Title: Lying In Waits
Source: The Age (Australia) by Patrick Donovan. Transcription as published on The Age site. May 10, 2002
Date: Telephone interview. Published: May 10, 2002
Keywords: Alice/ Blood Money, inspiration, Lightning Hopkins, Frank Zappa, Coney Island


Lying In Waits

Tom Waits' new albums are based on stage plays that were successfully performed in Europe.

"You know in Russia they've got topless newscasters now?" rasps Tom Waits' unmistakable voice down the line from his home in northern California. He seems genuinely excited that I've heard about this news-entertainment crossover. "Apparently they started out just with low-cut dresses, then they went to girls just wearing brassieres, and they finally just said, 'Well' (he erupts into a wheezy fit of laughter), 'they may as well just go topless', and now everyone's watching the news, but with the sound off. I don't know - kind of ironic."

Tom Waits, master songwriter and cult personality, has long been fascinated by life's ironies, absurdities and oddities. And as with the Russian newsreaders, he believes people always like to hear bad news out of a pretty mouth.

After releasing just two albums in the past nine years, Waits, 52, has this week given us two new long-players, Alice and Blood Money(1). Both works are based on tormented characters, but as he's done for so much of his career, Waits often delivers sad news in the most beautiful, melodious, melancholy fashion.

Waits doesn't do many interviews. He seems uncomfortable with people analysing his songs; he's more interested in telling stories and discussing the more trivial and bizarre facts of life. He automatically responds to every question with "I don't know" before answering. If the question isn't simple, he simply answers it in the negative.

Waits speaks very slowly and quietly, almost in a whisper, with long pauses, which makes it difficult to have a phone conservation. We would both have been more comfortable chatting over coffee in a diner.

Over the phone it's also hard to separate the man from the hard-boiled, bar-hopping, bohemian myth - although the two probably merged for a while before he gave up drinking and smoking eight years ago.

I ask Waits if all the characters he's written about in his songs, such as Charlie and Frank, are based on real people.

"Oh, always. Everything you can think of is true, right?" he answers ambiguously.

Waits met most of these characters in bars he frequented as a drinker during 20 years of regular touring, and, like the eccentrics in a Charles Bukowski novel or a Fred Negro's Pub comic strip(2), they often found their way into his songs.

I wonder if there's a connection between the fact his new albums are based on other people's works and that he no longer drinks and rarely tours, preferring to spend his time with his family at his Californian ranch.

Hasn't he met anyone interesting lately? Is the well of characters drying up?

"I beg your pardon?" snaps Waits.

I was saying that . . .

"No, no, no. What I said was, I beg your pardon, are you trying to insult me? Are you saying I'm drying up? I think you're being a little naive about it."

"Songs live in the air and they appear at all times. If you're a songwriter you like music, but what you really want is for music to like you. You want to be an aerial, or an antenna, for songs to locate you, and they do. They're everywhere. Just because you're not touring, living in motels, playing in clubs and sleeping in the car and eating cold sandwiches doesn't mean there's nothing left to write about.

"You've always got the ability to tell a story within a song," Waits continues. "It's like, 'Who writes jump-rope songs?'. Everybody writes them. They evolve, and they're kind of shaped like stones, or they migrate like seeds. I'm fascinated with that. Blues is a fascinating art form. They're like Jello moulds. They're containers, you know. I don't know how you classify them. But a craft is like anything else. You make a choice as to what you're going to include and exclude. My feeling is that all songs should have a little weather in them, and the names of towns, something to drink and eat, names of streets, and some place to go.

"Originally, slave songs were a way of communicating, and they held a lot of secret information that was transmitted between people who had no power or access to printing presses or any other formal technology for conveying their ideas or expressing their feelings. Like Wade in the Water - I guess people thought it was a song about being baptised. It was really disguised as that, but it was really to let other people in the chain gang know that somebody had just escaped and was sneaking away; they had cut the chain and were slowly moving off down the river, and (they had) to cover for them.

"Nowadays, I guess, songs still have a vital function; they still transmit the news to a degree. But what I love about the rap guys is that most of them probably flunked out of English. They're word guys."

Waits has always marched to the beat of his own drum, but more than ever he seems intent on making timeless music.

Both Alice and Blood Money could have been made at any time in the past 22 years of his career. In fact, the noir-cabaret instrumentation could place it 80 years ago in the highly fluid, creative period between world wars characterised by Germany's Weimar Republic.

There's little use of guitar, and therefore little groove - Waits believes it an overused instrument. Instead, the songs are structured around traditional instruments such as the piano and pump organ, and all manner of brass and strings and vibes.

To add to the songs' other-wordliness, Waits uses the Mellotron(3) (an early synthesiser), which had its heyday in the 1970s in bands such as the Moody Blues, and his latest "found objects", such as a 1929 pneumatic calliope (an old circus instrument with 57 whistles) and a dried boomerang seed pod from a rare Indonesian tree.

