Title: Talking With Tom Waits Is Like Trying To Converse With A Ghost In A Fog
Source: The Toronto Star (Canada), by Greg Quill. Transcription by Juanita Benedicto, as sent to Raindogs Listserv Discussionlist, August 21, 1999
Date: August 19, 1999
Key Words: Name, Mule Variations, Touring, Toronto, Soundtracks, Acting, Waits name


Talking With Tom Waits Is Like Trying To Converse With A Ghost In A Fog


The growling California songwriter is as elusive and evasive as one of the midnight ramblers who inhabit his often desperate landscapes, skidding off one set of wild and evocative metaphors and on to another, spinning yarns about what one can only assume are half-imagined lives in a completely successful effort to avoid identification.

''Where am I calling from?'' he asks, repeating the first, perfectly innocuous question in a brief telephone exchange earlier this week. ''I'll never say . . . I'm hovering right above you.''

He's a shy man, and quite reclusive, say the few people in Toronto who've dealt with Waits since he first performed here in the late 1970s(1) . And despite the self-image he projects in his albums of a howling, deadbeat loner impertinently casting dharma pearls at unsuspecting mainstream swine, he's another person entirely.

He's happily married, with three children, and lives somewhere in Northern California's verdant wine country, among moguls and megastars. He's a very deliberate, very conscious artist, apparently, who works very hard at sounding like a junkyard creeper with a throat full of sawdust and rotgut.

Or maybe not. Waits, who performs two sold-out shows at the Hummingbird Centre(2) Monday and Tuesday, is such a clever myth-maker, he could well have invented that appealing/appalling notion as yet another disguise.

Whoever the real Tom Waits is, only a few know. The rest of us can live quite happily with the man he has become in his songs, in the crazy and beautiful albums The Heart Of Saturday Night, Heartattack And Vine, Swordfishtrombones, Raindogs, Frank's Wild Years and the recently released Mule Variations. And that's just fine with Waits.

''Quill . . . how appropriate that you should have taken on writing as a profession,'' is another non-sequiter response to yet another question. ''Somehow you have fulfilled your destiny, but then, I suppose I have, too. ''My name defines a calling as well(3). The Waits traditionally turned out all the lights and put the town to sleep. I've spent a lot of time researching the meaning of names. ''Hmmm . . . ,'' he adds, as if intending to continue the thought. He doesn't. He was clearing his throat. He does it all through the conversation, occasionally coughing and wheezing as well. ''What's the weather like there? What kinds of fruit and vegetables are coming in? Got any squash? We've got so much zucchini in my part of the world, people are throwin' 'em at cars on the highway.''

When we spoke, Waits was not actually in a musical mode. It was near the end of a two-week vacation from the on-again, off-again Mule Variations tour, which began about three months ago. ''We play for two weeks, then take two weeks off,'' he says. ''I only enjoy performing periodically. It takes its toll. You've got to worry about viscosity, thermal breakdown, metal fatigue and diminishing returns. I try not to pound the songs into the dirt, so we rest, cool down and gas up every couple of weeks.'' These references to ironwork and internal combustion reflect both standard Waits imagery - his fascination with cars and mechanics is well chronicled in song - and the nature of the music he has been making in the past few years, music that sounds as if it were composed on and for found instruments, scrap metal, rusty bedsprings, crashing bricks, cardboard boxes, hubcaps . . . you name it.

It's a very clever construction, musically valid since all the extramusical bits and pieces - those other than piano, guitar, banjo and the occasional sardonic sax or trumpet - are chosen for their pitch and harmonic qualities. What's more interesting is that their hard tones and industrial textures, enhanced by turntable-scratched loops and synthesized, computer-generated samples, create a soundscape that embraces both astonishing bleakness and stark beauty, a sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland rendered in sound by a primitive savant wielding tools that have lost their proper application. This is music envisioned more or less as a comical aside in the 1960s by Waits' mentors Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, but which found fuller expression in Europe in the early 1980s, in the experimental and percussive industrial art rock of bands like Einsturzende Neubaten. That Waits can make all this noise so warm and folksy at the same time is a testament to his training as a songsmith, his fine ear and his acute intelligence.

''I like what falls outside what most people think is music,'' he said. ''I'm not in the music business, I'm in the salvage business. I salvage people, music, places, furniture . . . the things that other people have thrown away. ''Still,'' he adds, as if he'd made his musical construct sound either too abstract or too easy, ''it all has to be processed through a musical mechanism, through the imagination, and the instruments all have to have musical qualities and other kinds of resonance.'' He let the conversation dangle for a few seconds. ''How are the tomatoes up there in Toronto? It's tomato time, ain't it? I love tomatoes . . . .''

He last played here in 1987(4) and there are a few things about Toronto Waits does remember. One is his first performance here in the late 1970s, opening for bluegrass rockers The Good Brothers at the El Mocambo. He has also played Convocation Hall and Massey Hall, but can't quite get his mind back there. ''I remember the El Mocambo and Spadina Ave. and a Chinese restaurant,'' he said. ''My act has changed a lot since then. I need people to help me remember specific things. I associate places with people, bits of conversation, and things like a hot wool overcoat on a summer day. ''It's a treatable disorder, they tell me.''

