Title: Not So Much A Poet, More A Purveyor Of Improvisational Travelogue
Source: New Musical Express (UK), by Todd Everett. Transcription by Paul Streckfus as published on Gary Tausch's Tom Waits Miscellania. Kind permission: Gary Tausch. Also printed in Los Angeles Free Press: Todd Everett. October 17-23, 1975.
Date: November 29, 1975 (New Musical Express) October 17, 1975 (L.A. Free Press)
Keywords: Jack Kerouac, Troubadour, Frank Zappa

Magazine front cover. New Musical Express (UK). November 29, 1975

Accompanying pictures
Entire article. New Musical Express (UK). November 29, 1975


Not So Much A Poet, More A Purveyor Of Improvisational Travelogue


Could Tom Waits really be The Next Big Thing?
Todd Everett, in Los Angeles, finds out.

Although he's extremely reluctant to admit it - and will take care to avoid the topic - Tom Waits is a poet.

He'll admit to being a songwriter, he's certainly that, and a fine one.

To his detractors, who can't seem to make a thing of him, Waits is a mumbling soft on stage: a performer who wanders on stage drunk and mutters meaningless multi syllables at the audience. To his fans, who safely outnumber his detractors, Waits is that "something different" that we've all been waiting for. Many will tell you that the goateed street rat is a talent far too great to be ignored: the first successful attempt to bring the beat culture of the Greenwich Village '50s into a form meaningful to today's listeners.

Waits, in his early 20s, has absorbed this rich, influential culture with the zeal of a religious convert. He came to it in his mid teens: a time when some of us discovered Dylan; some of us discovered Swing; and when some of us are discovering Springsteen. The mod teens are an important, impressionable age.

Waits discovered Jack Kerouac. "I guess everybody reads Kerouac at some point in their life. Even though I was growing up in Southern California, he made a tremendous impression on me. It was 1968. I started wearing dark glasses and got myself a subscription to Downbeat ... I was a little late. Kerouac died in 1969 in St Petersburg, Florida, a bitter old man.

"I became curious about style more than anything else. I discovered Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti ... Ginsberg still comes up with something every now and again."

The sources became more diverse: Comedian Lord Buckley, Ken Nordine(1), whose "word jazz" was a unique combination of spoken stories and improvised jazz background. Ray Charles, Mose Allison. And James Brown.

"There's a fascinating album that came out in '57 on Hanover Records: "Kerouac/Allen"(2). It's Jack Kerouac telling stories, with Steve Allen playing piano behind him. That album sort of sums up the whole thing. That's what gave me the idea to do some spoken pieces myself."

"Spoken pieces" are what immediately sets Waits off from most contemporary night-club performers. It's the same discovery that Bob Dylan made some years ago; that one didn't necessarily have to set all of one's words to music ("If I can sing it," said Dylan at the time, "it's a song. If I can't, it's a poem." "Poetry is a very dangerous word," says Waits, "It's very misused. Most people when they hear the word poetry think of being chained to a school desk, memorizing 'Ode To A Grecian Urn'. When somebody says that they're going to read me a poem. I can think of any number of things that I'd rather be doing. I don't like the stigma that comes with being called a poet - so I call what I'm doing an improvisational adventure or an inebriational travelogue(3), and all of a sudden it takes on a whole new form and meaning.

"If I'm tied down and have to call myself something, I prefer 'storyteller'. Everybody has their own definition of what poetry is, and of who's a poet. I think that Charles Bukowski(4)is a poet - and I think that most will agree to that."

Waits, raised in various Southern California suburbs, was a frequent commuter from San Diego to the Troubadour's Monday night hootenannies(5) when discovered by Herb Cohen(6). Cohen once managed Lord Buckley and currently handles the affairs of Frank Zappa as well as Waits.

