Title: Holding On: A Conversation With Tom Waits
Source: Newsweek, by Karin Schoemer. Photography by Anton Corbijn. Transcription as published on http://www.newsweek.com (Soundcheck Extra)
Date: Jerry's/ Monte Rio. April 23, 1999
Key Words: Smoking, Epitaph, Lenny Bruce, Music Industry, Kathleen, Hold On, Frito Lay, Childhood
Accompanying pictures
Epitaph promo picture, 1999. Photography by Anton Corbijn
Epitaph promo picture, 1999. Photography by Anton Corbijn


Holding On: A Conversation With Tom Waits


By Karen Schoemer

We are at Jerry's, a greasy spoon in Monte Rio, Ca. with red-checkered tablecloths and Betty Boop decorations on the wall. At first we sit at a table, but Waits is more comfortable at the counter. He takes the seat closest to the pass-through window to the kitchen -- "so I can keep an eye on the cook," he says. Waits brings journalists to places like Jerry's because his family (wife Kathleen and three kids) won't let him choose restaurants any more. "Everybody wants nutrition," he bemoans. "No one wants atmosphere."

Tom Waits [looking at menu]: I'd say a place like this, the safest thing is breakfast.
Karen Schoemer: I brought you a present. I hope you like it. You might not, and if you don't it's okay, you can throw it away.

TW: [opens it] Oh no, it's beautiful. Wow.
KS: It's a cigar box.

TW: With Chinese lettering on it. Well, that's very nice of you. Well, there. It's a great box. It still smells like cigars.
KS: Does it? I didn't smell it.

TW: Oh yeah. Very distinctive. That's great. I appreciate it. I bet I could put cassettes in there. Or CDs. Or I could put record albums in there, but I'd have to fold them. Well thanks. I gave up smoking. But I remember it fondly.

KS: You did? All kinds of smoking? [blush] That was a little more loaded than I meant it to be.
TW: It was loaded. Sometimes I burn leaves in the yard and stand over them. "What are you doing, Tom!" "Oh, nothing!"

KS: I'm interested that you're on Epitaph.
TW: Well, it's just one of those things. I don't want to say anything bad about large record labels. But you try to find someplace that's somehow suited for where you are right now.

KS: Were you done with Island when you went to Epitaph?
TW: I was, yeah. I left my contract, my last record for them was The Black Rider. The big fish ate the little fish(1), which happens invariably. But Epitaph, they're forward-thinking people. They're definitely not old school-old school being "Ten for me and one for you, ten for me and one for you." They kind of describe themselves as more like a service organization. "If you don't want to tour, fine, we can work with that." They don't give you a list of things they expect from you. In fact, they have a group on the label that was hell-bent on getting its record off the radio, for God's sake. I mean, most people spend their life trying to get on the radio. This group was getting airplay, and they were pissed! And they sued! And the record company was 100% behind them. "We'll get you off the radio!" They brought in the big guns and they went down to the station and said, "Listen, we hear you're playing this group and we want them off of there!" So I thought that was pretty good. I thought that showed a kind of madness and flexibility.

KS: Did they come after you?
TW: They did. And the fact that they're musicians, that helps too. You go to the company office [in Los Angeles], there's a big engine, a car engine in the lobby, right at the desk.

KS: Right, and I think that building used to be a taxidermy shop.
TW: It was, and before that it was Red Car [the LA trolley service]. I used to go by that building all the time. I used to live in that neighborhood. And I remember when it was a taxidermist. And there was an enormous stuffed bear and a couple of decomposing reindeer that for years I used to remark on as I went by. The fact that it's now Epitaph is real Los Angeles, for it to be one thing for a while and then be something else. So yeah, it's a good feeling.

KS: I have this image of the corporate Christmas party and you socializing with all the punk rock bands. Have you done any interaction with the other bands?
TW: A little bit, a little bit. I haven't met everybody on the label. There are a lot of groups on the label. I'm sure over time we'll, you know, [obnoxious voice] "see ya at the softball game." I don't know how it works. But it's a good feeling. They like the record a lot. They like blues. They've got a room with a piano over there. They seem to really genuinely, sincerely love music. I can't say that's true everywhere you go. There are a lot of companies that might be better suited for selling appliances.

KS: There's a lot of appliance-type salesmanship in the music industry right now.
TW: Lenny Bruce said you'll never go broke underestimating the taste of the American public(2). People have built fortunes on it! But we had the Monkees. There's always something. Teenybopper music. It comes and it goes. It's like decals. It's like ice cream. "We had ice cream, and it's gone." "We had a balloon, and it popped." So what. You'll get another one. We seemed to be geared toward that--so you drop it into the water, and everyone's drinking it, and you get real silly, and then it wears off, and then you wake up and move on. It seems like that's part of the rhythm and cycle of American merchandising and promotion. You just have to know what's right for you and what's not. Other people are lining up to watch a guy in a leotard and a blond wig blow into a piece of wood. It comes and it goes, right?

