Title: I Just Tell Stories For Money
Source: New Musical Express magazine (UK), by Sean O'Hagan. Photography by Lawrence Watson. Thanks to Kevin Molony for providing scans
Date: Travelers Cafe/ Los Angeles. November 14, 1987
Key words: Franks Wild Years, Musical influences, Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet, Ronnie Scott's, Drinking, Bone Machine

Magazine front cover: New Musical Express. November 14, 1987

Accompanying pictures
1987. Photography by Lawrence Watson. Thanks to Kevin Molony for providing this scan


I Just Tell Stories For Money


With his latest LP 'Frank's Wild Years' marking the end of a song cycle - of - sorts started by 'Swordfishtrombones', Tom Waits tells Sean O'Hagan what comes next. Picture: Lawrence Watson.

Sometimes you can get a pretty good idea about someone's music just by checking out their appearance. If clothes maketh the man, they also speak volumes about his songs. Look at Shane MacGowan. Or Paul Weller. Look at John Lydon or Miles Davis. Now, look at Tom Waits...

Tom Waits is thin. Thinner even than his photographs. Stick insect thin, stuck inside a bum freezer jacket and matching drainpipes. Hair greased back at one end, worn out winkle pickers at the other. Angular, exaggerated, out of step with things. All he needs is a preacher's hat to match the black necktie and he's Hazel Motes incarnate, straight out of Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood.

He's got the fidgetty nervous rather be-some-place-else feel off pat as well. The wisp of a ... [text missing] ... long, lived in face and greased back pile of hair. He looks hungover, pallid white, chewing on the icecubes that lace the large soda water on the rocks.

We're in 'Nighthawks' territory - a dark and faded East LA diner which doubles as Waits' "office". A solitary Phillipino barman proffers the San Miguels, the TV broadcasts the ballgames and the ghosts of an older, more beat soaked singer filter through the shadows.

The Traveller's Cafe has a 'For Sale' sign out front. Tom Waits is in the midst of moving house, lock, stock and barrel organ. It feels like I've wandered into one of his songs. A place where memories lay in wait behind each faded poster, where every beer stain tells a tale. Where Frank may have sipped a Southern Comfort and began his wild years.

When the words drop out, they're low and laboured, sandpaper slow, dragged up from the gravel throat that sings like no other. Somehow, Tom Waits has colonised his own exaggerated space in today's scheme of things, a space where everything fits - that voice, that attitude, this whole sense otherness.

By default or design - probably a helping of both - Tom Waits is a refugee from a time when eccentricity was the storyteller's prerequisite. Part play actor, part genuine boho, Waits has few stories to tell. American stories, shot through, since the watershed that was 'Swordfishtrombones', with a peculiarly formulated, utterly distinctive world view.

Like his appearance, Waits' songs are jerky, angular, exaggerated and compelling. Surreal music for surreal times, echoing the bohemian ambience of Brecht/ Weil or the late night resonance of an Edward Hopper painting rather than any antecedents in rock and roll.

Post -'Swordfishtrombones', we have a different Tom Waits, a singer who has reinvented himself, broadened his scope and opened his eyes and ears to a whole new world of received and reconstructed music. 'Raindogs' and the recent "romantic opera", 'Frank's Wild Years' complete a period of transition and clear the way for another step sideways. It's a good time to reflect.

"I like to think I got more angry with 'Swordfish...' More fractured. I sorta reached an impasse, y'know. Lookin' back I can see I had governors on a lotta the things in my head. Had to shake 'em off. Uh, be a little more honest with myself. I sorta provided a commentary on things in my old songs now I kinda escape into the song more. More extreme I guess." If the two previous albums freed the demons in Tom Waits' creative soul, 'Frank's wild years' conjured up a few more. With what sounds like a troupe of inebriated multi-instrumentalists for company, Waits crosses all the known borders of musical and ...[line missing]... The album grew out of a stageplay he co-wrote with his wife, Kathleen Brennan, and was performed by Steppenwolf Theatre of Chicago. Waits describes it as "a positive experience. They're like a garage band. Three Chord theatre. Turn it up loud and see what happens". On records 'Frank's Wild years' veers from the sublime to the ridiculous as it loosely chronicles the shadowy protagonist's journey from rags to riches and back rags.

"It's a scary business. Like creating a Frankenstein monster. You gotta make sure you don't kill the music even as you're creatin' it. That's the hard thing - pullin' out the feathers without killin' the chicken." Originally 'Frank's wild Years' was just a lowlife fragment of a song, tucked away on 'Swordfishtrombones'. Why'd he choose this particular tale of ordinary madness to expand on...? "The story. It was a place to begin. It just lent itself to elaboration. I opened it up, screwed the head of it. Spontaneously. From the pressures of modern life. Heh heh." Biographical? "Well, I don't own a dog. I like dogs but I don't own one. Never burned down a house either. Least, not intentionally."

