Title: Fresh Air Interview
Source: National Public Radio's broadcast of Fresh Air. Hosted by Terry Gross. Produced by WHYY (Philadelphia). September 28, 1988. Transcription from tape by "Pieter from Holland" as published on the Tom Waits Library
Date: aired September 28/29 1988
Key words: Big Time, stage persona, show business, Frank Sinatra, New York, voice, street life, Tropicana,Jack Nicholson

Picture: Terry Gross, 2002


Fresh Air Interview



[Strange Weather - Big Time album version]

TG: That's "Strange Weather" from Tom Waits' new album Big Time. Which is the companion album to the film with the same name. Tom Waits welcome to Fresh Air.

TW: Oh okay, thank you.

TG: I think your music's really changing, changed a lot in the last few years. You've gone from for instance: piano, saxophone, bass and drums to arrangements with: accordion, organ, violin, you're writing songs inspired by tangos and other dances. And I wonder what's inspired some of the changes in your music?

TW: Mmm... I don't know. Eh, I'm working with different people now...

TG: You know what I was wondering? I was wondering if your life had changed so much in the past few years, with the success that you've had both in movies and with your music, that some of the songs that you sang were no longer fitting your life the way they once did and if it was time to write new songs? New kinds of songs?

TW: Well you get to an impasse as a writer, I think and... at a certain point you feel as though you need to ehm... find some new territory for yourself. I think that's natural.

TG: What kind of impasse had you come to?

TW: Eh... Well, just that I'd kind of stayed with a small piece of geography for some time. Ehm... I'd stayed with the same producer in the studio(2), eh... the last 3 records, the last 4 records I produced myself. So eh... y'know I started taking responsibility for all those things which I thought was an important eh... thing to do and eh... My earlier songs, I still sing some of them but ehm... y'know I try not to look back and... Y'know? ...

TG: ...

TW: ... That's all. (laughs)

TG: Your new film features several personas that you've developed, several characters that you do. Ehm... and I was wondering if acting in films has freed you up to do different kinds of characters on stage.

TW: Probably, yeah. Ehm... eh... Yeah, it's a blessing and a curse. You create a character for yourself and then at some point at the same time you feel eh bound and restricted and confined by the very thing that you thought was gonna give you some freedom. Eh... So... I guess I feel a lot more like a conductor then a character now, that I can... I have a moral attitude and I was inhabited by myself and eh... So y'know I think it's important to eh... y'know to continue to grow and change and eh . So that's what I'm trying to do.

TG: Was Tom Waits a character that you dreamed up too, the Tom Waits that we saw on stage?

TW: Ehm... Yeah I guess I dream myself up. I guess everybody dreams himself up. Eh... Yeah... (laughs)

TG: Why would you start then performing or did you want a persona? As opposed to being very naturalistic on stage? Just being yourself?

TW: Well, y'know you throw yourself in the bloodstream of the media and ehm... Concertising and traveling a lot, I think you need something to hide behind ehm... Y'know, you can't go out there alone. (laughs)

TG: Well in the film Big Time there's several characters that you do. Do you want to describe any of them for our listeners who haven't seen you in concert?

TW: Oh, my favorite is the eh... ehm... Buddy-Greco-cocktail-Halloween-nightmare... eh... in the white diner jacket. Eh.. and the cruise ship sequences of the film. Eh.. I guess it was in... When I was a kid and I was... I wanted to be an entertainer, my stepfather gave me a... a wild shirt... (laughs) I mean, cause his concept of entertainment was... Vegas baby! Eh.. y'know it was sown together with like 200 different fabrics and these big Kontiki buttons made out of wood and... y'know? 29 different shades of green... Ehm.. I always got a kick out of that. I hung on to the shirt as long as I could. Eh, always been fascinated with those guys, the eh... Vegas guys. (laughs)

TG: Well you know, I should play a couple of Vegas homages that you do here. I mean this is eh... I think of this as your homage to Frank Sinatra and to show biz anthems?

TW: A lot of people think that IS Frank Sinatra.

TG: Singing on it? Really?

TW: Yeah, "Straight To The Top"... A friend of mine was in the car with his mom and he put on the tape and she went: "Ghees is that eh a new Frank Sinatra song?"

TG: (laughs)

TW: ... and she was dead serious.

TG: Well you know, I really like the song. I mean, it seems to me that it's more of an homage then a parody. Do you know what I mean? I think it's a good song.

TW: Oh why, thank you!

TG: Do you think of it that way too? I mean eh... I don't read it as a parody as much as eh... (laughs) Tell me what you think!

TW: Tell you what I think about what?

TG: About your song "Straight To The Top."

TW: Well, that's one of those eh... One of those phrases that just keeps you going. It's like "Big Time" y'know? It's like... You gotta have a plan in this world y'know, you gotta have some place you want to go so you know when you've arrived. And eh "Straight To The Top" is eh... just one of those songs.

