Title: Lower East Side Story
Source: The Face magazine, by Elissa van Poznak. November 1985. Photography by Steve Tynan. Transcription as published on Gary Tausch's Tom Waits Miscellania. Kind permission: Gary Tausch.
Date: October 19, 1985, published November 1985
Key words: New York, Rain Dogs, Jean-Baptiste Mondino, Molly Malone, Keith Richards

Magazine front cover: The Face. November, 1985

Accompanying pictures
First page from article. The Face. November, 1985
1985 or earlier. Photography by Steve Tynan
1985 or earlier. Photography by Steve Tynan. Copied from: Tom Waits Miscellania. Kind permission: Gary Tausch


Lower East Side Story


Author of bohemian rhapsodies, not long ensconced in New York, and not far from Broadway, to which he sends his regards, Tom Waits is a legend in his own lunchtime. Text Elissa van Poznak. Photographs Steve Tynan


TOM WAITS (To waiter): I think I'll have the fresh homemade hard boiled egg, the cheeselox and the chickenfish. Could I have the broiled chicken fish?
LUIGI: Chicken or fish, it's gotta be chicken or fish.
WAITS: Oh, I thought maybe you had the Famous Reuben's chickenfish. How about some smoked Springsteen?
LUIGI: Maybe you want the salmon: what about the peppersteak?
WAITS: How about the Western cheeseliver, still got the Western cheeseliver?
LUIGI: Sold out.
WAITS: That's only on Thursdays, I'm early.
LUIGI: No; you late. You want some horse salad?
WAITS: Is the horse salad good today? Yes, the horse salad as usual and a Bob, Lorenzo & Tate-BLT. That's a law firm. Make it with the horsebacon, okay? And tell Raoul there to fix it nice.

STRAIGHT FROM THE horseliver's mouth, this is how Tom Waits orders a sandwich. Waits says he came to New York (from LA, three years ago) for the shoes but personally I think it's the choice of cuisine. Why, on West 14th Street alone there's the Babalu Bar and Grill, the Ricky Ricardo Lounge and the Salvation Army Diner and more, much more. But it's the el dorado swank of Courmey's restaurant that Waits chooses, something to do with its spic and span cleanliness ("a rare thing on this street"), its proximity to Waits' own dwelling around the corner in Little Spain, plus the air conditioning and the conspicuous absence of "those little black things" (cockroaches).

Huddled in a too-big coat, Waits enters the place looking like a refugee from a bad off-Broadway Beckett production or at the very least that famous Yiddisher burlesque, "Sam, You Made The Pants Too Long". He certainly isn't doing anything to throw off his received image which would demand, as a matter of protocol, exactly this kind of boho-esque get-up. After some small slapstick involving finding the right booth, beers are ordered.

On closer inspection, he's toting two fully-packed valises under each red-rimmed eye. Tom is expecting his second child(1) at any moment (to be named Senator if it's a boy because "we need a Senator in the family") and throughout our meeting it's a toss-up whether the baby or the sandwich will arrive first. In the event the sandwich wins with the baby crossing the homestretch a full five days later (hail Senator!). Talk about service, it didn't even come with a pickle.

Stroking his grizzled goatee, porkpie hat left on a piano somewhere, a ripe tattoo peeking out from under a shirt of such monstrous implausibility it elicits a harrowing confession (the nearest Waits gets to one, since he believes in saving the heartache for home), Waits grips the counter with his triple jointed knuckles. At first, he sits at a far-fetched angle as if expecting a water cannon to be trained on him and deflects straight questions at every turn with a stream of deadpan adlibs worthy of the late, great Rufus T. Firefly. Eventually he relaxes into his usual discomfort with the interview process though, as anyone who's ever quizzed Waits will doubtless tell you, red herrings remain the basic item on the menu.