Sometimes you just have to wonder about Tom Waits. About Tom Waits' songs. They come at you out of left field, raggedly ramshackle things pumped out on makeshift orchestration and that parched alcoholic voice. some Tom Waits' songs are wheezy; broken down things in bad need of a shave. Others are consummately detailed fragments from a life out of step. Think of the physicality of 'Underground' or 'Temptation', the carnival lope of 'In The Neighbourhood', the Spartan, far away sound of despair on 'Yesterday Is Here'. I tell him that Shane and Spider from The Pogues reckon 'Johnsburg Illinois' - a romantic fragment written for his wife - is one of their favourite songs of all time. "Heh, that's real good, y'know. When someone else sings your song that mean's it's got a life. See, a song can belong to you but that don't mean it's yours. I make 'em out of wood and I ain't too sure where they float of to."

Describe Tom Waits' music. "Uh, music for the electric chair. Music for the criminally insane. Harmless music. I dunno, it's kinda like tabasco. You can use it on fish, fowl or poultry. See, I really only listen to 'em to see if they're ready, then I send them off runnin' out into the street. Like chickens. Some come back and stay with you, some disappear. It' as kinda like a shipwreck with all these things floatin' on the water."

OK. Then, what is the point of Tom Waits' music? "Boy. I dunno. You should ask yourself. See, I ain't usually around when people are listenin' to my stuff. I don't get to hang around listenin' to the listener listenin'. Uh I really dunno how they fit into all of this." See, over here, we mark time with songs. That's really all we do in this culture. Other places, music's got a more direct relationship to the culture - wedding songs, funeral songs. I guess Ireland still has some of that left. More spontaneous too, people join in, update the words, sing along. 'I don't think my music is that social. It sure ain't part of the advertisin' industry either. Some guys in this town write songs to fit a bottle of beer or a tennis shoe. Jingles. Singin' adverts. I ain't part of that too much."

For Tom Waits the idea of only listening to popular music is akin to "a starvation diet". A roll call of current interests takes everything from "bush recordings to Nightmare On Elmstreet 3 - "You seen that? Man, it's a conundrum. They're temperin' with something there, something old as the devil." The Pogues, Henry Rollins, Alan Lomax, Fats Waller, Augustina Lara, Peter Tosh and Irish tenor John McCormack, all cop a mention from a crumpled sheet of notes extracted from an inside pocket. Nico's 'Camera Obscura' too - must be the harmonium. The common thread is. ". stuff that sounds unfinished. Then you can get in there. If it's too beautiful, too produced, I back off a little, start gettin' intimidated. You heard The Replacements(1) ? They seem broken, y'know? One leg is missin'. I like that. Songs that are scrawled on the wall with a nail - The Pogues, Henry Rollins - local kid. He's bush. Primitive. "You done any of these rappers? Hell, Ice T - that looks like one bad dude. Jail poems. I listen to all that rap stuff. Can't escape it. This neighborhood you got stereos in the cars and they're more expensive than the car itself. Walls in the house going CHUNGA! CHUNGA! CHUNGA! From a stereo five miles away.

"I like that kind of vitality. It's an important musical force and it ain't been stolen yet. You can't just step into it and try it on like a hat or a cape. You can't put it on like a disguise. Basically, I like music that feels like it's growin' somewhere..."

Ever thought of doing an album of cover versions? Could be an interesting experiment. "Yep. Maybe. found songs. Some day, I might just do that. I got some lined up. 'Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me'(2) an old hymn. I like that, Jesus' songs. Always like that song offa 'Exile On Main St.' - 'I Just Wanne See His Face' . Uh huh. Here we go! 'Don wanna walk and talk with my Jesus/ Jus' wanna see his face.' Yessir. And 'every time we say goodbye, I cry a little' - hell of a song."

One recent aspect of Tom Waits' own music is its ever increasing theatricality. With a stageshow and a bevy of celluloid appearances - 'Rumblefish', 'Down By Law' and the forthcoming, 'Ironweed' - behind him, the lure of the greasepaint has filtered into his live shows. The tour that hits England and Ireland next week(3) should be something to see. "We got a sort of revue, I guess. MC and all. So as when things go wrong it's cause you wanted 'em to. More like a Phillipino floorshow. See, live is a place where there are always too many elements cutting on the back of a pick-up truck."

... [line missing]... A tightrope walk?
"Sorta. Yea, you kinda get a certain kick watchin' it to see if the guys gonna fall off. Y'know, we all slow down for the wreck on the highway or stare at the guy throwin' up on his shoes. Kinda thankful it ain't us. Tightrope alright."

You don't play the bar circuit anymore.
"Nah, I don't miss it either. Man, it's like performing in a steel mill."

You did Ronnie Scott's jazz Club when you first came to London(4)...
"Oh boy. You remember that. That was a tightrope. The rope was round my neck. Nightmares. Playing a lounge in the middle of a golf course with this nomadic audience all waiting for a Moroccan jazz combo. That was a rough gig. Two weeks! Man, I had to dry out after that one. That was like spending two weeks at somebody else's grandmother's house. It was miscasting I was miscast."

The worst gig you ever played?
"Opening for The Mothers Of Invention. Some times I wake up in the night sweatin', bout that one. Hordes of long hairs approaching the stage. I didn't really translate to baseball arenas and rodeos. I did it for the money. Initiation. Throw him to the lions. Frank was a nice guy though. Ronnie Scott was a nice guy too."

