|Title: Theater: Strange 'Magic'
Source: The Orange County Register (USA), by Paul Hodgins. Transcription as published on Orange County register official site. April 26, 2006. �2006 The Orange County Register
Date: April 26, 2006
Key words: The Black Rider, Robert Wilson, William Burroughs, Influences
Theater: Strange 'Magic'
By Paul Hodgins. The Orange County Register
In 1989, gritty singer-songwriter Tom Waits teamed with avant-garde director Robert Wilson and legendary Beat writer William S. Burroughs on a new theater piece, "The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets."(1)
Nobody was sure what would result from three such powerful and distinct talents.
Adding to the uncertainty, they were working not on an American subject but a German one: a folk tale about the Black Rider, best known outside Germany as the source of Carl Maria von Weber's 1821 opera "Der Freisch�tz."
Needless to say, the trio Americanized the Faustian story of a young marksman and his meeting with a devilish stranger whose magic bullets improve his hunting prowess in superhuman ways.
Burroughs' libretto turned it into a dark comedy with roguish Yankee touches: Hemingway-esque dialogue, metaphors about drugs. Inspired by Burroughs' adaptation and Wilson's visual ideas, Waits wrote the songs, using an unorthodox band that includes such oddities as(2) toy piano, pocket trumpet, Stroh bass (it has hornlike attachments to amplify its sound), ondes Martenot (an early electronic instrument) and glass harmonica (water-filled jars that vibrate when stroked).
The result was an instant hit when it opened at Hamburg's Thalia Theater in 1990. But "The Black Rider" has remained relatively unknown on this side of the Atlantic. The Ahmanson staging is only the second North American production; the first was in San Francisco in 2004(3).
We talked to the elusive Waits about the experience of working on "The Black Rider," the slippery nature of the creative process, and whatever else entered his perpetually roving mind.
Orange County Register: Your original band for "The Black Rider" used a mixture of classical and street musicians. How did that work out?
Tom Waits: The musicians we chose were either from classical music or they were playing in a train station. At first there was a little conflict in the orchestra. There were folks that didn't read (music) and folks that had played in the Berlin Symphony; they were a little uppity.
OCR: Tell us about the strange orchestration.
Waits: I like unusual sound sources. I remember at the time I had a circle of friends from this more experimental musical world, and so I tried to write some of that into it. There were Stroh basses and cellos. The sound is captivating. And of course they look really cool, too.
OCR: What was the collaborative process like?
Waits: Wilson sets up a long table in the theater. It looks like Cape Canaveral. Low lights and machines. There's something really scientific about the whole environment that I really liked. You don't understand a thing you're hearing. I didn't really know what I was doing. With the songs, I was thinking, "How on the money do you want it to be?" You don't want to land on every turn in the plot. (You want to) give the audience some credit for being able to see where it's going.
OCR: What was the initial public reaction like?
Waits: It really caught on over there. It became kind of an underground version of "Cats" or something. It went all over the place, in high schools and colleges, and (it was) done by a lot of different theater companies.
OCR: How did you and Burroughs collaborate?
Waits: He wrote most of his words at his place in Lawrence (Kansas), and he'd send piles of material. Our dramaturge (would) edit and paste and cut and find the right spot for everything. Burroughs was just coughing up all this stuff, not writing in any linear way. Sometimes I would take something he wrote and turn it into a lyric. Sometimes we'd collaborate, like in "Just the Right Bullet." "To hit the tattered clouds you have to have the right bullets" - that's all Burroughs. "The first bullet is free" - that's me.
OCR: Are some of your influences from musical theater?
Waits: God, yeah, sure. I love Gershwin. Man, that second (piano) prelude (he sings its first phrase).
OCR: You've got wide-ranging tastes. I hear you also like Liberace.
Waits: It's really the arpeggios; it comes down to that. He was the poor man's Artur Rubenstein. He was playing in vaudeville houses. His act said, "Look at all these jewels, all this fur. So you left your little cold apartment to come to the theater? Look what I can do for you!"
OCR: What about Captain Beefheart?
Waits: Beefheart, he's in a category all by himself - he came out of the ground like a turnip. I think once you hear him you're earmarked. Of course when you hear somebody like that, you're hearing everything they ever heard. The odyssey is one of discovering your own voice: something you fashion yourself, hopefully some portion of your own unique spirit land.
OCR: What's your theory of songwriting?
Waits: Songs are hard, 'cause if they're too obvious they go right out the other ear. If they're not obvious enough they never go in. Nobody listens to a song like they're reading instructions. It's going in like someone who's telling you (his) dream. You're listening to it and connecting it up to your own dream and listening to the story in somewhat of a dream state yourself.
OCR: What was it like teaching other people to perform your songs?
Waits: Some people kill a good song and others take a weak song and strengthen it. Some people, everything they touch turns to gold. If you can sell a tune, you're a winner. Nobody gives a (crap) who owns it. Sometimes they're helping you because maybe the song is weak in your own throat and stronger in theirs.
OCR: Your career took a sudden turn in 1983 with the release of "swordfishtrombones." What happened?
Waits: I got married, fired my manager, and my wife and I produced a record. I had never done anything like that before. She put a fire under me. I was trying to discover what my voice really was. Up until that point I was trying to put my head on somebody else's body. I knew what I loved but hadn't really gone down deep in myself. What happens is you have all these irreconcilable musical influences that you don't really know what to do with. You love Charles Boyer and the Yardbirds. What do you do about that? So that was my deal. She kind gave me the guts to say, "Why can't every song sound a little different, like a compilation?"
OCR: Early in your career you were almost as famous for your raffish persona as your music. You've said that created some problems for you.
Waits: With most (performers), there's onstage and then there's backstage. I kind of grew up in public; I was 22 when I made my first record. I was falling down the stairs. I didn't know what I was doing, but I knew I was gonna be in music. Some people come out fully formed, like an egg. Not me. I was gathering things as I moved forward. A stage persona is very different from who you are. In fact, a persona is basically someone you don't believe you are that you're trying desperately to convince other people that you are.
OCR: You've often described songwriting as an almost mystical act.
Waits: Making up songs - like Bob Dylan says, you don't really write them, you just write them down. They're in some kind of stream over your head. And then you're receptive and open and you're vibrating at the right place, you can just pull one right down, you know. Just grab it by the legs like a chicken, pull it right down.
(1) The Black Rider: Preniere March 31, 1990 at the Thalia Theater Hamburg/ Germany. Further reading: The Black Rider.
(3) The first was in San Francisco in 2004: USA stagings: Brooklyn Academy of Music (Next Wave Festival), New York City/ USA. November 20 - December 1, 1993. Geary Theater, San Francisco/ USA. September 3 - October 10, 2004.