Waits says he released the two albums on the same day because, although he wrote the songs for Alice in 1992, it was recorded at the same time as Blood Money.

"They're twins, y'know, they look to each other for guidance," he says.

"They sat in a box for a while, but songs have a remarkable shelf life, don't you think? Y'know, I'm still listening to stuff that was written in the '20s. Heck, we're listening to stuff that was written centuries ago. So when you think of it in terms of that, '92 wasn't that long ago.

"Songs find you, and it's catch and release. If you write it down, it goes on downstream and someone else will catch it."

How was Waits drawn into songwriting? "I don't know. Most songwriters don't go to school to learn how they do what they do; they sit around a record player at night and try to figure out how somebody did something. Maybe I was 12 years old and I heard the song Abilene(4) - 'Abilene/Prettiest town I've ever seen/Women there don't treat you mean/In Abilene'. And I saw Lightning Hopkins(5) when I was about 15 and he was doing, I don't know, Black Snake Moan or something, and I just thought, 'Wow, this is something I could do'. I don't mean I could play guitar like him, I just mean that this could be a possible career opportunity for me. Perhaps I could train at home and keep my present job.

"Everyone has to do something. Some people work in the sewer, some people do tight-area excavation - you know, some people chop down trees, build swimming pools."

Waits started writing in the early 1970s while working as a doorman at the Heritage Club in San Diego(6), where he met artists and saw them perform. Inspired by musicians and writers such as Bob Dylan, Raymond Chandler, Lord Buckley, Marty Robbins, Stephen Foster and the beat poets, he began developing a songwriting style and the gravelly drawl that's defined his sound for the past 20 years. After taking his show to the Troubadour in Los Angeles, he was signed to Asylum Records at the age of 22 and asked to open for Frank Zappa (they shared a manager, Herb Cohen)(7).

What was it like, opening for Zappa? Did he learn anything from working with one of rock's first true eccentrics and professionals?

"I felt like I was out there with Igor Stravinsky. He was playing hockey arenas with cardboard on the floor so people could stand on the ice. You'd come out in front of 5000 people in a forest of chrome and do 30 minutes. I felt like a rectal thermometer. Frank would say, 'How was the crowd?', and I'd say, 'Well, they're your crowd, Frank'. They figured he must have wanted them to abuse me, and I was a gift. I was the monkey. But it was good. I thought it was important. It was my bedrock. I'll be able to use it one day. It shouldn't be too easy. I had it in my mind that it wasn't supposed to be easy. I wasn't supposed to come out of a box and sell a million records and be riding around in a limousine when I'm 21. It was kind of the way that I thought it should be."

In 1980, Waits met his wife and collaborator, Kathleen Brennan, who was a script editor working for Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope studio. She encouraged him to follow the Captain Beefheart path by "dirtying" his sound through experimentation with percussion, horns and found objects to accompany his jazz-blues instrumentation, as well as unorthodox recording techniques. The immediate result was the album Swordfishtrombones. About the same time, he became interested in acting and soundtrack work, appearing in cult films The Outsiders, Rumble Fish and Down By Law - the first of many collaborations with director Jim Jarmusch - as well as writing the play Frank's Wild Years (8) with Brennan for Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre.

I ask Waits if he listens to any of his old music these days.

"No, no, I don't, no. Old, old stuff, no. Most of the stuff from Swordfish onwards, though, I'll include in my set list. I don't know - what kind of stuff did you grow up listening to?" he asks, keen to deflect the attention from himself.

I tell him my stepmother used to play The Big Chill and Blues Brothers soundtracks in the car when I was a kid, which got me into blues and soul music and led me to Smokey Robinson, Captain Beefheart and Waits' bluesy Heartattack and Vine album, where my love affair with his music began.

I suggest he and Lou Reed romanticised derelict New York amusement park Coney Island(9) in songs titled Coney Island Baby (Waits' is on Blood Money), but that I found it to be a dump. Did he have a special romantic experience there?

"I think it's impossible to avoid a romantic experience in Coney Island. I had a completely different reaction when I was there. I went to a shooting gallery there in February - it was the only place open in the whole park. It was one of those shooting galleries where the rifle shoots a beam of light instead of an actual bullet, and all the creatures in the gallery have these light-sensitive bullseye patches on their chests, so if you hit them their head comes off, a bell goes off or you hear a loud song. And I had a camera - I was taking a photo of my buddies - and I hit the flash on my camera and every animal in the cavalry went mad. And this Puerto Rican guy ran out shaking his fist at me and chasing me away, saying I was going to ruin his business. It's an extraordinary place.

"Woody Guthrie lived in Coney Island. It may have fallen on hard times, but it still has a rich heritage and history. I much prefer it to Disneyland ... BOY, GO ON!" he yells to someone, probably a child or a dog. "Where were we?" he continues.

Considering the morbid themes and troubled characters of Waits' new albums, including Blood Money's tortured Misery is the River of the World, which includes the line, "One thing you can say about mankind is that there is nothing that is kind about man", I ask if Waits is a bit downbeat about humanity at the moment.

