Title: Tom Foolery: Swapping Stories With Inimitable Tom Waits
Source: Buzz Magazine (USA). Transcription by Lance Winters as sent to Raindogs Listserv Discussionlist, June 14, 1996
Date: May, 1993
Key words: Uncle Vernon/ uncle Robert, Billy Swed, Musical favourites, Hound Dog Taylor, Monti Rock III, Elvis Presley, Ninth and Hennepin, The crooked tree

Magazine front cover: photography by Frank W. Ockenfels 3, 1991


Tom Foolery: Swapping Stories With Inimitable Tom Waits


"These are things that have actually happened to me," says Waits, "or I've heard or read about. In any case they're all true."

We'll leave it up to you to decide.


VOICE: There's no one really in show business in my family but there were two relatives who had an effect on me very young and shaped me in some way. They were Uncle Vernon and Uncle Robert. I always hated the sound of my voice when I was a kid. I always wanted to sound more like my Uncle Vernon, who had a raspy, gravelly voice. Everything Uncle Vernon said sounded important, and you always got it the first time because you wouldn't dare ask him to repeat it.

Eventually, I learned that Uncle Vernon had had a throat operation as a kid and the doctors had left behind a small pair of scissors and gauze when they closed him up. Years later at Christmas dinner, Uncle Vernon started to choke while trying to dislodge an errant string bean, and he coughed up the gauze and the scissors. That's how Uncle Vernon got his voice, and that's how I got mine- from trying to sound just like him.

On Sundays, we'd always visit Uncle Robert, who was the organist at a methodist church in La Verne, California. Uncle Robert had a pipe organ in his house that went right through the roof. When he would play he would smear all the notes together like hot melted crayons and the whole house would shake.

I remember his house was a complete mess; his clothes were everywhere, his bed was never made. "Now this is show business," I thought to myself. I asked my mom why I couldn't keep my room like Uncle Robert's, and she said, "Tom, your Uncle Robert is blind."

GUITAR: I have learned a great deal about music from other musicians, and from listening to the world around me. But when I was a kid growing up in Whittier, there was a red-headed boy named Billy Swed(1) who lived with his mom in a trailer by the railroad tracks. Billy is the one who taught me how to play in a minor key.

Billy didn't go to school. He was already smoking and drinking at the age of 12, and he lived with his mom at the edge of a hobo jungle on a mud rain lake with tires sticking up out of it. There was blue smoke, dead carp, and gourds as big as lamp shades. You could get lost trying to find their place--through overgrown dogwood and pyrancantha bushes, through a culvert under a freeway, and through canyons littered with mattresses and empty paint cans.

While Billy taught me how to play, I noticed that he liked to draw on his jeans with a pen. Every inch was covered with these strange forbidden hieroglyphic tattoos that I was constantly trying to decipher. I was certain it was his own musical notation and that he had hundreds of songs written on his pants.

Billy's mother was enormous. I would look at her and then at the door to the trailer, and then back to her, and faced my first real math problem. How could Mrs. Swed ever get through that door? As an eight-year-old, I remember thinking that Mrs. Swed was like a ship in a bottle and she would never be able to leave. Somehow the trailer, the swamp, and Mrs. Swed all came out of Billy's guitar in a minor key.

It was New Year's Day after a week of heavy rain when I went back to their spot to see them again, but Billy and his mom were gone. But the secret knowledge of the chords he taught me was to outweigh all I learned in school and give me a foundation for all music.

SONGS: I've always loved songs of adventure, murder ballads, songs about shipwrecks and terrible acts of depravity and heroism. Erotic tales of seductions, songs of romance, wild courage, and mystery. Everyone has tried at one time or another to live inside a song. Songs where people die for love. Songs of people on the run. Songs of ghost ships or bank robberies. I've always wanted to live inside songs and never come back. Songs that are recipes for superstition or unexplained disappearances.

