Title: One Wild Ride
Source: San Francisco Magazine by Pamela Feinsilber. September, 2004. Transcription as published on San Francisco Online.
Date: San Francisco. August/ September, 2004
Key words: The Black Rider, William Burroughs, Robert Wilson, Roy Orbison

Magazine front cover: San Francisco Magazine. September, 2004


One Wild Ride

Tom Waits on making a musical like you've never seen with a pair of creative geniuses.
By Pamela Feinsilber

For even jaded theatergoers, the event of the season has to be The Black Rider(1), a macabre musical set in a nightmarish forest. The play--a surreal imagining of a German folktale in which, to gain some magic bullets, a man makes a pact with the devil--is all distorted perspectives, exaggerated gestures, and sinister songs, with catchy melodies performed on unusual-sounding instruments. Critics can't help making comparisons ("Diane Arbus meets Moulin Rouge," "Gothic vaudeville," "a cross of Cabaret, The Threepenny Opera, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show") because the wild mind behind this spooky terrain belongs to Robert Wilson--a man so limitlessly inventive he's won theater, film, sculpture, and design awards and had his artwork displayed in major museums. His experimental theater work always combines media such as dance, painting, music, and text in adventurous ways. He's probably best known for the opera Einstein on the Beach, written with composer Philip Glass, and an epic play, The Civil Wars, created with David Byrne, though you could fill this magazine with his r�sum�.

The Black Rider was originally created with a theater group in Hamburg and performed, in the early nineties, only in German. Wilson used his own inky, childlike drawings to design the sets and the eerie Expressionist lighting. Since neither those sets nor the lighting program was saved, Wilson has dreamed up new staging and other elements for this, the first English-language production. (You can thank Carey Perloff of A.C.T. for bringing it to San Francisco, the only American venue.) All of which seems sufficiently exciting, but there's more: The songs are by the always original Tom Waits, and wonderfully scored, with his colleague Greg Cohen, using all manner of instruments--a little like some of the songs on Waits's 2002 CDs, and Alice and Blood Money, with their decadent European flavor. (Waits, who lives north of San Francisco, is releasing a new CD, Real Gone, next month.) And the text came from the late Beat author and heroin addict William Burroughs, famed for Naked Lunch and other stream-of-consciousness writings, as well as for his colorful life. You may recall that at a party in Mexico in the fifties, he tried to shoot a glass off his wife's head and accidentally killed her. Burroughs has said her death is what spurred him to write, and The Black Rider, with its echoes of his own story ("the gun turns into a dowser's wand, and points where the bullet wants to go"), was perhaps his last work. He died at 83 in 1997.

When I spoke to Tom Waits about seeing The Black Rider in English after all these years, he said, "For the first time, I can understand what they were saying, because I never really knew, you know?"

You've said that you were trying to write music "that could dream its way into the forest of Wilson's images."
He makes these dreamscapes up onstage, and you sit out there in the dark and you start hearing what could possibly be the accompaniment to what you are seeing. But to do that, you have to kind of fall into this liquid dream that he's making for you. I heard a saw(2)[as musical instrument] and all this stuff--'cause you figure the forest, you know.

Yes, and on your CD of these songs [The Black Rider, on which we also hear Burroughs(3) ], the saw isn't the least pedestrian or everyday; it sounds kind of creepy.
It also has that theremin quality that most people associate with horror movies or space odysseys.

And in terms of the lyrics, you said on the liner notes that Burroughs's language "became a river of words for me to draw from." Yet some of the lines sound so much like you. Can you explain to me how you fished in that river and pulled out some of your lyrics?
Um [thinks]..."Beware of"--what is it? [Sings.] "There is a light in the forest...Beware of the telescopic meats." [Speaks it slowly, to emphasize.] Telescopic meats. "He'll find his way back to the forest"--wella, huh huh huh..."and the briar is strangling the rose back down." [Talks.] "His back shall be my slender new branch. It will bend, it will sway in the breeze."

