Title: The Sultan Of Sleaze
Source: YOU magazine (The Mail On Sunday supplement, UK?), by Pete Silverton. Special thanks to Kevin Molony for donating scans
Date: New York. Early October, 1985
Key words: Rain Dogs, Waits name, Childhood, Family
Accompanying pictures
Page lay-out. New York, early 1985. Photography by Colin Jones. Thanks to Kevin Molony for donating this scan
Page lay-out. New York, early 1985. Photography by Colin Jones. Thanks to Kevin Molony for donating this scan
New York, early 1985. Photography by Colin Jones. Thanks to Kevin Molony for donating this scan


The Sultan Of Sleaze


Well I got a bad liver and a broken heart,
yea I drunk me a river since you tore me apart,
and I don't have a drinking problem
'cept when I can't get a drink.

(Bad Liver and a Broken Heart)

His songs are odes to the dingy lives of the pushers and junkies, the pimps, prostitutes and pretty criminals who walk the mean streets of America's big cities. But these days Tom Waits bears only a passing resemblance to the people he writes about. Pete Silverton meets the low-life poet whose London season(1) opens this week.

'When I'm recording I have certain things I have to do. I wet down my hair, I turn my jacket inside out and I undo the first button on my collar. I throw a rock through a window, I tear the head off a doll, I drink a bottle of Scotch and, er, I'm there.' 'For some people to have to watch you go through that it's a little embarrassing. So you have to work with people you trust, people who won't turn on you.'

Tom, be honest, do you always lie? 'No, no. I always tell the truth - except to policemen. It's an old reflex.' He coughed, light and dry; perhaps a nervous tic, maybe the legacy of years spent living down to his billing as a 'low-life poet'. Tom Waits is a singer, 35 years old. His triangular face is as pointed as his derelict English boots - 'imitation alligator skin, no one died to get these on my feet' - and finishes in a wisp of a goatee showing the first traces of grey. His father, he said, was president of a small country in Central America and his mother was a dwarf. I didn't believe that one either. '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. "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(2).

It's also a fair description of Waits's stock-in-trade-'... a latter-day vaudevillian who weaves folk tale and street patois into a hip new suit of his own design', one enthusiast called him. His songs are romances of the gutter, inheritors of an American tradition which takes in Simon and Garfunkel's 'The Boxer' as well as Kerouac and Raymond Chandler. 'Vocabulary is my main instrument,' he said.

His singing voice is like rusty nails in a bottle of cheap bourbon. Yet his last album, his ninth since his first manager discovered him playing piano to the drunks in a Los Angeles cocktail lounge, was a top 30 hit in Britain. He's promoting his new record, Raindogs, with eight nights at London's Dominion Theatre, beginning this week.

The restaurant where we met - all vinyl, formica and sachets of Sweet 'n' Low - was his choice. 'Tom likes to meet people in places he feels at home,' said his press agent. It was on Manhattan's 14th St, crowded with Saturday lunchtime shoppers delving through the market stalls as the traders boasted about how their goods were stolen. Down the road from the 14th St Underwear King and across the street from Cohen's Fashion Opticals, it's the kind of area Waits was thinking of when he wrote about where 'all the donuts have names that sound like prostitutes'.

Waits lived on the next block. But, as his wife was about to have their second child, they were all staying with their parents out in New Jersey, half an hour by train, changing at Frank Sinatra's birthplace, Hoboken. Soon after the birth, the whole family would hit the road, abandoning not only the family home but their own Manhattan apartment. For the foreseeable future they'd be living out of suitcases. 'Suites, room service, dry toast and keep the coffee coming.'

Waits's marriage and fatherhood came as something of a shock to his long-time fans, who'd grown up thinking of him as just one step from the decrepit failures he wrote about. Although he exudes the dingy rundown air of New York's treeless canyons, he's in fact spent most of his life in Los Angeles. That's where he met his wife, Kathleen Brennan, when she was script editing Francis Ford Coppola's One From The Heart, the studio musical for which Waits wrote the music.