In the intervening years, he has taken on several movie roles (Rumblefish, Down By Law, Ironweed, the current Mystery Men) and has written several movie scores. That is not surprising, since his best songs are miniature cinema scenarios and his best music has a timeless ambience that adds lustre and resonance to a soundtrack. ''I like writing music for movies, though usually when they come looking for me, they're at the end of the money and out of ideas. A song can't save a bad picture, and all you can hope for is that your song fits. So far, mine seem to fit like a glove. ''As an actor, however, I've been severely under-utilized,'' he chuckles. ''I ain't so keen on that . . . too much waiting.'' Besides, Waits lives so comfortably inside his own skin that he doesn't seem to need the artificial boost movie acting offers. He doesn't even seem compelled to make a regular commitment to the music-making machine.

Asked about post-tour plans, he mutters: ''Sheet rock installation, something in the electrical and plumbing sector . . . . ''I'm a binge writer,'' he continues, suddenly more serious. ''I write when I feel the urge, when unemployment looms, when there's a death in the family. These are triggers. ''Songs are just layin' out there like fish in the water. When you're ready, you just wade out and bring 'em in. ''But one thing I've learned: You've got to be real quiet if you want to catch the big ones . . . .''


(1) First performed here in the late 1970s: November 1973 (Massey Hall/ Toronto, opening for Frank Zappa), April 1975 (El Mocambo/ Toronto, opening for The Good Brothers), November 1975 (Massey Hall/ Toronto, opening for Bonnie Raitt), April 1977 (The New Yorker Theater/ Toronto), October 1979 (Music Hall Theatre/ Toronto). Further reading: Performances

(2) Two sold-out shows at the Hummingbird Centre: August 23/24, 1999 (Hummingbird Centre. Toronto/ Canada). Further reading: Performances

(3) My name defines a calling as well:
- "From medieval times up to the beginning of the 19th century, every British town and city of any note had a band of Waits. Their duties varied from time to time and place to place, but included playing their instruments through the town at night, waking the townsfolk on dark winter mornings by playing under their windows, welcoming Royal visitors by playing at the town gates, and leading the Mayor's procession on civic occasions. Their instruments also varied, but were for the main part loud and penetrating wind instruments such as the shawm, which was so closely associated with them that it was also known as the Wait-pipe. Waits were provided with salaries, liveries and silver chains of office, bearing the town's arms. As a result of the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, Waits were abolished, though their name lingered on as 'Christmas Waits', who could be any group of singers or musicians who formed a band in order to sing and play carols for money around their town or village at night over the Christmas period. Unfortunately, it is these largely amateur musicians who have become associated in peoples' minds with the name 'Waits', when they have heard of them at all, rather than the important civic officers and accomplished musicians who were true Waits." (Source and further reading: The Waits Website)
- Tom Waits (1985): 'I don't think it's that important to tell the truth,' he once said. Like the boy who cried wolf, he is disbelieved even when he's being honest. Waits, I'd said, was an unusual name. 'Well, he deadpanned, my name was Waitsosky and then we dropped the -osky." Oh really, said gullible me. TW: "No, Waits is a musical term. It's the guy that puts out the lights at the end of the day and sings all the stories of what's happened in the town.' Disbelievingly, I laughed. The dictionary put me right." (Source: "The Sultan Of Sleaze", YOU magazine, by Pete Silverton. Date: New York. Early October, 1985).
Tom Waits (1988): 'The names (in Ireland), you know. It's like Callahan is from "calloused hands". Waits is really Scotch-Irish too - and Waits was the guy who came out in town at the end of the night and said "All is Well". And sang out the town news and put the street lights out. So they called him "a waits". He sang, like a town crier." (Source: "Title: A Flea In His Ear", City Limits magazine (UK), by Bill Holdship. Date: Traveler's Cafe/ Los Angeles. May 12-19 , 1988).
Tom Waits (1992): "My name is in all the music dictionaries you know. "Waits" - those are the people who go through the city singing carols and singing the story of the day and putting out the lights. The town crier. All is well, it's 10:00 and all is well and Mrs O'Malley's cow has died and Charles Foster was hit by a train and Bill Bailey was run in with his own sword. The quintuplets are now three years old. That's what my name means in the music dictionaries." (Source: "Telerama Interview", Date: September 9, 1992).
Margaret Moser (2002): What is Waits, English? TW: Scotch-Irish, I think. Waits is a musical term. A "waits" is the man who put out the lights at day's end and sang the song of the day. "It's 8 o'clock and all's well." Then he told the things that happened that day: Somebody's cow ran away, Mrs. Ferguson was found bound and gagged in the barn, it rained like hell ... whatever. That's what a waits was." (Source: "This Business Called Show'. Austin Chronicle (USA) Vol. 21, No. 26. May 10-16, 2002 by Margaret Moser)

"The Waits, and may they continue to wait!"
St. Stephens cartoon by Tom Merry. December 25, 1886

(4) He last played here in 1987: October 6-8, 1987: Massey Hall. Toronto/ Canada. Further reading: Performances