|Title: Sleazy Rider - A Man Who Works At Being A Derelict
Source: RELIX magazine by Clark Peterson. Photography by Dave Patrick. Extended version of "Tom Waits The Slime Who Came In From The Cold" (Creem magazine. March, 1978)
Date: May - June, 1978. Vol. 5 No. 2
Keywords: Asylum, Foreign Affairs, Paradise Alley, Sylvester Stallone, Andy Warhol, John Fochay, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Tropicana, San Francisco, Fernwood 2Night, Ravi Shankar, Malibu, Martin Mull, Richard Rust, Chuck E. Weiss, drinking, women, the Bowery NYC, CBGBs, punk rockers, Hustler, truck stops, plainclothes cops, Jayne Meadows, whores, Bette Midler, the Draft, pets, youth, family, old man, James Dean.
Magazine front cover: Relix magazine front cover by Dave Patrick
Tom Waits: Sleazy Rider - A Man Who Works At Being A Derelict
by Clark Peterson
Remember when you were knee-high to a fireplug and you'd be driving through the wino part of town with your dad at the wheel, and your mom would lock all the doors so that one of the rot-gut low-lifes wouldn't stumble into your Pontiac with Thunderbird on his breath? If you saw Tom Waits weaving around the gutter, you'd probably mistake him for one of these same cirrhosis cases: moth-eaten wardrobe from Frederick's of Goodwill, 3-day stubble, and a voice like a disposal chewing up tire chains.
But Waits is actually not the degenerate with fermented grapes coursing his veins you might imagine. He's an intelligent, witty lyricist who plays piano and guitar, and croaks out songs on five albums for the Asylum label, his newest being Foreign Affairs. He "sings" lovelorn laments, bawdy blues, and scatty, jazzy numbers like no one you've ever heard. Though he is already attracting more publicity than flies, he is sure to be a household name when Paradise Alley(1) , the next movie by the #1 box office actor Sylvester Stallone, is released. Waits plays a pianist in a bar and sings three of his new songs. The movie is set in New York's Hell's Kitchen circa 1940, and although it appears from his aging, scrawny frame that he could have been living then, Waits is only 28. He lives in Los Angeles' sleazy Tropicana Motor Hotel(2) where Andy Warhol's Trash was partially filmed. The $9-a-night flea bag was once a favorite of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix (and we all know what happened to them).
Waits has an affinity for the seamy side of the tracks, as evidenced by his recent stay at a joint in San Francisco's hairy Tenderloin district for this interview. When he arrived at road managers John Forchay's(3) room for the one hour session, he kicked open the door with a pointy, black shoe in true street-tough fashion. He lurched in, struck up a lamp post pose against a wall, and then stepped onto the balcony to banter with some kids smoking cigarettes below. "I saw you on t.v. on 'Fernwood 2Night,'"(4) said one of them, as Waits' scruffy, whiskered face leaned over the railing. Later he expounded in his gruff, trash compactor voice about recognition.
I'm never recognized when I need it most. It usually happens when I'm talking to some pretty girl in a bar. Some sophomore comes over and drools on my shoulder. So when I get lonesome I go to the baggage claim area at the airport. I saw Ravi Shankar there one night. He looked like Earl Scheib. I thought he'd be wearing' that dumb sheet and sandals, but he had on a leisure suit.
"Now that you're becoming popular, are you going to move to Malibu near your friend Martin Mull?"(5)
Nah. I can't imagine him there ... yeah, I can. Buncha assholes live out there, just like the assholes who live in Resting On My Laurels Canyon. I'm gonna stay where I am. Three pimps live next door and there's some strippers, some Mexicans, and a guy named Sparky. This one guy who lives on my left side is a maniac, misfit unemployed actor named Richard Rust(6) . He broke into my house while I was gone and stole my machete. He cleverly took the window off and came in and was sitting in the kitchen playing the piano about 3 in the morning. My friend Chuck E. Weiss was there and heard it and went OOOOOWWWW WEEEEEEEE OOOOOOOOOO (The scarey sound Robert Klein makes). It was like The Beast With Five Fingers. Turned out to be Richard Rust high on some industrial strength shit. I've got some punks living behind me
"Since your own music is revolting to some people, how do you feel about punk rock?"
