|Title: Heart Of Saturday Morning
Source: Melody Maker. March 14, 1981 by Patrick Humphries. Photography: Adrian Boot. Thanks to Ken Langford for donating scans
Date: March 14, 1981
Keywords: Heartattack And Vine tour, Reagan, Kathleen, One From The Heart, Guy Peellaert, Paul Hampton, childhood
Heart Of Saturday Morning
Desolation Angel: Patrick Humphries(1)
Dharma Bum: Adrian Boot
On The Road: TOM WAITS
THE FIRST thing you notice are the hands. Like two spiders weaving a web, as if trying to scratch his words in the air. Then there's the voice, softer than I imagined, but still the nearest thing imaginable to a Sumo wrestler's jock strap that talks.
If - as his detractors insist - Tom Waits is simply perpetrating an image, than it's a full time job. He came into the coffee shop with what seemed like a vampire's distrust of daylight, particularly the sleazy Saturday matinee the grey sky was mounting.
Painfully thin, skeletal hands, a voice like a hangover, Waits coiled himself on the seat opposite, like he was trying to escape from the body he's been saddled with. Saturday midday in Kensington is not the best time to meet Tom Waits, courteous as he was. No, it should have been midnight in a scuzzy Soho bar, with a saxophonist only Brian Case(2) would have heard of, spinning out notes into the cigarette smoke clustering round the dim lights.
The last Tom Waits album, "Heartattack And Vine", contains a song - one of his finest - called "On The Nickel", a lingering drunkard's lullabye. "The Nickel", according to Waits, is the Los Angeles equivalent of New York's Bowery; the sort of place where the dreams ain't broken, they're just walking with a limp; where the winos and bums congregate. It's the skids, the living end. Now that's the sort of place Tom feels at home.
Waits has been rehearsing until 3am in the East End with his band(3). The idea of simply a stand-up bass accompanying Waits and his piano had been ditched, and he was coping with jet lag, Silk Cut and daylight when we met.
I've been a fan of the man since I saw him deliver a haunting "Tom Traubert's Blues" on an otherwise forgettable "Whiste Test" some four years ago.that song remains my favourite of his, with its stark, city imagery, and the epitome of urban desolation - "Where everything's broken, and no-one speaks English."
Much as he baulks at the description of "poet" ("When someone says they're going to read me a poem, I can think of any number of things I'd rather be doing"), Tom Waits undoubtedly has a poet's acute eye for imagery. To balance his vivid, serious songs, he's capable of mustering an array of one-liners that would leave most comedians open-mouthed. While not claiming that every song on each of his seven albums has been dispensable, I would say that his track record has been more impressive than most. His first album in 1973, "Closing Time", surprises people hearing it now, because of Waits' voice - he can actually sing; hold notes, change pitch, and all the other technical stuff. The album also contains one of his best known songs, "Ol' 55", which was memorably covered by Ian Matthews, and not so memorably by the Eagles. "The only good thing I can think of saying about an Eagles album," Waits has remarked, "is that it keeps the dust off your turntable." Subsequent albums like "The Heart Of Saturday Night", "Small Change", and "Blue Valentines" have confirmed him as America's leading street poet, with a staunch cult following he has no real wish to expand.
After killing time with the cappuchinos, we agreed on a visit to St. Catherine's Dock to give Tom an opportunity to get a glimpse of London colour and talk. Tricky, but then so is nursing a hangover you've been on nodding terms with all week, but I managed. While playing Spot The Arab in an Earl's Court traffic jam, Waits spoke of his suspicion about President Reagan, and the other side of "the American dream" coin. It came as no surprise that he distrusted the whole Time magazine cover and "Good job/ Money/ Success" equation. His songs have, on the whole, concentrated on the victims of a society where "Success" is the only standard tolerated; and his sympathies obviously lay with those who have tried, and failed. He is a romantic writer, but his romantic streak is tempered with a gritty reality that not even Springsteen manages.
