Title: Reapers And Weepers
Source: Metromix Chicago (USA), by Greg Kot. Transcription as published on Metromix
Date: August, 1999
Key words: Chicago, Theatre, Touring, Kathleen, Experimental instruments, Internet


Reapers And Weepers


Tom Waits brings his avant-cabaret music back to Chicago
By Greg Kot

To hear Tom Waits tell it, he may have done more with less than any recording artist of the last 25 years. Ask him about his songwriting ability -- which has produced 16 albums, a Grammy Award and the kind of longstanding street credibility that even current hipsters Limp Bizkit might covet -- and he'll tell you a joke: "Hey, I only write two kinds of songs: Grim reapers and grand weepers."

Waits will perform some of both, and a few more that defy category, when he performs Thursday and Friday at the Chicago Theatre(1) , his first local appearances since 1986, when he starred in Steppenwolf Theatre's production of his play "Frank's Wild Years."

The 13-year gap between shows is typical of an artist who has never played by the rules that govern so many other artists' careers. Quick with a punch line and famously elusive about his private life to the point of crankiness, Waits has forged a career in the margins, creating a kind of avant-cabaret music that can be divided neatly into two periods: Before and After Kathleen -- Kathleen Brennan, that is, his wife and collaborator since the early '80s.

Before he met the playwright, Waits came on like a flophouse troubadour, a boozy balladeer of the misbegotten. With Brennan's encouragement, he began exploring instruments both ethnic and eccentric, and shrouding his albums in bone-rattling percussion and futuristic textures. On albums such as "Swordfishtrombones" (1983) and "Rain Dogs" (1985), his masterpieces, Waits forged a truly distinctive and spooky take on the Los Angeles singer-songwriter tradition out of which he sprang in the early '70s. Despite his increasingly deviant production values, his songs continue to be covered by a wide range of performers: Rod Stewart turned his "Downtown Train" into a hit, Bruce Springsteen made "Jersey Girl" a concert staple, and Marianne Faithfull came under the spell of his "Strange Weather."(2)

Waits' latest album and first new work in six years, "Mule Variations" (Epitaph), contains a couple of potential standards in the grand-weeper tradition: "House Where Nobody Lives" and "Take It With Me." But, as usual, the fun lies in grim reapers such as "Filipino Box Spring Hog," which recalls the carny-with-a-flamethrower lunacy of Captain Beefheart. At times, Waits comes close to parodying his literate-hobo mystique in the spoken-word paranoia of "What's He Building" and the freak-show bulletin "Eyeball Kid," but even the singer's lapses suggest an overlubricated imagination rather than an artist running on fumes. In a recent conversation, Waits took a break from family life on the road with his wife and three children, ranging in age from 5 to 15, to discuss this business he calls show.

Tribune -- You're coming back to Chicago for the first time since performing "Frank's Wild Years." You haven't done a play since -- how come?
Waits -- The interesting part of theater is that everyone involved has a piece of the map and then they go home at night, and the play disappears, and they come back the following night and it's alive again. With records, it's like capturing air in a bottle. A play is different. It's an old ritual. When you do a play, you realize there's a reason they call theater the "fabulous invalid."

I didn't realize that's what they call it.
Well, that's what I call it.

You've said you're mistrustful of large groups of people enjoying anything together. Would this explain why it took you 13 years to get back to Chicago?
The idea of playing the same songs over and over is not my idea of a good time. I guess I am prone to spontaneity and I like invention more than repetition. But touring is like life. Some nights you literally go out to the meadow and other nights are more like paint removal.

What's the secret to collaborating with your wife on your life's work?
Duck! Duck and cover. You collaborate all the time anyway. The way you do anything is the way you do everything. Did you get the full impact of that? The way you do anything, comma, is the way you do everything. She's the brains behind pa. I just do my best to keep up with her. Geeez, I feel like I'm counseling you in marriage. . . . At a certain point, my son, you have to accept the fact that she's your better half. In my case, she has the extraordinary ability to invent and sustain a mood. She knows all about ethnic music and opera. She went to school, unlike myself. I rely on her to be like a Seeing Eye dog.

You started bringing all these weird instruments onto your albums beginning in the early '80s. Did sound become a catalyst for the songwriting?
If you can't pronounce an instrument's name, it's essential. If you never heard of it, if you don't know where it's from, if you don't know how to play it, if you can't even open the case. . . . What's that you say? There are too many strings? Bring it over, we can use it. I'm a collector of instruments, so I'm always looking for something that I haven't experienced.

What's the favorite lately?
It's a mechanical autoharp that has a button apparatus that vibrates a hammer on the strings. I haven't used it on one of my records yet, but I will. My attitude is if you're stuck in the studio for a particular sound, chances are you can go out into the yard and find something that will sound better than the drum you've been using. But I don't see that there's anything new about that.

But most people don't think to do that. They end up in air-conditioned studios with no windows trying to make records with the same instruments over and over again.
Well, that's the way I started out. And then slowly you begin to find your own path.

Which led you to a chicken ranch in California (where Waits records). And now you use everything from the rooster out in the yard to a tape of you trashing a chest of drawers in your records.
Gee, you know all my secrets. I'm a sound collector. Why does that make me different than the guy in Def Leppard? Each person is unique in all the things that he collects. The things you have in your pocket right now are different than the things I have in mine. . . . Hey, did you know that American Airlines saved $40,000 by eliminating one olive from each salad served in first class?

That's fascinating. Did you know that musicians are distributing their music through the Internet?
You've entered an area where I have no coordinates. The computer is at the bottom of the pool in my back yard, along with my television set.

Any closing thoughts?
I'm looking down my list to see if there is anything I want to say. Did you realize that an ostrich's eye is bigger than its brain? How about this one: The youngest pope was only 11 years old. And intelligent people have more zinc and copper in their hair. . . . Hey, when do I play Chicago?

Oh, man, I better book a flight.

Kot is the Chicago Tribune rock critic.


(1) Thursday and Friday at the Chicago Theatre: August 26/ 27, 19999 Chicago Theatre. Chicago/ USA. Further reading: Performances

(2) Marianne Faithfull came under the spell of his "Strange Weather.": Strange Weather. Marianne Faithfull, 1987 PGD/ Polygram 842593 (CD). Read lyrics: Strange Weather