I'd rather listen to young kid in a leather jacket singing a song about, "I want to eat out my mother" than to hear some of these insipid guys with their cowboy boots and embroidered shirts doing "Six Days on The Road." It may be revolting to a lot of people but out of that will come some important events. I like Mink DeVille. It's a broad category, but at least it's an alternative to the garbage that's been around for ten years -- like Crosby Steals the Cash. I've had it up to here with that; I need to hear another group like that like I need another dick. I prefer an alternative to that, no matter how violent.
I was on The Bowery in New York and stood out in front of CBGBs(7) one night. There were all these cats in small lapels and pointed shoes smokin' Pall Malls and bullshiting with the winos. It was good. I was drinkin' Wild Irish Rose. It's not my liquor and it doesn't come from any produce, but it certainly alters your consciousness. The high lasts a couple hours and after that you go back to your hotel and throw up. You need a day off afterwards.
"Do you drink a lot to live up to your image?"
I don't drink when I'm working. John, my road manager, does. He buys bargain stuff, like Frank's Scotch, or Bensen & Hedges brewed in Rochester. He was my inspiration for my line, "I'll meet you at the bottom of a bottle of bargain Scotch."(8) When I was on "Fernwood 2Night,"(9) Martin Mull was the host and he apologized for having only a diet Pepsi to offer me. I started drinking from a flask I had in my coat and he said something about me sitting there with a bottle in front of me. So I said, "I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy." Later I said,
"People who can't face drugs turn to reality."
Martin is an old friend of mine. I used to be his opening act. He got his start as a labor organizer in a maternity ward.
"One of your best songs is 'Bad Liver and a Broken Heart.' Are women always dumping on you?"
No, I'm just looking for the right one. I've tried all kinds and nothin' works. I may have to settle for livestock, like my first meaningful experience. Her parents didn't like me so we broke up. She was a small heifer. I'm looking for a woman who owns a liquor store. There's one maniac who sits on my porch every night -- it's like "Play Misty for me." No comic relief there at all; she's a few bricks short of a full load.
I usually end up makin' the scene with the magazine. I've got a subscription to Frederick's of Hollywood's catalogue. I cut out pictures of underwear. I used to jack off to Vogue, but now it takes a little more. I occasionally read Hustler. They show photographs of the ovaries themselves.
"Not for long. Larry Flint is turning it into a magazine with healthy sex."
Yeah. Nuns with no underwear.
"Do you ever get groupies on the road?"
No. Sometimes a pedophile will come along. Usually you get, like, young English majors with skin problems. The band's real upset about that. They wish I'd attract something more up their alley. Now Chip White, my drummer, gets more ass than a toilet seat.
"You wrote most of your lyrics about women on your first two albums, but now you seem to be branching out. True?"
I'm trying to get away from unrequited love and more into auto accidents and homicides. My road manager thinks I'm becoming The Sam Peckinpah of music. I've had a lot of experience on the road. I've eaten in truck stops and shopped at trucker's supermarkets. I've hitch hiked but I hate it and I won't pick 'em up. People look just like Charlie Manson and they're on narcotics and probably have firearms and concealed weapons. I don't trust 'em. I'm not going to pick up a guy with devil eyebrows and "cunt" tattooed on his bicep. In L.A. in particular on the corner of Santa Monica and Western, it's Charlie Starkweather and Charlie Whitman or some four-speed transvestite.
When I'm on the road, I usually sleep with my clothes on so I can go right out the door. I stayed at the same hotel in Phoenix with Blue Oyster Cult and Black Oak Arkansas. It was a real thrill for me, you know, being only two or three doors away from your heroes.
"Didn't you once say that you liked The Cult about as much as listening to trains in a tunnel?"
I said that (smiling) No, I like 'em. But then I also like boogers and snot on my clothes.
"You're known as someone who normally is on the streets about the same time as the street sweepers. What hours do you keep?"
I keep them all -- they're all mine. I'll eat at some late night place that serves food for external use only. I'm not talkin' about your health food joint where you get your bean sprouts and avocado sands. You get your identity crisis burgers floatin' in patchouli oil served by some girl with a ring in her nose wearin' a peasant shirt. Oh no. I'm talkin' about a place where everythin's floatin' in 30-weight. You wake up the next morning and your mouth tastes like the inside of a dead Apache's loin cloth.
At this one place I elbowed up to the counter with the truck drivers and some cat telling me about his brother-in-law who lives in Amarillo who installs these little prophylactic machines in Phillips 66 stations. I walked out of there at 4 a.m. with enough gas in me to open up a Mobil station.