KS: I know you didn't really go away but I kind of had that feeling.
TW: My standard answer? Where was I? Traffic school. I had all these tickets and I had to go back to traffic school.

KS: Were you working? I mean, between "The Black Rider" and now, you must have been working on things--
TW: Well--um--I dug a big hole in the yard. I don't know. I'm going to go look for that annoying answer. The news around here is pretty remarkable, the newspapers. --Could I have a refill on that coffee?-- A couple of days ago a man choked to death on a pocket Bible. It was a 287-page Bible. He felt like he was full of the devil and he wanted to get that Bible down in there. And he choked to death. What folks are up to. Thank God there's a newspaper, or we wouldn't know what any of us are up to! [flipping pages] They arrested a man for having 21 pigeons stuffed into his pants. He was wearing these loose-fitting pants, and he went down to the park and he put a pigeon in his pants and just liked the way it felt. He said, "I'm not hurting anybody." All the animal rights groups got on him and they nailed him! A man in Occidental fainted while robbing a bank with a toy pistol. He'd locked his keys in the car. He wouldn't have been able to get out anyway. And he had this little squirt gun, and he was delirious at the counter.

KS: Did you read all this in the newspaper?
TW: In the local paper here. I'm not kidding you. Anyway. So what was the question, now? Where have I been? Reading the paper.

KS: When you're writing with Kathleen, do you write together or separately?
TW: Sometimes we write separately and bring it together. It's different every time. You know, "You wash, I'll dry." You find a way to work. "You wring its neck, I'll take all the feathers off him." "You boil the water, I'll build the fire." You find a way. Sometimes you got a line, nothing more than a line and you don't know where to go with it. It might have been something thrown away and Kathleen says, "Oh, no, hang onto that, we can make something out of that." She'll say, "I can cook that up." Writing together's been really good.

KS: Does she like being the silent partner?
TW: She doesn't like the limelight. But she sincerely has an incandescent contribution. We've been working together since "Swordfishtrombones." We go back that far. We got married in '80(3), we've been married 18 years.

KS: How old are your kids?
TW: I've got two teenagers(4). Help. My daughter's 15 1/2, and I have a boy 13 and a boy 5. So we've been together since '80. We were married in an all-night wedding chapel in Watts.(5)

KS: Did you know her for a long time before you got married?
TW: I knew her a week.

KS: Really?
TW: A week. Ha ha ha! Oh, I did not. I knew her a month. Four weeks.

KS: Really?
TW: Two months. Then we got married. [raspy laugh] It's true, two months. But I like one week better. You just met, and then--bang!

KS: Whose idea was it to get married?
TW: My idea. Kathleen was really the one that encouraged me to start producing my own records. At that point I had done all my records with a producer(6). I kind of got stuck. I needed something to kick me. I needed some kind of car wreck or something. She was the one that started playing bizarre music. She said, "You can take this and this and put all this together. There's a place where all these things overlap. Field recordings and Caruso and tribal music and Lithuanian language records and Leadbelly. You can put that in a pot. No one's going to tell you you can't. You like James Brown and you also like Mabel Mercer. There's nothing wrong with that." We're all that way. We all have disparate influences. And we all know people that don't know each other! Right? I mean, some people are afraid to have parties and invite them all.

KS: I am.
TW: You know what I mean? It's like bringing a rabid dog to a birthday party. We all try to reconcile those things in music. We all have facets of ourselves.

KS: I'm so amazed that there's this loud, chaotic stuff, but then in the middle there's these perfect pop songs. Like "Hold on." I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's amazing that you have the capacity to do this rough stuff, and then you can do these songs that are big and universal and pretty to hear on the radio.
TW: Well, I got it all in me. I love melody. I also like dissonance and factory noise. But melody's a big part of my life. It's just a matter of trying to find a way to fit all those things together, so you put them on a record together. They're facets of you.

KS: "Hold On" reminds me of "Downtown Train." It could be a big hit for Rod Stewart.
TW: "Hold on" - I thought that was a good thing to say in a song. Hold on. We're all holding onto something. None of us want to come out of the ground. Weeds are holding on. Everything's holding on. I thought that was a real positive thing to say. It was an optimistic song. Take my hand, stand right here, hold on. We wrote that together, Kathleen and I, and that felt good. Two people who are in love writing a song like that about being in love. That was good.

KS: Using music to sell something [bothers you, doesn't it]? I guess I'm thinking about the Fritos thing(8), when you sued over their use of a voice like yours in an ad.
TW: Well, that was more a case of voice impersonation. Intellectual property, being in that we took the position that that was my voice that they lifted and ran off with it. We won.

