|Title: Swordfish Out Of Water: Tom Waits
Source: Sounds magazine by Edwin Pouncey. November 5, 1983. Transcription by Larry Da Silveira as sent to Raindogs Listserv discussionlist. May 11, 2003
Date: published November 5, 1983
Keywords: Loose Talk interview, Dave The Butcher, childhood, Francis Ford Coppola, Harry Partch, Ralph Steadman
Magazine front cover: Sounds magazine. November 5, 1983
|Swordfish Out Of The Water. Sounds magazine. November 5, 1983. Photography by Richard Croft|
Swordfish Out Of Water: Tom Waits
"WHEN YOU drive from Los Angeles to Northern California... Leaving Los Angeles is like you're being put upon and then it gets simpler and simpler, darker and darker and then it's hush, quiet, there's no one around.
"If you drive to Vegas the same kind of thing happens. There's these little towns, almost like ghost towns, there's a place called Baker in California. You come off the main highway and there's a cafe where you expect to see John Garfield or somebody.
"It has a sign that says 'EAT', there's a car up on blocks and an old grease monkey, prospectors, screen doors, eggs. You feel like you've just broke out of jail and you're stopping for your first breakfast or something."
IN HIS customary low, rough drawl Tom Waits sets the scene for an unscreened break out of a movie with himself in the title role as he stalks a foreboding consumerised Americanised wilderness.
The images he flips so easily at me are strong enough to fool me into thinking that tumbleweeds are about to be blown into the wine bar we are conducting our interview in.
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(1) 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.
Happily I have the added luxury of being able to spend a good hour with the man where, unlike the hapless Steve, I get to meet the real Tom Waits, family man, actor, writer, composer and thinker. The drunk, the down and out bum was nowhere in sight as I slowly entered Tom's Twilight Zone.
In a recent TV interview you spoke of 'the darker regions of your imagination'. Could you explain a little more about that?
"I'm more interested in how your memory distorts things. It's like an apparatus that dismantles things and puts them back together with some of the parts missing. When you remember something it's always a distorted impression, once the moment is gone the memory is very different to the actual moment itself.
"It's like when you misunderstand somebody or you're eavesdropping and you only hear part of a conversation, you reconstruct the rest of it around that. Or you read a magazine article that says 'continued page 23' but that page is torn out so all you had was those two paragraphs to go on.
"The guy who wrote Equus(2) , it all came from an article he read about a young boy who blinded six horses with an ice pick, that's all he knew and he built up an entire play around that one piece of information."
What's your most personally successful piece to date?
"Well I got real close with some of the stuff on the new record. There's one called 'Underground' and an instrumental piece called 'Dave The Butcher' that I like."
Did you have a specific character in mind when you wrote that particular piece?
"Yeah. He was somebody we'd met. He had yellow hair, looked completely demented, wore a leopard collar made out of real leopard skin and he had two different kinds of shoes, he wore one boot and one Oxford. He worked at a butchery shop so I tried to imagine the music going on in his head while he was cutting up little pork loins."
Dave The Butcher was obviously an impressive figure to you at the time. What kind of people impressed you as a child?
"My parents had a friend who was an Indian woman, she used to paint Christmas scenes on the store windows during the holidays. We used to take her milk and eggs in the middle of the night. Then she inherited a lot of money and moved away.
"A friend of mine called Chipper who had polio(3), we used to race to the bus stop every morning. My father knew a couple who owned a chicken ranch, she was a hypochondriac and he was an alcoholic. She looked like an exotic bird, she looked like a canary in a wet suit and he looked like Errol Flynn. As I remember something though I'm changing it too, I mean he probably didn't look like Errol Flynn at all".
How did you become interested in music in the first place? Who encouraged you?
"My father played a little guitar and I had an uncle who played a church organ. They were thinking about replacing him because every Sunday there were more mistakes than there had been the Sunday before. It got to the point where 'Onward Christian Soldiers' was sounding more like The Rites Of Spring and finally they had to let him go.
"They tore the church down and he took the organ and installed it in his house, he had the pipes going right through the ceiling. He was also a botanist, he lived in the middle of an orange grove where a train went by and we used to visit him when I was very small and impressionable.
"I played a piano that had been out in the rain, of all things, some of the keys were stuck and didn't operate so I learned to play the black keys."
Would you ever consider writing a book or making a purely spoken word record of stories like 'Frank's Wild Years' for example?
"Things like 'Frank's Wild Years' worked but sometimes a story can be too dry and alone. I'm getting to where I want to see things where either the words are more concise so that the picture I am trying to create becomes more clear, or be more vague in description and allow the music to take the listener to that place where you want them to go.
"I've been working in film recently(4) and there are so many departments, this enormous committee making decisions about illusion."
What are your impressions about working with Francis Ford Coppola and his illusions?
"Coppola is one of the most interesting people I have ever met. He's very obsessed and has a great sense of family and loyalty, but his real mistress is film, images and drama.
