Title: The Hobo Comes Home
Source: The Weekend Australian (Australia). June 1, 2002. By Iain Shedden. Transcription by "Frederic" as sent to Tom Waits Library/ Library August 7, 2002. Copyright: The Weekend Australian/ Copyright News Limited.
Date: June, 2002
Keywords: Alice/ Blood Money, Mule Variations, music industry, touring


The Hobo Comes Home


It has been a while since Tom Waits shared a bottle with the nighthawks, dames and desperados who inhabit his music. But at 52, the gravel-voiced poet is still singing of the seedy side -- from the comfort of home. By Iain Shedden

Tom Waits is making a pot of soup. "Chicken," he says in his familiar growl, before going in search of cutlery. "I'll be right with you. It's dinner time around here."

Domestic routine is hardly the picture one forms at the mention of Waits; rather, you imagine a dimly lit diner with some old hobo in the corner, or a wino in fingerless gloves shuffling along a back alley. Or, of course, a finely turned out figure sitting at the piano, gargling gravel and crooning sumptuous vignettes that portray America's seedy underbelly. That's Waits the musician; but of course there's also Waits the actor, exquisitely portraying trailer trash in Robert Altman's 1993 film Short Cuts or the world-weary con on the run in Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law (1986). There's also Waits the theatre composer, collaborating with renowned stage director Robert Wilson.

All of these form the Waits curriculum vitae of the past 30 years or so. The fiction of his seedy-side songs even blends into reality, since much of his early material, fuelled by drunks, dames and fellow nighthawks, was a portrait of the artist as a young desperado, following in the footsteps of Kerouac and Ginsberg and developing his poetic view of the world from the bottom of a bottle.

Nowadays there's not much left of the method muso. At 52 he no longer feels the need to live it as he writes it. He doesn't drink, rarely tours, has cut down the acting and enjoys a relatively quiet lifestyle in the remote town of Santa Rosa, 100km north of San Francisco. This he shares with his wife and muse Kathleen Brennan and their three children, Kellesimone, 18, Casey, 16, and Sullivan, 8.

The Waits legend, however, lives on, and the success of his album Mule Variations (1999) has kept his name in the adult contemporary racks of CD stores worldwide. He and Brennan have now produced two additions to the catalogue - Blood Money and Alice(1) - that flow freely with the romantic, the dysfunctional, the love-lorn and the world-weary, characters as vivid as any from his classic albums such as Swordfishtrombones (1983), Rain Dogs (1985), and Frank's Wild Years (1987).

Those '80s beat music masterpieces are the benchmark of a genre that Waits pretty much invented, taking elements of blues, jazz, ragtime and vaudeville and mixing it into a hotch-potch of bourbon-soaked storytelling.

The story continues. Blood Money and Alice were recorded at the same sessions last year and released simultaneously on May 6. The latter, however, has a longer history. It dates back to 1992, when much of the material formed the backdrop to the stage play Alice, American writer and director Wilson's avant-garde take on the Lewis Carroll classics Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

Waits' songs, such as Lost in the HarbourWe're All Mad Here and the title track are reflective of Wilson's cracked perspective on the classic children's tales. The pair's collaboration formed the basis of Waits' 1993 album The Black Rider and the trilogy is completed by Blood Money, based on their adaptation of the Georg Buchner play Woyzeck, which ran in Europe two years ago. It is more of a bleak study of hopelessness, with titles such as Misery is the River of the World and Everything Goes to Hell setting the tone.

"They're completely different, unique collections of songs," he says. "Blood Money is perhaps a little rougher. Alice is more like taking a pill, I guess. They're completely different trips, but they both pretty much came out of the oven at the same time." The kitchen appliance wins the battle of these mixed metaphors, diverting him back to the soup at hand. "Sorry, got to get myself organised." he says.

As with his cooking, Waits has always taken a lengthy, some would say perfectionist, approach to recording.