KS: I know, you got a lot of money.
TW: Two and a half million bucks. Spent it all on candy. My mom told me I was foolish. I've always been foolish when it comes to money.... You asked me about fame, and I wrote a poem about it. 'Cause I really didn't know how I felt about it, and then I realized how I felt about it. Here's how it goes:

I want a sink and a drain
And a faucet for my fame.

It's a haiku about fame. That's all it is. I could expand on that, but right now that's all I've got. I think that's what everybody wants. Anyway, that's all. Those are my thoughts on fame.

KS: Thank you. I like that.
TW: Well, when you haven't recorded in a while people want to know what you've been doing. They want a very specific answer. Like, why were you late for school? The teacher wants a real answer. If you're going to make a note, get it signed. The dog ate my homework. And the dog had to be operated on, we had to get the homework and dry it, and the dog is recuperating.

KS: Did you just kind of wait till you had something to say?
TW: Yeah. You know, songs are out there all the time. Some of them only live two weeks. They're like houseflies. So if you don't get them, that's it. I got all these old songs. So it's good to have new songs to sing. And the new ones, you send them out there and you say, "Go my beauties, go! Bring Dad home some money! Come back with money!" Ahhh, that's not really how I feel about it.

KS: What was Whittier like [when you were growing up?]
TW: Lot of orange groves. A lot of vacant lots. Open space, vacant lots.

KS: What was your house like?
TW: My dad built the house. He used to stop at a vacant lot and he'd take a shovel out and dig up a tree or a plant and bring it home and plant it in our yard. We had errant, illegal foliage at our house. I was a tree guy. I was always into trees, growing up. If your cat was trapped in a tree, you'd go get Tom. Tom would get in the tree and get the cat out.

KS: Really!
TW: [shifty] Yeah. It was just a way of showing off for me. And I ate spinach so I could get stronger, so I could beat up the bullies. Ate a whole can of spinach once and got in a big fight. I was really surprised that spinach wouldn't actually pop out of the can. I was really embarrassed that I had to open it with a can opener.

KS: You brought it with you to the fight?
TW: No, I kind of hid the can opener and opened it very slowly, and then when the top was off I threw it in my mouth. I had this big wad of spinach flying toward my mouth. And then I crushed the can together. I was concerned with image from a very young age.

KS: Do you like spinach now?
TW: You know, that's a good question. I only use it in times of need. When I'm low, feeling kind of down. I'll buy a can of spinach. I got one out in the car. It's like a little first-aid kit. What is the significance of all that, I don't know.


(1) The big fish ate the little fish: refering to recent "mergers" in the music industry. Island Records (founded in Jamaica in 1959 by Chris Blackwell) initially focused on Jamaican music. It became one of the more important record labels of the 1980's. The label was sold to PolyGram in 1989. Polygram was sold to Seagram and made part of Universal Music Group in 1998.

(2) You'll never go broke underestimating the taste of the American public: Also mentioned in: "Bitin' The Green Shiboda With Tom Waits", Down Beat magazine (USA), by Marv Hohman. Victoria restaurant/ Chicago. June 17, 1976

(3) We got married in '80: August 10, 1980 Marriage with Kathleen Patricia Brennan. The two first met at the 1980 New Years party thrown by Art Fein and later became acquainted when they met again at Zoetrope studio's. Kathleen was a script-analyst at Coppola's Zoetrope studios (unverified). After the two got married, they moved to Union Avenue in LA. Further reading: Quotes on Kathleen

(4) I've got two teenagers: "Kellesimone" born September 1983 (some sources claim this to be October 1983). "Casey Xavier" born October 24, 1985 (some sources claim the right date to be September 1985). "Sullivan" (third child, born in 1993)

(5) We were married in an all-night wedding chapel in Watts: There is actually such a wedding chapel on West Manchester Av. in L.A. Waits is a compulsive liar by the way. Further reading: Always Forever Yours Wedding Chapel

(6) At that point I had done all my records with a producer: Bones Howe. - The album 'The Heart Of Saturday Night'. Album released: October, 1974. Engineer, production and sound; - The album 'Nighthawks At The Diner'. Album released: October, 1975. Engineer, production and sound; - The album 'Small Change'. Album released: September, 1976. Engineer, production and sound; - The album 'Foreign Affairs'. Album released: September, 1977. Engineer, production and sound; - The album 'Blue Valentine'. Album released: September, 1978. Engineer; - The album 'Heartattack And Vine'. Album released: September, 1980. Engineer, production and sound; - The album 'Bounced Checks' (compilation, 1981). Production and sound; - The album 'One From The Heart'. Album released: early 1982. Engineer, re-mixing, production and sound; - Late 1982, Waits separates from his long time friend and producer. Further reading: Who's Who?

(7) I'm thinking about the Fritos thing: Further reading: Waits vs. Frito Lay