|Title: Neither Vinyl Nor Film Can Contain Waits
Source: Film Threat magazine 18, by Steve Dollar. 1989. Thanks to Dorene LaLonde for donating article. Illustration by Glenn Barr
Date: telephone interview, early 1989
Key words: Big Time, acting
Magazine front cover: Film Threat 18 magazine, 1989
|Illustration by Glenn Barr|
Neither Vinyl Nor Film Can Contain Waits
A Tom Waits Interview
By Steve Dollar
It's 1 p.m. in Los Angeles, and Tom Waits' voice sounds like it's in need of an exorcist. Reached by phone, the performer is kicking back after a recent trip to London to promote Big Time(1), a filmed record of his latest concert tour.
First celebrated (and sometimes hooted) as a regular at L.A.'s cheesier night spots in the early seventies, Mr. Waits gained notoriety as a songwriter given to bittersweet sentimentality and post-Kerouac reveries, accompanied by a piano and mushrooming haze of cigarette smoke. After a batch of albums ("Closing Time," "The Heart of Saturday Night," "Blue Valentine," and others), critical acclaim and declining record sales, he found a second career in the movies- most notably as a tragi-comic bum opposite Jack Nicholson in Ironweed and as one of three existential stooges in Jim Jarmusch's Down By Law.
Beginning in 1983, however, Mr. Waits staked his claim as one of the most eccentric and fearless of composers. The songs spun out of trilogy of albums - "Swordfish trombones," "Rain Dogs," and "Frank's Wild Years" - and the musical "Frank's Wild Years"(2) can seem like a weird fusion of Howling Wolf, Frank Sinatra, the wheeze of a calliope organ and a jackhammer rumbling in the next block. At one jagged and beautific, the music, Mr. Waits explains, "...is like plastic surgery - what will the body accept and what it won't. It's a very natural process."
The same could hold true for a Tom Waits interview.
After 15 years in the business, why are you doing a concert flick now?
Jesus, I don't know. You mean now as opposed to then? It's a retirement concert. I'm going into the shoe business and I just wanted to say goodbye. Y'know. It's a home movie. I guess I wish I had some old black-and-white footage of myself now. From, y'know, "Hullabaloo." But now I don't have much at all. I lost a lot of the stuff in a fire. I had an ex-manager(3) who ran off to Hong Kong, took all my press clippings.
Big Time doesn't look like your average rock n' roll movie, what did you do to make it different?
Well, I don't know. We tried to give it a little bit of that infrared Mondo Cane feel so that it didn't look like a stuffed bird. There's no cameras on stage, there were six cameras up in the balcony. So we got that safari rifle feel. It's difficult, because there're just so many ways to skin a cat. We laid an egg, so we're waitin' for it to hatch now. Most concert films are orphans, I guess, 'cause they're like docu, uh, docu, uh... docu-orchestra. It pales next to being there, in most cases, and it's hard to get just the right vantage point. In this case, it was sitting right on my mustache.
I really liked your story about artificial insemination. Do you research these things, make 'em up or what?
True story! It's a true story. I read it in the paper. Weekly World News. So, y'know...
You've made almost as many movies now as albums, how do you see your acting career?
A lot of people compare me to Faye Dunaway and I think it's unfair. How do I view myself? I dunno, I think it's good to try and fly in different areas. It keeps you alert and growing. I'm always trying to find some mutant way to combine the things that I do. I'd like to work with John Cassavetes some day.
How did you get into acting?
It's not something I always dreamed of doing at all. Y'know, I wanted to be many things. I never wanted to be an actor. I wanted to be a rodeo guy. I wanted to be a research botanist, y'know? And then of course I had to give up my career in medicine for music. I've been trying to find some way to combine medicine and music (laffs). I dunno, you just try different things. I get offers to be in films now, to play a father or a policeman or an insurance investigator. Y'know, I'm fortunate to be asked and learn as you go, y'know? Keep your present job and train athome in your spare time.
In Candy Mountain, you play a ritzy, Palm Beach sort of guy, which was such a contrast to the bum you played in Ironfly -er, I mean, Ironweed -
"Ironfly", that's my next act. It's a combination of The Fly and Ironweed. It's about a bum who turns into a fly. Um, it was, "Yeah, you should be playing golf, you should be playing a lot of golf." That was my favorite line from Candy Mountain.
How was it working with (fabled photographer and Candy Mountain director) Robert Frank(4)?
I think he changed the face of photography forever with that little Leica that he used. He's a true artist. He's uncompromising, very immovable in some ways as to how loyal he is to his ideas and what he'll give up. It's rare. I loved working with him. It was difficult for Robert, being as he's used to working with a film camera on his shoulder and three or four people come in with the full catastrophe of a film crew.
Talk some about the different directors you've worked with.
I liked working with Francis (Coppola), we're actually working on an idea for a new soft drink, now, so we hope that's gonna fly. (Jim) Jarmusch is like a lonesome film director. He has a great sense of graphics and physics, advertising and western culture and photography. He's minimal combined with a dark sense of humor. It's like a Russian script for "The Honeymooners." (Hector) Babenco has that religious persecution complex, with a documentary background. I don't know. I liked working with 'em all.
You recently moved back to Los Angeles after spending a few years in New York. What took you to NY in the first place?
I moved there to go to medical school, but I wasn't accepted so I really had to scrounge around. I'd already committed myself. New York was like an open sewer, y'know, with full orchestra. And proscenium. The whole bit, the whole catastrophe was thrilling and at the same time it threatens your very existence. It's a hard place to live, for everybody I think. A can of beer costs like four bucks. So, you have to be ready for those kinds of surprises.