Why New York?
I came for the shoes, it's one of the best times in American history for footgear. New York's unbelievable, it's thrilling what's going on in the shoe world and I've been waiting for this so long. Actually, I came for a part in a picture called They Wept Their Faces Off For Him, the story of three nuns whose commitment was just a little too much to take. And another film, All Dressed Up In Rags starring Ernest Borgnine and Adam Clayton Powell, a Cuban film. I play a Haitian priest. The money was just too much to turn down so we had a family meeting then all jumped in the station wagon, Lucifer, Wilhelm, Monarch, Sheila and I. That's what I miss most about LA: driving. My father-in-law gave me a Cadillac. Jesus, I was towed three or four times, just crazy. $1500 worth of tickets. I had New Jersey plates, I was treated like dogmeat in this town. New York, it's like an emergency ward, a magnet, a narcotic, it's like a language that's spoken only here. New York's serious. First of all the weather's serious, you need a warm coat, new shoes and a place to live in. In LA you create your own seasons, you have other ways to mark time, relationships. People confront people in New York. I like that but I'm also trying to get out. It's really a tough town on a family.

Oh, where are you headed?
Kansas. It's flat, I'll be the tallest thing on the horizon. They'll put a roof on my head. I can deal with tornados.

WAITS-WATCHERS TAKE five, you'll already know that for some years now Tom Waits. raconteur. conjurer. escapologist and singer/songwriter of near mythical stature has been one of the taller things on the contemporary American music horizon, if not the tallest. Usually, however, he's immersed so low in the anecdotal gutter that he can't be seen for the endless stream of schmoozers, losers, lovers and two-bit hobo hustlers.

The Orson Welles of lyrical epithets, Waits can be heard right enough; that potent voice, gentler in closeup, an unholy concoction three parts barking dog, all of them in desperate need of a shave. It can be heard on a particularly hirsute and evocative collection of albums, each wildly idiosyncratic: "Nighthawks At The Dinner", "Small Change", "Blue Valentine", "Heart Attack And Vine" and his first acknowledged classic, 1974's "The Heart Of Saturday Night", his second album. Was Tom Waits (born Dec 7, 1949 to standard issue teacher parents, later divorced) also born to laugh at tornados? Who can say?

But in a recording career spanning twelve years and nine albums (ten if one includes the Academy Award nominated "One From The Heart" soundtrack) Waits has often been buffeted by the warm winds of critical praise, if not downright torrential appreciation, dwarfing those members of the West Coast possee with whom he once rode - Captain Beefheart, the late Tim Buckley, Wildman Fisher and Frank Zappa whose shows Waits used to open. However, it's not a competition and he's genuinely amazed to be selling out eight consecutive nights at London's Dominion Theatre on his current European tour. "I have no sense . . . Jesus, I'm pretty anonymous here, People recognise me sometimes but it's no big thing."

Since 1973 and his debut album "Closing Time", Waits has been located on or around the bar-room piano, sometimes bucolic, most times melancholic and well versed in jazzy sax and standing bass. More recently he's been crossing idioms with an alarming alacrity -- R 'n' B, rags, shuffles, polkas, bebop, dyed-in-the-wool folk, Tin Pan Alley, the spoken song. He's like Running Bear with a papoose of junkyard instruments, found objects, bow-saws, harmoniums, calliopes, marimbas, accordians, banjos, everything but the proverbial wax paper and comb harmonica and that's probably coming soon, all strapped to his back. Waits even boasts Keith Richards on his new album, "Rain Dogs", which while not as immediately impressive as "Swordfishtrombones" nor as totally right, is still a uniquely disturbing grab-bag of Weill-inspired nonsensical Ogden Nash madness, rancid rhumbas, strange strolls and children's nursery rhymes seen through a bourbon glass very darkly plus some old blues shuffles carried on from The Stones' "Exile On Main Street".

One track in particular, the utterly nightmarish "9th And Hennepin' plants Captain Willard in an urban Apocalypse Now. "And the rooms all smell like diesel and you take on the dreams of the ones who have slept here." It is major, major stuff.

