Title: Tom Waits
Source: SOMA magazine (USA) July, 2002 by Mikel Jollett. Transcription by Larry Da Silviera as sent to Raindogs Listserv discussionlist: July 25, 2002. Photography by Russ Flatt
Date: July, 2002
Keywords: Alice/ Blood Money, Childhood, Harry Partch, Charles Bukowski, The Systems, Abilene, fans

Magazine front cover: July 2002. Photography by Russ Flatt

Accompanying pictures
SOMA magazine. July 2002. Photography by Russ Flatt


Tom Waits


On Harry Partch, Charles Bukowski, myths, rap and nerds.

Text by Mikel Jollett, photos by Russ Flatt

The town was surrounded by desert on all sides but one. On that side was ocean, miles of it stretching west to Japan. To the East was a great expansive void--a big nothing, a trial for settlers long past, a dusty bridge to the cities of the North. On the edge of that vast emptiness--bracketed by ocean and desert, on the eve of a summer storm, eight years to the day after the planes from the West had brought the war that breathed life into the insipid wasteland, a dog was barking as the old man was born.

He blinked softly while the terrier pawed the screen door--"scratchedly, scratchedly." The sound, bouncing off tabletops and kitchen furniture, lapped lightly at his ears and then grew into something larger, a shape with contours and feathers. He wanted to reach out and touch it. To trace its borders. It was the first of a lifetime of sounds encountered by the old man--then hairless and pink--that would romp about his mind turning all he heard into feathered shapes, backdoor stories, and the familiar beasts, which kept him from sleep.

At age thirteen, he began to walk with an old wooden cane. On it, he'd carved the initials: T.W. The sounds followed him everywhere. The cars turning to planes, the wind whistling opera, the dull thud of his cane providing a constant beat with claws and fangs and a pointed, leathery tail. An old box was a drum, an oil can, a symphony.

There was music, of course. A guitar, a piano, and a voice. He treated these as equals with the junkyard reverberations and midnight scratches that entered his skull and morphed into something beautiful and terrible and lost and familiar; except the voice--the tortured, strained vocal chords which were the only exit, the only expression of the frenzy of sound and shape rumbling inside him.

By age seventeen, he'd had enough of the small town, the wasteland, even the old cane. So with twenty bucks and an old guitar, he thumbed down a ride North and set out into the world - to the cities with their gutters and trains - to tame the sounds that echoed through his weary head.

Respected the world over as an exceptionally influential and inventive musician, the extent of Tom Waits' talent is only matched by the mythology which surrounds his life. Sitting in a quiet roadhouse on the Pacific Coast, he discusses his new albums, his childhood, Charles Bukowski, rap music, and his nerdy fan base.

SOMA: I want to ask you about writing 'Blood Money.' I know it's based on the German play 'Woyzeck,'(1) by Robert Wilson. The plot is, um, rather dark.

TW: Well it's a proletariat opera. So in that sense it was innovative. The story is about a guy who starts taking money to participate in experiments, so he goes a little crazy, and his wife is unfaithful, so he kills her and kills himself. So his child is left to be raised by the village idiot, this real witch of a woman. So it's got, you know, all the things you'd want from opera.

S: I've noticed this trend when your albums come out. It happened with 'Swordfishtrombones' in 1983 and every album since, wherein each time a new album comes out, critics say, "Tom's really out there now. Way left field." Inevitably two years later, they say, "wow, that was so innovative." It seems to be happening now with 'Alice' and 'Blood Money.'

TW: Gee I don't know. You pay too much attention to it and you feel like you're working for them. I'm one of the lucky ones, I get to have my musings. I throw it out there, and people give me money for it. My job isn't to predict what they'll like, but to try and inspire myself and hopefully as a byproduct to inspire others.

S: You've been playing music for, um, longer than I've been alive.

TW: [Interjects] Oh, shit. God.

S: Do you feel pressure to reinvent yourself? What drives your songwriting?

