|Title: Hard Rain
Source: New Musical Express (UK), by Gavin Martin. Thanks to Kevin Molony for donating scans
Date: New York. October 19, 1985
Key words: London, Rain Dogs, Kentucky Avenue, New York, Rambo, Harry Partch, Keith Richards, Musical influence, Achievement, Clap Hands
Magazine front cover: Photography by Bleddyn Butcher, 1985 ("Mumblefish! Tom Waits netted by Gavin Martin")
|Photography by Bleddyn Butcher, 1985. Thanks to Kevin Molony for donating this scan|
On the Lower West Side, Tom Waits thinks about a beer and exclaims ... it's been a great year for shoes! On the other side of the table, Gavin Martin trades dress tips and quotes with the old rain dog who, on the whole, would rather be in Kansas! Bleddyn Butcher, on the camera, heads for the waterfront...
"So they tell me the shows we're doing in London(1) are sold out already. I can hardly believe that."
Well, 'Swordfishtrombones' had quite a big impact, Tom.
"Mmm, but there's the other side of that, it doesn't last too long. Everything is temporary - they pump you up for a little while, dye your hair, see you in a different shape. It goes around for a while and comes back down again. It's not something you can really build on."
Are you nervous about coming to London?
"I am, I'm scared to death, Jesus, I'll need a bullet-proof vest, I need a new hat, a new suit - I can't go over there in a raincoat. I've told the band to smarten up(2), too. They're more attuned to the stuff I'm doing now but they're also capable of doing some pre-'Swordfish' stuff but I hope with a different slant to it. So I think it will be OK. I will have to talk to my sax player, Ralph Carney, about his white socks, the white socks and the navy uniform, I'm not sure about that. "Ralph, I haven't been able to confront you about this face to face so I'm using this opportunity to talk to you through the press - we must do something about the white socks."
The only time I've seen Tom Waits live was in London, the Victoria Apollo in 1981. The appearance came just after the release of 'Heartattack and Vine', notable for its move into bone-crushing electric blues. Waits' ability to rework the sleazy nightclub setting had already been proven by the double live album 'Nighthawks At The Diner'. but in this large auditorium his stand-up bass, drum and piano setup couldn't really carry. I left before the end.
"It's kinda hard to do that on a big stage, the basic economics of touring kept me in tow there."
How did you overcome that problem?
"The new band is all midgets, they share a room, they don't want to be paid for their work. They all have a basic persecution complex and they want me to punish them for things that have happened in their past life and I have agreed - I've just signed something."
Your generosity is quite touching.
"No, they're all good chaps, most of them have never been in jail, though I'm not sure about Ralph Carney."
It wasn't the best time to interview Tom Waits; he was in the middle of arranging to shoot a video for either 'Singapore' or 'Cemetery Polka' off the new 'Rain Dogs' album, he was rehearsing a live band, finalising details for his first major film role(3) (to be shot in New Orleans later in the year), arranging the staging of the musical 'Frank's Wild Years' (4)(to open in Chicago after Christmas), and he'd just become a father for the third time.
We meet in a diner on New York's Lower West Side. Waits arrives a little late, wearing an old '40's burberry, heavy-duty denims and unbuckled motorcycle boots. The face is grey, the features weasel-like and his hair bears red traces of Henna dye. He looks haggard and a little shy at first, eying us cautiously as we exchange handshakes. Today is Sunday and the Waits family are observing tradition - the interview is squeezed between babysitting and a visit from the in-laws. His wife, Kathleen Brennan, is the girl eulogised on 'Swordfishtrombones'' 'Johnsburg, Illinois' and a script writer at Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope studios.
"We've got three children now - Ajax, Edith and Montgomery - I must get them enrolled in military school immediately. I see it like Tobacco Road, the old hillbilly movie, we'll all be heading down that long path together."
A Tom Waits interview is not a place to come looking for serious analysis. Waits has sung of the displaced, the dime-store loser, and the hobo for so long that he seems to have taken on a composite persona, drawn from his crazy cast of characters. Although kind and respectful, he can't resist turning the conversation around with an enigmatic metaphor or some brazen bullshitting. Whenever necessary he'll substitute an entertaining lie for a boring truth.
