Title: Tom Waits: Los Angeles Is Poetry
Source: The L.A. Free Press by Marco Barla. January, 1974. Thanks to Ken Langford for donating scans
Date: January, 1974
Key words: Duke's Coffe Shop, cars, city life
Accompanying picture
Source: L.A. Free Press. January, 1974. Date:January 1974 or earlier. Credits: photography unknown. Thanks to Ken Langford for donating scan


Tom Waits: Los Angeles Is Poetry


You know there's a blurred drizzle down a plate glass(7). There's a neon swizzle stick a-stirrin' up a sultry night air, and a traffic jam session on Belmont as a yellow biscuit of a butter cueball moon is rollin' maverick across an obsidian sky... And you know the buses are groanin' and they're wheezin' down the corner I'm freezin' on restless boulevard, midnight road cross town from Easy Street. With the tight knots of moviegoers and out-of-towners on the stroll and the buildings tower high above lit like dominoes... Now you know the used car salesmen with all their Purina checkerboard slacks and Foster Grant wraparounds are pacing in front of that rainbow $39.95 Earl Scheib merchandise. Like barkers in an arcade, all dressed up in jackel-striped jackets with the blue denim dye and color TV test pattern, double-knit polyester slacks throwing out some kind of a Texas Guinan routine: " They say: 'Hello, sucker, we like your money, just as well as anybody else's here,' and luring all the harlequin sailors on the stroll.

In search of like new; new paint, factory air and AM-FM dreams... But you know the piss yellow gypsy cabs are stacked up in the taxi zones And they're waitin' like pinball machines to take off a joy ride to some magical place or they're waitin' in line like Truckers Welcome diners with dirt-lots full of Peterbilts and Kenworths and Jimmy's and the like. Doing some serious highballin' with bankrupt brakes, and they got the overdriven, underfed, underpaid, a day late - a dollar short. With their eyes propped open and their eyelids at half mast and I'm on the corner...

I'm standin' on the corner like a just-got-in-town jasper on a streetcorner with a gasper. Lookin' for some kind of a Cheshire billboard grin. Stroking a goateed chin and using parking meters as walking sticks... I'm out here on the inebriated stroll. I am... and you know the sun come crawlin' yellow out of a manhole at the foot of Twenty-third Street, and a Dracula moon is making its way back dodgin' shadows to its prepaid room at the St. Moritz Hotel and and the El train is tumblin' across the trestles. Soundin' like the ghost of Gene Krupa with an overhead cam and glass packs and over at Chub's Pool and Snooker it was a nickel after two...

"Yeah, with a nickel after two and the cobalt steel blue dream smoked, the radio groaned out the hit parade. And the chalk squeaked and the floorboards creaked. And an Olympia sign winked through a torn yellow shade, and Jack Chance himself leaning up against a Wurlitzer seriously eyeballin' out a three-ball combination shot...

"I'm looking for some kind of an emotional investment with romantic dividends and leaning up against a banister I'm held over... held over for another smashed weekend"

Tom Waits slouches on the corner stool in Duke's coffee shop(1) , a shamble of newspapers at his feet, his place at the counter cluttered with utensils, ashtray and a package of bound volumes - a kind of spontaneous collage, he is, mirror to three months on the road(2) , then home again on Santa Monica Boulevard, here, underneath the Tropicana Motel - this bright, clattery, bustling, public dining room, his cap and vest and crumpled shirt, his eyes a little weary, bleary, wary - a sly grin rising from a empty coffee cup.

"I love this city," he is saying, "I love Los Angeles, but right now my point of view is a little blurred because I don't have a car. "I'm lookin' for a car, and I'm under a lot of pressure to get something decent, you know, like I get this 'What are you doing, man, you drop 100 bucks, then you sink $3500 more and it turns around and scratches your eyes out and you gotta sell it for $12. I mean you can't go on like that forever'."

