Title: Radio National Breakfast interview
Source: Radio National Breakfast/ ABC (Australia). November 10, 2006. Telephone interview by Fran Kelly. Transcription from tape by "Pieter from Holland" as published on the Tom Waits Library. Copyright ABC, 2006.
Date: aired November 10, 2006
Key words: Orphans, acting, touring


Radio National Breakfast Interview


FK: Bob Dylan calls him one of his 'secret heroes'. His musical tools of the trade include everything from the banjo to a bell plate, piano to a musical saw. And then there's that trademark gravely voice and those film roles. I'm talking about American singer-songwriter Tom Waits. After three decades and 20 albums, he's back with a new three CD set. It's titled Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards. And if you've been listening last week, you'll know that Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards was our feature album of the week. Well, yesterday I spoke to the man himself. The three CD set features more then 50 songs, many of them new, and I began by asking Tom Waits whether he thought he'd ever run out of songs. I've gotta say, I've done a lot of interviews in my life, but this was one of the strangest. Actually "mercurial" might be a better description.

TW: Kids really write the best songs. And they uh, they write a hundred a day and they throw 'em away and get new ones. And don't even remember the ones they wrote. So, we're the ones to get all precious about it. Thinking it need to be recorded. Uh, but runnin' out of them? I don't think we're gonna run out of them. I think I probably got too damn many of them as it is. And I probably ought to get rid of some. But I guess that's just normal, to uh wanna save something, you know, preserve it in some way. Uhm, mostly I was just saving them from uh, from doom. Uh, because I, you know, I don't really have an uh archive or anything. I'm just trying to keep them from winding up in the drawer with uh, you know, hair oil, and playing cards, uh.. you know, watches. I was trying to keep 'em all in one place, so before I lost 'em.

FK: I read a quote of yours when I was researching for this interview, where you describe the songs as: "Scared, mean orphan songs of rapture and melancholy. Songs that grew up hard. Songs of dubious origin rescued from a cruel fate."

TW: Oh, there you go! That's a good one! (laughs)

FK: It IS a good one, but it sounds like, for you, these songs have a personality, they have an identity.

TW: Oh you know, some of 'em are brand new and uh some of 'em were actually, you know, from other projects. You know, like a compilation album, or written for a film that never came out, or.... You know? Or something just was recorded out in the garage. So it's like uh the stuff that's in the margins. But I think it all hangs together pretty good, for me anyway.

FK: Well, I think it hangs together pretty well too, and you brought it together under these three subtitles of "Brawler, Bawlers and Bastards". That's the way you've organized the tracks. If you listen to the three tracks it's like a soundtrack for a life. It's got that great mix, great spread.

TW: I don't know. The way I look at it, uh Fran, is that probably most people's songs sit comfortably into one of these categories or another. Everybody's got songs that are Bastards, and uh songs that are Brawlers, and songs that are Bawlers. Some songs don't really have a category, so I would stick 'em over there in the Bastards I guess.

FK: Tom, I mean, the standout thing, well there's lots of standout things about you and your career, but obviously of the three decades you've evaded and avoided any kind of connection to the world of pop music. I noticed one uh, esteemed American critic, Robert Hillburn, says, he's described you as: "Clearly one of the most important figures of the modern pop era." Does it seems strange to you to even, be included in a phrase like "The modern pop era."

TW: I don't know where I fit into the whole thing, but obviously I fit in somewhere. They found a category for me at the record stores, so... I guess I'm "Miscellaneous".

FK: You fit in, in lots of places, uh years before we were talking about media-convergence, you were interested in other mediums: books, films, stage. What was the attraction for you of breaking out, of not just being a musician or recording artist?

TW: Ghee, I don't know. I guess when you make a record, it's a big deal. But then you look around you and you say: "Well, okay, now I'm one of millions of people who made records..." You know, so you need to somehow further distinguish yourself. Uh, and to remain in some way, newsworthy. Uh... Hey, how about those topless newscasters they've got in Russia now?

FK: (laughs) I wouldn't have seen the Russian ones, but I used to watch... What was the one that came out of the US? The topless news service that was very fine...

TW: Well, we all know they've been bottomless uh, for years. They haven't been wearing pants since the 50's. But apparently it's quite a phenomenon in Russia. As their ratings were way down and they've had these topless newscasters. Now everybody watches the news!

FK: Well, that's one way to get the country fully informed I guess!

TW: I agree.

FK: When you went into acting, I think your first film was uh... the Jim Jarmusch movie Down By Law, what made you decide to cross that threshold. Was it just as you said before, just the challenge of trying something new? To move from, you know, writing music for film to starring in the movies?

TW: I don't know. Uhm, you know there's a buddy of mine, and he asked me if I'd be in it and I... you know? "So get the money up Jim! I'll think about it". It was just a chance to work with a lot of really great people. And uh, even though I didn't really know what I was doing. At least I had a good time.

FK: Tom, you uh... ahead of this release of Orphans, you toured the US. Uhm as a prelude to the release. Your shows are very orchestrated, uh the quote I've read is: "Part distorted vaudeville, part big top, part piano bar and part stand up."

TW: No kiddin'.

FK: After so long in the business, why do you still tour? A lot of people give it up after a while.

TW: I don't know...

FK: it's a hard Why tour?

TW: Why tour?

FK: Yeah.

TW: Uh... Well hear, the first guy who ever ate a tomato... uh, you know, a hundred thousand people came to watch. Because everyone thought they were poisonous. And uh, but what it was, was uh they'd been eating tomatoes of lead plates. And they're actually getting lead poisoning, from eating the tomatoes. And uh, people were going in kind of a state of suspended animation. And everyone thought they were dead. So people were at this time being buried alive. As they were noticing when they dug them up, they found scratch marks on the roof of their coffin. So they passed the law that said: "Everyone who's buried has to have a string wrapped around their wrist. And that's to run up the roof of the coffin and over the branch of a tree, and you have to put a bell on the end of that string. So in the event that somebody IS buried alive, they'll be able to ring the bell." (chuckles) And uh, that's where the expression "deadringer" comes from.

FK: Uhuh, uhuh...

TW: And uh, and the people who used to be hired to sit in the graveyard, and listen to the sound of that bell, that was called "the graveyard shift".

FK: Uhum...

TW: That would have been my job in the old days...

FK: So, I'm trying to get the moral of that tale. Does that mean, if you don't perform, if you don't tour, you need to do that just to prove to people you're still alive?

TW: ... Uh... Yeah! You gotta stick around. You know, I'm in show business.

FK: Indeed you are! Any plans to travel to Australia, as part of the showbiz business?

TW: Oh, people talk about it. But I don't know. Uh, we haven't really uh gotten it all together. I don't really have a sophisticated touring machine. It's a lot to get together to get down there. But uh, we're working on it.

FK: Tom Waits, it's a great pleasure to have you on Breakfast. Just before I go, do you have a view on the election result there in the US?(1)

TW: Alright, I've been watching a little bit, hearing on the radio. Looks like there'll be lots more Democrats in the House of Representatives. There's a good thing. Uh, I think we got a president who's uh emotionally disturbed and mentally ill. Uh, so any change is good.

FK: Tom Waits, thanks very much for joining us.

TW: Okay (laughs). See you Fran!


(1) Election result there in the US: The 2006 United States midterm elections, held on Tuesday, November 7, 2006.