Title: It Always Starts With A Title.
Source: The Vancouver Province (Canada). November 21, 2006. By Stuart Derdeyn. Transcript as published on Ottawa Citizen site. �The Ottawa Citizen 2006
Date: published November 21, 2006
Key words: Orphans, influences, Burroughs
Accompanying picture
Source: Vancouver (Canada), October 2004. Date: October 15/16, 2004. Credits: Photograph by Steve Bosch/ The Vancouver Sun


It Always Starts With A Title


Tom Waits says a good song starts with a good title, and acting like a kid

Once upon a time, there was a poor child with no father and no mother and everything was dead.
Children's Story

Where does he come up with this stuff? That seems as good a place as any to start a conversation with the enigmatic Tom Waits. "I write down titles for songs, I have a whole bunch of them," rasps Waits. "Sometimes if you have a good one, the song has already begun to come into being.

"Some are circulating out there, like Everybody's Talking at the Same Time. That's a good title."

Waits's new release, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards, spans his career, containing 56 songs in a three-CD set. His 21st release since 1973's Closing TimeOrphans bookends one of the most impressive bodies of work in pop music. At least until his next "new recipe."

"I think it'll be a Mexican rhumba, rockabilly, calypso thing," says Waits. "It's mystifying to a certain degree where the characters and ideas come from, but also very ordinary.

"Kids make up the best songs, a hundred a day that they don't care if you like or not. Then they forget them all and the next day write new ones. I learn from them."

Born Dec. 7, 1949, in Pomona, California, Waits pursued art from an early age. He dropped out of Hilltop High School in Chula Vista, working in restaurants and bars before settling in as the doorman at San Diego's Heritage Coffeehouse(1), where a budding local folk scene was centred. His crusty, smoky style developed there, putting conversations between the unlucky and the lowlifes into songs.

By the time Waits made his pro debut at 21 at L.A.'s legendary Troubadour(2), his persona was formed. Herb Cohen, who managed Frank Zappa, took a shine to the singer, recording the material that wound up on the two-volume Early Years.

Waits's voice, described by writer Tom Moon as "a broad spectrum assault weapon," was also fully formed. "I like that description," he says. "Lots of folks influenced me: Lord Buckley, Howlin' Wolf, Barbecue Bob, Ray Charles and different people. Most of us are just doing bad impressions of other singers, aren't we?"

Perhaps, but few can lay claim to Waits's storytelling chops. While his career languished as a critic's darling, artists ranging from the Eagles to Bruce Springsteen and Rod Stewart all had hits with his songs.

These nuggets kept Waits afloat through the '70s, but Asylum Records dropped his cult act in 1982.

That year, his soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola's One From the Heart(3) was nominated for an Oscar, and Waits also met his wife and collaborator Kathleen Brennan. It was a "full paradigm shift" in his career.

Swordfishtrombones, the first album the two collaborated on, marked a massive shift in theatrical and cinematic directions. Even with six-year breaks between recordings, Waits never appears to rest from stage and film jobs.

"As soon as you start doing something, someone asks you to do something else. You're moving a piano and someone wants a light. The reason I do a little bit of each is because I'm never fully realized in any one medium."

Roles in movies by edgy indie director Jim Jarmusch further cemented his beatnik hipster cred. The musical play Frank's Wild Years and concert film Big Time were minor hits, too. But it was The Black Rider(4), a musical theatre project with director Robert Wilson and author William S. Burroughs that premiered in Hamburg in 1990, that elevated Waits to the big leagues of modern theatre. Waits wrote and performed the music for the play.

"That was Bob's idea, he pitched it: 'How about this, Black Rider, a German fairy tale with me, Waits and Bill Burroughs, whaddya think?' Then he contacted us.

"I loved Burroughs. He was like the crooked sheriff in a bad town. Kind of like the real Mark Twain, the one standing in the shadows that nobody wants to look at, particularly the literary side."

Waits released the music from the play in an album, Black Rider, in 1993.

Waits has also become a thorn in the side of the advertising world, winning a number of high-profile international lawsuits against firms that used impersonators -- or in one case his own music -- without rights. His settlements are in the millions.

"When you're a little kid and someone takes your lunch money and you don't want to mix it up with them, they'll do it again tomorrow. This last thing I got involved in(5), this car company asked me three times to use my music, and I said no three times, so they hired an impersonator and did it, not feeling like they need worry."

Lately, the 57-year-old feels time's arrows. Quite content to hang out in his orchard, he may not tour in support of Orphans, which is being released today. "I'm a pretty grumpy guy, and I don't travel well anymore. I'm in the tribute years, I gotta be careful.

"Look what happened with Roy Orbison. They had this big party for him and a couple of months (later) he has a heart attack."

Until something bad happens, Waits is pulling songs "out of my ass," contemplating scoring a documentary on Che Guevara's hands, and messing with reporters' heads. "You don't know any more about me than I let you know, and it could all be a ventriloquist's act. Hope you've got something to write about."


(1) Heritage Coffeehouse: further reading: The Heritage

(2) Troubadour: further reading: The Troubadour

(3) One From the Heart: further reading: One From The Heart

(4) The Black Rider: further reading: The Black Rider

(5) This last thing I got involved in: further reading: Waits vs. Opel