"He's the first one who ever interested me in opera, something I never dreamed of ever being interested in. He played me a Puccini aria called 'Nessun Dorma' and it just undressed me, I became unwrapped."
The work of composer Harry Partch has been mentioned in recent interviews and is clearly influential on parts of Swordfishtrombones. How were you introduced to his music?
"Francis Thumm is an old companion of mine, he is a professor and he also plays the crumelodian in the Harry Partch Ensemble, so it was Francis Thumm who interested me in Harry Partch.
"Partch was an American hobo and the instruments he made were all built from things that he essentially found on the side of the road, not literally but figuratively. He dismantled and rebuilt his own version of the whole concept of music and its purpose, but I just like the sounds he makes."
Has listening to his music ever tempted you into making your own instruments?
"Well you can usually get the sounds you want to hear. You can usually find an instrument and alter it in some way."
"Basically I use things very traditionally, most of the stuff I've used has come from an upright bass, tenor sax and piano. Orchestrally I've worked with arrangers but I haven't really explored or been as adventurous as I would like to be. You really have to be driven along some kind of journey, slowly I'm getting there."
Who else do you particularly admire?
"Well a lot of people. Do you know Ralph Steadman?(5)
The cartoonist? You like his drawings?
"Yeah, because they're so demented. They look like he spits up blood and then paints with his fingers. I like Thelonius Monk, he's so gnarled, he's like a piece of machinery that's pulled up the bolts on the floor and gone off on its own."
Who would you most like to perform one of your songs?
"Oh maybe Betty Carter, Marlene Dietrich, Cab Galloway or, er...Carmen."
Where does your inspiration come from?
"Sometimes I get up in the middle of the night when I'm still drunk from sleep. I go over to the piano in the dark and just hit random arbitary notes and like where your hand goes it goes there for a reason.
"If you put a little baby down at a piano, she doesn't know anything, she likes to hit it over here because there are more black notes, or there may be some missing so she goes down here.
"I like those things, it's like Steve Allen used to look out of his window at the telephone wires and he would wait for birds to come and sit on them so that he could score the melodies they made when they landed.
"They weren't great melodies but it was still an interesting approach to writing melody. If you're paying attention there are always ideas, they're growing under your feet."
� Edwin Pouncey, 1983
(1) Loose Talk show: further reading: Loose Talk transcript.
- 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)
(2) The guy who wrote Equus: Equus by Peter Shaffer. "After premiering in 1973 in London, Peter Shaffer's Equus ran for more than a thousand performances on Broadway and won the 1974 Tony Award, as well as three other major drama awards. The play focuses on the causes underlying a seemingly senseless act of violence by an adolescent boy, an act that forces the characters to confront questions of responsibility and ultimate meaning. Through his characters, Shaffer explores the dilemmas of late-twentieth-century existence in England and, by extension, in the entire industrialized world. In an increasingly commercial and mechanized culture, there is little place for ecstasy and worship, yet they remain human endowments. Is our trust in science as foolish-even more foolish-than the pagans' belief in their gods? Does being "normal" in such a culture also entail losing one's individuality and learning to live without passion? Equus centers on the explosive encounters between seventeen-year-old Alan Strang, who has blinded six horses with a spike, and Martin Dysart, the middle-aged psychiatrist who agrees to treat him. Shaffer based the plot on an allegedly true story told by a friend about a young man who blinded a stable of horses." (Source: Penquen Reading Group, reading guide. Penguin Group USA Copyright � 2004)
(3) A friend of mine called Chipper who had polio: this would probably be the person to have inspired the song "Kentucky Avenue" (Blue Valentine, 1978).
- Tom Waits(1981): "My best friend, when I was a kid, had polio. I didn't understand what polio was. I just knew it took him longer to get to the bus stop than me. I dunno. Sometimes I think kids know more than anybody. I rode a train once to Santa Barbara with this kid and it almost seemed like he lived a life somewhere before he was born and he brought what he knew with him into this world and so..." His voice fades off for a moment, then, "...It's what you don't know that's usually more interesting. Things you wonder about, things you have yet to make up your mind about. There's more to deal with than just your fundamental street wisdom. Dreams. Nightmares." (Source: "Tom Waits: Waits And Double Measures" Smash Hits magazine by Johnny Black. March 18, 1981)
- Tom Waits(1985): "Childhood is very important to me as a writer, I think the things that happen then, the way you perceive them and remember them in later life, have a very big effect on what you do later on." "That one came over a little dramatic, a little puffed up, but when I was 10 my best friend was called Kipper, he had polio and was in a wheelchair - we used to race each other to the bus stop." (Source: "Hard Rain" New Musical Express (UK), by Gavin Martin. Date: New York. October 19, 1985)
(4) I've been working in film recently: In 1982 Waits had finished the soundtrack for "One From The Heart". In 1983 Waits had small parts in two other Coppola movies: The Outsiders (1983) and Rumble Fish (1983). Further reading: Filmography.