"It's a lot of work, but by the time you're done... you'll never listen to it as many times or as closely as when you're working on it." he says. "You have to be in a certain frame of mind. It's like acting. You have to be making certain choices about how to approach the song. Sometimes it's hard to know when you're done. "When they take it away from you," he reasons, "that's when you're done."

Interviewing Waits is a notoriously fickle affair. He is famous for deflecting questions with frivolous - if inventive - answers, or for simply not saying very much at all. Today he sounds mildly distracted but comes around to the idea of talking about himself, starting with the present.

"I find it easier now," he goes on. "I'm not as fussy." About writing, performing, acting? "About anything," he declares. "I think that everybody likes music but what you really want is music to like you. So... there you have it."


"People who make up songs... the stuff you usually like the most is the stuff that refreshes you, the new stuff. Some songs you know right away that you'll never sing it again, others you know that 30 years down the road you'll still be trying to figure out what it means."

With Mule Variations the focus of his attention turned in part to the everyday, hidden eccentricities of middle America, particularly on songs such as What's He Building in ThereHouse Where Nobody Lives and Hold On. The topics - and the tunes - touched a nerve. "Folk seemed to like it and I was happy about that," he says. "But I wasn't able to predict that. Some of it was to do with the fact that I hadn't recorded for a while and I had a new label."

He describes songs - his and everybody else's - as "just like people you hang out with. Some you hear once and throw them away."

Few American songwriters have drawn such colourful scenarios into the space of a three or four-minute song. There's this gem, for example, from Shore Leave on Swordfishtrombones: "...and so I slopped at the corner on cold chow mein / and shot billiards with a midget until the rain stopped / and I bought a long-sleeved shirt with horses on the front / and some gum and a lighter and a knife / and a new deck of cards (with girls on the back) and I sat down and wrote a letter to my wife."

"You just take it one step in front of the other... then you're up, then you're over, then you're in," he says, oversimplifying the procedure with a chuckle. "I like songs that have weather in them, and the names of towns and names of people. Then you can get a fire going, maybe a bite to eat... so, you got weather, you got wind, you got animals... it's all jewelry for the ears."

Tom Waits was born in Pomona, California, on December 7, 1949, and moved to National City when his parents divorced ten years later. The striking image that has stuck with him throughout his music and film career was forged in San Diego, where he worked as a doorman at a club in the late '60s(2). He would jump up on stage to perform between the regular acts and attracted further attention at talent nights in a club called the Troubadour in Los Angeles(3). A recording deal with Asylum soon followed and with albums such as his debut, Closing Time (1973), and The Heart of Saturday Night (1974), Waits began putting together the elements that would serve him for so long.

It was in the '80s, however, that the real turning point came. Switching record labels to Island and producing the album trilogy based loosely on the character of Frank in Frank's Wild Years, Waits also discovered the art of writing music for film. Director Francis Ford Coppola invited him to write for his movie One From the Heart, released in 1982. The experience also led to him meeting his wife, Brennan, who was a script editor at Coppola's Zoetrope Studios.

The writing discipline further developed his talent for creating vivid images with music. However, he believes there is plenty of license in fitting music to drama. "My theory is... if you were watching the John Wilkes Booth Story and all of a sudden you heard Abeline or Crazy or I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles or We're in the Money, you'd make sense out of it, wouldn't you? That's the mind's job - to wrap yourself around it and make sense out of it. You try to have some idea in mind by juxtaposing, you know, a meadow with a brothel and a Cadillac and a rainstorm, but the people who perceive it are going to have their own interpretation and understanding of it. I don't deem it necessary that I be too specific because you want to leave room for your own ideas."

Waits' most recent film contribution was to last year's Big Bad Love, starring Debra Winger, which hasn't been released in Australia. He began his acting career in 1978 in the Sylvester Stallone film Paradise Alley and gained plaudits in the '80s for starring roles in Down by Law and Ironweed, among others. In the '90s he garnered further acclaim in Altman's ensemble piece Short Cuts and for his brief portrayal of the insane would-be vampire R.M. Renfield in the screen adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Now acting is on the backburner, prompted, he says in jest, by his "classic" Renfield.