As he says of Beat-progenitor Allen Ginsberg, spotted occasionally in the subway, Waits is "curator of his own museum, an American man of letters, an archive, a memory, a library." No, that sounds too dead. But a poet Waits is, though he's not quite ready for the English students. "That's like putting pennies on your eyes and a blanket over your face. Jesus, kick the drum and lower me down."

TOM WAITS SAYS he finds Island Records boss Chris Blackwell "very artistic, supportive, not a classic businessman". "Rain Dogs" is his second for the label, but his first since moving out of his East LA barrio digs and completing the disconcertingly brilliant "Swordfishtrombones", an album that should be considered an integral part of any dreamhome and can't be recommended highly enough.

That album, like "Rain Dogs", is dedicated to Waits' wife Kathleen Brennan, a former Zoetrope scriptreader who co-wrote "Rain Dogs" winsome lullabye "Hang Down Your Head". Waits says his wife of four years drives him "insane when I'm working and insane when I'm not". She may have actually worked for the Ringling Brothers Circus at one time. "She can lie down on nails, stick a knitting needle through her lips and drink coffee, so I knew she was the girl for me," claims Waits, though it's doubtful whether she "jumped the Grand Canyon with Evil Knievel and had seven kids from a previous marriage." She is, however, also collaborating with her husband on a stage extrapolation of his hilarious "Swordfish" monologue "Frank's Wild Years" which Waits facetiously describes as a "kabuki burlesque . . . the story of one heart beating in a digital world as he searched for meaning along the American landscape." That's penciled in for May '86, to be directed by Terry Kinney(2) and Waits in the role of Frank.
And, ironically, since leaving movietown, Waits has stepped up his cinematic involvement -- he's already had parts in RumblefishThe Cotton Club, Paradise Alley and The Stone Boy (as a petrified geek!). He has committed himself to a major part in Jim (Stranger Than Paradise) Jarmusch's Down By Law also starring Lounge Lizard and "Rain Dogs" guest John Lurie. "All I know is that it's Louisiana in the winter, it's a prison picture and John, Roberto Benigni and myself are three guys running through the swamps with dogs." And then there is There Ain't No Candy Mountain(3), to be directed by subterranean Robert Frank (Cocksucker Blues and Pull My Daisy), and penned by Rudy Wurlitzer. Of which he knows even less.

A longtime admirer of Kurt Weill's theatre songs, an influence particularly evident on new songs like "Singapore" and "Cemetery Polka", Waits is contributing "What Keeps Mankind Alive" from the Brecht/Weill Threepenny Opera to an all-star tribute being put together by Saturday Night Live music editor Hal Wilner, a producer who "lets things happen and knows when to back off ". Rumours that Captain Beefheart might be producing Waits ("who said that?") are sadly unfounded - though it is true that Waits asked him, and benefited from his musical alumni - while plans for Waits to produce The'The's Matt Johnson have been temporarily shelved though Johnson came over, shot a little pool with Waits and gassed.
"He seems real urgent, alive and we wanted to blend technology, the old upright bass and harmonica with drum machines. Find a place where the two overlap."
Even thought Waits' own work eschews modern gadgetry?
"Gimme the basics," he says, I'm overwhelmed by technology."

Contrary to popular belief, Waits watches MTV. "I don't live in a vault but you can't really go there for ideas," he grumbles. Interestingly, Jean-Baptiste Mondino, the video auteur who swept the MTV awards with his black and white promo for Don Henley/ Glenn Frey's "Boys Of Summer" (like Bruce Weber in motion) will direct the video for Waits' forthcoming single "Downtown Train"(4).