"At one restaurant last year you got into a fight with the Law(10). You were accused of challenging some deputies to fight and using profanity, and you were quoted as saying, 'I growled a little under my breath. It was somewhere between a harrumph and a Bronx cheer."
It was a little humbug with three plainclothes policemen. I stepped in to settle a dispute between two table and got caught in the crossfire. From now on I'll keep my nose out of other people's affairs. It was real tacky; they grabbed us and threw us into phone booths and then the strings came up. [Waits breaks into the Jaws soundtrack] Juntada! Juntada! Juntada!
They put the cuffs on us and tossed us into the back of a green cab over a Datsun pickup. I thought we were takin' that Last Ride. Chuck said, "It sure is quiet," and I said, "It's too quiet." We were found not guilty of disturbing the peace.
"You also got into trouble for singing your 'Small Change' song when you said, 'And the whores still smear on Revlon and they all look like Jayne Meadows.'(11) When you recorded it, you changed it to, 'But the whores still kike up their skirts and search for drug store prophylactics.'"
I deleted the Jayne Meadows reference from the album 'cause Steve Allen (her husband) would have been upset. You can use a personality's name in a song but not if it's slanderous. If you say that all the whores like Jayne Meadows, regardless of whether they look like her or not you can't say that ... 'cause the whores'll get pissed off.
"On your newest album, Foreign Affairs, you do a duet with Bette Midler, which is also on her album. How did that come about?"
Bette's a friend of mine. She asked me to write her a song so I wrote "I Never Talk to Strangers." She likes those old songs like, "Baby It's Cold Outside," so I decided to write something that sounds like a standard.
Bette and I played at that human rights rally last year at the Hollywood Bowl(12). She told me it's be a good idea and that I'd go on right before her. It didn't sound that bad but I was lucky to get out of there with my Johnson. The whole evening was a powder keg to begin with -- playing for 25,000 militant homos. After Richard Pyror started, she gave him the finger and I was left holding the bag, if you will.
"I get the impression you're very apolitical."
I was raised a Methodist. What's that mean? I read the papers but I don't vote; I travel all the time.
"How did you stay out of the Draft?"
I just didn't go. I was working. I went up for a physical and talked to the psychiatrist. I was 1-A for a long time and that's the last I heard of it.
"Would have made a good soldier?"
What do you think? I'd want to go straight to the top. I think I'd make a good drill sergeant.
"How did you avoid getting mixed up with The Peace, Love and Dope scene in the 60's?"
I was kinda square, I guess. Every dog has his day. It used to be a lone cat could be content with a couple Blue Cheer albums and a bag of reefer and a calendar on the wall and a couple of blankets and some friends who wore boots. I think we were in the midst of a national gender crisis. And then there's a lotta cosmic debris, too. The public's extremely gullible. If you pay $2,000 to have someone call you an asshole, you are an asshole. I'm not that expensive.
"Do you have any pets?"
I had a dog once, but he died, I barbecued him. We never had enough room for livestock. I used to have a couple stray cats. Tom cats. I'd go on the road and come back and they'd always be pissed at me. I wouldn't give 'em anything to eat; Id' give 'em money, you know, and tell 'em to eat out. If you don't feed a cat for a year, they get reeeeeeeeal smaaaaaaaall.
I'm real concerned about personal hygiene and I don't think it's good to have animal in the house. The first cat I had I shaved bald and bought him a little sports coat and a little hat and told him to go out and get a job if he wants to stay. His name was Get Off the Sofa.
"What was your youth like?"
My parents split up when I was young so I kinda took care of my mother and sisters. I started working when I was 14. I drove taxis, sold vacuum cleaners and encyclopedias, worked in gas stations and liquor stores, and had a paper route. I sold night crawlers to fishermen -- you can buy live worms in the mail, you know. I dropped out of high school when I was 17. When I was about 19 I started songwriting and then a year later I was performing, and all self-taught. My parents support what I do. My mother was real pleased that I got a page in Time(13). My father thinks I'm a chip off the ol' block. I think so, too. Absolutely, he's an old codger.
"Do you want to be an old man some day? It seems like you're following The James Dean 'live fast, die young' script."
[Hacking and mumbling gibberish like a burnt-out gaffer] I want to be an old man. I'll look up skirts and stuff, but I don't want to get the palsy or anything. I'd like to have some children. I'll probably adopt a bunch of Mexicans and live out in Pico Rivera and watch a black and white TV set with a T-shirt on and a beer in one hand and dogshit on the lawn.
