Title: The Music Of Chance
Source: Spin magazine (USA), by Mark Richard. Transcription by Larry DaSilveira as sent to Raindogs Listserv Discussionlist, June 21, 1999
Date: June, 1994(?)
Key words: Biff Dawes, Bone Machine, Mike Kloster, Creative process, Experimental instruments, Childhood, The Black Rider


The Music Of Chance


Bohemian Brahmin Tom Waits has made a career of obliterating artistic boundaries. Mark Richard explores the methods to this virtuoso's madness in a rare glimpse into the creative process.

I am sitting in the back seat of Tom Waits' Cadillac. A 1964 gold Sedan Deville. The upholstery is sprung, the floorboards are deep with superhero appendages, words-of-wisdom books, pony blankets, food things. It smells like kids and gasoline. Waits left the gas cap at a self-serve the previous night.

Up in the front seat, Biff Dawes(1) , first engineer of the Sunset Sound Factory(2), fiddles with the stereo system. Waits - broken porkpie hat, black jeans, and T-shirt he'll wear most the next three weeks - turns the ignition. Tonight the blue moon is so bright that people are cruising headlight less. Waits is not cruising tonight. Tonight Waits is working, mixing his latest album, and he does not trust the low end of the Sound Factory's studio speakers. A bit of the master tape has been transferred to cassette, and Dawes puts it in the system in Waits' car. No, Waits tells Dawes, he doesn't know exactly what kind of system it is, just the kind where you drive into some place, and they install it. Waits listens to most things in his car, trusts his car, tells Dawes that the car listened to "Bone Machine", Waits' last album, and the car liked the album very much.

"I'm glad," says Dawes.

Dawes plays the cut and Waits turns it up to full volume. Waits says the car stereo is always either switched off, or so loud his kids fly around in the backseat like they have lost their minds. "They love it," he says. Listening to the cut, Waits rocks violently back and forth against the steering wheel in the way special children will when intent on the sounds of an interior world. Waits says he likes the way the cut sounds now, but just to make sure, we all slide out of the Cadillac on the passenger side because the driver's door is broken shut, and climb into Dawes's BMW to listen there. "Let's do this periodically," says Waits, and we do.

On his way back in the studio, Waits stops and looks at his car. "It came to me the other day," he says, "that what I really want to drive is a '66 Electra Glide Harley with San Francisco Police written on the side of it. I'd get a white helmet and gloves. I don't know why it's what I want, it's just what I want."

We are in Los Angeles to talk to Waits about his creative process. Waits is here mixing the songs and music he wrote for "The Black Rider", an opera he collaborated on with Robert Wilson and William S. Burroughs, which has been a hit in Europe and more recently in New York.(3)

Waits is reluctant at first to let anyone into the studio while he is working. "It would be like watching someone bathe," he says. Yet here we are, in the control room where Mike Kloster, the second engineer, is patching in Waits' Chamberlain Music Master 600, a broken-lidded, organ-like contraption with over 70 sounds and voices on tape loops. Waits bought it from some surfers in Westwood who were making fun of the instrument. "I saw it and said, 'I'll take you home now, dear'," Waits recalls. Waits is hoping to coax a woman's voice from the machine, but its wooden pins and spinning chain-driven gears and tape loops are visibly dusty and brittle. The previous night Waits conjured up a wild sax player, and then lost him amid horse neighs and train whistles.

A more immediate concern tonight is a temperamental ground switch that is sending a buzz and then a hum through the system. Kloster says to make a choice--hum or buzz.

"I like the hum," says Waits, "it's less offensive. But keep the buzz, we may need it later."

Waits is playing the Chamberlain even before it has warmed up, rocking back and forth, tocking himself to the dull tick of the dead keys.

"This is called the control room because we are going to bring these things in and control their development," he says. "Some things we will isolate and will not allow to be heard. Other things we'll make the size of Godzilla. The Empire State Building we'll make the size of a domino. That chair will disappear. Things will emerge in spite of everything you are doing."

Waits lights a cigarette and tries to explain the paradox of control in the creative process.

"You have to be careful about control," says Waits. "It's like when you take a bunch of chickens to the park and you try to keep them all together and you're yelling, 'Hey! Chicken! Come back here!' so that when you finally get the chickens corralled, they all die of heat exhaustion."