Waits seemed fascinated by the ritual of the forthcoming Royal Wedding(4) - "She still a virgin? There gonna be a celebration of the Royal screwing on their honeymoon?" Boot and I thought a 21-gun salute on their first night of nuptual bliss may be in order. The Imperial War Museum was pointed out at the site of Bedlam, where the aristocrats used to come and pay their sixpences to see the loonies. "This part of town called Bedlam?" queried Waits. Well no, Lambeth, actually Tom. "Oh, last time I was here, on the way out to the airport I saw a sign that said 'Bedlam Steel'." Well, that would be of interest to him, as at one time Waits claimed to rent an apartment on the corner of Chaos and Bedlam(5).
The Tower of London caused a raised eyebrow. I told him the story of the ravens in the Tower. England would fall, which is why the ravens' wings were clipped in 1940. "Mm, supersticious people" growled Waits, who was fascinated by the proximity of Spital-fields, said to be the home of Jack the Ripper. We digressed onto mass murderers, until the subject of Bruce Springsteen came up. "Nice guy," said Waits, then remembered that his own London dates clashed with Springsteen's at Wembley(6). "Sure hope that mine don't detract from his ticket sales," he laughed. Well, laughed" is stretching it, more like two strips of sandpaper rubbed together.
We made The Charles Dickens without further mishap, and proceeded up to the restaurant. Fish was the order of the day, all sorts of fish - the place was swimming in them. The traditional English virtues of the pub and the docks were pointed out to Waits, only somewhat belied by the high percentage of Filipino waitresses. He scoured the menu like it was his last will and testament, inordinately suspicious of any fish with bones in. Thorny problem that - swimming fish are quite attached to their bones; but all was resolved when the waitress promised to fillet some sole. "Knew a teacher once," commented Waits. "Choked to death on a fish bone."
A dish named "John Dory" attracted his attention. Now, as it happens, my knowledge of fish is pretty scant, once they're outside newspaper, but I did know that John Dory fish are famous for their markings. The legend goes that when Jesus was preaching in Galilee, he took a fish and cooked it for the disciples, and that every John Dory now bears the mark of the hands of the Son of God! "Mm," muttered Waits, "So 'John Dory' grilled in lemon sauce... you reckon it was grilled by the Son of God?" Dunno 'bout that Tom, but He was renowned for his versatility.
The conversation moved to marriage. Waits' bride of seven months(7) was over with him, taking time off from her job at 20th Century Fox. She originally wanted to be a nun, but abandoned this when she married Waits. "You could say I've saved her from the Lord." The wedding ceremony was not without incident. Waits found the Marriage Chapel(8) in the Yellow Pages, right next to "Massage": "The registrar's name was Watermelon, and he kept calling me Mr. Watts... My mother likes what I do, I guess she's happier now that I'm married, I think she was a little bit worried about me for a while."
The project which has been occupying Waits since April 1980 is the soundtrack for the new Francis Ford Coppola film "One From The Heart"(9), which Waits called "the most rewarding experience I've had since I started working."
Originally intended as a bit of light relief after the fiscal and emotional complexities of "Apocalypse Now", the film, Coppola, and his Zoetrope Studios are in trouble again. The profits from "The Godfather" films have been swallowed, but Waits is fascinated by the man. "He's always changing his mind when he gets inside a film, then he eats his way out... He's a creative maverick who is distrusted by all the cigar-smoking moguls. "He keeps morale up. Like Orson Welles said, a movie studio is the best train set you could ever want. Coppola keeps a child's wonder at the whole process, even after a business meeting."
Waits became involved in the "Heart" project after Coppola heard his "I Never Talk To Strangers" from the "Foreign Affairs" album, on which Waits duetted with Bette Midler. Originally, she was going to work with him on the soundtrack, but due to her commitments, Waits found himself in the unlikely company of Crystal Gale.