TW: There's two schools of thought on that. A lot of people think that most songwriters are just writing the same song over and over again. Trying to find different ways to say the same thing. Then a lot of people say that you're opening new doors with each song. Like you're staying in different motels across the country and in every one of them you're exploring a different room in your head. I try to make something in the studio, I maybe haven't heard before. A different combination of voices and instrumentation. Like, "What is this, ruska-billy or is it gypsy-rap or what is this thing?" My thing is more mutating things.

S: I know that you've been influenced a lot by Harry Partch(2). What are some of the parallels you see between what you do and what he was doing?

TW: He was a great forgotten American composer. Like everybody else, I'm captivated by his story. Like how I assume people became captivated with my story. He was a hobo and he found things on the road and turned them into instruments. He created his own instruments, created his own scales, his own music, his own paradigm really. In that sense, I don't rival him. He was very eccentric. He had these industrial water bottles that he called "Cloud Chamber Bowls." You hang them from the ceiling and hit them with a mallet...He did things that no one had ever done and I like that.

S: I read somewhere that you said that you hear sounds differently from most people. When you were a kid, you'd hear these sounds, and they'd grow in your head. And now, you essentially make a career out of manipulating sounds.

TW: Well I don't want to sound like a dilettante because I like Harry Partch. I like the Rolling Stones, too. I don't live in a vault. But still I like sounds that are not conventionally considered music. We were in the studio doing 'Swordfishtrombones' and we were already trying to find our own musical galaxy. While I was there, someone was fixing a mic, and dragging a chair across the floor and it made the most beautiful sound like, [in a high pitch] "eeeeeehhh". And I was thinking, jeez, that's as musical as anything I heard all day, and I'm here to make music. So maybe I should be paying more attention to the things that are outside what we think we're here to do.

S: You were born in Pomona, then raised in Whittier and San Diego, Did I read right that you played in a soul band in high school?(3)

TW: Heck I don't know if it was a soul band. It was surf and soul. I played guitar and sang. In those days, you didn't play a lot of gigs. You'd play a dance every now and then. I knew I wanted to do something with music, but navigating that seems almost impossible. It's like digging through a wall with a spoon, and your only hope is that what's on the other side is digging with the same intensity towards you.

S: How do you mean?

TW: You know, I'm trying to get to what I want. And I'm disconcerted at every moment. I want to believe that what I want also wants me. I love music and I want music to love me. I want to be an antenna. I want music to like being around me.

S: You knew that back when you were fifteen, sixteen in the band?

TW: Yeah. The band was called the Systems. Up until that point, you know, I played the ukulele when I was a kid and I played a guitar - my dad gave me a guitar. There was always music in the house. Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte and Louis Armstrong and Mexican radio.

S: Was there a moment when you knew this was it?

TW: I remember one particular song that really moved me when I was a kid. You know that song "Abilene"?(4) "Abilene, Abilene, the prettiest town you never seen, the women there don't treat you mean." God I loved it. When I heard that, it moved me. My folks had split up and I was sitting listening to a radio that my dad had given me.

S: Was part of it just to go out to these different towns--to be the minstrel?

TW: Oh yeah, sure. It's September and you're in a van with a bunch of guys and you're going to a sound check in some crumby club and it's thirty below zero and you pull up to a stop sign, and there's a school bus with kids not much younger than you going to school and you think, "Man, I made it. It's September and I'm not going to school. I'm on my way to, whatever it is, some club."

S: And you ended up in L.A.?

TW: Yeah, I'd come up from San Diego and I'd take the Greyhound, get off downtown, then take the local all the way out to West Hollywood. I'd get there at nine in the morning and stand in line to go up on stage on Monday night at the Troubadour(5) and play three songs. That's all you get.

S: So did you fall in with the crowd of artists there? Did you go out afterwards, raise hell?

TW: I don't know, I wasn't really into hanging out, raising hell. I wanted a record contract. There was always an interesting group of people waiting on Monday night to play. It was like vaudeville. There'd be a whole Mexican family with matching outfits--down to a 3-year-old with a little guitar.