Waits summons the woman's voice from the machine and plays her in a minor key he learned from a friend who lived in a trailer near a hobo jungle. "They like minor keys down there," Waits says. "The light is different." Waits asks Dawes if the woman's voice can be made to sound more "haunting". Often the banter between Waits and Dawes is more evocative than technical. "Put a little more hair on that, will you, Biff?" "You want to dry that up? You want to cut the head off that and see if you can jam it up, do a window edit and bring in that battalion from yesterday?" "See if we can throw a shadow on the left side and give me a pale blue in the middle, maybe take the glare off that violin?"

Waits' blunted fingers are swayback and have a knowingness on the keyboard that he tries to confuse. "Your hands are like dogs," he says, "going to the same places they've been. You have to be careful when playing is no longer in the mind but in the fingers, going to happy places. You have to break them of their habits or you don't explore, you only play what is confident and pleasing. I'm learning to break those habits by playing instruments I know absolutely nothing about, like a bassoon or a waterphone(4)."

The waterphone is from Waits' collection of exotic instruments. It looks like two pizza pans welded face together with a length of rope-wrapped muffler pipe fitted to the center. Varying lengths of steel rods are staggered around the edges. When water is poured down the muffler pipe into the pizza pans you rop the rods with a mullet or draw a bow across them to achieve deep-sea, science-fiction-movie sounds.

"Play it," says Waits. "There are no experts or beginners." He says you pick up the instrument and you are in the same place as everyone else. "I love the places in music where you don't bring your ego to the process. You just shake hands with your instrument. Sometimes music will like you better if you are more innocent, it will want to say around longer. I'm disorganized and I lose some lyrics, and I think, 'Well, maybe I was supposed to lose the lyrics so I have to write another.' That's why I love to bring in new instruments I found somewhere, I love ghosts in the machine. You lose things. 'What happened to that trumpet? I thought we had that trumpet! Do we have to do it again? We can't, he's gone. The trumpet player is in Vienna. We can't reach him. I guess there's no trumpet on this thing, then. Maybe it's better without the trumpet. It is! I never really liked the trumpet. I'm actually glad we didn't find the trumpet player because then we would have felt obligated to put the trumpet in there. Now I can tell the trumpet player I didn't take the trumpet out, don't get your feelings hurt, we just lost it.'"

When Waits was a child he liked to rock himself back and forth across the living room in a large rocking chair. At eight years his favorite book was a boy-gets-a-horse story with a twist: a girl, Waits remembers the "advanced paragraph in which the boy lies down next to the girl by a stream with bees buzzing all around." Waits says you could make the leap. He says he checked the book out of the library and never returned it, wrapping it in plastic and burying it beneath a tree.

At age 11, he built Heathknit radios with the help of his World War II radio-technician father Frank, broom-handle antenna on the roof connected to a wireless set, listening to Wolfman Jack and evangelist Brother Springer from Oklahoma City.

At 14, Waits went through a period when he was certain he had a disease no one else had. At night, just as his heart slowed for sleep, all the sounds in his room, in his house, out in the street, would increase in volume and size like monsters.

"My hand across the sheet sounded like I was doing it across a live microphone," Waits says. "My fingers would roar around my face in the air trying to make it stop. Just scratching and clawing at my face was maddening, it was so loud. It was a violent and terrifying thing to me as a child. I knew whatever it was, a doctor could not help me, and I was probably going to die."

Waits told no one, not even his parents, and slowly developed his own meditation techniques for isolating the sounds and decreasing their volume. After curing himself, Waits began sampling sounds and studying them, recording on wobbly reel-to-reel machines, amplifying his guitar by listening to it with an ambulance driver's stethoscope stuck in the body while he played.

Waits' father, then a high school Spanish teacher who was also in a mariachi band, taught his son how to play the guitar. His father would bring home low-end Mexican specials that cost $9 and lasted two weeks, bending so that the strings were three inches off the neck, and you had to play the things with welding gloves.

"I just saw my dad today," Waits says. "We were reading a menu at a restaurant and he said, 'Jeez, they have a skinless chicken here, Tom, and I just imagine how painful it was for him to grow up', and I said, 'Yeah, but what about this boneless chicken, such an unmanageable life.'"

It is nearing midnight at the Sound Factory. Waits would like to add a guitar track to the song "Crossroads". He likes the feel of the hallway outside the studio so Kloster and Dawes set him up there. Waits doesn't have quite the sound he wants from the arrangement, so Dawes asks if he would like to try something called the transient distortion from an overloaded condenser microphone effect? Translated, this means Waits will play his guitar in the hallway on an old Fender amp recorded through the tiny mikes in a battered 20-year-old boom box.

Dawes tells Waits he can hear the chair squeak when Waits moves. Waits asks Dawes what is sounds like. "Bus brakes," says Dawes. Waits says that's all right, he'll just rock in tempo.