TG: I've put together a little medley of "Straight To The Top" and "I'll Take New York" so we can hear a little bit of both of them.

TW: Boy, thank you!

TG: Okay! (laughs) Somebody has got to put show biz medleys together right? (laughs)

TW: Yeah...

TG: So let's give it a listen. And this is... this is in the movie Big Time, but we're gonna play it from the album Frank's Wild Years. And this is Tom Waits...

[Straight To The Top - album version]
[I'll Take New York - album version]

TG: That's Tom Waits. I have to say when you do this in the movie there's something very "Lisa" about it, very Lisa Minelli. Like in "New York, New York"? (laughs)

TW: Eh.. Oh yeah! Thank you!

TG: And with your arm gestures? You know?

TW: Aha... Yeah, I get a lot of that type of thing. Ehm people think that I'm... We're not going out anymore but eh... she gave me a lot...

TG: (laughs)... Oh! This is a whole new side of you that, I have to say, I'm really enjoying! Ehm you know... you like a lot of pop composers and pop singers right? Eh... Porter, Berlin, Gershwin...

TW: Oh yeah, absolutely! You know, all those Brill Building guys.

TG: Yeah, yeah... When you wrote the medley that we heard, which I should say I also think of as an homage to Sinatra's capital years and then to his latter years. When you were living in New York, then I know you spent some time in New York...

TW: Yeah, that's my tribute to New York City. Ehm...

TG: ... did going to New York give you a whole new set of characters and settings to write about?

TW: Eh...

TG: I should, y'know, explain that you've been in Los Angeles writing very Los Angeles inspired songs about bars and diners and street scenes...

TW: Yeah. Well, we didn't have a pool here in New York and that was a big shock to me... that was a little hard to get used to.

TG: (laughs)

TW: Eh... I had to cut my staff in half, y'know and that was really rough. Ehm.. but it was eh...

TG: (laughs)

TW: ... I lived here for a while and eh... I think most of the songs on, I guess eh that Rain Dogs album, were inspired by living here.

TG: Aha... Have you found new qualities in your voice? I think your voice has opened up a little bit.

TW: Well, thank you! Gosh, I don't know what to say! Eh... Yeah, I think it maybe is opened up a little bit. I'm a little freer with it. Ehm... ehm... I can still bark like a dog.

TG: (laughs)

TW: Eh... And I think most of the comparisons with Caruso are frankly unfair. Ehm...

TG: (laughs) Well, here's my fantasy about your voice. That you initially sang hoarse, because you liked it stylistically and then you ended up with a really hoarse voice...

TW: Eh... You mean like: if you cross your eyes they'll stay that way?

TG: (laughs)

TW: Your mom says: "Don't turn your eyelids inside out Bobby!"

TG: (laughs) I guess not unlike that, yes! (laughs) So that's my fantasy, what's the reality?

TW: Eh... I don't know. I guess when I was a little kid I eh used to try to make my voice lower... Cause I wanted to grow up real fast(3) so I could be an old man and play golf...

TG: (laughs)

TW: You know, I couldn't wait to get there. Wear wild slacks and drink coffee and smoke cigars and talk about finance and eh... It happened very, very fast y'know? I started talking like this eh... You know I saw the clubs, they appeared in the corner of the room. So... I don't know... I guess you get the voice that you deserve...

TG: Are you taking better care of your voice now? I read that you'd given up smoking, and that's really hard to do, so...

TW: It IS hard.

TG: ... you must have really been committed to doing it.

TW: I AM committed to doing it. Eh... I drink my own urine and I think that's eh...

TG: (laughs) That's enough for your voice, right!?

TW: ... eh.... It's not bad with a little ice and a twist...

TG: (laughs) This is the doctor's recommendation I doubt...

TW: Uhu... Eh... I don't know... I can... Y'know, I still have a falsetto. Eh... it's somewhere around here...

TG: You wanna demonstrate that for us?

TW: ...Well, that's gonna cost you...

TG: Right, okay, alright... Well listen, we're gonna take a short break and then we'll be back and talk some more.

TW: Okay...

TG: Tom Waits is my guest. Singer-songwriter, pianist and actor. And he's got a new performance film called Big Time and a new album accompanying it with songs from the movie also called Big Time. The movie's about to open and Tom Waits is also an actor who has appeared in The Cotton Club and eh Down By Law and Ironweed. More after the short break, this is Fresh Air.

Announcer: Fresh Air is produced live on WHYY in Philadelphia. And distributed by National Public Radio.


TG: Tom Waits is my guest...

TW: We're back!

TG: We're back eh... About your new performance film. Let me know why you wanted to make a new movie, to have a record of your performance?