S: Charles Bukowski(6) was in L.A. at the same time. I'm wondering what influence he had on you. Did you ever meet him?

TW: Oh yeah, a couple of times.

S: What was he like?

TW: He was like a big bear. He had this enormous head, as big as Frankenstein. He had a big presence and huge shoulders; and that face that looks like a mask, a scary mask. I was still drinking so it was pre-- [his voice trails off] I was fascinated with him. He was like a, I don't know what you call it, mentor.

S: Did he know this?

TW: I don't know, maybe he assumed everybody who wanted to meet him was enamored with him. He was very savvy socially.

S: So he wasn't the character that he presents in his poems?

TW: Well, he was many things, like all of us. But I think when he got towards the end of his life and did 'Last Night of the Earth Poems', it softened him. My favorite is called "Nirvana"(7). You'd like that one. It's about a young boy on a bus, going nowhere in particular. It's snowing and he stops at a cafe, and everyone on the bus gets off at this little rest stop and everyone has coffee. He sits at the counter. He said the buy boy had a big healthy laugh and he's teasing the waitress and what not. And he says, "I could stay here my whole life. Just right here." Then he ends up getting back on the bus and going away. You should read it. Of course - he's a planet waiting to be explored.

S: My favorite is called "Two Birds". It's all this melodic language about these two birds sitting on a wire, and he's sitting there at his typewriter describing this beautiful little scene with euphonious prose. And then the last two lines are, "just thought you might want to know, fucker."

TW: [Laughing] Just thought you might want to know, fucker? Just sitting at his typewriter? And then he hits you with that last line. You know he builds monuments to the mundane.

S: Well not just the mundane. He was all into Dostoyevksi and Hemingway and who else am I thinking of?

TW: Pound. Ezra Pound. And he loves Celine.

S: His whole thing about writing...making it into a bullfight. At first, I thought it was bullshit. But these days, I think he's right. I sit there sometimes and I feel like my computer is taunting me.

TW: [Nodding head] Yeah, like, "Are you big enough? Are you man enough? Get me to give you something, I'll give you nothing." You got to quarrel with yourself.

S: But then if you don't do it, you go nuts.

TW: Yeah, because if you stop, you're a failure. He was sort of a philosopher I guess. He gave dignity to the downtrodden and he illuminated so much about the world we sweep up and throw away. You know I played on a bill with him in Pittsburgh many years ago.(8)

S: Really? He did readings?

TW: Oh yeah. He was amazing on stage. You couldn't beat him. I was the opening act. He was the headliner. And it was just as you might expect in the dressing room: he was there with a bottle of beer, a big-ass redhead sitting on his knee, whispering in his ear, messing his hair up--he's all glassy-eyed waiting to go on--yelling out the window at people on the street. And then he did about an hour on the stage.

S: Did you spend much time talking to him trying to know him at all?

TW: No, I didn't want to be too cloying or inquisitive. He had his own world, his own life. He kind of whipped the beer bottle around like a microphone all night. He's a performer. He picked short poems to read. He also riffs with the audience like a stand-up comic.

S: Was he funny?

TW: Oh yeah, he'd say, "Come on up here, fucker, and say that." He's very confrontational. And that's what everyone wanted. They were going out of their minds.

S: It reminds me of your song, on the 'Dead Man Walking' soundtrack. I love the opening line, "it's the same with men as with horses and dogs..."

TW: [finishing the line]"...nothing wants to die." It's kind of like a Bukowski thing. Because he picked broad things like that a lot.

S: To open like that, it was a really powerful song.

TW: Aw thanks.

S: Do you ever feel like you're a survivor, like most music you hear on the radio is just young? Rap, for example, started in New York about '76 or '77. So that means your career spans the entire genre of rap music.

TW: I guess I'm not really, uh, on the wave. I'm on the beach waiting to be picked up. Those guys are, well, I don't know how to talk about it; except that I like Wu-Tang Clan and all those guys.