The film is due for release in the States on July 4th, and the soundtrack will be the next Tom Waits album. Were there any problems, I wondered, working on a film soundtrack as opposed to his own solo work? "In the sense that I'm writing for someone else's approval, yeah. But there are specific musical cues. I started with a lot of titles, and wrote about 12 different scenes, to be used wherever he wanted them, then I strung them together, like an overture for a musical. What he wanted was like a glass of music, that you can add in and take from."
A subject close to Waits' heart was Coppola's proposed film of Jack Kerouac's classic "On The Road", which has been temporarily shelved. One name being touted as director was Jean Luc Godard, with Coppola producing for Zoetrope.
What about future albums then, Tom? "After the soundtrack, I'm thinking of putting out an album called 'My Favourites'," Oh, you mean you're singing your favourite songs? "Nah, I'm just gonna take 12 songs by other artists and put them on a record, stuff like 'Lady Of Spain', 'Tutti Frutti' and 'Rudy My Dear', and a picture of me on the cover listening to them."
He did say he'd be going into the studio in the late summer to record a new Tom Waits album(10), but he does find writing difficult.
"I was a very undisciplined writer until I began to work with Francis... the seasons, when you're recording for a major company, aren't necessarily the same seasons which coincide with your own creative development.
"It's all a matter of dangerous choices, where to take it, whether to keep it, whether to abandon it. I write maybe 20 songs and put 12 on a record. The process is excutiating, it's hard work, but like it when it's finished."
There was a long delay between "Blue Valentines" and "Heartattack And Vine", when Waits appeared in Sylvester Stallone's "Paradise Alley", was working on a book with artist Guy Peellaert(11) (which has since been shelved), and an opera about a used car lot.(12)
He has managed to finish a sceenplay for the latter, in collusion with Paul Hampton, who used to be at Famous Music in New York with Burt Bacharach, and hopes that Zoetrope will be interested.
"I just got totally disenchanted with the music business. I moved to New York and was seriously considering other possible career alternatives... The whole Modus Operandi" - he made it sound like a particularly militant branch of the Casa Nostra - "of sitting down and writing, and making an album, going out on the road with a band. Away for three months, come back with high blood pressure, a drinking problem, tuberculosis, a warped sense of humour. It just became predictable."
Early days for Tom Waits included a lot of support dates with incongruous acts. I wondered if there was any particular date which stood out from those days?
"I opened a show once for a guy called Buffalo Bob and the Howdy Doody review. He was like an American children's programme host, went out on a tour of coleges, and I'd have to do like three matinees for the children and their mothers. he used to call me 'Tommy', I wanted to strangle the sonofabitch... I hoped he's die of bone cancer the entire week!"
Was there a particular album of his that he was really satisfied with" "Not albums, but songs, individuel songs. People think that you do most of your growth before you begin to record. It's the downbeat, the drum roll, the fanfare, and boom, you're baptised! "For me it happened during the whole thing, so I felt I'd snuck in the back way. I had a songwriting contract; I'm sitting at a bus stop on Santa Monica Boulevard, it's pouring with rain, and I'm scared to death. I'm making three hundred dollars a month, and I didn't feel qualified. "I've always taken on more than I can handle, bitten off more than I can chew, just so's I can see how much it takes to break my back.
"Keeping your anonymity is important as a writer, so that you can go anywhere, any part of town, sit in a corner. Anytime you're swimming around in the American public, 'Well people just get uglier, and I have no sense of time', you know?"
He did get recognised in Ireland though, after a TV appearance, and recently completed the US chat show circuit: "It's the furthest thing from a rogue's gallery. They're just like fixtures, you get on and talk about cooking, about how hard it is to get a cab in the rain... 'The Devil's Dictionary' described 'famous' as 'conspicuously miserable'."