"They Call the Wind Mariah," "Teen Angel," "Bonnie Bonnie Bedlam," "Pretty Boy Floyd," "Springhill Mining Disaster," "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carol," "Winken, Blinken, and Nod," "The Sinking of the Titantc," "Three Ravens," "Zaz Turned Blue," "Pretty Polly," "Streets of Laredo," "Raglan Road," "John Henry," "Stagger Lee," "Ode to Billie Joe," "Frankie and Johnny," "Brother Can You Spare A Dime?" "Volga Boatman," "In the Hall of the Mountain King," "Goodnight Loving Trail," "Strange Fruit," "Jacob's Ladder," "Spanish Is the Loving Tongue," "Lost in the Stars," "Sympathy for the Devil," "Auld Lang Syne," and "Jesus's Blood Never Fails Me."

These are a few of my favorites.


BLUES: On the Southside of Chicago, at the Checkerboard Lounge, the last great bluesman, Hound Dog Taylor(2), was performing before a rowdy audience and getting heckled by a drunk in the first row. Hound Dog pulled out a .38-caliber revolver, shot the drunk in the foot, put the gun back in his pants, and finished the song. I've thought of doing this many times but never had the courage.

SHOW BIZ: I saw Monti Rock III in 1969(3) on the Sunset Strip at a place called Filthy McNasty's with six people in the audience. He was crawling through a bitter and distracted version of "Tennesee Waltz" when he suddenly stopped the band (the members of which were all wearing matching pink jumpsuits). The room screamed with feedback as he threw his drink against the wall and stabbed an amplifier with a mike stand, telling the six business suits in the audience they were all bloodsuckers. He laughed nervously as he sweated in the spotlight and delivered a purely psychotic confession that resembled a cross between an execution and a striptease.

In a style somewhere between a pimp and a preacher, he told stories of being a hairdresser in Puerto Rico and wanting to make it in Hollywood someday. He then lit up and sang "I Who Have Nothing" a cappella.

I was there, and I knew that I wanted to get into show business as soon as possible.

HEAVY METAL: It was Christmas Eve 1975 in Hollywood, California. I was visiting friends and drinking holiday beverage when we all agreed that the neighbor's stereo was up too loud-- Mahogany Rush up on ten.

Fueled with liquid courage, I volunteered for the confrontation and staggered up two flights of outdoor stairs and banged on the door with a piece of firewood.

A giant came to the door. He was nine feet tall and his head was as big as a horse's. He said something in German and picked me up by the neck like a stuffed animal and tried to throw me off the balcony. I grabbed hold of him just as the banister gave way, and we both fell two stories into the alley, landing on a variety of bicycles.

He had picked me up by the belt like a suitcase and was preparing to try and fit my face into a faucet when I started laughing. And before I knew it, he was laughing with me. There we were, me and the giant, rolling around on the ground laughing, with Mahogany Rush going full blast and a stuffed Santa and a blinking electric reindeer laughing with us. This was my first real heavy-metal moment.

ELVIS: I was in Memphis recently for a wedding and I couldn't resist going to Graceland(4). I especially liked the bullet holes in the swing set and the red faced uniformed teen usherettes and their memorized text delivered while gesturing at the rusted play structure. "Elvis and the boys were just having a little too much fun one night and came out for a some target practice." They also mentioned that Elvis had picked out all the furniture for the Jungle Room in just thirty minutes.


SUNKEN SHIP: When I was a boy, I used to dive for pearls in the warm waters off the coast of Guaymas and San Felipe, where I discovered a sunken ship near San Blas.

I dove down murky corridors, pulling myself along the railings as I made my way toward the galley and the dining room. I pulled on a jammed hatch, looked inside, and saw one hundred skeletons--all sitting at tables and wearing tuxedos--suddenly stand up and raise their arms over their heads and start waving at me. Their bodies were decomposed, but their tuxedos were perfect.

HERMISILLO: In Hermosillo, I had a midget prostitute climb up my bar stool and sit in my lap and order a double suicide and tell me how she murdered her pimp in cold blood at the Bali-Hai in Tijuana. It had been ten years and she had since become a born-again Christian and wanted me to help her raise enough money to get to Fatima.