(1) Paradise Alley: Released September 7, 1978:
Jay S. Jacobs (2000): "Bones Howe remembers that Sly and Tom "got to be friends somehow or other. Maybe Sly saw him at the Troubadour or met him through somebody. I have no idea. He was suddenly there. But it wasn't unusual, because Tom had a way of accumulating people. Chuck E. Weiss. Rickie Lee Jones. People just sort of appeared all of a sudden." Stallone offered Waits the small role of Mumbles and asked him to record some songs for the Paradise Alley sound track album. Tom jumped at the chance to act, and the part was perfect for testing his wings. Mumbles, a piano player at a neighborhood saloon, wasn't exactly a stretch for him. Howe recalls that in the end he and Tom only contributed a couple of songs to the film's sound track - "Bill Conti was really upset because he wanted to do all the source music himself. He and Sly were very close, but Sly wanted Waits in that movie." Conti, a jazz musician, had scored Rocky, and he was thrilled when the movie's rousing, horn-based theme rose to the top of the pop charts. Of the five tracks that Waits and Howe recorded for Paradise Alley, only two made it into the sound track: " (Meet Me In) Paradise Alley," a pretty piano ballad in which one of Waits's barfly lovers wards off desperation in the local taproom; and "Annie's Back in Town," a sad love tune with just a touch of West Side Story grit. The other tracks that Waits and Howe had laid down for Stallone were a new version of the Small Change song "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart" (which incorporated the old standard "As Time Goes By" into its intro and outro) and two different versions of a song called "With a Suitcase." Neither version of the latter song was ever released. One was done with a rhythm section. The other - the "street" band version in which, says Howe, "we were banging on bass drums and all that kind of stuff " - reflected Waits's growing interest in experimental tones and instrumentation. Paradise Alley was released to scathing reviews, and it flopped at the box office. Tom, however, didn't experience the acute disappointment that Stallone must have felt. After all, the project had allowed him to become an actor, and he'd thoroughly enjoyed himself." (Source: Wild Years, The Music and Myth of Tom Waits. Jay S. Jacobs, 2000)
(2) Tropicana Motor Hotel: Further reading: Tropicana Motel.
(3) Road manager John Forchay: should probably read: John Forsha. "John Forscha, folk guitarist. Also worked with Judy Henske: Credited on the album 'Small Change', 1976 (The Nocturnal Emissions, N.Y.C.). Road manager for the 1976 Small Change tour.". John Frenchette?
(5) Martin Mull: Martin Mull and Mr. Waits were close friends with a compatible sense of humor. Both were musicians doing little comedic bits in between songs. Mr. Waits appeared on the 1977 Martin Mull album: "I'm everyone I've ever loved " ("Martin Goes And Does Where It's At"). Mull also hosted both 'Fernwood2night" and 'America2night'.
(6) Unemployed actor named Richard Rust: "American leading man Richard Rust was signed to a Columbia contract in 1958, along with such other Hollywood aspirants as Michael Callan and Yvonne Craig. Rust appeared in such Columbias as The Legend of Tom Dooley (1959), This Rebel Breed (1960), Comanche Station (1960), Homicidal (1961), and Underworld USA (1961). In 1962, he was cast as lawyer Edmond O'Brien's "leg man" Hank Tabor in the weekly TV legal series Sam Benedict. Active in films into the 1970s, Richard Rust returned after a long absence to play a featured role in 1988's Colors.'" (Source: Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide, 2004)
(7) CBGB's: New York club located at 315 Bowery in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Further reading: official CBGB site
(8) "I'll meet you at the bottom of a bottle of bargain Scotch."; from Bad Liver and A broken Heart (Small Change, 1977)
(9) When I was on "Fernwood 2Night,": full transcript Fernwood2night, Sequel 21: August 1, 1977
(10) At one restaurant last year you got into a fight with the Law: full story: Waits And The Cops.
(11) 'And the whores still smear on Revlon and they all look like Jayne Meadows.': from Small Change (Small Change, 1977). In earlier versions this goes: "But the whores still smear on Revlon and they all look like Jayne Meadows." (American actress and sex symbol. As Meadows got older she became known for using too much make-up, hence the reference). In later versions of Small Change the above line is removed for legal reasons (Revlon) and replaced with "And the whores hike/ kike up their skirts, and fish for drug-store prophylactics". The censored booklet of the Small Change album gives the incorrect and incomplete lyrics. Strangely enough the orginal lyrics are used again on the later album Asylum Years.