A telephone rings in a nearby office just as Waits finishes dubbing the vocal for "I'll Shoot the Moon", singing through cupped hands. Dawes cringes when the phone rings again, it's audible in the mix. "Leave it in, leave it in," says Waits. "The songs says 'Call me!'"

We listen to three versions of a song before Waits decides which one he wants to add a small amount of percussion to. There's his "cruise ship version", his "Latin version", and his "experimental version." "That's my Jimmy Durante, that's my Bar Harbor, that's my Ethel Merman!" says Waits. "I sound so...continental!"

At 1:00 a.m. we listen to the "Gospel Train" tape, a problematic piece for a formal orchestra. Dawes asks Waits if he wants to lay in a train whistle track(5), and Waits says no, that he had given the orchestra such a big talk about them being a train, and they tried so hard playing to be a train that to add a train whistle right now might make them feel impotent. But he would like for Dawes to make the cut have the feel of a Bahia slave galley leaving the Amazon loaded with molasses and sugar cane.

"Right," says Dawes.

Waits comes late to a mid-week session. He has spent the day with his children, taking them to ride horses. He sits at the mixing board, a little preoccupied and unable to get comfortable in his chair, until he discovers he is sitting on a bottle of baby formula he had forgotten was tucked in a back pocket. He will not talk about his wife Kathleen or his three children, but their pictures always seem to be close by, newborn photos on the Chamberlain keyboard, photos tucked in a visor, or edging out of a bedside book.

It is a slow night at the Sound Factory. There are long breaks between songs. Waits and Dawes discuss a radio show about gardening, then there's talk about asbestos in rockets to the sun. Everyone crowds around a wall map of California, looking for a lake with a funny name(6).

On the ride home Waits is still thinking about his afternoon with his children and horses.

"I heard a Mexican guy working with the horses today and the way he spoke to the horses was so musical, so beautiful, the way he would shape his body to get the right sounds.

"I've always thought that in Mexican culture songs lived in the air, music is less precious and more woven into life," Waits says. "There is a way of incorporating music into our lives that has meaning: songs for celebration, songs for teaching children things, songs of worship, songs to make the garden grow, songs to keep the devil away, songs to make a girl fall in love with you. My kids sing songs they have made up that I listen to and know by heart, and these songs have become part of our family life. You have to keep music alive in your life or else music becomes an isolated thing, just a pill you take."

We drive home in virtual silence. "Children don't know the first thing about music and yet they make up songs and sing them all day long," says Waits. "Who's to say my melodies are any better than theirs?"

Waits is an artist in a culture that doesn't always celebrate the journey of the artist, a culture more concerned with packaging of image, more concerned with where the artist is right now. Waits has not been on the road in six years. He says he is not sure who his audience is or what remains of his image, although he knows he has one. A friend says with irony, "Poet of the night, bard of the barroom," a place Waits no longer frequents. Waits knows the twists of image: You either have one you are trying to change, or you don't have one and would give anything to have one. Waits says a lot of people have died from other people's ideas of them. These realizations are subtly maturing his creative process.

"I used to get so mad on the road, pick up my piano bench with my teeth and throw it, bite pieces out of my sport coat and spit it at the audience. I'd be in some really inspiring situations, but I was so pissed off - at the sound system, the band, the audience, I hadn't eaten - that it couldn't reach me. Now I have to make sure I'm not just giving myself a fix with an audience to make myself feel like a big shot. I've done that in the past, we've all done that, trying to tap the world on the shoulder. I've always been afraid the world was going to turn around, and I was going to forget what I had to say, that I was just in the business of getting attention.

"Now I see it comes down to those small times when the thing you do makes a difference in a small way, like in the Hitchcock movie Lifeboat. The engineer, the prostitute, the guy from Brooklyn, they each have something they know how to do to help them get to where they are going. I make little songs, trolley cars out of matchsticks. I'm more interested in learning how to do things I don't know how to do. It's rare when something you know how to do will ever save your ass or anyone else's."

Ladies and gentlemen, Harry's Harbour Bizarre is proud to present, under the Big Top tonight, Human Oddities. That's right, you'll see the Three-Headed Baby, you'll see Hitler's brain, see Lea Graff, the German midget who sat in J.P. Morgan's lap. You'll see Priscilla Bajano, the monkey woman, Jo-Jo the dog-faced boy. I'm Milton Malone, the human skeleton. See Grace McDaniels, the mule-faced woman, and she's the homeliest woman in the world.