That and his burgeoning career as an actor (Rumblefish, Paradise Alley, Cotton Club) aside, Waits's Los Angeles is a long way from Hollywood dreams. His was the world of massage parlours, pawn shops and dope dealers; 14th St with sun, in fact. Waits also had a reputation as a heavy drinker. Was this true? 'Well, that is what I call a direct question. I don't know how things like that get started. But you know how the press blows everything out of proportion. You know, you have a little glass of sherry before bed, read a little Balzac, hit the light about eight-thirty. Before you know it they've got you with a case of Cutty Sark in a cheap room with a dirty magazine.'

But you lived at the Tropicana, the city's seediest rock 'n' roll hotel. No one goes to sleep there before 8.30 in the morning. 'Yeah, I did my time there. I left when they painted the pool black and drained all the water. They got tired of cleaning it. It's like black socks; you never have to wash them. I knew that was my cue.'

Another reason for his departure was the phone from insane people. Waits had put his address on the back of one of his albums(3), he said, to check up on whether the record was being properly distributed. The response arrived in sackfuls. 'It got a little bizarre,' he said.

'I'll tell you all my secrets but I lie about my past,' he wrote in 'Tango Till They're Sore'. He evades questions with practicised ease and refuses to be drawn about his own little family, insisting that that's part of his life he doesn't want to use to publicise his career. Always a polite man, rather than bluntly stonewall, he switches subjects.

His parents were first generation Californians, children of Steinbeck fodder pushed by the Depression from Texas to the orange groves. His mother's family was Norwegian, his father's Scots/ Irish. His grandfather was called Jesse Frank Waits, after the two outlaw James brothers. His father Frank, a teacher, left his mother when Tom was 11. Tom and his two sisters grew up in National City, close to the Mexican border.

You got to tell me brave captain,
why are the wicked so strong,
how do the angels get to sleep
when the devil leaves his porchlight on.

(Mr Siegal)

Just once in our conversation he found himself talking about his father. Instantly he changed tack. He says he was something of a tearaway as an adolescent. 'I enjoyed the thrill of breaking the law, stealing, you know. All kids like that. But what sort of a child was I? I can't really answer that point-blank. But, you know, I liked trains and horses, birds and rocks, radios and bicycles.' Elsewhere, he's said he left school at 16, worked in a restaurant. He told me he studied medicine(4). 'A lot of doctors in my family - and alcoholics.' He abandoned what he called the certainties of a doctor's life for music. 'It was something that I didn't completely understand. I thought: I'm going to ride this somewhere, it's going to take me somewhere. I couldn't go any other way. You're in the world of adventure. It literally takes you places. It's like you went to sleep in a small house on a quiet street and you woke up in New York. The idea that you can dream yourself someplace, can change your world.' One of the few songs written by other people that Waits has recorded is Judy Garland's 'Somewhere'.

His family hero was his uncle Robert, a blind organ player. He'd installed a church organ in his house, the pipes coming up to the roof. Didn't his neighbours mind? 'I guess he had something on them and they had something on him, you know. That's part of living next door to somebody. I'd rather live next door to an organ player than a guy that's a member of the National Rifle Association.' Would you like to live next door to Tom Waits? 'Well,' he said, stressing his words with his right hand, his grey eyes still as a lizard's, 'I guess I'm one of those guys you better not throw your baseball into his yard or you'll never see it again. I sit on the porch with a bottle of sour mash, spitting tobacco out on the sidewalk and shooting birds out of the sky.' In New York? 'That's my dream.'

He moved to Manhattan when Coppola - with whom he'd already worked on One From The Heart and Rumblefish - cast him as the manager in Cotton Club. Filming took so long 'it was like joining the army; it was like being shanghaied'. Towards the end of this year, he'll take up movie acting again; five weeks in New Orleans on a film called Down By Law, about three prisoners escaping through the swamps. Next year he should be in a New York 'odyssey' written by Rudy Wurlitzer(5) (Two lane Blacktop, Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid) and directed by Robert Frank, whose 1950s book of photographs, America, depicted the same part of the nation's culture that Waits now sings about.