Jay S. Jacobs (2000): "Here, in the details, is everything that Waits had learned about telling a story with music. Unfortunately, a couple of those details had to be edited out. Tom was forced to change the lines, "The whores all smear on Revlon / And they look just like Jayne Meadows," when the cosmetic giant threatened legal action. And Meadows - the wife of Steve Allen, who had performed on Waits's favorite Jack Kerouac album - also had a problem with this vivid image. When the LP Small Change was reissued the offending passage was replaced with, "The whores all hike up their skirts / And fish for drug-store prophylactics." On the CD version of the album Waits sings the compromise lines, but the printed lyrics read: "The whores all smear on / And they look just like." Apparently Waits wasn't willing to let Revlon and Meadows off the hook so easily after all." (Wild Years, The Music and Myth of Tom Waits. Jay S. Jacobs, 2000).
(12) Bette and I played at that human rights rally last year at the Hollywood Bowl: September 18, 1977.
Art Fein (1999): On the most embarassing moment of music (Gay rights show, 1977): "The other was Tom Waits at the Gay Rights show at the Hollywood Bowl in 1977. I went there with Todd Everett -- because we got free tickets! I was shocked to see George Maharis, of Route 66, made all up like Percy Dovetonsils. Todd acutely noted that three female performers that night - Helen Reddy, Tanya Tucker, and Bette Midler - had all had hits with "Delta Dawn." During a break, I noticed on the darkened stage the figure of Waits ascending some stairs to a piano atop a wall. He was to follow Richard Pryor, but he never got a chance. Pryor was not in the best of moods: "When they called me to do this gig for you I said fine. But then I was backstage and saw one of your guys yelling at this young kid from the Lockers dance group because he was smoking near a set. Those young kids worked their asses off to entertain you faggots, and they're not getting paid, but once one of them steps out of line a tiny bit you think you can yell at him. Well you can't! I'm sick of y'all and your faggoty-ass bullshit. What were YOU doing during the Watts riots - sucking each other's dicks? Fuck you and everything you stand for, I'm getting the fuck out of here." The audience at first laughed at his audaciousness, then let loose boos. The stage went dark. After ten minutes, someone gave the signal to get on with it. With people shouting "Kill him!" and "Fuck Richard Pryor!", the spotlight hit Tom Waits sitting on top of the wall. He was virtually unknown to this crowd, and decided it wasn't time to get acquainted. He wouldn't move. He just sat there smoking a cigarette for five long minutes. Finally they switched off the light, and a spokesman came out and apologized for Pryor's remarks. I think the rest of the show was cancelled. If any of y'all ever talk to Waits, ask him about that night. I never did."(Source: Another Fein Mess. Art Fein, March 1999.)
Bette Midler (1978) on meeting Tom Waits in 1975: "My idea of a good time in L.A. is to go to the Fatburger with Tom Waits. Fact, Peter Riegert and I schlepped him over there last night for fries and a malted. "The Fatburger is a local junk-food pit, and Tom Waits is - do you know Tom Waits? - oh, he's won-der-ful. I first ran into him at the Bottom Line in New York. He was singing 'The Heart of Saturday Night.' and I just fell in love with him on the spot. "We got passingly acquainted that first night, and then I ran into him out here someplace, and I suggested we get together for a visit. Tom lives ... well, sort of knee-deep in grunge, so he was reluctant for me to see his apartment. I grew up in lots of clutter myself, and delicate I ain't, so I kept after him till he finally invited me over. He acted ultra-shy at first, but he finally ushered me around, and he's got his piano in the kitchen, and he only uses the kitchen range to light his cigarettes, and then there's this refrigerator where he keeps his hammers and wrenches and nuts and bolts and stuff like that. He opened the fridge door and with an absolute poker face he said, 'I got some cool tools in here.' You ever hear a cornier line than that? I howled for an hour, and we've been buddies ever since. "Tom can always get me tickled, and he really helped jack up my spirits after the disaster of that gay-rights benefit in Hollywood." (Source: "Bette Bounces Back" Bette and Aaron: One Sings, The Other Doesn't. Grover Lewis. New West: March 13, 1978)
(13) I got a page in Time: "Tom Waits: Barroom Balladeer" Time magazine (USA). Vol. 110, no. 22. November 28, 1977