Title: Guess You're Waits
Source: Melody Maker. April 29, 1978 by Colin Irwin. Thanks to Ken Langford for donating scans
Date: April 29, 1978
Keywords: Guy Peellaert, Paradise Alley, public image
Accompanying pictures
Melody Maker magazine (entire article). April 29, 1978 by Colin Irwin
Melody Maker magazine. April 29, 1978 by Colin Irwin. Cartoon by Hunt Emerson


Guess You're Waits


FORGIVE the blasphemy, but I reckon God must have been way out of his little box when he deposited Tom Waits among us. Mr. Waits is, irrefutably, one of the Almighty's more bizarre and inspired creations. That he also happens to make records which sell in respectable (if not gargantuan) quantities, is a coincidence that makes him an irresistable subject for interviews during a one-day visit to Britain this week..

Employees of Warners, his record label(1), giggle slyly as they discover the purpose of your visit. "He's going to interview Tom Waits," they whisper pityingly, nudging and pointing as you pass. A walk to the scaffold must be more enticing.

Waits is located in a room near the top of the building, and my first reaction is to wonder whether he's actually alive, and second to bolt for the door. He's decorated entirely in black, from pork-pie hat to sinister cloak to winklepicker shoes; and he's slouched awkwardly and apparently unconscious on a couch.

His body is a tangle of limbs. Long arms thread forever around knees, under ankles and inside calves like Hampton Court maze. The pallor is white and ther's a three- or four-day growth of beard, which makes him look like a spare-time bodysnatcher.

The only sign of life is a gentle rocking back and forth; looking at this uninviting figure in black, draped around himself in a misshappen ball, just rocking, the recollection is of one of the inmates of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.

A cool nod of greeting seems in place, but Tom knows his manners, and somewhere from the centre of his apparation emerges a thin white hand.

"Hi, how are you?" I say doubtfully. A pause, two eyes focus penetratingly on you for the first time, and there's an alarming hiss and throaty growl, like King Kong being woken up suddenly with a colossus of a hangover.

Gradually he cranks into life, and inform us he's come to Europe to discuss plans for a book with Rock Dreams artist Guy Peellaert(2) in Paris. Peellaert is doing 80 paintings of American heroes and Waits will supply the text.

"It'll be... uh... big... uh... hard-bound book... d'ing lottawork on it now... uh... reading and stuff. It's 'bout American heroes from Jimmy Durante to Jimmy Hoffer. It's got... uh... Marlene Dietrich and Jack Benny and Marlo Lanza and Elvis Presley and Milton Burrell and Lenny Bruce and... uh... stories t'company each painting, my own perspective, not a biography."

Waits himself is straight out of a Kerouac-Steinbeck mould, and even comes within spitting distance of animation when the magic name of Kerouac is mentioned.

"Kerouac," he grouns mournfully," died 1969 in St. Petersburg, Florida, of a liver disorder... uh... nat'ral causes. Always admired him. He was at the helm of... uh... contemporary American literature almost 20 years ago, and I still feel the ghost of Kerouac no matter where I travel. Real 'portant t'ave heroes."

Who are your other heroes? the question is like an alarm clock trigger - immediatel;y without pause he reels an endless list... "Charles Bukowski, Sam Cooke, George Crying In The Rain Perkins, Rodney Dangerfield, Abe Jefferson, Chuck Wise(3), Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Fran Landesman, Jon Hendrix, Victor Borge, who are your heroes?"

I modestly offer Woody Guthrie, Johnny Haynes and Jimmie Rodgers, and he nods, apparently satisfied.

He reveals more of his current exploits - he's been making a movie called Paradise Alley(4) with Sylvester Stallone of Rocky fame. "S'about New York City in the Forties, three 'talian brothers... I play a drunk in an Irish bar" - a beady eye appears from beneath the hat to gauge reaction. "Character's called Mumbles... never spent so much time in a bar without a drink."

There's a faint hint of an asthmatic guffaw from the man at this. He also wrote the music for the film and got on well with Stallone - "very creative cat."