Next spring should see the premiere of his stage musical(6)Frank's Wild Years. (We should not forget his father was called Frank.) It takes up where a monologue left off on his last album, with Frank having burned down his house with the dog inside while his wife was at the beauty parlour. 'Basically, it's about an accordion player who goes out into the world to make his mark and ends up despondent end penniless, dreaming his way back home.' Tom will play Frank; he's already brushing up on his accordion playing. Written with his wife Kathleen - 'her name comes first'- it will be produced in Chicago by Steppenwolf Company which also brought Sam Shepard's True West to the stage.

His new record, Raindogs, is the first he's made in New York. It takes its title from the city's street population. 'People who live outdoors. You know how after the rain you see all these dogs that seem lost, wandering around. The rain washes away all their scent, all their direction. So all the people on the album are knit together, by some corporeal way of sharing pain and discomfort.'

Helping him to establish that mood on the record are the stars of lower Manhattan's avant-garde session circuit and Rolling Stone Keith Richards, someone who just never plays on other people's records. 'I was really flattered.' They share an attitude towards studio technology, bucking the trend of generating music with a computer. 'If I want a sound, I usually feel better if I've chased it and killed it, skinned it and cooked it. Most things you can get with a button nowadays. So if I was trying for a certain drum sound, my engineer would say: "Oh, for Christ's sake, why are we wasting our time? Let's just hit this little cup with a stick here, sample something (take a drum sound from another record ) and make it bigger in the mix, don't worry about it." I'd say, "No, I would rather go in the bathroom and hit the door with a piece of two-by-four very hard".'

'On this one I took some chances. Swordfishtrombones was done in Los Angeles. It was much more relaxed, much more leisure oriented.' Still a record of some tension, though? 'Yeah, well my wife says I take that everywhere.' Waits sat there nodding, examining his cold wholeseat toast. Was it all right, he kept asking as we searched for a taxi. Did I tell you the right things for you to make an article out of it? For Waits, an interview is as much a performance as a stage show.

How about a last message to England? He thought a second, tugged his gold wedding band. 'In the words of the old show business sage, champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends.'


(1) London season: October 16-24, 1985 at the Dominion Theatre. London, UK. Further reading: Performances

(2) The dictionary put me right:
- "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 (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).
Tom Waits (1999): ''My name defines a calling as well. 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." (Source: "Talking With Tom Waits Is Like Trying To Converse With A Ghost In A Fog", The Toronto Star (Canada), by Greg Quill. Date: August 19, 1999)
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

(3) Address on the back of one of his albums: this could be referring to the address as mentioned in the liner notes for "Step Right Up" from the album Small Change: : "For the lyrics to "Step Right Up" send by prepaid mail a photo of yourself, two dead creeping charlies, and a self addressed stamped envelope to the Tropicana Motor Hotel, Hollywood, California o/o Young Tom Waits. please allow 30 days for delivery." Further reading: Tropicana Motel.

(4) He told me he studied medicine: at the time of this interview Waits had used these "medicine routines" for his live shows. "I'm a doctor. You can come and see me right after the show".

(5) A New York 'odyssey' written by Rudy Wurlitzer: Candy Mountain (shot late 1986, released 1987). Movie directed by Robert Frank. Written by Rudy Wurlitzer. Also features Jim Jarmusch. Tom Waits as actor, composer, musical performer. Plays rich guy Al Silk. Performs: "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" & "Once More Before I Go". Further reading: Filmography.

(6) Premiere of his stage musical: 17-22 June, 1986. World premiere and theatrical debut. Three month run as Frank in the play: "Frank's Wild Years" at the "St. Briar Street Theatre", Chicago. The Steppenwolf Theatre. Further reading: Franks Wild Years.