With its talk of "Brooklyn girls trying to break oat of their little worlds", and its slick, guitarlick rockism (courtesy of Hall and Oates G.E. Smith), it's the nearest Tom Waits gets to a Bruce Springsalmon opus. Nothing to be ashamed of but I wonder what Waits thinks of it now. He admits that recording is "so permanent it drives me crazy, just makes me insane. That's the hardest thing, making decisions about something that's gonna dry and be there like a tattoo." To lessen the strain, he's looking to be a stand-in, "just like the days when Fats Domino or The Coasters could be on the road in California and on live TV in Indiana. All you need is a deep voice and a bad haircut. Think about it, 125 dollars a week, vacation, severance pay."

While you're thinking it over, consider these thoughts of Chairman Waits and bear in mind that, after he allowed me to pick up the seven buck tab, I pondered the meaning of it all the way down West 14th Street, down into the piss-stinking subway at Union Square and all the way past the tiny nun sitting on a camp stool, straw basket in her lap, panhandling. It was that kind of a sandwich.

What do you wish for your children?
Military school immediately before they're old enough to fight me on it. I've enrolled them already.
Would you be very disappointed if they grew up to be bankers?
No, I think we need a banker and lawyer in the family because Dad's just impossible. He needs somebody to look after him.
Why do you always write about life's suckers?
I don't know ... certain things you feel compelled to dream on.
Do you have a social conscience?
Nah, it's just where my eyes go.
And raindogs, what are they?
It's a kind of word I made up for people who sleep in doorways. I mean, New York when it rains, all the peelings and cigarette butts, float to the surface like in Taxi Driver(5) when he says, "someday a real raid's gonna come along and wash all the scum off the street". Looks better in the rain, like it's been lacquered.
What's the first song you recall?
"Molly Malone(6)". I was tiny (starts singing). "In Dublin's Fair city where the girls are so pretty . . .
Ever thought of running your own nightclub?
I don't have the discipline, I'm not organised enough and you have to be at the register all night long. I don't have leadership qualities.
You lead a band don't you?
That's different.
How do you construct a song?
I put on a skirt, drink a bottle of Harvey's Bristol Cream sherry, go out and stand on 8th Avenue with an umbrella and start reciting from the back of a parking ticket at full volume. It's raining songs. I can't find enough things to catch them in. And words, in New York there's words everywhere just throwing themselves at you so you never have to worry about words.
Do you keep a notepad by the bed just in case?
I don't wake up in the middle of the night unless somebody's trying to break in.
You've never been burgled by an idea?
I've never had an idea strong enough to wake me up but when I do I'll certainly pay attention cause when I sleep, I'm gone.
Is it easier to write than not write?
Well, I'm trying to get more on schedule . . . when you work you suspend all logic, the world becomes an aquarium, things are tumbling and floating by and you ordain them to have new meaning. Certain things float to the top including you but then you have to drain the pool and answer the phone and fill out applications and go to the post office. I kind of vacillate back and forth between the two states. It's like being on medication, a balancing act, and a lot of time for me goes into getting ready to do this whole thing. It has its own drama, what it does to your life because all of a sudden things that are part of your scope and you never noticed will figure in.. . going to the shoeshine, the Port Authority, the steam coming out of the manhole, the guy on the horse, the news. You drag these things home from your day and put them somewhere and you have three weeks to make something out of it. I give myself deadlines, if you don't it's just life, life going on. So you say, okay, use red, yellow and black. You get involved in the ritual, shave your head, put on two pairs of trousers. For me it's very basic like I'm making it out of wood but technology, being in the studio, is very abstract. It's a battle. Keith Richards was talking about that. He said you have to go in there with a stick, a drum and something you heard in a bar. You have to carry the idea with you. Like getting a haircut. You tell the guy, "Well I want just a little bit off the top, not too much, just shave it, no block it. Jeez I'd cut it myself but I can't see in back: say maybe we could do that with water, hey don't do the sides too short, maybe bring the thing down in front. That looks awful. Can you make it a little longer? Jesus, why didn't you tell me you were going to cut it. I thought you were going to water it down and make it look shorter". It's hard, it's really hard.
Does Tom Waits have a favourite band?
Yeah. The Salvation Army. They play across the street every Sunday. They just kill me.


