Title: Pop Music: Tracking An Elusive Character
Source: Los Angeles Times (USA), by Robert Hilburn. Photography by Robert Durell. Transcription by Juanita Benedicto as sent to Raindogs Listserv Discussionlist, June 7, 1999
Date: Santa Rosa. June 6, 1999
Key Words: Mule Variations, Musical transition, Drinking habits, Kathleen


Pop Music: Tracking An Elusive Character


Tom Waits is as Famous for his Quirky Persona as for His Songs.

It's a classic Tom Waits moment.

The captivating pop auteur, whose offbeat boho persona over the years is probably as well known as any of his individual songs, is behind the wheel of a black Chevy Silverado that is as big as a modest house trailer. He's prowling the back roads of Sonoma County, grumbling about not being able to find a salvage shop.

The destination is one of two stops on an afternoon itinerary that also includes a funky barbecue spot, where the walls are decorated with cowboy artifacts, including an old rifle and a pair of well-used chaps.

"Now, it used to be right around here," he says in that familiar growl. "You don't think they moved it to a 'better location' do you? It's a salvage shop. Maybe they moved it to a 'worse location.'"

Finally Waits-- whose new "Mule Variations" album is his first in six years--spots the shop, and he pulls into the parking lot.

Wearing a floppy old hat and jeans that hang so low on his rump that it looks as though he forgot to give them the final hitch when pulling them on, Waits steps from the truck and heads into the shop, which is filled with everything from rows of old toilet bowls to faded soft drink signs.

"I do all my furniture shopping here," he says as he wanders through the dusty aisles. He points to a zebra-striped telephone, but appears most excited by a foot-high artillery shell, which he taps robustly with his finger. He likes the sound and says he would like to use it on his next album.

Watching this, you wonder if Waits is really interested in all this stuff or if he's just trying to provide colorful atmosphere for the story. The answer comes when the shop owner spots Waits and waves to him with the enthusiasm reserved for one's best customers.

"How ya doin' Ray," Waits responds. "Got anything good today?"

The owner directs Waits to a New Year's Eve horn from the turn of the century, and Waits' eyes brighten. He gives the horn a few toots and smiles at the sound. He buys it--as well as the artillery shell, a pocket knife for himself and a toy car for one of his three kids.

"This is a good haul," he says, slipping behind the wheel of the massive Silverado. "Sure you don't want to go back and get that zebra-striped phone?"

Interviewing Waits isn't as much fun as accompanying him to the salvage shop because the pop veteran can get cranky when he thinks questions are getting too personal--and you'd be surprised how far that line extends.

You can understand when he doesn't want to go into detail about his family or tell you exactly where he lives (he'll only say it's about an hour from here). But how personal is it to ask him why it has been six years between albums?

And that question is being asked a lot these days because "Mule Variations" is shaping up as Waits' biggest seller, a work that contains some of the most personal and affecting music he's written in a distinguished three-decade career. The collection, on Epitaph Records, debuted at No. 30 on the U.S. charts and broke into the Top 10 in various European countries. Estimated worldwide sales to date: 500,000 copies. He's also being featured next Sunday on VH1's "Storytellers"(1) series and is venturing onto the concert trail for the first time in years. The live dates include three nights, starting Saturday, at the Wiltern Theatre.(2)

It's hard to tell whether Waits, 49, resists many questions because he truly thinks they are too personal or because he enjoys being one of pop's enduring riddles.

"Want the truth or you want me to play with you?" he asks at one point during the afternoon.

Even the offbeat locales, such as the salvage shop, are, one senses, an attempt to give visiting journalists plenty to write about without getting too deeply into his life. He also frequently brings a stack of books with him to interviews, so he can start quoting them if the mood strikes him--another diversion.

For most of a career that started when he was discovered at "hoot night" at the Troubadour in West Hollywood(3) in the early '70s and soon tabbed the next great hope in the booming Southern California singer-songwriter sweepstakes, Waits has fought tenaciously to avoid appearing conventional--as an artist or as a person.

In such landmark albums as 1974's "The Heart of Saturday Night" and 1976's "Small Change," he wrote wonderfully evocative songs about losers with big dreams and dreamers with unlikely victories--songs that quite possibly could have made him a major seller. Several major pop-rock figures, including the Eagles and Bruce Springsteen, have recorded his songs over the years.