MEXICAN CARNIVAL: I remember when I was ten years old and I went to a Mexican carnival in San Vicente. I saw a woman with a tail, fourteen inches long, covered with hair. It was real. She let me squeeze it, and she smiled at me with a rotting grin. The accordion was ear-bleeding loud with yellow-teeth polkas, and I ate nothing but churros all night until the fair was just a smear of light. With sugar around my mouth, my head spinning and my ears ringing, we rode back to the ranch in a pickup truck loaded with thirty kids, pitch dark, everyone shouting in Spanish.

I was so sick the next day that they put me in one of the out buildings far from the main house. I was certain I'd been put out there to die, so I accepted it as a peaceful kindness. Every day, a little Mexican girl would come and visit me, and I would lick Kool-Aid out of her hand. And the doctor looked like Charles Boyer standing over me with a giant syringe, talking in Portuguese, squirting the yellow serum into the air.


PIMP WAR: An all night donut shop at Ninth and Hennepin in Minneapolis(5). Chuck Weiss and I are having coffee at the counter, late, caught in the middle of a pimp war between two 13-year-old kids. One outside on the street, firing live ammunition, the other running into the caf�, diving behind the counter, unarmed, and screaming, "Leon you're a dead man!"

A toothpick dispenser hurls toward the street, the beater of a blender, a spatula, and a handful of forks. Bullets hit the stove, a framed dollar bill, a china dog. Chuck and I drop to the floor while the jukebox pounds out "Our Day Will Come" by Dinah Washington. Each bullet changes the selection on the Wurlitzer to a different song, each more poignant than the one before.

IMPOUND: Manhattan, middle of the night. Impound. Pier 74. Car towed and chain-ganged to hundreds of others in a hellishly dark garage. The woman behind the bulletproof Plexiglas turns and faces you. You can just make out the shotgun on her lap and the metal chain being hoisted in and out of her cleavage by a twenty-eight-inch neck. She stands between you and the rest of your life. One hundred twenty-five dollars and they could double it just `cuz they could. And your car looks ashamed and beaten. But you and your car will be much closer after tonight.

FAMILY FUN: Something we have always done as a family is what we call "going for a spin." On a dark, rainy night, we take the old Caddy out on a stretch of treacherous, curving road and get it up to about ninety and slam on the brakes. The kids scream with glee because we always end up in a different place. It's better than the Cyclone or the Tilt-A-Whirl, and best of all, we do it as a family.


VULTURES: As a boy, we used to play a game of death where we would lie down in the desert and cover ourselves up to our necks in sand and wait for the vultures to come. One by one, they would appear--circling over our heads. And then the bravest would land and make the slow creep toward the eyes, and we could smell the rotting flesh and hear their squawk, low and rusty. And just when we could feel the wind from their wings and watch their necks curl into a question mark, we would jump out of the sand screaming, grab them by the necks, and swing them over our head like black lariats.

HAGFISH: You want science fiction? Don't look too far. Take the Pacific Hagfish. Their only teeth are in their tongue. They eat other fish from the inside out. They bore into them, leaving a mere bag of skin and bones. They live off the coast of Mexico. They don't have a stomach, just an intestinal tube, but they have four hearts, one near the tail. They eat enthusiastically, but they have a low metabolism so they can go for months in captivity without food. They are popular as a barbecue item in certain parts of Asia, and their skin is used for wallets, hats, shoes, and purses. They don't have any hard bones. They don't have any jaws or eyes, just some light-sensitive patches around their heads. Perhaps the hagfish was the inspiration for the Cincinnati instrument builder Qubias Reed Ghazala's "photonclarinet"-- a photosensitive synthesizer that modulates pitch frequency and volume from two light sensitive-patches, offering a wide variety of tone-bent intervals. This allows the musician to create music from a beam of light that sounds like a lobster in a campfire.

