doesn't croak. It's just facts, no ideas, no mess, no funeral, no phone calls in the middle of the night explaining it to somebody, no tears, no nothing.
"The night I saw this cat blown away, the cops were sittin' around sayin', 'Hey, Charley, where you goin' on your vacation?' And there's this little cat oozin' life, lyin' in his own blood. I don't know it was just... sssshhhheeewwww," Waits said, shaking his head, unable to find the words to describe it further.
WAITS SAID HE would like to do more "serious" stuff like "Small Change," but, lest you think all of his work is becoming darker, more pessimistic, consider the case of "One for Charlie Dutton," the proposed title tune for the next LP.
"It's about a guy I met in New York, a guy who was hangin' around Penn Station. He wasn't really a bum yet, but he was hangin' around that area. I thought he was hittin' me up for some change, but he said, 'Naw, naw, I just want somebody to drink with,' So, we go in the bar and have a few, and for every round he bought the two of us, he'd buy one for Charlie Dutton. He'd order three drinks at a time, and the third one was Charlie's drink. By the time we left the place, there were 12 shots of whisky lined up there for Charlie.
"See, Charlie Dutton had been this guy's best friend, they were in Iwo Jima together, but Charlie had been dead for 30 years. Thirty years, and this guy was still mourning him, man." Waits said softly. "Anyway, they'd made a pact that which ever one of them went first, the other guy would go out to his grave with a bottle of wine and bury it there so the guy in the grave could have a swig every now and then. And he said he'd done that for his pal, Charlie Dutton. We left the bar and went up the street yellin' at the top of our voices and singin' this guy's favorite song, "Friendship." So, I wrote a song about it, called 'One for Charlie Dutton.'"
We sat quietly for a few moments, savoring the story. Finally I said, "You should have written a song about it - it's a great story."
"Yeah, I got lots a stories, man, lots a stories," he sighed. "When I'm old, that's probably all I'm gonna have. Lots of stories and," he nodded toward the tape recorder "a bunch of newspaper clippings."
(1) Texas Opry House: Texas Opry House. Texas/ USA. October 29 and 30, 1976. Opened by Colleen Peterson
(2) I've been an opening act for all kinds of people: further reading: Performances
(3) I live in a hotel: further reading: Tropicana
(4) Working in a restaurant when I was 14: further reading: Napoleone Pizza House