I think of Tom Waits songs and stories, references to Roadmasters and musical Dynaflow transmissions and an older, out-of-phase value system, where comfort was the essential item and, as he says it, "you put a hunk of tape over the gas gauge, knowing you could always make it to Gila Bend." I suggest a Mercedes Benz or a Porsche, possibly with skis resined to the roof. "Uh huh. I gotta think of my image, but what I'd really like to find is a creative chariot, like an old Plymouth. A Plymouth Bat-mobile, or something with a nice physique." We decide to forego the frentic disarray of Duke's and amble across the street instead. Once entrenched in the Palm's Bar, quaffing beers, we resume.

"I love to drive," he says, "and it's conducive to writing for me. Everybody needs a different climate in which to create, like for some people it's the sun streaming through the blinds, or the Rocky Mountains, or a room sanitized for your protection.(3) "There ain't no music out in the country. All the music's in the city. Symphonies on 23rd Street. Traffic jam sessions(4) going on all the time. There were times when I was out on the road where I would have given my left nut to be on the Harbor Freeway at 5:30 in the afternoon, just to listen. I love it."

I think his cacaphony a bit overpriced myself, but his sentiments are appreciated, particularly since they are delivered without the facetious postering of less talented, more ornately advertised performers. Tom Waits has a feel for the continuous roll of vowels and consonants, pieced together to relate experience in an honestly poetic medium which, unfortunately is not often dealt with in those enlightened terms.

The Gray Fifties

His identification reaches back to the gray alcoholic stupor of the fifties, when degrees of perception and radical artistic whim were greeted with, as he says himself, "The Gilette Blue Blade treatment" and the kinds of critical vitriol indicative of fear. The ghost of Jack Kerouac, the hobo Gregory Corso and the throngs of disconnected, disillusioned barflies who, only incidentally, had a touch of undiluted genius. "I'm just coming in right now. I'm just finding that I've got a lifestyle, and as far as how it relates to any popular or fashionable sort of lifestyles that have become before or are going on now or will be arriving, I don't know. I just do what I do."

Experience seems to have been the best teacher. Waits taking his references from juggling pizzas at Napoleon's Pizza Parlor(5) in San Diego 'til three in the morning, right there on the front lines, swimming around in the bowels of the metropolitan late night naugahyde crowd, I didn't get jack shit out of high school."

At the same time, an interest in literature seemed neither out of context nor out of reach. Waits terming his eclectic readings a "natural progression," something which facilitated the step from pizza parlor to stage, the influence of Kerouac, the Troubadour auditions(6) , and the record contract, somehow falling into place. His most important preoccupation lies not so much with reasons as with extending the process, cutting the distance between himself and the audience, and continuing to grow. "I try to take myself up on stage and reach some level of spontaneity and just be as colourful and entertaining as I can without having to memorize it all. I want to avoid the unnaturalness of performing."

His audience rapport has at its base a kind of loose, breezy, slurred barroom humor, incorporating awkward instances and clever fumbling, rambling recollections and well-timed punch lines.

"I like comics. I like people who have a sense of humor about their stage presentation. I don't like people who go up with a semi-professional slump and tell you about their internal hurt.


(1) Duke's coffee shop: further reading: The Tropicana

(2) Three months on the road: tour promoting "Closing Time". November-December, 1973. Further reading: Performances

(3) Sanitized for your protection: later used in "Step Right Up": "It disinfects, it sanitizes for your protection It gives you an erection, it wins the election" (Small Change, 1976). Read lyrics.

(4) Traffic jam sessions: later used in "Nighhawk Postcards": "With a traffic jam session on Belmont tonight" (Nighthawks At The Diner, 1975). Read lyrics.

(5) Napoleon's Pizza Parlor: further reading: Napoleone Pizza House

(6) The Troubadour auditions: further reading: The Troubadour

(7) You know there's a blurred drizzle down a plate glass: early version of "Nighhawk Postcards" (Nighthawks At The Diner, 1975). Read lyrics.