S: I remember reading some old interviews from 1985 or '86, and you were saying, "I really like this rap music."(9) I think you remarked that it was new, it was different, it was tending to be contrarian, even a little political.

TW: Oh it was, when N.W.A. came out, that was very political. I guess I try to see it in context of music itself. It's kind of like the most logical step to the cliff of blues or jazz, in the sense that it's the most vital. They're all word guys. Their rhymes are just unbelievable. So intricate. I'm a word guy, so I pay attention. There's a lot of rage. Which I guess is no different from the way it was in the '30s, it's just that they were trying to be like some gangster with a tommy gun. 90% of their audience is white.

S: Do you think your fans relate to you in the same way? I mean the things you write about--what's the famous quote, "horrible stories with beautiful melodies..." Are they sort of filling a void in their own lives?

TW: We all are doing that when we listen to music. You take it through a straw and hopefully something will be transformed in you. We're all sucking it up, hoping something will go into our bloodstream and do something miraculous to our condition. Songs did that to me when I was a kid.

S: So then, about your fans, what sort of people are they?

TW: Nerds. Pretty much. I'm a nerd. They want to secede from the Union. They want their own state. Actually, most of the people that I've met are really nice people. Sincere. They don't seem to be too intimidated by me. I'm not David Bowie. My image that people have of me, I guess kind of goes with the subject matter I write about. Somehow people expect me to be someone who lives in the same kind of stories I write about. And you know, for the most part, I guess that's probably somewhat true. My records are kind of like dispatches of my own and people kick through that and find some truths for themselves. I'm just glad to be in the soup. I'm being influenced by everything around me and I'm influencing others and that's definitely where I wanted to be. I'm glad to be doing it. I could be working in the sewer.


(1) I know it's based on the German play 'Woyzeck': Alice (the play) premiered on December 19, 1992 at the Thalia Theater, Hamburg/ Germany. Further reading: Alice. Woyzeck (the play) premiered November 18, 2000 at the Betty Nansen Theatre in Copenhagen/ Denmark. Further reading: Woyzeck.

(2) Harry Partch: San Diego multi-instrumentalist/ composer. Developed and played home made instruments. Released the album" The World Of Harry Partch". Major influence for the album 'Swordfishtrombones'. Partch died in San Diego, 1974.