We are listening to "Lucky Day Overture", the opening of The Black Rider. Waits is adding maniacal laughter from a Japanese movie dubbed in German he sampled from late-night Hamburg television. Waits says he has always been fascinated with human oddities, collecting books like Ripley's Believe It or Not, books of strange and incredible facts.

"Some people might consider it sick or demeaning, but these people had careers and were very well-respected in show business," says Waits. "Everybody I know in show business has something about them mentally, spiritually, or physically that makes them an oddity."

These days Waits' favorite books include Anais Nin's Delta of Venus, the stories of Breece D.J. Pancake, and books of toasts and proverbs. He recently read Napoleon's will, to find out who the little emperor gave his socks and underwear to. "I used to like the darkest books in the store," says Waits. "Sadomasochistic lesbian carpenters with backgrounds in medicine whose parents were dwarves, things like that."

Kloster finishes "Lucky Day Overture" with a lion's roar dub, and then discovers one of the tapes sent over from the German recording sessions is missing. After a thorough search of the studio and a couple of overseas calls, I admit that I have a bootleg copy of Waits' work tapes. Waits seems more pleased than concerned. I apologize and say that the tape sounds several-generations crude. He says that's alright, that some of the other cuts from the new release are from work tapes too, that he'll add things to make them sound more crude.

The work tapes were made when Waits was developing ideas. These are tapes from the middle of the night with no pressure, tapes he was sure would never be heard.

"They were made under the circumstance of where I try to get myself creatively, where I say to myself, 'This is no big deal, this is not the national anthem, if it doesn't happen, that is alright'

"It doesn't care what you are doing when it comes together," says Waits. "Sometimes you go in the studio with a fist and you have to trick yourself, because often it finds you when you don't want to work. You're driving along and you have to pull over and put your sandwich in your lap and get out a piece of paper, and you have to write a thing. But there's the thousand times when you've sat there with the same empty piece of paper in a house with the window open and the birds are singing and fucking nothing. Sometimes you can't do it, and you have to trick yourself because it's not about making a fist; it's about opening your hand."


(1) Biff Dawes: long time collaborator engineer since Swordfishtrombones (1983). Engineer for: Van Morrison (assistant engineer), John Stewart, Bob Dylan (Street Legal), Woody Herman, Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Percussion Profiles, Frank Sinatra, USA For Africa, Blondie, Richard Pryor, Rollins band, Huey Lewis & The News, Pat Benatar, Motley Crue, Mitch Hedberg, Megadeth, John Lee Hooker, Great White, Matthew Sweet, YES, Devo, Loverboy. Westwood One's Chief Engineer (Design FX Audio). Further reading: Who's Who?

(2) Sunset Sound Factory: In the early 1990's Waits had been recording at the Prairie Sun recording studio in Cotati/ California (Night On Earth, Bone Machine, The Black Rider (Tchad Blacke tracks) and Mule Variations), but for unknown reasons changed to Sunset Sound. Sunset Sound (on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood) was founded in 1958 by Walt Disney's director of recording Tutti Camarata. In 1981 the "Sound Factory" was added and the studio was renamed Sunset Sound factory. Further reading: Sunset Sound official site

(3) And more recently in New York: staging of The Black Rider. Brooklyn Academy of Music (Next Wave Festival), New York City/ USA, Nov. 20 - Dec. 1, 1993 (Wilson production).

(4) Waterphone: Waterphones (invented by Richard A. Waters) are stainless steel and bronze monolithic, one-of-a-kind, acoustic, tonal-friction instruments that utilize water in the interior of their resonators to bend tones and create water echos. The rods can be played with superball mallets, by hand or with a bow. When the tonal rods are sounded some of the fundamental tones and/or harmonics are sympathetic to the bottom & top diaphragms. When the attitude of the Waterphone is changed from vertical to horizontal and all in between the water is being moved on and off the bottom diaphragm as the tones are being sounded. The water acts in 2 ways - (1) to bend tones via the weight of the water on the bottom diaphragm which lowers the tone when the Waterphone is in the vertical position and raises the tone when in the horizontal position and (2) creates acoustic, schiziosonic, modulations as in pre-echoes via the motion of the water and the relative speed of sound in water, air and metals. Further reading: Instruments

(5) Lay in a train whistle track: the released version (The Black Rider, 1993) does have the train whistle on it. Read lyrics: Gospel Train

(6) Looking for a lake with a funny name: there's no lake mentioned in any of the songs from the Black Rider. Might have been turned into "Brennan's Glenn" (The Briar And The Rose, 1993): "And down by Brennan's Glenn there grows A briar and a rose." Read lyrics: The Briar And The Rose