Title: Nighthawks At The Chelsea
Source: Modern Hi-Fi and Musics Sound Trax, by Larry Goldstein. Transcription by Mark Gerking as published on Mark Gerking's Bluezville
Date: New York. October, 1978
Key words: Chelsea Hotel, Foreign Affairs, Success, Bette Midler, Used Carlotta

Magazine front cover: Soundtrax. October, 1978

Accompanying picture
Date: 1977 or earlier. Credits: photography by Glen Leferman


Nighthawks At The Chelsea


I would venture a guess that most of Tom Waits' fans are romantics. His music, lyrics and stage presence are all reminiscent of an old Humphrey Bogart movie. It is a world of mystery and romance. It is almost always night and everyone has stories to tell. It is a world viewed best in the stark tones of black & white. In fact, Waits, with his baggy black suit and newsboy cap, also appears to be black & white, except, that is, for the dark blues and reds of his Nighthawks tattoo. He has a streetlamp on stage with him and uses a white spot very sparingly. He gives the illusion of being a court jester in somebody's surreal, barroom dream. Perhaps that is why his lyrics, often called puerile, can strike home so hard. Tom Waits, you see, represents a side of us all.

At least that's what I noticed on that bright autumn afternoon when I met Tom Waits.

The scene was typically Waits, as if choreographed by the image makers, but real and sincere nonetheless. We met at the Chelsea Hotel, the classic hangout of everyone who ever claimed to have been a beat, a hippie, a poet, or a drunk during those bygone days when everything that was happening in New York was happening in the Village. It was over at the Chelsea, an unassuming, somewhat seedy, establishment on the Westside of Manhattan that the young hopefuls would stay. There was Ginsberg, and Cassady, and then the later day folkies like Baez and Dylan. It was there, you might recall, that Bob wrote the immortal "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands." The place reeks with history, but this story is about Waits. It isn't the nineteen fifties or sixties anymore. And most of the folkies and beats aren't anymore; they're either dead or living on the beach at Malibu. But still Waits knows where he's coming from. The Chelsea is the perfect place for a meeting like this. He can afford better these days; his band actually stays uptown in a nice, sterile hotel, but this is just about the only place where Waits looks and feels at home.

At the time, he was in the middle of a hectic tour of one night stands that would get him home for Christmas and then overseas for an extended burnout until early summer.

He would describe his situation simply, in that characteristic bronchial cough of a voice of his, "There's always somebody pulling on my coat about something."

Tom Waits is kept pretty busy these days. But he still has time to talk, if you can call his throaty mumbling talking. His answers were mostly short, sometimes evasive, and he would end just trailing off into a growl aimed more into his glass then my microphone. I followed him over to a bar on 23rd street. It was a dark, typically Westside establishment (wino lunch for a buck), empty except for a few lushes glued to their stools. Waits enjoys bars.

"It's so American," he explained, in between puffs on one of the many cigarettes he would suck into his lungs that afternoon. "Nothin' better than sittin' in a bar on a Saturday afternoon."

But despite the connections, and despite the fact that an aura of inebriation is essential to his act, Waits wants to make sure it's understood that he is no "rumy" Hootch takes to great a toll on his body and his voice. At our meeting he was sober as hell, only drinking Tropicana on the rocks.

"I'm off the sauce," he said in response to my expression of disbelief at his order, "touring sixty cities, I gotta stay healthy." He's even trying to quit cigarettes too, but apparently without much success. After five years on the road, he knows all the clubs. he also knows the demands of life on the road, and knows that if he is not careful it could be all over too soon. That doesn't bother him too much. He mused philosophically, "Today's heroes are tomorrow's service station operators. I'm lucky. I'm a pretty good mechanic." (He must be to keep his 1954 Caddy on the road.) Although he is playing the largest halls in his career this tour, he seems unimpressed with the bigtime. He doesn't feel that success will change his life too much. But as he says, "I can't be playing bars all my life." Waits would eventually like to cut his touring back to six months a year, down from the present ten months, to give himself more time to write and record and of course, more time to relax.

Tom Waits was born on the eighth anniversary of the "Day of Infamy," (Dec. 7, 1949 for you folks with no sense of history) in the back seat of a Yellow Cab.

"With the meter still running," he added.

His parents were both teachers but from the beginning they knew young Tom was not academically oriented. He worked in restaurants and diners after high school, and was usually working too hard to really make the sixties scene. His musical tastes weren't in step with those years either, ranging widely from Cole Porter to Igor Stravinsky to Mose Allison. Somewhere in that time Waits got a piano. He describes the incident with tongue in cheek.

"It was a snowbound Christmas Eve in Whittier, California, but a toddler, on my way home from work at the factory, I crawled past a pawn shop and noticed a piano hanging up in the window, amidst the false teeth, the bent saxophones, the cracked clarinets and cameras. I knew I had to get my hands on that sucker, so with beers in my eyes, that night tucked into bed, with visions of Robitussin and Wild Irish Rose in my head. I disclosed this dream to my mother, and my mother in housecoat and mucklucks went down to the pawnshop that night and put a brick through the window and dragged home the piano for me."

Waits taught himself to play the piano. He pounded on the black keys, and fiddled with a variety of styles. It wasn't until he landed a job as a doorman at an LA club that he began to think in terms of a musical career. he did the amateur night circuit for a while. It was at one of these freebie shows that he was discovered. Herb Cohen, then manager for Frank Zappa and the Mothers, heard him and signed him on the spot.