Rather than stick in the commercial groove of the singer-songwriter tradition, however, Waits began experimenting with bluesy, boozy monologues. He once described his approach as part Damon Runyon(4) and part Mickey Spillane, but you could substitute any number of combinations and have been equally on the mark: part Jack Kerouac and part Lord Buckley, part Charles Bukowski and part Captain Beefheart. His voice, too, took on increasingly harsh touches, causing his singing to be described over the years as everything from a "scabrous rasp" to a bark.

Waits, too, branched out into acting--generally cast, in such films as Jim Jarmusch's "Down by Law," Francis Ford Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula" and Hector Babenco's "Ironweed," as eccentrics, which only made it all the harder to draw a line between Waits and his image. He has also written music for movies (notably Coppola's "One From the Heart") and for stage productions, including "Franks Wild Years."

Asked about his puzzling image, Waits just shrugs as he sits in the restaurant, "Oh, everybody has a ventriloquist act. Everybody. Rodney Dangerfield has an act. Bob Dylan has an act. I guess it's a question of who's the dummy. Where do you leave off and where does a character begin? I don't know. . . . Let's order some food."

"I was born in the back seat of a Yellow Cab in a hospital loading zone and, with the meter still running, I emerged, needing a shave, and shouted 'Times Square and step on it!'"

That's how Waits described his birth in an early Asylum Records press bio. Whether he was truly born in that cab or in a hospital bed, the date was Dec. 7, 1949, and the city was Pomona, where he was one of three children.

His parents were both teachers, and the family moved to the San Diego area when he was 12. He says he always liked music, even played trumpet in the high school band.

One of his seminal experiences was seeing the dynamic James Brown in concert as a youngster. Though thrilled by the performance, he was also intimidated by it. How could he ever even approach something that inspiring on stage?

It wasn't until he saw blues singer Lightnin' Hopkins and Bob Dylan that he started to see a place for himself. "Here's a guy Dylan on stage with a stool and a glass of water, and he comes out and tells these great stories in his songs," Waits recalls. "It helped unlock the mystery of performance."

After high school, Waits worked at a variety of jobs, including doorman at a San Diego music club and dishwasher at a pizza place(5). But he'd take the bus each week to Los Angeles and stand in line for hours to play a few numbers at hoot night at the Troubadour(6), which at the time was the most important club showcase for new talent in the country.

Waits soon created enough of a buzz to get a contract with Asylum Records, which released "Closing Time," his debut album, in 1973. The collection didn't make the national sales charts, but it brought him waves of acclaim.

While Asylum label mates the Eagles, who recorded Waits' "Ol' 55" on their "On the Border" album in 1974, chronicled the glamour of the Southern California lifestyle, Waits explored the underbelly of the same world--skid row rather than "Hotel California," if you will. This quickly separated him from the generally accessible Southern California singer-songwriter movement populated by the Eagles, Jackson Browne and John David Souther.

Waits' canvas was barrooms and strip joints, and his old-time hipster wardrobe and beatnik storytelling made him seem part of that world rather than just an observer. Critics used terms such as "urban romantic poet" and "irrepressible night cat" to describe him.

Whether he was bored by the straightforward approach of his early Asylum albums or thought it wasn't sufficiently challenging, Waits began to experiment as a writer and singer--squeezing blues, folk, jazz and even country influences into all sorts of twisted, eccentric textures.

Waits' experimentation was intensified when he switched to Island Records in the early '80s.

"I have an infatuation with melody, but also with dissonance," he said when asked about such extreme touches as singing sometimes on stage through a bullhorn. "I am attracted to things that fall outside of the practical domain of music. . . . I like hearing the orchestra tune up. That for me is the show."

Though some of the steps since then have been as puzzling and uninviting as some of Neil Young's forays into techno and rockabilly in the '80s, Waits has come through it all with a body of work that stamps him clearly as one of the most important figures of the modern pop era. The range of artists he has influenced stretches from Rickie Lee Jones to Eddie Vedder.

"There was a time back then when I could see that we were all going to wind up in the Salvation Army bargain bins unless we did something unique," he says at the restaurant, when asked about his musical vision. "It came to me in a dream. There was my album sitting in this big stack of old records underneath a bunch of old clothes and old platform shoes and shovels. . . . So, in some way I realized I wanted to try to make something unique, something that you'd want to keep."

Waits, who chain-drinks coffee, stirs his latest cup and reflects more on those pivotal years.

"It wasn't like something you sit down one day and decide. It wasn't like I was at a crossroads and asked myself, 'Am I going to go down AM boulevard or Eccentric Avenue?' It wasn't that simple. It's the result of a hundred little decisions."

Even if Waits is reluctant to talk about the changes in his personal life that resulted in him stepping out of the Los Angeles night life fast lane in the early '80s and becoming a family man in the open spaces up here, he gives us some of the results of the changes in "Mule Variations."

