Title: Thrasher Interview With Tom Waits
Thrasher Interview With Tom Waits
Tom Waits is a storyteller par excellence, equal part campfire yarn spinner and sideshow circus barker. His new record Real Gone on Epitaph's Anti- subsidiary is an amalgam of earthy funk, beatnik howl, and backwoods river bottom blues. Waits' music seems to seep from the subconscious, while his lyrics pinpoint humanity often cloaked in shadow.
- Eben Sterling
When we spoke Waits was reluctant to engage in political discussion. I asked him about the inclusion of his song "Day After Tomorrow" on the "Future Soundtrack of America," a compilation album supporting administration change in the White House. He seemed resigned to the fact that the project was worthy of his support but added, "I don't have a TV and I don't read the newspapers. I poured a 7-Up in the back of the TV and it hasn't been the same since." When asked about the Internet, he responded, "I don't know how to turn it on." Waits, it seems, would rather let his music tell the story than get into personal proselytizing.
When pressed about spiritual and Christian themes that sometimes appear on his records he first admitted to having "a lot of preachers in the family" but then demurred, "With the God stuff I don't know. Everybody ponders it. I don't know what's out there any more than anyone else, cause no one's really come back to tell me. I don't know if I'm on a conveyer belt or if I'm on the tongue of a very angry animal about to be snapped back into his mouth. I think everyone believes in something; even people who don't believe in anything believe that."
For Waits, it seems to be more just a matter of feeling the spirit, like a faith healer handling rattlesnakes. He likened his writing process to "incantations or talking in tongues." A few of the songs on Real Gone were composed in their inception with only Waits' voice as percussion. "If I'm by myself and I have a tape recorder I make drum sounds. 'A-boom-Ch-Aaack, A-boom-Ch-Aaack,' you know? I do it for three minutes and I have a song. Recorded in his bathroom at home, Waits denied that these tracks were created on the toilet, but that "It's an excellent sounding room; the configuration of the tiles and the architecture."
Waits concedes that he's influenced by Alan Lomax's field recordings from the '30s and '40s which he often listen to at home. "Lomax was a musicologist. He was a song catcher. He owned one of the first portable tape recorders. It weighed 500 pounds and it was in the trunk of his car. He went all over the south recording for the Library of congress, and documenting EVERYTHING! Not only jump rope songs, and nursery rimes, and cowboy songs, but he was even documenting the sounds of the junkyard, the sounds of cash register; things that will disappear for progress. Most of the people he was recording had never even thought of the notion of having their songs recorded."
It's obvious when listening to Waits' recordings that much thought is put into having his songs recorded. "When you're making words for songs, the first thing you do is just make sounds. 'I waa for miiiles and miiiiiles and woosh auck through mordor.' You're just making sounds. And then you listen to that back, and you try to get it to explain what it's trying to say to you. Sometimes it sounds like, 'It's something about a sewing machine', or 'Jeez, it's something about going to get my medicine.'(1) So, I get mystified by the spontaneous incantations. It's a perfectly valid musical approach to me. I consider anything that makes a sound valid. It's just how it's orchestrated and how it's organized."
While Waits did not follow Lomax's path to the south to record Real Gone, he did go to the Delta. "That would be the Sacramento Delta. It is kind of a bluesy record, but you don't have to go to the south to find those places in yourself. Of course there are many beautiful documents of the blues left behind. I'm mystified by the fact that you can go into a room and yell into a silver phallus and appear on a black disk and, still be available to be heard 50 years later - and have the music be just as fresh as the day you made it. I'm still completely mystified by that."
Another interesting note about Waits' writing is his collaboration with his wife Kathleen Brennan. When asked about the pressures of marriage, raising children, working, and living together, he quickly quipped, "You mean, 'Why we haven't killed each other yet;" and then explained, "It's like shooting off fireworks. You hold this one and I'll light it and I'll hold that one and you light it. I'll light this one and you throw it. Sometimes you feel like you're doing too much lighting and not doing enough throwing. Sometimes you feel like you want to be lighting and holding and throwing. You want to get the whole pack and go out to the driveway by yourself. But without (a good partner) you get to be like the emperor's new clothes. You need someone to tell you that you're about to walk off a cliff. Like somebody spotting you on the high wire. She hates the spotlight, and I get a kick out of it."
In recent years, Waits has reached a new level of success with his Grammy-winning, platinum-selling record Mule Variations, as well as contributing a song to media darling Norah Jones' multi-platinum album Feels Like Home(2) . Still, he claims that life for him is still essentially unchanged. "I still go to the circus and run out of gas. Those two things are the same. I have kids and all that, so my life is pretty down to Earth." On the other hand, "When I'm on the road, then I really feel like I'm in show business. When you're doing it every night then you feel like your Johnny Eck, a man born without a body(3). He walks on his hands; he has his own orchestra and plays excellent piano.'
Johnny Eck had an identical twin brother who was of normal stature and they had a routine where he sawed his brother in half. Johnny Eck was only 18 inches tall. His body stopped at his waste. So when (his brother would) saw him in half, (Johnny Eck would) stand on his hands and walk off stage. And they had to have medical people on staff at the theater because there were so many people overtaken with shock and horror. They had seizures and heart attacks right there in the theater."
I suspect if Waits tours after the release of Real Gone, he may get a similar reaction.
Story of a Horse(4)
There is a horse in a stall not far from here. Do you know what cribbing is? Cribbing is when you're a little kid and you're in your crib and you bite the wood because you're teething. Horses do the same thing and they call it cribbing. This horse has a white plywood door to the stable and he started cribbing on that door. He ate the white paint off and when you stand back at a certain distance you can see that it is a beautiful picture of a horse going over a fence. The horse next to him writes short stories. He hasn't had anything published yet, but his poems are very interesting. He writes Haiku. It's true. I'm going to photograph it and put it up on the wall in my office. I'm worried about him because the arts are a dead end for a lot of people. So I don't know whether to encourage it or get him into something else. - Tom Waits
(1) Jeez, it's something about going to get my medicine: refering to Trampled Rose (Real Gone, 2004): "Long way going to get my medicine. Sky's the autumn grey of a lonely wren ."
(2) Feels Like Home: "Feels Like Home". Norah Jones. February, 2004. Label: Blue Note Records. Song covered: "The Long Way Home"
(3) Johnny Eck, a man born without a body: Quoting from Lucky Day Overture (The Black Rider, 1993)
(4) Story of a Horse: This is the story as told on 'The Late Show With David Letterman' (September 28, 2004). Further reading: Late Show With David Letterman