For someone who claims to have slept through the Sixties, and for whom the Seventies mainly meant "living in a hotel for 10 years", the Fifties still provide the most fascination. "It gave us Joe McCarthy, the Korean War and Chuck Berry!" And Kerouac, that "strange, solitary, crazy Catholic mystic", who inspired a generation of Americans to go off on the road, to break away from the limitations of the American Dream while pursuing their own. Waits' debt to Kerouac has been well documented.
"My own background was very middle class- I was desperately keen to get away. My parents were divorced when I was 10 years old, my father's been married about three times, and my mother finally remarried a private investigator. "I was at home with these three women, my mother and two sisters, and although they were there, I was on my own a lot... I loved Kerouac since I first discovered him. "I discovered him at the time I could have ended up at Lockheed Aircraft, a jewellery store or a gas station, married with three children, lying on the beach... a lot of Americans went off on the road, just get into a car and drive, for 3,000 miles, East or West."
With a handshake and a growl, Waits disappeared into a tiny lift that looked like a cell on Death Row. He's an acquired taste, but a taste worth acquiring. Try to judge for yourselves when he comes over again at the end of the month.(13)
I was only sorry I hadn't a chance to tell him about my efforts at trying to emulate Dylan and Ginsburg and stand by Jack Kerouac's grave in Lowell, Massachsetts, armed with my Penguin Modern Classics copy of "On The Road". A friend and I spent most of one Saturday afternoon trying to find the grave, but conspicuously failed to do so, until in exasperation one of us cried 'Why can't they bury them in alpabetical order?'"
I think Tom Waits might have liked that.
(1) Patrick Humphries: Patrick Humphries is the author of the Tom Waits biography "Small Change: A life of Tom Waits" (1989 by Omnibus Press). Further reading: Bibliography
(2) Brian Case: Melody Maker colleague of Humpries who had done several interviews with Waits before
(3) Rehearsing until 3am in the East End with his band: preparing for the "Heartattack And Vine" tour. March 6, 1981. With: Teddy Edwards: tenor saxophone and Greg Cohen: upright bass. Further reading: Performances
(4) Forthcoming Royal Wedding: Marriage of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer ("Lady Di"). July 29, 1981
(5) The corner of Chaos and Bedlam: from Fernwood2night. August 1, 1977: "JH: Tom, where do you hail from professionally? Is it the Big Apple, as they call New York I think? Or is it Hollywood? TW: I live at Bedlam and Squalor [points over his shoulder]. It's thata way. [laughter] BG: I think we all lived there at one time. It's kind of strange to have a guy sitting here with a bottle in front of him... Ha, ha, ha... TW: Well, I'd rather have a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy. [huge laughter]"
(6) Springsteen's at Wembley: Springsteen dates: May 29, May 30, June 1, June 2, June 4 and June 5. No clashing Waits dates verified yet.
(7) Waits' bride of seven months: Waits married Kathleen Patricia Brennan, August 10, 1980. Further reading: Quotes on Kathleen
(8) Marriage Chapel: Always Forever Yours Wedding Chapel: further reading: Wedding Chapel
(9) One from The Heart: full story/ further reading: One From The Heart
(10) A new Tom Waits album: It would take another 2 years before this album was released (Swordfishtrombones, 1983). This is Waits just before or in the middle of switching labels and getting rid of manager Herb Cohen.
(11) Guy Peellaert: Collaboration also mentioned in: Melody Maker (April 29, 1978), Circus Weekly (January 23, 1979), Melody Maker (May 5, 1979) and WNEW-FM November 2, 1979). There's no confirmation this book was ever published, or this collaboration ever took place.
- He's come to Europe to discuss plans for a book with Rock Dreams artist Guy Peellaert 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." (Source: "Guess You're Waits" by Colin Irwin. Melody Maker. April 29, 1078)
- "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)
(12) An opera about a used car lot: 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).
(13) When he comes over again at the end of the month: Apollo Victoria Theatre, London/ UK. March 20-22, 1981. Further reading: Performances