BEES: Scientists have now perfected a method of transplanting the memories of adult bees into bee embryos. Shortly after birth, the bees that received the transplant were able to find their way back to their donors' hives. With a micro syringe, scientists take proteins and molecules from the brain's memory center and inject them into the bee embryos. Steven Ray, who has devoted five years to this research, has revealed that the CIA is now doing the same experiments on humans and using its discoveries in the world of espionage. It seems that the only thing that will not say intact during the memory transplants are people's songs. This is the subject of a new film collaboration between myself and Jim Jarmusch entitled - They All Died Singing -.

CROOKED AND STRAIGHT: My kids are starting to notice I'm a little different from the other dads. "Why don't you have a straight job like everyone else?" they asked me the other day. I told them this story:

In the forest, there was a crooked tree and a straight tree(6). Every day, the straight tree would say to the crooked tree, "Look at me; I'm tall and I'm straight and I'm handsome. Look at you; you're all crooked and bend over. No one wants to look at you." And they grew up in that forest together.

And then one day the loggers came, and they saw the crooked tree and the straight tree, and they said, "Just cut the straight trees and leave the rest." So the loggers turned all the straight trees into lumber and toothpicks and paper.

And the crooked tree is still there, growing stronger and stranger every day.


(1) A red-headed boy named Billy Swed: similar story as told in 1992:
- Tom Waits "I think the clearest memory I have is from when I was about 8 years old: I had a friend who lived in a trailer van by a railroad track, and his mom was enormous. I think she had got in the trailer, put on weight, and couldn't get out. There was a lamp, a TV, and a beverage, and she always seemed to be in the same spot. Anyway, when he played, it was the first time I ever heard anybody play in a minor key, and I really recognized it as minor and was attracted to it. I still am. He taught me three chords-an A-minor blues progression-and I completely flipped. When I went to school the next day, sharing day, I got up in front of the class and played the guitar. Everybody else was sharing marbles and rocks. That was a big moment for me." (Source: "Tom's Wild Years" Interview Magazine (USA), by Francis Thumm. October, 1988)

(2) Hound Dog Taylor: Born in Mississippi in 1917, Taylor didn't start playing guitar until he was 20. He worked Delta juke joints and house parties until he moved north to Chicago in 1942. He occasionally performed in South Side (Chicago) bars at night while working various day jobs. By the late 1950s, though, he became a full time musician. Upon release of his Alligator album in 1971, Taylor finally started to receive the critical acclaim due him. He appeared at the second Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1970 to 5000 enthusiastic new, mostly white, college kids. Taylor began touring the country, continuing to gain new, young fans. Taylor died of cancer in 1975. Further reading: Keno's Hound Dog Taylor siteAlligator artist biography

(3) Monti Rock III in 1969: "The first legal freak to be on American television." "After departing Puerto Rico for New York City at age 14 Monti Rock's determination to express himself took him from the hair salon to the Broadway stage to the silver screen to a brief but characteristically bizarre and intense recording career, which resulted in the sale (under the names Monti Rock and Disco Tex) of over 7 million disco records. The sometime singer, actor, dancer, cabaret performer, celebrity hairstylist, fashion designer and author got his big break when Johnny Carson booked him onto the Tonight Show in the late 1960s, and he returned to hobnob with Johnny more than 80 times over the next 17 years. These days the unstoppable Monti Rock III has relocated to Vegas and embarked on yet another career: as a gossip columnist in Las Vegas Style magazine who is "the most exciting Las Vegas Casino Host and Media Sensation to ever grace the Las Vegas Strip." The "outrageous, amusing, unusual, grand ambassador to Las Vegas Entertainment" is available to provide personally guided tours of Las Vegas" Further reading: Official Monti Rock III site

(4) Graceland: Elvis Presley's extravagant mansion, which turned into a commercialized attraction after his death. Further reading: Graceland official site