"Music paper interviews, I hate to tell ya but two days after they're printed they're lining the trashcan. They're not binding, they're not locked away in a vault somewhere tying you to your word."
The Waits case history is necessarily littered with truths, half-truths and downright lies. He used to tell writers he was born in the back of a truck travelling through South L.A. on December 7, 1949. In high school he played in a soul group but dropped out to play accordian in a polka band. He drifted through a variety of jobs - "a jack-off of all trades" - and was working in a Hollywood diner when he met West Coast manager Herb Cohen at the turn of the '70's.
He signed for Asylum, then a small independent rather than a branch of WEA. After releasing a few promising albums he found his true artistry on 'Small Change' and the essential 'Foreign Affairs' and 'Blue Valentine'. As an arranger and tunesmith working the cool blue jazz sphere Waits was peerless, but his unique power came from contrasting those talents with his coarse gut-bucket growl and mesmerizing wordplay. Waits mined the post-war fault line of Kerouac and the Beats, focusing on the loners and losers that littered America's highways and byways. 'Foreign Affairs' had 'Potters Field', its epic atmospherics - all deathly strings and orchestral cadences - straight out of Sam Fuller's classic noir B movie Pick Up On South Street(5), and 'I Never Talk To Stranger', a divine duet with Bette Midler, recreating an idiom everyone thought died with Tin Pan Alley. He would later revisit this territory with Crystal Gayle on the 'One From The Heart' soundtrack.
"I guess I did borrow a lot to do stuff like that. But it's good to borrow, borrowing implies that you're going to give back. That's the way music works - you take a little something from here, you bring it over there and pretty soon it finds its way back."
'Blue Valentine' has the Waits song I keep coming back to. 'Kentucky Avenue' starts as fanciful childhood reminiscence and builds to a climax that is at once absurd and heartbreaking,
"Childhood is very important to me as a writer, I think the things that happen then, the way you perceive them and remember them in later life, have a very big effect on what you do later on." "That one came over a little dramatic, a little puffed up, but when I was 10 my best friend was called Kipper, he had polio and was in a wheelchair - we used to race each other to the bus stop."
His relationship with WEA turned sour when he tried to release 'Swordfishtrombones' as the follow up to 'Heartattack and Vine'.
"They heard it but they didn't recognise it, so amidst all the broken glass and barbed wire I crawled out between the legs of the presidents. It was the big shakedown at Gimble's, business I guess."
It closed a chapter in Waits' life - he moved out of Hollywood's infamous Tropicana Motel(6), split with Cohen and his girlfriend Rickie Lee Jones and signed to Island. The 70's hadn't been an altogether easy ride for Waits - constantly on the road, often as a stadium support to an incongruous Frank Zappa, it's rumoured he employed a $250-a-week stooge to bawl at backstage and came close to being ruined by the lifestyle he drew on. Certainly his business was not always conducted wisely; publishing rights for some of his greatest compositions fell into other hands.
"Maybe that's why I write so many songs now, the songs I write now belong to me, not someone in the Bronx. I did not stay abreast of what was happening to me. I'm happier to be on a small label, Blackwell is artistic, a philanthropist. You can sit and talk with him and you don't feel you're at Texaco or Heineken or Budweiser. There's something operating here that has a brain, curiosity and imagination."
'Swordfishtombones' introduced a demented, exotic parade band to deal with the musical junk lying in American attics and basements. 'Rain Dogs' continues where it left off and though Waits is writing about the same sort of characters he has for the past 15 years, the situations he places them in differ wildly - maybe they've been transplanted to a dusty Western ghost town where the saloon bar pianist never stops, or cast adrift on the Titanic while the band play mariachi tangos and crazy polkas. He can still play it straight, too - dig the country blue bitters of 'Blind Love', the lonesome lullaby 'Hang Down Your Head' - but in general the reassembling of musical influences is perfectly in keeping with the new images and rhythms of his own language.