Though there are some raw blues and harsh, experimental touches, the heart of the collection is a series of deeply moving ballads, many reminiscent of the sentimental undercurrents of such ballad standouts as "The Heart of Saturday Night" and "Innocent When You Dream."

Some of the songs, including the romantic "Picture in a Frame" and the comforting "Come on Up to the House," are as personal as anything he has ever written. "House Where Nobody Lives" is a chilling look at life without family and love.

Waits acknowledges that his personal life was getting a bit out of hand before his marriage in 1980 to Kathleen Brennan, a former Hollywood story editor, who frequently collaborates with him on songs. The couple, has three children, ages 5 to 15.

Waits moved to New York around 1980, partly to shed some of the hard-drinking L.A. habits, even enrolling in a fitness class.

Smiling as he recalls an image from that period, he says, "I was running down the street to the Y to work out and I had a glass of alcohol in one hand, with some aluminum foil over it so it wouldn't spill, and a cigarette in the other hand, . . . and I realized I was kind of coming apart."

He met Brennan after returning to Los Angeles to write the music for "One From the Heart"--and the relationship was pivotal, says Francis Thumm(7), a musician and high school teacher who has known Waits for nearly 30 years and who has worked with him on some projects.

"If you could ever divide anyone's career and life in half, it would be Tom's up to 'One From the Heart' and after that, and a lot has to do with Kathleen," says Thumm, who lauds Waits' musical curiosity and daring. "She has had a wonderful influence on him. She encouraged him to pursue a lot of the things he wanted to do creatively, and she also affected him as a person."

Waits as family man?

"Well, I guess I didn't have a good rehearsal for it," he says of his bachelor days around Los Angeles. "It wasn't like everything I had done up to getting married was to get myself in position to be an effective family man. But I guess you could say I rose to the occasion."

Waits won't go so far as saying one reason he took so long between albums was that he wanted to devote time to his family, but he does say he wanted "to pull myself out of the limelight for a while."

About the gentle, open tone of some of the songs, he says, "I guess they are a bit more vulnerable than before, I don't know. Maybe I feel more at peace with myself, more able to talk about these things without being afraid of what people are going to say. Maybe I was too vulnerable before."

He pauses, twisting his head nervously the way he does when singing.

"I don't know where we're going with all this," he says finally. "We in therapy or something? It's what I wrote about this time. Tomorrow, I may write nothing but astronaut music for 10 years because this was too close to the bone."


(1) Sunday on VH1's "Storytellers": April 01, 1999 VH-1 recordings for the Storytellers' special. Burbank Airport. Los Angeles/ USA. The show aired May 23, 1999. Further reading: Performances

(2) At the Wiltern Theatre: June 12-14, 1999 Wiltern Theatre. Los Angeles/ USA. Further reading: Performances

(3) The Troubadour in West Hollywood: further reading: The Troubadour

(4) Damon Runyon: "Damon Runyon (October 4, 1884 - December 10, 1946) American short-story writer and humorist, companion to Al Capone, Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Arnold Rothstein and Walter Winchell. He was best known for his short stories celebrating the world of Broadway in New York City that grew out of the Prohibition era. He spun tales of gamblers, petty thieves, actors and gangsters; few of whom go by "square" names, preferring instead to be known as "Nathan Detroit", "Big Jule", "Harry the Horse", "Good Time Charlie", "Dave the Dude", and so on. These stories were written in a very distinctive vernacular style: a mixture of formal speech and colorful slang, always in present tense, and always devoid of contractions." Further reading: Denver Press ClubToday In Literature

(5) Dishwasher at a pizza place: Further reading: Napoleone Pizza House

(6) Hoot night at the Troubadour: 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

(7) Francis Thumm: Long time friend, collaborator and confidante from San Diego. - The album 'Swordfishtrombones'. Album released: September, 1983. Co-arranger, metal aunglongs ("Shore Leave"), glass harmonica; - The album 'Frank's Wild Years'. Album released: August, 1987. Pump organ ("Blow Wind Blow"), prepared piano ("More Than Rain"); - The album 'Night On Earth'. Album released: April, 1992. Arranger, harmonium, Stinson band organ; - The album 'Bone Machine'. Album released: August, 1992. Musical security guard; - The album 'The Black Rider'. Album released: September, 1993. Organ ("Just The Right Bullets", "I'll Shoot The Moon", "Flash Pan Hunter"), boots ("Russian Dance"). Further reading: Who's Who?