(5) An all night donut shop at Ninth and Hennepin in Minneapolis:
- Tom Waits (1985): "New York is really stimulating. You can get a taxi and just have him drive and start writing down words you see, information that is in your normal view: dry cleaners, custom tailors, alterations, electrical installations, Dunlop safety center, lease, broker, sale...just start making a list of words that you see. And then you just kind of give yourself an assignment. You say, "Im going to write a song and I'm going to use all these words in that song." That's one way. Or you can get in character, like in acting, and let the character speak. The song "9th and Hennepin" came out like that. GB. Where's Hennepin? TW. Minneapolis. But most of the imagery is from New York. It's just that I was on 9th and Hennepin years ago in the middle of a pimp war, and 9th and Hennepin always stuck in my mind. "There's trouble at 9th and Hennepin." To this day I'm sure there continues to be trouble at 9th and Hennepin. At this donut shop. They were playing "Our Day Will Come" by Dinah Washington when these three 12-year-old pimps came in in chincilla coats armed with knives and, uh, forks and spoons and ladles and they started throwing them out in the streets. Which was answered by live ammunition over their heads into our booth. And I knew "Our Day Was Here." I remember the names of all the donuts: cherry twist, lime rickey. But mostly I was thinking of the guy going back to Philadelphia from Manhattan on the Metroliner with the New York Times, looking out the window in New York as he pulls out of the station, imagining all the terrible things he doesn't have to be a part of." (Source: "Tom Waits for no man". Spin Magazine: Glenn O'Brien. November 1985)
- Tom Waits (1987): "I haven't been around 9th and Hennepin in a while, and I only know these things from my own experience. Though I think there must be a place where it all connects. I like where Bukowski says "I'm not quoting exactly"... "It's not the big things that drive men mad. It's the little things. The shoelace that breaks when there's no time left." It makes it very difficult for me to drive, you know. 'Cause I'm always looking around. It makes for a very dangerous ride with the family." "I haven't been around 9th and Hennepin in a while, and I only know these things from my own experience. Though I think there must be a place where it all connects. I like where Bukowski says "I'm not quoting exactly"... "It's not the big things that drive men mad. It's the little things. The shoelace that breaks when there's no time left." It makes it very difficult for me to drive, you know. 'Cause I'm always looking around. It makes for a very dangerous ride with the family." (Source: "Tom Waits is flying upside down (on purpose)". Musician (a Billboard publication) Mark Rowland October, 1987)
- Tom Waits (introducing "Ninth & Hennepin", 1999): This is about a scary corner... It's a place called "Ninth & Hennepin". The ironic thing about this is, that it's no longer scary. That's how long I've been around. It went from scary. to kinda fun! And it really kinda upset me. Eh, you know, now they've got the unisex hair parlor there and eh,. you know the yogurt ehm. the eh. the funny shoes with eh. you know. But in the old days, it was no place you wanted to be. It was a little donut shop, a 12-year old pimp came in one night. I was in the middle of a war. Another guy firing live ammunition outside. All he had was knives and forks and spoons. And he incorporated the donut shop as his... barricade. And I just happened be. well having a donut. I haven't had my donut since.. (laughter). Cause I know where donuts lead! On the jukebox it was playing "Our Day Will Come". It was too perfect. Well it's "Ninth & Hennepin". (Source: SxSW festival. Paramount Theater, Austin. March 20, 1999)

(6) A crooked tree and a straight tree: Introducing "A Little Rain" Congres Centrum. The Hague/ The Netherlands: July 21, 1999:
Tom Waits (1999): "This is a little story about the crooked tree and the straight tree. Do you know that story? [No response from the audience] Obviously you have heard that story... [laughter]. You see, once upon a time there was a forest and there were two trees in the forest, and there was a crooked tree and there was a straight tree. And the crooked tree used to look over at the straight tree and say, 'Gee, look at you, you're straight like that, I wish I was straight like that.' The crooked tree would look up to the straight tree, and the straight tree would look down on the crooked tree and say, 'Look at you, you're crooked! You're always gonna be crooked! You're nothing but a crooked tree! You're crooked and that's all there is to it!' So one day the lumberjacks came into the forest... [laughter] and they looked around, and they saw the trees... And one of the lumberjacks said, 'Just cut off the straight trees!' And the crooked tree is still there, till this day... growing strong and strange... That's the story... [a rousing ovation]."