'Rain Dogs' is the first Waits LP made entirely in New York, the bleakness and claustrophobia never far from the surface bears this out. He's lived in nine different places since moving here - at the moment he resides between the New York State Armoury and National Guard recruiting centre and The Salvation Army Headquarters.
Why did you come here?
"I came here for the shoes, it's a real good town for shoes. It amazes me, I think it's a good time for music when it's a good time for shoes. You look in the shoe store and you see them trimmed down with the points just so - they thrill me, really."
When was the last time shoes were so good?
"You wait 15 years, it's a long wait. In the meantime you go where you have to - Fairfax, 36th and Downing, 9th and Hennepin in Minneapolis."
When you're putting together your group is a sense of humour important?
"That's how you audition them, you tell them a joke and if they don't laugh then it's hit the bricks, pal."
You used to be noted for a "professional drunk" image - has that changed?
"Sincerely, I don't want to romanticise liquor to the point of ridiculousness."
Would you like a drink now?
"Maybe I should have a beer, what do you think? I mean, what time is it here? I'll have a Becks."
You have got your younger listeners to think of, you've got to set an example.
"Yah, setting an example. Well I don't think there's anything wrong with a little sherry before retiring, read a little Balzac and then lay out. I don't drink and drive, I enjoy a little cocktail before supper, who doesn't?"
America seems to be swamped with heroes like never before - bulky, bull-headed killing machines like Stallone, Norris and Schwarzenegger are packing them in in the movie theatres on Times Square. It's a complete contrast to the characters you create on 'Rain Dogs'.
"A hero ain't nothing but a sandwich. It's tough on the heroes, all they really want to do is strip you of your name, rank and serial number. It's like a hanging, a burlesque. It's spooky. They have you all dressed up with a hat on, make up and a stick that goes up the back of your neck. Then they take a 12-gauge shotgun and blow your head off."
You worked with Sylvester Stallone once in the movie 'Paradise Alley'. Have you seen 'Rambo'?
"No I haven't. I don't want to get drawn into something here just because I did some work once because I needed the bread. America has been looking for somewhere to put the Vietnam war for so long. We're making movies to help us forget. You hear the budget for the film was so many millions of bucks and here's this guy with all his muscles and a big machine gun. But the veterans were treated like dogmeat, the film budget was so many millions of dollars and they get $100 a month."
How did you avoid the draft during the 60's?
"I was in Israel on a kibbutz. No I wasn't, that's a lie, I was in Washington, sir. I was in the White House as an aide. I got excused, the way anyone would get a note from school: 'Dear Mr President, Tom is sick today and won't be able to come along'."
Can you remember why you became a musician in the first place?
"I couldn't get into medical school, the administration at the time made it difficult for me."
I heard you wanted to do neuro-surgery(7).
"I wanted to help out, I wanted to combine yardwork and medicine. When I was young I wanted to be a policeman. I liked the uniform, I wanted a bit of authority but that changed too."
The influence and approach of the late Harry Partch (a sometime hobo and creator of a new musical notation played on his own range of instruments) is evident on 'Swordfishtrombones'. What about his work appealed to you?
"I have a friend called Francis Thumm(8) who played the Partch chromelodeon. He lives down by the beach in a place called Leisure World. He drinks the Ballantines, loves the Scotch, the 12-year-old single malt. He drinks plenty of it and it's got him into plenty of trouble. Anyway, he showed me Partch had an instrument called the blowboy, it sounded like a train whistle, it was a train whistle only it was his train whistle. It blew from out of bellows, reeds and organ pipes, he could play it with his foot like a pump organ and go 'hooway, hooway'. I swear it was a sound that would break your heart. They said in a little documentary that the instruments he made were so beautiful, they looked like skeletons." "I guess I'm just more curious, I was getting lazy. I'm just trying to find different ways of saying the same thing. I used to hear everything with a tenor saxophone, I had a very particular musical wardrobe. I've opened up a bit more."
Do you think you can tell a lot about a country from the things that it discards?
"I guess you can, I don't know. Everything in the United States is made so that - I vaant eet and I vaant eet all now. People just don't have the time, what do you do? They want things fast but it's like an aquarium - you sit waiting and it all comes by again. I like to mix it, you can learn something from everything."
