Title: Saturday Live Interview With Tom Waits
Source: BBC Radio One (UK) by Richard Skinner ("Rock On" show?). October 22, 1983. Transcription from tape by "Pieter from Holland" as published on the Tom Waits Library
Date: London /UK. Show aired October 22, 1983
Key words: Swordfishtrombones, Heartattack And Vine, One From The Heart, The Cotton Club, musical influences, voice

Picture: Richard Skinner (date unknown)


Saturday Live Interview With Tom Waits


RS: Tom Waits was in Britain during this past week. Not to play, which was a pity, apart from a little TV slob, which I shouldn't think will go down as one of his fondest memories. If you were watching "Loose Talk" on Tuesday night(1), you know what I was talking about. In fact he was really anxious to talk about his new very strange LP "Swordfishtrombone". We'll meet Tom Waits in a moment but first.


RS: Swordfishtrombone from Tom Waits and eh, where would you try and talk to the man ey? Somewhere that was his home territory really. Certainly not a tooth shop, right? So much more suitably we got together in a bar! And while he drank club-soda, looking just the way he ought to as well, porkpie hat, the old clothes, the works and eh fought for the right words through the jetlag. We talked about that unusual new LP.

TW: Some of the stuff I think is a bit of a departure for me. Ehm. the instrumentation is all different, and no saxophones. I used the banjo, accordion, bass-marimba, ehm metal aunglongs ehm you know African squeeze drum, a calliope, a harmonium. Eh, so some of the stuff is a little more exotic, yeah.

RS: Why did you decide to do that then, and at this stage of your career?

TW: You try and continue to explore new musical geography, you know? So that eh. you know. Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. And you hope you're moving onward and upward and into something different. It's just eh. an attempt to chronicle things in a more impressionistic way. And I think musically, you know, I made some small private breakthroughs. But eh. You know, the next thing will be a you know, a different alp. But eh, some of the stuff in this new one is eh. I like. But usually the things that you are most fond of, are the songs that you have yet to write.

RS: Do you work on songs all the time or do they come to you quickly?

TW: Eh. at gunpoint.

RS: (laughs)

TW: Eh, you carry them around and then. you know. And it comes out. you know?

RS: Will we get the chance to see you perform any of the songs live over here?(2)

TW: Aw well, let's see. I'm currently putting the other eh. kind of a demented eh.. dark follies eh cabaret musical revue type of a kabuki burlesque show. I'm going to be the focus of.

RS: At this stage I really like to play another song from your new album, but perhaps one from a little while ago. Do you have any favourites when you listen back? DO you listen back? Come to that. your old songs?

TW: No I don't really. I listen to them sometimes, you know, when I hear myself on the radio periodically, it's rare though. On "Heartattack and Vine" I always liked Big John Thomassie on drums, eh Larry "The Mole" Taylor on doghouse and eh. I was playing guitar I think. Ehhhh. a little bit of that yard bird eh fuzz-guitar..

(Heartattack And Vine)

RS: How much are you like the songs you write?

TW: Now that's a loaded question. Ehm they're not verbatim chronicles in any sense. They're taken from different places, you know? All part of life's rich pageant.

RS: It's part of the myth though, you know Tom. I mean, people DO have this myth built up around you, you know?

TW: The Devil's Dictionary defines fame as: "being conspicuously miserable."(3)

RS: Can we talk about the movie work you are doing, cause you seem to be doing more and more of this now. Eh "One From The Heart" has come out over here(4). Did you enjoy the process of making the film with Francis Ford Coppola?

TW: You know, writing music for pictures is an old problem to solve. You know, you try a variety of different pieces of music over the same images and you can see how the feeling changes so radically. Eh. what really eh Francis wanted was a whole bottle full of music. So that he could kinda pour it out at will. The whole organic constructionary process of building a film was done much like putting a stage play together. Where everything can happen at the same time. The carpenters were doing the sets, the actors were learning the lines, this new version of the script was coming in and they were eh, you know..? Songs were being written and everything.. It was kinda.

RS: Sounds like one of those old Broadway musical films where everything is going on at the same time. Do you like the atmosphere? Did you get involved in it at all?

TW: Eh. yeah I liked it. I sat at a piano in a little office and eh. and wrote songs. So it was really. You know they shove memos under the door, call you up on the phone and eh, little meetings, you know. It was like eh. being part of a committee. It was rewarding you know? As an artist to be collaborating with somebody as "advanced" as Francis says. I have a small part in "The Cotton Club"(5) which is his current project. Which he's shooting at Story Studios in New York, and eh.. And it's 1929, kinda gangster musical. I play a character named Irving Stark, who was actually the original manager of the Cotton Club.

RS: People don't know what the Cotton Club is, I don't know what the Cotton Club is, over here.

TW: Oh, it's where eh: Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington all spawned. It was probably one of the richest proofing grounds and fertile pieces of geography in American musical history. It was run all by white gangsters. It was patronized by the [.?.] uppercrust, Gloria Swanson, and dukes, kings, princes, the whole bit. That's when they went to slum and eh. the entertainment was all black.