Tom Waits released his first album, Closing Time, in 1973. Despite critical acclaim it never really got off the ground. Since then Waits has released an album a year, churning out the tunes but still showing a growing musical maturity in addition to the requisite sales acceptance. Small Change, released in 1976, was his first real commercial success. But success is all relative in Waits' mind. He took a sip of the juice and explained, "success is purely relative: some peoples' 'bombs go gold and other peoples' hits just make the charts for a month or two." Not that Waits is starving, he explained, "I do have a tendency to live in a state of self-imposed poverty, but I always live this way. All I want is a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of bourbon." He took another drag and admitted, "Naah, I'm not getting sentimental on you, I want more than that. I want a sandwich, but the restaurant is closed."

Waits' latest LP is entitled Foreign Affairs, and it seems destined to be his biggest seller to date. His voice has never been better, though to the new listener it might grate like flesh over gravel. The difference in his vocal performance is best evidenced on the cut "Burma Shave" on which, as Waits explained, "I was trying to sing instead of just growling and grunting, which, by the time I get off the road is all I can muster up."

"Potters Field," another cut on this recent LP, is Waits' most ambitious song to date. The imagery is as haunting as anything since "The Heart of Saturday Night."

"Believe me," he said, "It took a long time. Just the writing of it took a long time."

While Waits has a back up band, the show is all his. He demands center stage and can occupy it well. And besides there are very few people who could mesh with Waits' style and delivery. One of the few people with whom he can work is Bette (as in Midler.)

"I met her, now let me see, a couple of years ago at the Bottom Line (a nightclub) in New York," he said, "and we got along famously. I admire her a great deal. And you know...I'll kick anybody's ass who knocks her. I wrote a couple of tunes for her." ("Shiver Me Timbers" among them.)

The two stayed close friends and then one day Bette dropped by the studio during the recording of Foreign Affairs just to say hello. The topic of duets arose, and she asked Waits to try and write one for them. So Tom went home and went to work and came back the next day with a brand new song, to be recorded that day, I Never Talk To Strangers, which has become the most popular song on the album. When I asked him about the possibility of more collaboration between the two, Waits was intentionally vague and mysterious.

"We might work something out," he said.

He's eager to admit however, that writing songs isn't always that easy for him. He explained that he found it the hardest, but most rewarding, aspect of his work. Recording studios, on the other hand, make him extremely anxious, and he considers them, "cruel and unusual punishment. It's excruciating, like going to the dentist." In order to get the recording over with, Waits records directly onto two-tracks with no overdubbing. It is essentially playing live in a studio. (Waits' live album, Nighthawks at the Diner, was actually recorded in a studio with a live audience present.) In this way he can finish an album in four or five sessions. It also keeps the musicians happier, as he puts it, "knowing that they won't be mixed out or anything." It also give his albums an intimate quality that is often lost as a result of laborious studio production work, especially on albums produced in LA.

But besides he's been busy and he's got better things to do these days. He feels it's better for him to be on the streets, where he gets his inspiration, then to be in a studio. That is if he can keep himself from getting thrown in jail. It seems that over the last summer Waits and a friend were arrested in a Hollywood bar(1) (I told you, Waits likes bars) for, as Waits put it, "growling at some plainclothesman. Actually I was trying to break up a fight. They accused me of everything from child molesting to homicide." He continued, "I had a four day jury trial to clear my good name. It was all truped up. Due process took its course. Now I'm sueing three cops. The worst part was that I had to get up at 7 o'clock every morning. I spent fifty bucks at J.C. Penny's. I looked like a shoe salesman for chrissakes. I had to hire an attorney. It was a whole catastrophe, lock, stock, and bagels. It was a pain in the ass. Pain in the ass." While one would think his fame and fortune would keep him out of trouble like this, Waits said that it never comes in handy.

"You can be high, dead, drunk," he explained, "lying in the gutter with a broken leg, in the middle of February in St. Mark's Place and you have a Chinaman's chance of being recognized. But sure enough if you're in a nice bar talking to a girl, some sophomore will come up drooling on your shoulder." While to anyone hooked into the music scene, Waits' career is obviously moving, he himself finds it hard to believe. "I'm usually just having to be concerned with small mundane little problems on the road," he said. "Like it's three in the morning, in Michigan, and it's thirty below and the candy machine is broken. That becomes a major problem. Its hard to tell where I'm headed. All I know is that tomorrow I go to Vermont."

But Waits does have plans. In fact, he's got a great project cooked up for when he gets back home this summer from Europe. "I got this thing I want to do," he whispered, glancing around slyly as if to make sure he would not be over heard. "Gonna take a used car lot, seventy-five automobiles. Organize traffic, conduct with a dipstick, use the doors and hoods. Why, I'll call it the Used Carlotta."(2)

Where is Waits really headed? The truth now. He's not so easy to pin down, though I tried. He can bob and weave with the best of them. The harder I tried the more he dodged the question. But finally I got it out of him. His glass of Tropicana was dry and he was on his last Winston. He was getting restless, but I was persistent. he finally replied, "I really just want to settle down with some unemployed cheerleader in Iowa somewhere. I'm just taking a roundabout route."


(1) Waits and a friend arrested in a Hollywood bar: further reading: Waits And The Cops

(2) Used Carlotta: first mention of this project that never took place. The idea was however included in Francis Ford Coppola's "One From The Heart", 1982. Further reading: One From The Heart