TW: Ehm... I've been threatening it for a long time and eh my wife finally said: "Well, I guess it's time we get something here that we can look at after you come back from the road." Cause you rarely come home with anything that eh... Yeah you get some snapshots and some reviews but... I guess it gives me a chance to ehm... eh capsulise eh some of the songs on the last 3 albums and eh... y'know?

TG: Uhu...

TW: Y'know it was all shot in one night and eh... Y'know it's eh... Let's see, I don't know what to say about it. Ehm...

TG: Well, that's okay...

TW: ... It's eh... a lot of people are comparing it to Zulu, The Pawnbroker, Mondo Cane, Ghandi, ehm...

TG: (laughs) But with a smaller cast?!

TW: Well, a lot of the larger gladiator-sequences were cut out and eh... it gave me a chance to work with Faye Dunaway. Which was always a big dream of mine.

TG: (laughs) Oh, eh... you know, for years you lived in this eh... hotel in Los Angeles(5) that was a residential hotel, a cheap hotel. You lived out of your car for a while when you started performing...

TW: Boy, you know more about me then I do!

TG: (laughs) Y'know, I wanted to ask you this. I was recently interviewing Paul Schrader who wrote Taxidriver?

TW: Uhu.

TG: And he said, that he was living out of his car right before he wrote the movie and that it was the most alienating experience he could imagine. Most lonely experience. And he described living out of his car like: "living and driving around in an enclosed steel coffin", being out in the open but being in this steel coffin. I was wondering if you could compare that to your experience of living out of a car?

TW: Well, I guess y'know you have to park where you can find an AC-outlet. That's important. And there's a lot of different eh... there is a great many apparatus out that you can plug into your cigarette lighter in the car, which I think has changed automotive living for ever. Ehm... you can get hot-plates, you can even get CD-players, you plug it right in there.

TG: Yeah, that's right.

TW: And eh... So, I don't know...

TG: Did you have literary reasons for wanting to live that kind of life?

TW: Eh... what kind of reasons?

TG: Literary reasons.

TW: Ehm... I've never been to the Sudan.

TG: (laughs) But y'know I figure you read a lot of Kerouac and also... You know, a lot of artists, especially when they're starting out, and haven't lived very much themselves, want to... want to expose themselves to all kinds of things that will give them subject matter. And that will expose them to interesting people. Stories that they can tell...

TW: Oh?... Yeah that's it...

TG: Or maybe you were just really poor. I mean, I don't know, that's why I'm asking.

TW: Ehm... Well see, when I moved in to the Tropicana it was 9 dollars a night. And when I moved out I think it was like ... 40 dollars a night. Eh... and they painted the swimming pool black. And they put a lot of y'know bamboo wallpaper up and eh... Now it's, I don't know what it is now, I think that they tore the whole thing down... Eh... I was living in hotels so much on the road, I figured I might as well come home and live in one. I lived by myself, so it was nice to have a night-clerk and get your messages, and it had a coffee shop nearby. So it was... like having an all-purpose eh... center right there. Satisfying all my needs.

TG: Were you actually from a middle-class family?

TW: Ehm.. yeah I guess you could say that, yeah.

TG: Were they disturbed by your choice of lifestyle?

TW: Ehm... Well, I don't know. Yeah, I guess y'know when you're, ehm... I don't know eh... Y'know my folks split up when I was a kid and eh... So, I don't know eh... You know, I think they're used to it now... as far as what I'm doing. Ehm...Y'know they seem pretty happy with what I'm doing... now.

TG: I wanna give our listeners a sense of what you were doing earlier in your career and the kinds of eh stories and songs that you would do based on what you'd seen in diners and in bars. This is from an early album of yours called Nighthawks At The Diner.

TW: Ehm...

[Intro to "Eggs And Sausage" Nighthawks At The Diner album version]

TG: Well, there's just an example of something of one of your earlier records, from Nighthawks At The Diner. You made a joke earlier about working with Faye Dunaway. You didn't get to work with her, but you did work with Jack Nicholson in the film Ironweed(6) where you both played hobos. Eh, you've actually ehm told a lot of hobo stories in your career and you've lived on the road and in your car and in vagrant hotels. Did you have any things to pass on to him about what you'd seen?

TW: Uhu... Eh yeah, I got along really well with Jack, I liked him very much and eh... He's a great storyteller. He should run for office. He eh... Yeah it was a real thrill to meet him. Ehm...

TG: Now that you're probably staying at Hiltons and Sheridans in stead of eh S.R.O.'s... (laughs)

TW: But of course! Only the finest!

TG: ... do you feel at all removed from the material you started writing?

TW: Completely!

TG: Seriously?

TW: No, ehm... Removed from my songs you mean? And my stories?

TG: Yeah, and from the original source of the songs and the stories.