And then I would add my little thing: "And the devil does his polka with a hatchet in his hand. There's a sniper in the branches of the trees." Someone gives you a bunch of words--like they give you a bunch of bottle caps, and you can glue 'em down wherever you want. And mix them with your own macaroni. It was good.

It also set the tone for the piece, 'cause Burroughs has plumbed the depths of so many levels of hell. Burroughs is kind of like a demonic Mark Twain. He's like the real dark heart of America. Comes from the Burroughs Adding Machine family, you know, and he threw off all the shackles of his inheritance and struck out on his own. Like they say, when you're in hell, keep going. So at times he was much more in the realm of Philip K. Dick in science fiction. Anyway, very inspiring. And I was very romantic about all the Beats when I was first coming on the scene myself.

And that voice. My favorite thing is [quoting from "That's the Way," which Burroughs performs on the CD] "That's the way the cookie crumbles(4), that's the way the stomach rumbles, that's the way the needle pricks, that's the way the glue sticks--" That stuff really killed me.

You and your arranger and bandmate, Greg Cohen, and Wilson went to talk with him in Lawrence, Kansas, when you first prepared to work on the play. What was he like?
Burroughs--yeah, he loves firearms and reptiles and...[remembering] the shotgun paintings. He would finish a painting--he painted on plywood--and then he would stand back from it with a 12-gauge shotgun and shoot a hole in it with buckshot. And then he'd say, "That's done," and in a way, ironically, he gave life to it, with all these splinters coming off of it. And around 3, 'cause it was almost cocktail time, he'd start massaging his watch, as if maybe he could get that big hand to move up there a little faster.

What was official cocktail time?
Apparently, it was 3 in Lawrence, Kansas, which is maybe why he moved to that time zone.

I've always wondered why he moved there.
He probably went through there when he was young and traveling and said, "You know, I'm gonna buy a house here someday and settle down." You could hear the train tracks from there...Wilson is from Texas--lot of flat land in Texas. It's good for dreaming; you know, big-sky country. That's why Roy Orbison loved it. Roy Orbison got his voice from listening to the sound of a dance coming across the prairie from, like, 100 miles away. There'd be a dance in another town, and everything sounded echoey. He wanted to sound like that with his voice.

You once said about Wilson, "He changed my eyes and my ears permanently."
I've worn glasses ever since I met him. He's like an inventor, you know, and he throws down the gauntlet for your own imagination.

Now that there's finally going to be an English-language production, do you wish you were performing in it?
It's just too much work. I think Wilson makes you change the molecular structure of your whole body and then builds you back up in his image. It's like being beamed up in Star Trek; you first have to be turned to dust. You know, I do some acting, but I'm not really an actor in that sense. I'm just acting with my songs. I feel safer there.

But you've been in quite a few movies--Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law and his new one, Coffee and Cigarettes and Short Cuts, and The Cotton Club...
Yeah, yeah, but it's another thing to say I also do a little acting. I do a little car repair; I do a little lumberjacking. I'm a rock hound, or whatever. I would love to have Wilson take my songs and then build a world for me to live in for my act. 'Cause we seem to complement each other. There's talk about different stuff. But he's one of those people, he's busier than James Brown. He's a globe-trotter.

So he doesn't really live any particular place.
I think he lives in his head most of the time. When I worked with Wilson, I think I started understanding that there are portals you can pass through when you are working in the theater. He's always had visions and been different...and made a world for himself.

Meaning that with artists, there can be a blurring of the lines between reality and--

It's a fine line, isn't it? If you can understand that your visions are visions--if you can use them as an artist would as opposed to fearing them or letting them drive you mad...
Yeah, if you were in Pago Pago years ago, you might be a shaman. In another country, you'd be elected president.


(1) The Black Rider: further reading: The Black Rider full story

(2) I heard a saw: further reading: Instruments

(3) On which we also hear Burroughs: 'T 'Ain't No Sin and That's The Way

(4) That's the way the cookie crumbles: this line is not in the album version. read lyrics: That's The Way