As he talks he continues to rock from side to side with the regularity of a cuckoo clock, and I find myself involuntarily rocking too, trying to catch what he's saying and beginning to feel seasick.

Future plans include touring with Bette Midler, including the possibility of dates in the autumn at the London Palladium ("I get a little tired of doing beer joints") and an opera(5) . Not, mind, any old opera: "I been thinkin' long time 'bout using a used car lot conducting with the dipstick, an' using a used car lot as an orchestra... uh... I'm writing a piece for that but I'm still formulating my ideas."

That sounds a little... er... weird, Tom. "I dunno... I gotta get home and... y'know..."

He also tells, with great amusement, of a trip to Las Vegas where he lost 300 bucks at a crap table and got thrown out of his hotel into the bargain. He was just minding his own business watching the girls, he says innocently, and they tapped him on the shoulder, took his photograph, made him sign an affidavit swearing he's never enter the place again and was escorted out by security guards.

Well, he does seem a triffle eccentric, I tell him delicately. Quite dramatically, he shoots up straight for the first time.

"I'M NOT ECCENTRIC... I think I'm a real normal sorta guy. Not a pervert or anythin'. I'm not an axe murderer or a homicidal maniac. I live in a hotel in West Hollywood and I watch the Rifleman and Bonanza and Twilight. I have the kinda image that's damned if you do and damned if you don't but I ain't ECCENTRIC."

But your image... "The image I have is of a lush and a drunkard... I'm a good American." Sorry we spoke.


(1) Warners his record label: Elektra/ Asylum Records was sold to Warner Communications Inc. in 1973. David Geffen left Elektra/ Asylum (Elektra Entertainment) in 1975 to become vice-chairman of Warner Bros. pictures.

(2) A book with Rock Dreams artist Guy Peellaert: This collaboration also mentioned in: Circus Weekly (January 23, 1979), Melody Maker magazine (May 5, 1979) and WNEW-FM November 2, 1979). There's no confirmation this book was ever published, or this collaboration ever took place.
- "Waits has just completed the title song for On The Nickel, a film about L.A.'s skid row, and is writing the profiles for Rock Dreams illustrator Guy Pellaert's new book, Vegas." (Source: "Tom Waits For No One" Circus Weekly, by Stan Soocher. Date: January 23, 1979)
- "American heroes. He is collaborating with Rock Dreams artist Guy Peellaert on a book of heroes from Meyer Lansky to Lenny Bruce. he loves lists, hip lists and shit lists, tends to brandish them as credentials, or to rope off the stand from the squares. It's that kind of era: no originals, wide readers." (Source: Wry & Danish To Go" Melody Maker magazine, by Brian Case. Date: Copenhagen. May 5, 1979)
- VS (1979): You were working on a book as I recall, ehhh something about Las Vegas? TW:Yeah, I'm working on the text on a collection of paintings by a gentleman named Guy Peellaert who did a book called "Rock Dreams". VS: "Rock Dreams", right. Incredible painter, yeah. TW: He is doing a new book that was tentatively titled "Las Vegas". And now it's eh. I don't know what the title is at this point. Ehm, but it's portraits of American heroes like: Jimmy Durante and Bugsy Siegal and Meyer Lansky and eh. VS: Really? TW:. Pearl Bailey and eh. yeah. VS: An assortment of folks from "over the decades"? TW: Yeah. VS: There are any contemporary people in this one? TW: Yeah. You know eh Ali and Elvis. like that. So I'm doing like emotional profiles. It's ehm real challenging you know? Writing for the page in stead of the stage. And eh, so it's." (Source: WNEW-FM by Vin Scelsa. November 2, 1979)

(3) Chuck Wise: that should read Chuck E. Weiss. Further reading: Rickie and Chuck