Your writing seems to follow a similar path - you're neither a curator nor a documentor, the world you create jumbles memory, reality and imagination to make its own reality. How the listener applies that to their reality is up to them.
"I think a lot of that comes from being in New York, everything is heightened, you're looking through that into this, beyond this into that. You get picked up by a Chinese cab driver in the Jewish district, go to a Spanish restaurant where you listen to a Japanese tango band and eat Brazilian food. It's all blended. New York's been settled by people that are separate in a way. They retain their own culture, its rules, religions and customs. You know when you pass over the border from one into the other."
For you as a musician is it all up for grabs?
"Not so much to be used, I just try to enjoy. There's a place where Nigeria will lapse into Louisiana, there's things about music that happen spontaneously and you move into places that would otherwise have no connection. If you play a certain rhythm and move it a little, it becomes something else, move it back and it becomes a Carpathian waltz, move it further and you have a Gamelan trajectory coming in. It creates its own geography. I overdub now, I'm more paranoid. When I was working on two-track I did everything straight. Or maybe that means I'm less paranoid now because I'm not afraid to use it. But you can't get any ideas from machinery."
Rain Dogs was written at the same time as the Frank's Wild Years musical. Did they overlap?
"I tried to keep them separate, 'Rain Dogs' is like, well I don't want to sound too dramatic but I wanted there to be a connection between the tracks. I was going to call it 'Beautiful Train Wrecks' or 'Evening Train Wrecks'. Sometimes I close my eyes real hard and I see a picture of what I want, that song 'Singapore' started like that, Richard Burton with a bottle of festival brandy preparing to go on board ship. I tried to make my voice like his - "In the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is king" - I took that from Orwell I think.
"Mary Poppins, one of the big ones."
Films and childhood seem important to your work. Where did you first see films when you were a kid?
"It was called the Globe Theatre and they had some unusual double bills. I saw The Pawnbroker on the same bill as 101 Dalmatians when I was 11. I didn't understand it and now I think the programme director must have been mentally disturbed or had a sick sense of humour. I liked going to movies but I didn't get lost in them. Some people would rather spend time in the movies than anywhere else. On certain days, I would watch ten movies, spend all day from ten in the morning to midnight going from movie to movie. But then it's the world outside that becomes the film, the time in between takes on a very weird arrangement, that's what you watch, not the movies."
A lot of the songs on 'Rain Dogs' seem to be about death.
"'Cemetery Polka' is a family album, a lot of my relatives are farmers, they're eccentric, aren't everyone's relatives? Maybe it was stupid to put them on the album because now I get irate calls saying, Tom how can you talk about your Aunt Maime and your Uncle Biltmore like that? But Mum, I say, they did make a million during World War Two and you'll never see any of it. It's time someone exposed them."
How did Keith Richards come to be on the album?
"We're relatives, I didn't realise it. We met in a women's lingerie shop, we were buying brassieres for our wives. They had a little place at the back there where you could have a drink, two cups at a time." "No, he's been borrowing money from me for so long that I had to put a stop to it. He's a gentleman, he came into the studio and took his hat off and all these birds flew out."
'Union Square' is great, it sounds like the Stones haven't been able to in years.
"I was going to throw that song out. I said call the dustman, this one's chewing on the dead. But somebody said, there's something there. Hell I said, there isn't. Then he came in - on the clock he stands with his head at 3 and his arm at 10. I said how can a man stand like that without falling over, unless he has 200lb test fishing line suspending him from the ceiling? It was like something out of Arthur, he comes in with his guitar valet and it's 'Oh Keef, shall we try the Rickenbacker?'"
How did 'Frank's Wild Years' turn into a musical?
"The song was like a fortune cookie, after I wrote it I thought what happened to this guy. Everybody knows guys like that, people you haven't seen in a long time, what happens to these people? What happened to John Chrisswicky? Oh Jesus, John's second wife left him and he went to work in a slaughterhouse for a while. Then he was in a rendering unit, of course his dad was always in the wine business that didn't interest John, I hear he ended up as a mercenary soldier." "People go through these permutations in different stages of their life, perceived by someone else it can look strange. I imagined Frank along those lines. Y'see my folks split up when I was kid and ... hey, look, let me give you $100 and I'll lie down on the couch over there, you take notes and see if we can't get to the bottom of this."