"You arrive at the Troubadour at 10 in the morning and wait all day. They let the first several people in line perform that night. When you finally get up there, you are allowed four songs - you can blow it all in 15 minutes. I was scared shitless." Nevertheless the first night Cohen spotted Waits, a contract was offered to the starving songwriter.

Within relatively short order, Waits was signed to the then new Asylum label with his first album produced by former Lovin' Spoonful member, Jerry Yester. "Closing Time", the album's title, accurately reflected the disc's overall mood - late night in a smokey, all but empty barroom with tinkling piano, discreet rhythm and Waits' growled lyrics. One of the songs, "Ol 55", was picked up and recorded by another Asylum act, the Eagles. That and other Waits songs have subsequently been recorded by Tim Buckley, Lee Hazlewood, Ian Matthews and Eric Andersen, while John Stewart and Bette Midler include Waits' "Shiver Me Timbers" in their stage acts.

A second album, "The Heart Of Saturday Night", produced by Bones Howe, was released, winning even greater critical acclaim than did the well received first ("I've never gotten any real strong verbal insubordination from any reviewers"). The after hours mood was preserved, even strengthened. Waits' third album, a double live set, "Nighthawks At The Diner", was recorded at the Los Angeles branch of the Record Plant recording studios, decked up to simulate a nightclub atmosphere, before an invited audience, instrumental accompaniment by a well-rehearsed band of local jazzmen including former Mose Allison drummer Bill Goodwin, pianist Mike Melvoin, bassist Jim Hughart, and tenor saxist Peter Christlieb.

The reedman, who regularly plays with Doc Severinsen's band and leads his own group at North Hollywood's Dante's night club, seemed particularly stricken by Waits' gifts. "I'd been going to the club for some time to hear Pete's band. After he played my sessions, he asked me to come down to the club and sit in on "Vocabulary". I was very flattered."

Waits describes his relationship with his record company and fellow artist as "All right, I don't invite them over to my house or anything; but I don't really know very many of them. They have a lot of faith in me over there, with the idea that sooner or later I'll do something significant."

His sales are, he admits, "pretty catastrophic" with the income "barely paying production costs." Thanks largely to a constant series of barnstorming personal appearance tours the audience is growing. "In cities like Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Boston and Denver. I'm a very bizarre cultural phenomenon."

It isn't all that smooth though, even with the exposure. Waits recalls with a sure shudder a series of tours opening the show for Frank Zappa and the Mothers - whose audience, sophisticated though they may be, were not ready for Waits and his "stories".

"I did three tours, until I couldn't stand it anymore. It's very difficult for one man (Waits usually plays alone) to come out in front of between five and ten thousand people and get anything but visual and verbal insubordination from the audience. I wouldn't do it again - it makes me look bad, and scares me. People will come and throw produce at you - literally, I could say that I don't mind; that you can throw it at me and I'll pocket the money and run to Venezuela. But after a while it creates a very bitter attitude. It's excruciating."

Waits did learn, though, and his present old suit and loose tie stage costume dates from those tours. "There was no way that I could wear anything and stand out on stage. So I just did a complete 360 degrees. They started calling me 'The Wino'."

How about the rest of the onstage attitude; the shuffling gait; the ad-lib appearance? "I know what works and what doesn't, strictly by trial and error. People who like what I do have come to expect this narrative; this I-don't-give-a-shit shuffle that I've been doing for a few years. I'm aware that I cut a certain sort of figure on stage. It's the difference between lighting up a cigarette in your living room, and lighting one up on stage - a whole different attitude takes over. Everything is blown up beyond proportion. I want to be able to go up and be a caricature of myself on stage."

Caricature, perhaps. But that's not at all to say that Waits has "sold out". He lives in one of Los Angeles' less expensive districts (Silverlake)(8), in a home that could be classed by any standards as "modest".

At home Waits drives a huge, black 1954 Cadillac which, he confesses, "costs me more than a new car probably would. I get six miles per gallon long distance; three driving around town. It eats, drips, and burns oil like crazy. It's comfortable for me though, it's roomy and I can put all my garbage in the back seat. I've always had old cars and always enjoyed Body by Fisher and other fine automotive structures."