"What do you mean those people were in a little bit of trouble?" asks Waits. "That kind of trivialises the whole thing. I don't know. You know, your work is a reflection of where you are at the time, to a certain degree. When you think about it, recordings are pretty extraordinary. You can sing into this metal thing here and these discs go around and take this piece of tape to there and it somehow captures some of what went on in the room, so that long after the people who did it are dead and buried, some kid can sit down next to it and listen to it and be moved by it. It's pretty extraordinary.

"Songs are vessels of emotional information," he continues. "If a song is designed to be too intimate or personal, it's probably impossible for you to relate to it. It's like reading a letter that fell out of someone's truck, that you've found in a puddle, you know? How can that possibly apply to you, or how can you call anything from that?

"Songs are shaped in such a way, you know, they're like bagels. They have to have a hard outer shell, a soft centre, be big enough to fit in your pocket and last for three days." And are they like doughnuts? Is it the hole that counts?

"Gee, I don't know, I just made all that up."

Blood Money and Alice are out this week through Shock.


(1) Alice and Blood Money: Alice (the play) premiered on December 19, 1992 at the Thalia Theater, Hamburg/ Germany. Further reading: Alice. Woyzeck (the play) premiered November 18, 2000 at the Betty Nansen Theatre in Copenhagen/ Denmark. Further reading: Woyzeck.

(2) Fred Negro's Pub comic strip: Australian comic strip writer. Further reading: Fred Negro.

(3) Mellotron: Mellotrons (and Novatrons) were produced in England by Streetly Electronics from the early '60s until the early '80 by Leslie Bradley and his brothers Frank and Norman. The original Mellotron was designed as an expensive domestic novelty instrument. The Mellotron was a precursor of the modern digital sampler. Under each key was a strip of magnetic tape with a recorded sound that corresponded to the pitch of the key (The Mark II had two keyboards of 35 notes each making a total of 1260 seperate recordings). The instrument plays the sound when the key is pressed and returns the tape head to the begining of the tape when the key is released. This design enables the recorded sound to keep the individual characteristics of a sustained note (rather than a repeated loop) but had a limited duration per note, usually eight seconds. Most Mellotrons had 3 track 3/8" tapes, the different tracks being selectable by moving the tape heads across the tape strips from the front panel. This feature allowed the sound to be easily changed while playing and made it possible to set the heads in between tracks to blend the sounds. Despite attempting to faithfully recreate the sound of an instrument the Mellotron had a distinct sound of its own that became fashionable amongst rock musicians during the 1960's and 1970's. The Novatron was a later model of the Mellotron re-named after the original company liquidised in 1977. Further reading: Instruments.

(4) Maybe I was 12 years old and I heard the song Abilene: "Abiline" Music/words - Lester Brown, John D. Loudermilk, Bob Gibson (� '63 Acuff-Rose Music). Abiline is in West Texas north of Austin. "Abilene, Abilene Prettiest town I ever seen. Folks down there don't treat you mean In Abilene, my Abilene. I sit alone most every night Watch them trains roll out of sight Wish that they were carryin' me To Abilene, my Abilene. Crowded city, ain't nothin' free Nothin' in this town for me Wish to God that I could be In Abilene, my Abilene. How I wish that train would come Take me back where I come from. Take me where I want to be In Abilene, my Abilene. Rotgut whiskey numbs the brain If I stay here I'll go insane. Think I need a change of scene To Abilene, my Abilene. Outside my window cold rain falls, Sit here starin' at the walls; If I was home, I'd be serene In Abilene, my Abilene."

(5) And I saw Lightning Hopkins:
Tom Waits (1973): "... and actually the first real songwriter I really saw and really got enthused about was Jack Tempchin and that was in about 1968 at the Candy Company on El Cajon Boulevard, he was playing on the bill with Lightning Hopkins and he was real casual and everything, it was just something I wanted to try my hand at, so I tried my hand at it, I don't know, I guess you get better as you go along, the more music you listen to and the more perceptive you become towards melody and lyric and all." (Source: "Folkscene 1973, with Howard and Roz Larman" (KPFK-FM 90.7). Date: Los Angeles/ USA. August 12, 1973)

(6) The Heritage Club in San Diego: further reading: The Heritage

(7) They shared a manager, Herb Cohen: Further reading: Copyright.

(8) The play Frank's Wild YearsFrank's Wild Years (the play) premiered on June 17, 1986 at Chicago's Briar Street Theatre. Further reading: Frank's Wild Years.

(9) New York amusement park Coney IslandConey Island: American amusement park/ vacation destination in Brooklyn/ New York. Further reading: Coney Island 1Coney Island 2; Coney Island 3; Coney Island 4; Also mentioned in: Take it with me, 1999: "Old long since gone, now way back when we lived in Coney Island.", Table Top Joe, 1992/ 2002: "So I went to Coney Island, I was singing this song."