TW: No, I don't feel removed from stories at all. Ehm... I guess one thing about eh... I guess eh stories and jokes and rumors and gossip will always move just ahead of the media. I enjoyed that whole folk process, that you'll also find in eh music as well. How ideas develop and travel and change and how mutant musical ideas find each other and join up... Eh... Y'know?... Did that answer your question or?

TG: Not really, since you asked (laughs)

TW: No, I didn't think so... Eh... Ahum...

TG: I wanna ask you about one more of your songs which we're going to end with. And this is a song called "Rain Dogs", that's in Big Time and on the new record Big Time. And one of the things I really like about this song is the way eh... the eh... the "Anniversary Waltz" weaves in and out of it(7)(laughs) Tell me about writing it...

TW: Oh the "Anniversary Waltz"? Oh, my father-in-law sang that to eh... Kathleen and I after we got married and eh... on the telephone. (laughs)

TG: And one last question. You once said that talking to the media is "a lot like talking to the cops." You still feel that way? Do you?

TW: Hey, no offence!

TG: (laughs)

TW: I love cops!

TG: (laughs) Okay. Well, anyways. Thank you very much for talking with us.

TW: Okay.

TG: And my guest has been singer-songwriter, pianist and actor Tom Waits. And his new performance film is called Big Time. It's about to open. And there's also a new album called Big Time featuring songs from the movie.

[Tape cut]


(1) Fresh Air Interview: Waits would do another interview for Fresh Air in 2002: "Tom Waits interview on Fresh Air" National Public Radio's Fresh Air (USA) hosted by Terry Gross. Aired: May 21, 2002.

(2) I'd stayed with the same producer in the studio: Bones Howe, producer/ engineer from "The Heart Of Saturday Night" to "One From The Heart". Late 1982/ early 1983 Waits seperated from his longtime friend and producer.
- Jay S. Jacobs (2000): "Howe himself had seen the writing on the wall. He and Waits were clearly pulling in different directions. "After we did One from the Heart and the sound-track album came out" he recalls, "Tom and I sat down and had a glass of wine at Martoni's. He said, 'I'm trying to write the next record. The problem that I'm having is, I know you so well and everything that I write, I keep thinking to myself, I wonder if Bones is going to like this? Or, I can't write this tune because I don't think you'll like it.' I told him, 'Tom, I shouldn't have any influence on what you create. Yeah, we do know each other really well, and of course you know the things that I like.' He said, 'I really want to get away from composing on the piano, because I feel like I'm writing the same song over and over again'. While assuring Tom that he was in no such rut Bones did concede that if he truly felt that way, there was no "more rational reason for two people to stop working together than this. So, we sort of shook hands and said, 'Okay, that's it.' I just told him, 'Look, if you ever want to make another record with me, you know the kind of records I'll make. Call me, and wherever I am, whatever I'm doing, I'll stop it and make a record with you.' Because that was really, really fun. I miss doing that with him. I've never found anybody I've enjoyed doing that with as much as Tom." So, over an amicable glass of wine, a long and fruitful partnership was dismantled. Howe adds that Kathleen played a role in the demise of the relationship, as well. "She really separated him from everybody in his past. And, frankly, it was time for that for Tom. Kathleen has been very good for him. He was never as wild as many people have said, but he was living in a motel and not really taking that good care of himself. It really was time. She separated him from everybody. Unfortunately, I was in the cut. I was from the past." (Source: "Wild Years, The Music and Myth of Tom Waits". Jay S. Jacobs, ECW Press 2000)

(3) Cause I wanted to grow up real fast: This posture is indeed an integral part of Waits' early stage persona. We don't know how Waits behaved when he was still in high school, but it does indeed look as if he started behaving like an older person from the time on he worked at Napoleone Pizza House (ca. 1965 - 1968). Further reading: "Play It Like Your Hair's On Fire" GQ magazine (USA) June, 2002 by Elizabeth Gilbert

(4) Hotel in Los Angeles: Further reading: The Tropicana

(5) You did work with Jack Nicholson in the film Ironweed: Ironweed (1987) Movie directed by Hector Babenco. An adaptation of William Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Ironweed. With Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. TW: actor. Plays Rudy the Kraut.

(6) The "Anniversary Waltz" weaves in and out of it: musical and lyrical reference to the "The Anniversary Waltz" (Words and music by Al Jolson and Saul Chaplin): "Oh, how we danced On the night we were wed; We vowed our true love Though a word wasn't said. The world was in bloom, There were stars in the skies Except for the few That were there in your eyes. Dear, as I held you So close in my arms, Angels were singing A hymn to your charms, Two hearts gently beating Were murmuring low, "My darling, I love you so." The night seemed to fade Into blossoming dawn; The sun shone anew But the dance lingered on. Could we but relive that Sweet moment sublime, We'd find that our love Is unaltered by time." Further reading: Rain Dogs