Did your music take on a new edge from living in the city?
No question about it. It's just a whole pageant. It's very rich, there's a lot of noises that you either become compatible with or they drive you away. It's just very surreal living with so much impact and so much input.
How has Harry Partch(5) influenced you?
He was an American hobo that developed most of his ideas for instruments and tonal inflections from things that he saw and experienced along the road. The diamond mariba, the eroica, the krumelodeon. These were kind of salvage instruments. I think he was part of an old tradition, he was an inventor and innovator and I think the sounds that he made were inherently American because they were made on things people throw away, I guess. That's a real, very useful thing to do.
Do you invent your own instruments?
I have a percussionist who plays on things in the room that aren't necessarily instruments, experimenting with different sounds. But it's no different from what people have been doing since the beginning of recording. If you can't get the sound out of the instrument that you're using, you immediately go to the bathroom. That's where everybody goes first, because that's where the pipes are, and the slop, and the metal and the floor. Um, you know that's just real, kids do it all the time. It's like cooking you know, find ingredients that you think are compatible and decide what's appropriate for what it is you're building. It's like plastic surgery, what will the body accept and what it won't. It's a very natural process.
How'd you select your band?
They're chosen on good looks and wardrobe and marksmanship. They're veterans of other groups, with a great sense of adventure. They're all orphans in a way, so...
When you work up new songs and play them in concert, do you see yourself more as a conductor or a collaborator?
Yeah, I'm running the show, but I'm not the police. My wife just said "Huh!" Everybody's allowed to bring forward ideas. Every group has its own anatomy. Marc Ribot has a very strong pygmy industrial violence, but also a very strong gypsy side to him. So he goes from Django to Hendrix. And I like that range. Greg Cohen has a lot of cruise ships experience. Sorry, Greg. He's worked a lot of lounges. He's been in bands since he was seven years old in the garage with his brother. Ralph Carney has a very Chinese approach to music. He'll play four or five saxophones simultaneously. He also plays organ and just about anything. He's very adventurous, creates his own labyrinths and catacombs. He's worked with Pere Ubu and his own group in Ohio.
Akron greats Tin Huey?
Yeah, Tin Huey. He lives in Brooklyn. Michael Blair plays in Latin bands and worked in a lot of salsa bands and also has a real industrial side to him. Willie Schwarz is a realauthority on Egyptian music. He's the only one who will wear a fez upon command. So, all together, it's real exciting to explore a new song. To do a Supremes' song like a polka, find new ways to turn things upside down.
Tell me about your new movie, Cold Feet (directed by Robert Arnhelm and co-starring Keith Carradine).
It's all about the dangers of spandex and living in a motor home with a complete schreck...
It's about veterinarians and duplicity. And .38 caliber revolvers. It's an action-adventure, uh, piece.
Does it have a pretty sizable role for you?
Uh, yeah, it's a pretty good-sized role. I get to do my own stunts.
Are you writing any roles for yourself?
I'm starring in the Gina Lollobridgida Story. I'm playing Gina Lollobridgida. That's my next project.
You've also got some stuff -"Hi, Ho, Hi, Ho"- on Hal Willner's new Disney album ("Stay Awake").
It's got some very strange pieces on it. The Nevilles doing "Mickey Mouse Club," The Replacements doing "Cruella Deville," and, uh, what else? Ken Nordine's on it. Yma Sumac, doing "I Wonder". It's a very strange group of people.
How does your song work out?
It's an adult view of work. Off to work we go. It's a little more of a grown up approach to the concept of the American work ethic... It's a little more out-of-focus, it's a little scratchier, it's a little violent, I think.
How do you keep your voice in shape?
How do I keep my voice in shape? Well, y'know, I'm on a strict diet. High protein. Low cholesterol. And I drink my own urine. Yeah, I think that's the secret...
Any people you'd like to collaborate with?
John Cassavetes, yeah. Stephen Hawkings, the guy who wrote "A Brief History of Time."
What would you collaborate on?
I don't know. I'd like to meet him.
Do you still live in the heart of Los Angeles?
Bel Air baby! Got a uniformed guard at the gate. I'm out by the pool right now and it's beautiful. I don't ever want to change. Naw, I'm still downtown.
Near the Big Boy?
Yeah, I live right next to Big Boy. You mean the hamburger place?
You been over here?
No, but I'd read that it's one of David Lynch's favorite places.
There's somebody I'd like to work with, David Lynch. I'd like to score a horror movie, Dracula Girls.
Well, OK, thanks a lot for your time...
Faye Dunaway, I'd like to work with her. Nice try, fat chance, get in the back of the line buddy.
(1) A recent trip to London to promote Big Time: Waits also making a surprise appearance at the Cork Film Festival in Ireland (showing of the movie Big Time). Further reading: Performances
(2) The musical "Frank's Wild Years": Further reading: Franks Wild Years
(3) I had an ex-manager: rockmanager and label owner Herb Cohen. Further reading: Copyright
(4) Robert Frank: Robert Frank and Waits got acquainted in 1983, as Waits was temporarily living in New York and working on 'Swordfishtrombones'; Further collaborations: The album 'Rain Dogs'. Album released: September, 1985. Back cover photo; The movie 'Candy Mountain' (shot late 1986, released 1987). Waits plays rich guy 'Al Silk' and performs: "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" & "Once More Before I Go". Director;
(6) Harry Partch: San Diego multi-instrumentalist. Developed and played home made instruments. Released the album" The World Of Harry Partch". Major influence for the album 'Swordfishtrombones'. Partch died in San Diego, 1974. Further reading: Partch, Harry 1; Partch, Harry 2; Partch, Harry 3;