His friends include his father and drinking buddies at the local bar.

For a while, Tom was getting along fine with his landlord too. But now, there's more than a hint of suspicion in the old man's eyes. "Before I was at home all day and paid the rent on time; he thought that I must be collecting unemployment insurance. But since I've been touring, I'll pay my rent in advance and leave home for a couple of weeks at a time. He can't understand that; thinks that I must be involved in something illegal."

Has success spoiled Tom Waits? Hardly spoiled. But, says Tom, hardly "success" either.
"I'm not concerned about financial success. I just don't think about it. If anything, I've become more comfortable, knowing that I can sleep until two and hang out until 10 in the morning; and don't have to worry about losing my job.

"But I'm not a big star. I'm not even a twinkle," Waits eyes dance.

"I'm just a rumour."


(1) Ken Nordine: Waits often ecpressed his appreciation for Nordine, and he even guested on the Nordine album Devout Catalyst ("Thousand Bing Bangs" and "The Movie": Devout Catalyst - Ken Nordine, Grateful Dead Productions Inc., 1992). Further reading: Word Jazz websiteKen Nordine fan page.

(2) On Hanover Records: "Kerouac/Allen": "Poetry for the Beat Generation - Jack Kerouac and Steve Allen". Hanover Records HML 5000 [1959]. Fourteen poems read by the author to original piano accompaniment by Steve Allen. Side 1: October in the Railroad Earth; Deadbelly; Charlie Parker; The Sounds of the Universe Coming in My Window; One Mother. Side 2: Goofing at the Table; Bowery Blues; Abraham; Dave Brubeck; If I had a Slouch Hat Too one Time; The Wheel of Quivering Meat Conception; McDougal Street Blues; The Moon Her Majesty; I'd Rather Be Thin Than Famous. The second of Kerouac's recordings for general distribution. 33 1/3 rpm, 12" mono LP, with music by Steve Allen and poetry by Kerouac. Kerouac and Allen had met at the Village Vanguard at a poetry reading Kerouac was giving, and Allen sat in with him for the second show. After the show, they decided to collaborate on this album, which they produced in one take. Dot Records, which was to have released it, got cold feet at the last minute, after they had already sent out the review copies; it was issued by Hanover with liner notes describing the controversy over its release and also describing the genesis of the album. Gilbert Millstein, who had reviewed On the Road for the New York Times in 1957, wrote the liner notes.

(3) An improvisational adventure or an inebriational travelogue: as mentioned in the intro for "On A Foggy Night" (Nighthawks At The Diner, 1975): "Well, I think it's about time I took you on an improvisational adventure into the bowels of the Metropolitan region." and intro for "Nighthawk Postcards" (Nighthawks At The Diner, 1975): "I wanna take you on kind of an inebriational travelogue.."

(4) Charles Bukowski: American poet/ enfant terrible and major influence on Tom Waits. Bukowski died March 9, 1994. Further reading: Bukowski, Charles 1Bukowski, Charles 2Bukowski, Charles 3Bukowski, Charles 4.

(5) The Troubadour's Monday night hootenannies: Monday's "hootnights" at Doug Weston's Troubadour (located at: 9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood) where Mr. Waits got his break into show business during the summer of 1971. Further reading: The Troubadour

(6) Herb Cohen: rock manager and label owner who discovered Waits in 1971. Further reading: Copyright.

(7) He lives in one of Los Angeles' less expensive districts (Silverlake): Around June/ July 1971 Waits had moved from his parent's place in San Diego to a little apartment in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles. In June 1976 Waits was still living in the Silver Lake area. Shortly after he moved to a larger apartment at 1309 North Coronado Street in Echo Park. Apparently he only lived there for a couple of months, because in December 1976 Waits had already moved in the Tropicana. Further reading: The Tropicana