It seems that 'Frank's Wild Years' is the end of something. The end of a journey that began with 'Swordfishtrombones', reached a halfway house on 'Raindogs' and ended up off - Broadway with a stageshow and soundtrack. There's only one place Waits can go now and that's further out on a limb. Curled up in the corner of a booth, all creased up and crumpled, he reflects on the process wherein "I started looking out over the fence a bit more". In came the fragments from other musics, the broadening out effect, the tightrope walk into the middle distance. Out went the boozy beatnik of yore, the drunken piano and the sprawling narratives from the heart of Saturday night. Listening to 'Small Change' or 'Nighthawks At The Diner' now is like looking back on another man's work. A place where the bottle seemed to be the main catalyst.

"Uh, I dunno, Strangely enough, I think the music was more, uh, underwater then."

Are you still a drinker?
"Am I still a drunk? Heh heh. I have a little sherry before retiring, sure. It helps me sleep. Got nothin' against a little sherry or port. When I'm writing I'm usually pretty clean. I don't think it's alcohol that makes the music come out. It's hard to tell. Sometimes alcohol massages the beast, sometimes it doesn't. I kinda subscribe to my own particular madness rather than soak it."

Tom Waits' particular madness manifests itself in a music that pays scant regard to the vagaries of pop. When you hear a song like 'Straight To The Top' - an out kilter, blind drunk ode to Old Blue Eyes - or 'Innocent When You Dream'- John McCormack at the end of his tether - you enter a world where the rules of the game are made up on a wing and a prayer. All his musicians seem totally in tune with Waits' particular methodology. How the hell does he convey his ideas?
"Well, making music is like everything else, it subscribes to the same laws of the universe. What happens is that you sorta evolve a language. I got my own shortband. I'll maybe line the guys up and tell 'em I need a little more Zsa Zsa Gabor, little less Karl Malden. More table and chairs, lads. That sorta thing. Think of a dwarf in a fish tank, boys. "That usually works. I'm usually a little more crude though. Think about your grandparents, boys. Think about 25 chickens on fire running across a barren landscape at night and you're a fireman with a hose and you gotta douse the chickens before they turn into a burnt meal. You don't always get there. Sometimes, you gotta blindfold the musicians".

You always manage to sound exotic and on the verge of collapse.
"Oh yeh? Maybe... maybe... gotta think 'bout that one. See I used to hang out in a lotta stripclubs and you'd hear a band who'd be playin' behind a curtain, maybe all you'd see would be the drummer's left leg. They'd tend to play their own Latin versions of American show tunes or you'd have a cocktail band coverin' a salsa number. Maybe a chamber orchestra attempting a rhumba... I'm onta something here. "That's the sort of thing that can work wonders, y'know. They always give the music an added kick all their own. They might bet it all wrong but something else is created along the way. The song survives if it's got a life. That's when you know a song's got stamina, when somebody can pick it up and renew it. "Pogues do it with old songs - they put their own polka dots all over a striped tie, part their hair on the wrong side. Ain't no rules for songs. Police don't tell you how to write 'em or sing 'em."

The barman comes and tells him his wife's on the line. Time's up. Before he departs he offers us a glimpse into his pocket book ideas for the next album(5).
"Gonna blow my nose at the world on the next one, talk about some of the things I hate. I get angry 'bout some of the things I see in the world but I never say anything about it. I think next time I will. Gonna call the album 'The World I Hate To Live In'. How 'bout that? Or maybe 'Pitch Black', Heh heh. Maybe 'For Cryin' Out Loud'. I like that one. Go gonna be a whole new thing - Swiss bells, drum machine, electric stick. The best that money can buy..."

Last words Tom?
"Uh, I guess I'm just a storyteller. I tell stories for money. That'll be 29.95, please."


(1) The Replacements: Waits often expressed his appreciation for The Replacements. He contributed vocals to the track "Date To Church" w. The Replacements (I'll Be You (single), The Replacements, 1989. Sire (Sire 7-22992-B, Sire Australia MX-302453). Also released on "Just Say Mao" (Vol. 3 of Just Say Yes), various artists. July 11, 1989. Warner Brothers/ Sire Records (Sire 9 25947-2) and "All for Nothing, Nothing for All", The Replacements, 1997. Reprise (Reprise 9 46807-2). Further reading: TwinTone RecordsPaul Westerberg homepage

(2) Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me: "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet". Gavin Bryars, 1993. Point Music (Point Music 438-823-2).

(3) The tour that hits England and Ireland next week: November 13, 1987: Edinburgh Playhouse. Edinburgh/ Scotland. November 15-17, 1987: Olympia Theatre. Dublin/ Ireland. November 19-22, 1987: Hammersmith Odeon. London/ UK. Further reading: Performances

(4) You did Ronnie Scott's jazz Club when you first came to London: Ronnie Scott's Club, Soho/ London. May 31 - Jun. 12, 1976. Further reading: Performances

(5) Ideas for the next album: here it looks like Waits is already describing ideas for the upcoming album Bone Machine (1992)