(Franks Wild Years)

TW: There was a lot of music in my family. Eh, I had an uncle Robert who was a blind organist at a Pentecostal church. Eh. he had a pipe organ in his bedroom. And eh... I remember going to see him when I was very young, and eh. See, my mother used to sing in a kind of a Andrew Sisters type of quartet. My dad, he listened to Mexican music. I don't know, I didn't have a lot of encouragement to be honest. But sometimes that's good you know? What you end up doing is a reaction to all that. So primarily eh. black music, eh. New Orleans music. Eh. James Brown I listened to in the sixties, eh Wilson Picket, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Ray Charles eh.

RS: Is that where the voice comes from as well? Cause I think people are surprised when they finally see pictures of you, you know, after hearing the records.

TW: Eh, my voice is shaped I guess just over the years by eh. you know. . Well, let me put it this way: I'll never sing opera again.

(Trouble's Braids)


(1) If you were watching "Loose Talk" on Tuesday night: Channel 4 television talkshow with Steve Taylor. Newcastle/ UK (aired Tuesday October 18, 1983)
- Brian Case (1983): "Now firmly established as television's most sheerly embarrassing chat show since they last allowed Eamonn Andrews to confuse a motley selection of guests on the air, Channel 4's "Loose Talk" clambered towards new peaks of unintentional hilarity last week when croaking old wordsman Tom Waits ran rings around sloth-witted presented Steve "Shakespeare" Taylor. Taylor had heard that Tom liked living in dives. "Ya mean places where they got swimmin' pools?" Waits groaned. Steve squirmed; no, he meant, well, you know, places that were, like, low-rent. "Low-rent? Ya mean somewhere like Rangoon or Iowa?" Poor old Shakespeare: this series alone he's been wound up more times than a shiftworker's alarm clock. In a later confrontation with Steve's co-presenter (some oily oik drafted in from Private Eye), Tom came perilously close to losing what little remained of his patience. Admitting that he was in Blighty just to promote his new LP, Waits was told by the PE lardpot that he should be promoting it more volubly. "I'll promote it my own damn way," snarled Waits." (Source: "Tom Waits For No Man". Melody Maker magazine, by Brian Case. Date: October 29, 1983)
- Edwin Pouncey (1983): "Tom's storytelling technique suits the image many people have of him down to the ground. Mention him to many people and they will probably shoot back the image of a down-heeled alcoholic scraping for a bottle of cheap wine behind the keyboard of some smoke filled, dock-side bar. It was certainly the image chat host Steve Taylor was expecting when Tom turned up to promote his brilliant Swordfishtrombones album on Channel 4's ghastly, but masochistically watchable Loose Talk show recently. Taylor's "research" (ie: skimming through Face and NME interviews) went horribly awry as Tom proceeded to turn the gabbling cuckoo's beat-speak into the nonsense it ultimately was. For those of you who missed this conversation at cross purposes it went something as follows; Steve: "What part does this infamous image that we have of you over here play? This sort of low life, American..." Tom: "I beg your pardon?" Steve: "You've lived in some dives have you not?" Tom: "I don't know if I translate in my language. Do you mean a place with a pool?" Steve: "No not really. I'm thinking of more of the other side of the housing scale really, something pretty rough. Low rent? Is that an American expression?" Tom: "Low rent. You mean like Rangoon?" Steve: "I'm thinking of the seedier parts of LA probably." Tom: "You mean like a farming community?" Steve: (getting impatient now): "No, not that kind of seed. Have a go, have a guess. Try and guess what I'm getting at, yeah? Tom: "I think what you're trying to ask me is, uhhh, have I ever lived in a cheap hotel?" His cool thus blown, Steve's brain is far too fuddled to conduct a sensible, patient interview where much of Tom's true personality would have eventually trickled out. I suppose Tom Waits makes for a lousy young people's chat show guest. He is an artist and television moves too fast, before Tom had time to get his head out of his shell his slot was over and Steve's bandwagon had rolled on to its next fashionable guest." (Source: "Swordfish Out of Water: Tom Waits". Sounds magazine by Edwin Pouncey. November 15, 1983)

(2) Will we get the chance to see you perform any of the songs live over here?: Waits would return to the UK in October, 1985. Further reading: Performances

(3) The Devil's Dictionary defines fame as: "being conspicuously miserable.": The Devil's Dictionary: American satiric writer Ambrose Bierce wrote a large number of short stories and articles for several San Francisco magazines. Search The devil's Dictionary at Alycone Systems site or the Internet Wiretap version. FAMOUS, adj. Conspicuously miserable. Done to a turn on the iron, behold Him who to be famous aspired. Content? Well, his grill has a plating of gold, And his twistings are greatly admired. Hassan Brubuddy

(4) "One From The Heart" has come out over here: Further reading: One From The Heart

(5) I have a small part in "The Cotton Club": The Cotton Club (1984). Movie directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Plays club owner Irving (Herman?) Stark. Tom Waits: "I was in a tuxedo for like two and a half months." (Source: "Tom Waits and his Act". Rolling Stone Magazine: David Sheff. October, 1988). Further reading: Filmography.