How does it feel getting older and seeing your influence spread? The Pogues write about 'Rain Dogs' in London; I'm sure they'd acknowledge you as an inspiration.
"Well, that's great, that's what it's all about. You break a little trail, you come through to here and you leave some things behind. The Pogues I like, they're ragged and full of it. They seem to come on traditional and eccentric. They shout, I like the shouting. I like Agnes Bernelle, Falling James and The Leaving Trains, Jack Drake and the Black Ducks(9), they play a drunken reverie, no instruments, they just bang on things. I like some of that metal music, making music out of things that come to hand."
Any advice for would-be musicians?
"Champagne for your real friends, real pain for you sham friends. I tell them it's good to write on instruments you don't understand."
"I told you I was sick"
No jolly-ups around the old Joanna?
"It's firewood as far as I'm concerned. Slowly I've started peeling the boards off until there's nothing left but metal, strings and ivory."
Many of your prime influences were self destructive. Do you feel a sense of duty not to get ensnared in that myth?
"I think it's better to burn hard than to rot, I think that's right. I don't really feel any sense of duty, I'm not in the army. Things that you write about have been written about before so I don't feel I'm breaking new ground or anything. All you can do is listen to the things that are of value to you and try to find a place for yourself. I don't want to sound too serious here, but it's like when you're together with people for a long time and talking about the things only you know. That must be the very sad thing about getting very old and all your friends die and you're talking to some guy and he's nodding and saying yeah, yeah, yeah and you're thinking, yeah, but he doesn't really know."
How would you like to be remembered?
"Jesus Christ, I'm 19 years old and you're asking me how I want to be remembered. On my gravestone I want it to say 'I told you I was sick'. Achievement is for the senators and scholars. At one time I had ambitions but I had them removed by a doctor in Buffalo. It started as a cyst, it grew under my arm and I had to have new shirts made, it was awful. But I have them in a jar at home now."
Sometime later we're driving around New York looking for a suitable photo location. Down towards the river the apartment blocks get more dilapidated, the wind howls and we watch a bum foraging in a litter bin.
"There's that guy, I haven't seen him in ages, I wonder where he's been, " says Tom, like he'd just seen an old friend. He tells me he thought Paul Young's version of 'Soldiers Things' was a little puffed up, but "it's always nice when someone covers your songs, some of them are orphans, they need a home". He talks about leaving New York.
"As you get older, the things it was once important to have around you become less so, especially with children. New York is like a weapon, you live with all these contradictions and it's intense, sometimes unbearable." "It's a place where you think you should be doing more about what you see around you, a place where the deadline to get the picture of the bum outside your apartment becomes more important than his deadline to get a crust or a place to sleep, which is a real deadline." "You see things like the $400 shoe followed by the $500 ball gown stepping into the pool of blood from the bum that was killed the night before. That's what I was trying to get in that song 'Clap Hands' - "You can always find a millionaire to shovel all the coal" because millionaires like to go places that are downbeat, that aren't so chi chi.
Where would you like to live, Tom?
Kansas, it's a good place to dream. You wake up in the morning, look out the window and don't see anything, you make it all up. I'd have a porch, a mean dog and a 12-gauge shotgun. You wouldn't throw your baseball into my yard buddy, you'd never see it again."