"Once you've played Renfield they want you to be that," he says. "I had somebody tell me: 'Tom, it was really a mistake playing Renfield, man. You'll never come back from that.' What do you do for an encore?"

If there's suggestion of typecasting in his film work, there's also no escaping the fact that people have grown to expect a certain style from his music. "You mean if I don't give it to them they won't buy it?"

Well, yes.

"No. If I did disco or parlour songs or anything, it wouldn't matter. I don't feel chained to anybody's affectations of what they think I should do. I'm in a unique position. I pretty much do what I want. I'm not like the Backstreet Boys or anything. I don't have to live up to selling 26 million records, so that if I sell 17 million I'm a failure."

This mention of the boy-band phenomenon betrays his disaffectation with the mainstream music industry. "There are a lot of people who are in it for the money," he says. "There are record companies that are like behemoth cartels. They're like countries themselves. But that could be said of anything." You roll your own, is the Waits philosophy.

If record companies get up his nose, his world view, somewhat prevalent in Blood Money, is even more despairing. "It feels like the whole world's on fire right now," he says, getting on a roll. "We're going downhill fast. It makes you wonder about what you're doing and whether it has anything to do with the rest of the world. It's a time for great men to step forward. I think we're all waiting for men of vision and passion to come forward and sit around a table and solve these problems."

We'll probably never see Waits in Australia again. He last appeared here in 1981(4), but the chances of a return are on the other side of slim. He no longer tours the US (performing only in Los Angeles and New York for these albums(5)), so will not be pressed into long-haul travel.

"Besides, I've got my ice sculptures to worry about," he says, throwing a curve ball. "I rise to it, almost, but I think better of it.

"It takes a lot to light a fire under me." he goes on. "I'm not going to tour but I'll do a few dates here and there. Living in hotels? Eating slop? Sleeping in the car? I don't know. I don't like it as much as I used to."

As long as his voice holds up, however, he'll keep making records.

"Well, Whatya thinkin' of doin'?" he groans when I suggest otherwise. "I got Frank Sinatra's throat specialist. He said: 'You're doing everything right. Don't change a thing.' I figure if it's good enough for Frank, it's good enough for me."


(1) Blood Money and Alice: Alice (the play) premiered on December 19, 1992 at the Thalia Theater, Hamburg/ Germany. Further reading: Alice. Woyzeck (the play) premiered November 18, 2000 at the Betty Nansen Theatre in Copenhagen/ Denmark. Further reading: Woyzeck.

(2) Worked as a doorman at a club in the late '60s: The San Diego Heritage Coffeehouse in Mission Beach at 3842 Mission Blvd. This was probably from 1968 to early 1971. Further reading: The Heritage.

(3) A club called the Troubadour in Los Angeles: Monday's "hootnights" at Doug Weston's Troubadour (located at: 9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood) where Mr. Waits got his break into show business during the summer of 1971. Further reading: The Troubadour.

(4) He last appeared here in 1981: Heartattack And Vine tour: September 26. Town Hall. Auckland, New Zealand. September 27. State Hall. Christchurch, New Zealand. Band introduced before 'Small Change'. September 28. Town Hall. Wellington, New Zealand. October 02. School Of Music. Canberra, Australia. October 03. Capitol Theatre. Sydney, Australia. October 04. Capitol Theatre. Sydney, Australia. October 07. Festival Hall. Brisbane, Australia. October 11. Festival Theatre. Adelaide, Australia. October 13. Dallas Brooks Hall. Melbourne, Australia. October 14. Dallas Brooks Hall. Melbourne, Australia. October 19. Concert Hall. Perth, Australia. October 20. Dallas Brooks Hall. Melbourne, Australia. October 21. Palais Theatre. Melbourne, Australia.

(5) Performing only in Los Angeles and New York for these albums: It seems originally shows were indeed planned for fall 2002. But in September it turned out the shows were not going to happen, because Waits was said to be working on his next album.