(4) Paradise Alley: Released September 7, 1978: movie and soundtrack album "Paradise Alley"
Jay S. Jacobs (2000): "Bones Howe remembers that Sly and Tom "got to be friends somehow or other. Maybe Sly saw him at the Troubadour or met him through somebody. I have no idea. He was suddenly there. But it wasn't unusual, because Tom had a way of accumulating people. Chuck E. Weiss. Rickie Lee Jones. People just sort of appeared all of a sudden." Stallone offered Waits the small role of Mumbles and asked him to record some songs for the Paradise Alley sound track album. Tom jumped at the chance to act, and the part was perfect for testing his wings. Mumbles, a piano player at a neighborhood saloon, wasn't exactly a stretch for him. Howe recalls that in the end he and Tom only contributed a couple of songs to the film's sound track - "Bill Conti was really upset because he wanted to do all the source music himself. He and Sly were very close, but Sly wanted Waits in that movie." Conti, a jazz musician, had scored Rocky, and he was thrilled when the movie's rousing, horn-based theme rose to the top of the pop charts. Of the five tracks that Waits and Howe recorded for Paradise Alley, only two made it into the sound track: " (Meet Me In) Paradise Alley," a pretty piano ballad in which one of Waits's barfly lovers wards off desperation in the local taproom; and "Annie's Back in Town," a sad love tune with just a touch of West Side Story grit. The other tracks that Waits and Howe had laid down for Stallone were a new version of the Small Change song "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart" (which incorporated the old standard "As Time Goes By" into its intro and outro) and two different versions of a song called "With a Suitcase." Neither version of the latter song was ever released. One was done with a rhythm section. The other - the "street" band version in which, says Howe, "we were banging on bass drums and all that kind of stuff " - reflected Waits's growing interest in experimental tones and instrumentation. Paradise Alley was released to scathing reviews, and it flopped at the box office. Tom, however, didn't experience the acute disappointment that Stallone must have felt. After all, the project had allowed him to become an actor, and he'd thoroughly enjoyed himself." (Source: Wild Years, The Music and Myth of Tom Waits. Jay S. Jacobs, 2000)

(5) An opera: this probably refers to the planned movie project with Paul Hampton. The mysterious project "Why Is The Dream Always So Much Sweeter Than The Taste?" The project however would never be realized. It is generally assumed the script was later used for Waits's play "Frank's Wild Years". A small part at least was used for Coppola's "One From The Heart":
- "Last Christmas he wrote a screenplay called Why Is The Dream Always So Much Sweeter Than The Taste? about a used-car dealer in downtown L.A. "It's about a guy who's a success at being a failure, and a guy who's a failure at being a success; and it all takes place on New Year's Eve. Hope it's as good as I think it is. Never done anything that large before" (Source: "Wry & Danish To Go" MelodyMaker magazine, by Brian Case. Copenhagen. May 5, 1979)
- "I understand that you're currently working on a film script. "Yeah, I just started working on the project in December when I got off the road. I'm working on it with a gentleman by the name of Paul Hampton who used to be Bert Baccarach's old songwriting partner; he used to write for Famous Music in New York during the '50s, writing for Gene Pitney and cats like that. And he is also an actor, and we're collaborating on this film script about a used car dealer in Southern California, and an old friend of his who are reunited on New Year's Eve. It's a nice story. It's about a guy who's a success at being a failure and a guy who's a failure at being a success. Do you have a picture of your leading man? "Yeah. Me. Actually we haven't got anyone to release the film yet. The whole thing's being written on spec. The characters are Jack Farley Fairchild, of Fairchild Dord. Torence, California, and Donald Fedore, his partner and side-kick. I never tried anything like this before. I don't find it at all easy. In fact, it's the hardest thing I've ever done... well, the most challenging anyway." (Source: "The Neon Dreams Of Tom Waits" New Musical Express (UK), by John Hamblett. Date: London. May 12, 1979)
- "The one original movie script that Waits developed with writer/ actor Paul Hampton, Why Is the Dream So Much Sweeter Than the Taste?, didn't attract much industry attention, but a fragment from it, a scene called "Used Carlotta," turns up in One From the Heart: Hank conducts a symphony of blinking headlights in his surreal junkyard - appropriately named "Reality Wrecking." (Source: "Tom Waits: Hollywood Confidential", BAM magazine (US). Travelers' Cafe/ Echo Park. February 26, 1982).