(1) Expecting his second child: First born son: "Casey Xavier" (second child) October 24, 1985. Some sources claim this date to be September, 1985.

(2) Penciled in for May '86, to be directed by Terry Kinney: 17-22 June 1986, world premiere and theatrical debut. "Frank's Wild Years" at the "St. Briar Street Theatre", Chicago. The Steppenwolf Theatre. Further reading: Franks Wild Years.
Jay S. Jacobs (2000): "Terry Kinney was set to direct Frank's Wild Years, but just a few weeks before it was scheduled to open, Kinney resigned (or was fired) over creative differences with Waits. Steppenwolf's head was actor Gary Sinise (who would later win an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in Forrest Gump and turn in strong performances in Apollo 13, Mission to Mars, Ransom, and Of Mice and Men). Sinise stepped into the breach and became Frank's director. There was some talk of retooling the production - building new stage sets - but by this point both time and money were in short supply. Waits remained calm. He told O' Donohue he felt that such turmoil was "normal. Sometimes the spark comes from a conflict of ideas. It's just wood and lights and people walking around until you somehow bang up against something, and something breaks, and something sparks, and something catches and then it has a life. Until then it's just on the page." The cast included Steppenwolf regulars Gary Cole, Moira Harris, Vince Viverito, Randall Arney, and Tom Irwin. Waits's touring band played Frank's band, and Teller (of Penn and Teller) worked up some magic tricks for Frank to perform. Frank, of course, was played by his creator, and Waits carried the production solidly on his shoulders. But the play remained in a state of flux; they tinkered with it constantly, even during its run. The reviews were decent, but there were no raves. Frank's Wild Years played Chicago's Briar Street Theater for three months." (Source: "Wild Years: The Music and Myth of Tom Waits. Jay. S. Jacobs, 2000)

(3) There Ain't No Candy Mountain: Candy Mountain (1987). Movie directed by Robert Frank. Written by Rudy Wurlitzer. Also features Jim Jarmusch. Tom Waits as actor, composer, musical performer. Plays rich guy Al Silk. Performs: "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" & "Once More Before I Go". Further reading: Filmography

(4) Waits' forthcoming single "Downtown Train": "Downtown Train" (P) 1985 Island/ Ariola (Spain) cat. 12 IS 253. Phonogram 884312+7(France). European 7'': "Downtown Train" & "Tango Till They're Sore"

(5) Like in Taxi Driver: Martin Scorsese's 1976 classic film Taxi Driver (Columbia Pictures). Further reading: Travis 76FilmSite

(6) Molly Malone: Tom Waits (1985): "I was brought up in Los Angeles, El Paso, Missouri. We travelled around. I remember lullabies, my father singing "Molly Malone" and I remember hearing Mexican dance songs on the radio" ("Dog Day Afternoon": Time Out magazine (UK), by Richard Rayner. New York, October 3-9, 1985). "Cockles and Mussels, or Molly Malone" Comic Song, Written and Composed by James Yorkston. As well as being known and sung internationally, the popular song 'Cockles and Mussels' has become a sort of unofficial anthem of Dublin city. The song's tragic heroine Molly Malone and her barrow have come to stand as one of the most familiar symbols of the capital. Lyrics: "In Dublin's Fair City Where the girls are so pretty I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone As she wheel'd her wheel barrow Through streets broad and narrow Crying cockles and mussels alive, alive o! Chorus Alive, alive o!, alive, alive o! Crying cockles and mussels alive, alive o! She was a fishmonger But sure 'twas no wonder For so were her father and mother before And they each wheel'd their barrow Through streets broad and narrow Crying cockles and mussels alive, alive o! Chorus. She died of a fever And no one could save her And that was the end of sweet Molly Malone But her ghost wheels her barrow Through streets broad and narrow Crying cockles and mussels alive, alive o! Chorus." Further reading: Irish Historical Mysteries