Title: Old Man Waits Is New Again
Old Man Waits Is New Again
By Robert Everett-Green
''When I was a kid, I wanted to be an old man,'' said Tom Waits, his voice scraping down the phone line like a heavy chain on asphalt. ''I was only interested in old men's music. It felt reliable, like it was going to be around a year from now.''
No doubt that's why even the freshest Waits songs, including the 15 on his new album Real Gone (out tomorrow on Anti-/Epitaph), sound like they've been here a long time. They're scuffed, they're bruised, and they're looking for some place to lay down the burden of too many bad deals at the used-car lot of life.
They're songs of experience, but not the plain-vanilla experience of job and kids and a place in a suburb farther out than the one you grew up in. His 18-plus albums endlessly circle the shabby-glamorous experience of dodging out of seedy motels one step ahead of trouble, or shilling for Horse-Faced Ethel. If blues is tragedy, Waits's music is romance, dressed in tragicomic costume. His songs are old and young at the same time, because romance, even a battered kind of romance, is always being reborn.
"I'm trying to break out of an egg all the time," he said. "You peck through the egg, and you think you're free, and there's another egg." Every time the shell breaks, a new old man emerges, to tug at your sleeve and mumble a story through tobacco-tarred teeth.
Those stories are so vivid that a lot of people imagine them to be autobiographical, as if a good tale necessarily gets better by being true. But Waits is too guarded and professional to spill his life directly into song.
In any case, his existence has been stable for the past two decades. He has a wife and three kids. His records do increasingly well (Mule Variations, from 1999, sold over a million copies), and his shows often sell out in minutes (nine minutes, for an Oct. 15 date in Vancouver). He doesn't sleep under railway bridges.
Some of his taste for the theatre of seedy situations may stem from boyhood road trips to northern Mexico, a more exotic and lawless environment than suburban Whittier, Calif., where his parents taught school. And for a few years in the seventies, Waits lived a colourful life at L.A.'s Tropicana Motel(1), steeping himself in the city's fading underculture.
When he was 10, his father abandoned home and family, and his mother raised her son alone, in a troop-town near San Diego. That's the kind of shock that might make you want to be a precocious old man, involved with things that last. It may also account for the tender, sepia-toned nostalgia that wafts through some of his songs, when Waits's Captain Beefheart growl is softened by harmonies and rhetoric borrowed from Stephen Foster. We may be in a mess today, Waits is telling us, but at some time in the past things were good, kids could just be children, and distinctions of high and low didn't matter.
"Everything has equal value for me," he said. "If it's something you found on the side of the road on the way to the studio, that to me is worth as much as an oboe, or a bassoon, or the toilet seat. . . . I like two radios on at the same time, or a song coming out of a car as it's driving by. I like things that have been beat up a little bit."
The songs on Real Gone are real beat up, and it took a lot of care and attention to get them that way. Waits and his band (including habitual colleagues such as guitarist Marc Ribot, and first-timers like Wait's drumming son, Casey)(2) worked them over the way guys in theatre craft-shops make new sets and stage furniture look lived in.
"You have to distress them," Waits said. "You just do it till it sounds right. You say it's too yellow, can you put some more green into it. You talk in metaphors, make arcane references. Can you make it less Paul Robeson, more Ethel Waters, less Mahalia Jackson, more Mose Allison. . . . There's a science to it, but you can't rely just on the science. All the technique in the world won't save you from a day of bad weather."
Sometimes more Ethel Waters is not enough. Waits's first version of Circus(3), a spoken-word number on the new album, had to be stripped down and rebuilt before Waits could get the garish carnie feeling he wanted.
"It was a song first, that I did with some hip-hop I looped from the radio," he said. "But it felt too cheerful, too bouncy. I wanted it more pathetic and tawdry. So I spoke it, and got my son to play drums on it, and it worked out better." It suited him fine that Casey, who was recorded separately, didn't know what he was playing for. Like Frank Zappa, with whom Waits toured for a couple of years during the late seventies as an opening act, Waits likes to keep people working for ends that only he can see clearly.
Usually his songs take shape more easily than Circus did. He'll be in his car, or doing anything at all, and a bit of song flutters up like a moth from under the lampshade. He catches it on the little tape recorder he carries everywhere.
"I'm always 'packing,' " he said. "I write a lot that way, a cappella, away from the piano. My feeling is that there's so much intelligence in the fingers, they sometimes get in the way."
He does believe, however, in the advantage of two heads over one. He writes and produces all of his songs with his wife Kathleen Brennan, a former script-editor whom Waits met while writing the Oscar-nominated music for Francis Ford Coppola's One from the Heart (4)in 1982. (Waits launched his successful on-screen career the following year in Coppola's Rumble Fish.) "Her ideas are indispensable. They've definitely improved my aim and my perception. I think I used to be much more timid in my music. She pushed me out in traffic in my stroller. . . .
"She was going to be a nun, she was an opera singer, and a newscaster. She plays piano like Liberace and Glenn Gould, she's a tree-surgeon and a ventriloquist, she can even take the engine apart on the truck. And she's a bathing beauty."
Their 18-year-old son Casey doesn't seem to have inherited his father's preference for old men's music. He listens to Rage Against the Machine and the Wu Tang Clan's ODB, and came to the Real Gone recording sessions with visibly mixed feelings. "He got this look on his face, somewhere between euphoria and embarrassment," Waits said, about Casey's days at his dad's workplace. "But it worked, he did it, and he got paid."
Having a son of draft age encouraged Waits to have his say about the war in Iraq, which he does on three songs, including the sentimental Day After Tomorrow (5)and the satiric Hoist That Rag. Both suit the moment, but are general enough, he pointed out, to have a life beyond the end of the conflict. As ever, he's looking for a way to make things last. Except, of course, for the war, and maybe one other feature of American public life.
"You take the high road," he said, "we'll take the presidency."
Tom Waits's Real Gone is in stores tomorrow. He performs at Vancouver's Orpheum Theatre on Oct. 15, and the Commodore Ballroom on Oct. 16.
(1) L.A.'s Tropicana Motel: Further reading: The Tropicana full story
(2) Wait's drumming son, Casey: Casey Xavier Waits played on the 4-track album 'Hold On' (1999). Drums and co-writer ("Big Face Money"). The album 'Real Gone' (2004). Turntables (Top Of The Hill, Metropolitan Glide), Percussion (Hoist That Rag, Don't Go Into That Barn), Claps (Shake It), Drums (Dead And Lovely, Make It Rain). Production crew. Casey also stepped in a couple of times for Andrew Borger (drums) during the Mule Variations Tour (Congresgebouw, The Hague/ The Netherlands. June 21, 1999)
(3) Circus: read lyrics: "Circus"
(4) One From The Heart: further reading: One From The Heart full story
(5) Day After Tomorrow: read lyrics: "Day After Tomorrow"