(1) The shows we're doing in London: October 16 - 24. Dominion Theatre. London, UK (Rain Dogs tour). Further reading: Performances
(2) I've told the band to smarten up: Band for Rain Dogs tour: Ralph Carney: saxophones, horns, baritone, alto, clarinet, violin, bass clarinet, banjo, harmonica. Marc Ribot: electric guitar, trumpet. Greg Cohen: upright bass. Michael Blair: percussion, bass marimba. Stephen Hodges: drums
(3) His first major film role: Down by Law (1986). Movie directed by Jim Jarmusch. Shot on location in New Orleans. Tom Waits as actor & composer. Plays leading role as DJ Zack. On soundtrack: "Jockey Full Of Bourbon" and "Tango Till They're Sore". Further reading: Filmography
(4) The musical 'Frank's Wild Years': 17 - 22 June, 1986. World premiere and theatrical debut. Three month run as Frank in the play: "Frank's Wild Years" at the "St. Briar Street Theatre", Chicago. The Steppenwolf Theatre. Further reading: Franks Wild Years
(5) Pickup On South Street (1953): A pickpocket becomes the target of both federal agents and communist spies after inadvertently stealing some microfilm in Samuel Fuller 's espionage thriller, based on a story by Dwight Taylor. Cinematography by Joe MacDonald. With Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter... When Joey the commie murders Mo (Thelma Ritter), the old stoolie who sells ties from a suitcase as totems for the underworld information she really sells, Skip (Richard Widmark) is moved into his first selfless gesture. In one of many great photographic moments in this film, he recovers Mo's coffin from the death boat before transportation across the river to an undignified burial in Potter's Field. It is the least he can do for this quasi-mother whose last words to him to were, "Stop using yer hands, start using yer head, Skip -- the kid loves ya..." Mo dies for her beliefs and Skip, like a series of other noir heroes seeks to affirm value, faith and hope in the face of darkness. In a poignant moment, Skip reclaims Mo's body from a tugboat, readying to take her in box 11 to potter's field. "Relative?" the captain asks. "Nope," Skip says with Hemingway terseness. "I'm going to bury her."... Richard Widmark: From his very first film, Widmark laid claim to some of the best twisted film sensibilities ever recorded. In Kiss of Death, his 1947 debut, Widmark played creepy killer Tommy Udo with such glee that no one who has ever seen the film will forget Widmark throwing an old woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs. Kiss of Death starred Victor Mature, but Widmark made his mark and no one ever forgot that snarling animal performance. Unconventional behavior was backed up by unconventional good looks. The diminutive actor boasted a chiseled face, all angles and shadows, with a rubbery nose. His gravelly voice always comes as a surprise when you first see him. Then you know it: this guy is tough and he means business... One of Richard Widmark's best roles is the title role in the 1968 policer Madigan... Widmark's star was on decline by the seventies. His screen time was mostly in supporting roles and he turned more to television. Maybe as his hair thinned and sprinkled gray the dangerous aura that surrounded his screen presence was too diluted to command the big roles. (� 2001 Films on Disc Stuart J. Kobak ALL RIGHTS RESERVED).
(6) He moved out of Hollywood's infamous Tropicana Motel: Further reading: Tropicana Motel.
(7) I heard you wanted to do neuro-surgery: at the time of this interview Waits had used these "medicine routines" for his live shows. "I'm a doctor. You can come and see me right after the show".
(8) Francis Thumm: The album 'Swordfishtrombones'. Album released: September, 1983. Co-arranger, metal aunglongs ("Shore Leave"), glass harmonica; - The album 'Frank's Wild Years'. Album released: March, 1987. Pump organ ("Blow Wind Blow"), prepared piano ("More Than Rain"); - The album 'Night On Earth'. Album released: April, 1992. Arranger, harmonium, Stinson band organ; - The album 'Bone Machine'. Album released: August, 1992. Musical security guard; - The album 'The Black Rider'. Album released: September, 1993. Organ ("Just The Right Bullets", "I'll Shoot The Moon", "Flash Pan Hunter"), boots ("Russian Dance"). Further reading: Who's Who?
(9) I like Agnes Bernelle, Falling James and The Leaving Trains, Jack Drake and the Black Ducks:
- Agnes Bernelle: actress and entertainer, born in Berlin but lived in Dublin/ Ireland(February, 1999). She was best known for her performance of early 1930's cabaret songs, and a close association with the Project Arts Centre.
- Falling James and The Leaving Trains: Falling James is a real person. He is a transvestite guitarist who plays with a rock band called "Leaving Trains". Waits was apparently amused by some of the anecdotes that Falling James might have told over the years, one of which could have included something about slipping in the mud in the Lake Tahoe area. Further reading: Leaving Trains site.