(3) Played in a soul band in high school: The Systems. 1. Interviewer - Did you always want to be a musician? TW: "Yeah, I guess so, I couldn't think of anything else I really wanted to be, seems to be today nobody wants to be anything but, nobody wants to be a baseball player anymore or anything - everybody wants to be a rock n roll star. I was always real interested in music, it never really struck me to write until I guess about the late 60's, about '68 or '69 I started writing, up until then I just listened to a lot of music, played in school orchestras, played trumpet in elementary school, junior high, high school, went through all that and hung around with some friends of mine that played classical piano and picked up a few little licks here and there, played guitar and stumbled on the Heritage - and actually the first real songwriter I really saw and really got enthused about was Jack Tempchin and that was in about 1968 at the Candy Company on El Cajon Boulevard, he was playing on the bill with Lightning Hopkins and he was real casual and everything, it was just something I wanted to try my hand at, so I tried my hand at it, I don't know, I guess you get better as you go along, the more music you listen to and the more perceptive you become towards melody and lyric and all. The only place really to play in San Diego were folk clubs. I used to go to a lot of dances. I played in a band in junior high called The Systems... I played rhythm guitar and sang. I listened to a lot of black artists, quite a few black artists. I had a real interest in that - James Brown and the Flames were real big, I went to O'Farrell Junior High School, all black junior high school, and I went out to Balboa(?) and saw James Brown - he knocked me out, man, when I was in 7th grade. So I've kept up on that scene too and I listen to as many different kinds of music as I can." (Source: "Folkscene 1973, with Howard and Roz Larman" (KPFK-FM 90.7). Date: Los Angeles/ USA. August 12, 1973) 2.TW: "I did a few rock things; I was in a group called the Systems, I was rhythm guitar and lead vocalist. We did Link Wray stuff. Hohman: Link Wray - that's the guy who made all those killer rock instrumentals back in the late '50s, Rumble, Rawhide, Comanche, The Swag. TW: Yeah, Rumble was his first hit. I've been trying to pin down Frank Zappa's guitar style for a long time and I think Link Wray is the closest I can get. I think Frank is trying to be Link Wray. We did stuff by the Ventures, too, a lot of instrumentals. I finally quit that band; we had a drummer with a harelip and a lead guitar player with a homemade guitar. Actually, there were only three of us, so in a sense we were sort of like pioneers." (Source: "Bitin' the green shiboda with Tom Waits". "Down Beat" magazine. Marv Hohman. Chicago. June 17, 1976) 3."Around this same time Waits formed his first group, soulfully named The Systems. "I played rhythm guitar and sang," he comments. "Rhythm and blues - a lot of black Hit Parade stuff, white kids trying to get that Motown sound. I went to an all-black junior high and was under certain social pressure. So I listened to what was around me." Tom dropped out of high school during his junior year, because he was already working by that time - not as a musician, but as a cook. Several years on the graveyard shift at an all-night diner in San Diego, besides providing him with what would become fuel for subsequent songs and stories, convinced him that there had to be a better medium through which to channel his energies and words. As he told the Los Angeles Times, "I knew when I was working there I was going to do something with it. I didn't know how, but I felt it every night." (Source: "Tom Waits - Offbeat Poet And Pianist". Contemporary Keyboard magazine, by Dan Forte. April, 1977)4. TW: "Heck I don't know if it was a soul band. It was surf and soul. I played guitar and sang. In those days, you didn't play a lot of gigs. You'd play a dance every now and then. I knew I wanted to do something with music, but navigating that seems almost impossible. It's like digging through a wall with a spoon, and your only hope is that what's on the other side is digging with the same intensity towards you... The band was called the Systems. Up until that point, you know, I played the ukulele when I was a kid and I played a guitar - my dad gave me a guitar. There was always music in the house. Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte and Louis Armstrong and Mexican radio." (Source: "Tom Waits". SOMA magazine. July, 2002 by Mikel Jollett)

(4) You know that song "Abilene"?: "Abiline" Music/words - Lester Brown, John D. Loudermilk, Bob Gibson (� '63 Acuff-Rose Music). Abiline is in West Texas north of Austin. "Abilene, Abilene Prettiest town I ever seen. Folks down there don't treat you mean In Abilene, my Abilene. I sit alone most every night Watch them trains roll out of sight Wish that they were carryin' me To Abilene, my Abilene. Crowded city, ain't nothin' free Nothin' in this town for me Wish to God that I could be In Abilene, my Abilene. How I wish that train would come Take me back where I come from. Take me where I want to be In Abilene, my Abilene. Rotgut whiskey numbs the brain If I stay here I'll go insane. Think I need a change of scene To Abilene, my Abilene. Outside my window cold rain falls, Sit here starin' at the walls; If I was home, I'd be serene In Abilene, my Abilene."

(5) On Monday night at the Troubadour: Monday's "hootnights" at Doug Weston's Troubadour (located at: 9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood) where Mr. Waits got his break into show business during the summer of 1971. Further reading: The Troubadour.

(6) Charles Bukowski: Charles Bukowski was born August 16, 1920 in Germany. His father was an American soldier. His mother was German. The family moved to Los Angeles when he was about three years old. Published his first short story, "Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip," in 1944. Published his first poetry at at the age of 35. Published first novel, "Post Office" in 1971. The movie "Barfly" (1987) effectively made Bukowski a name for the masses. He died March 9, 1994 in San Pedro, Ca.

(7) My favorite is called "Nirvana": Nirvana by Charles Bukowski: "not much chance, completely cut loose from purpose, he was a young man riding a bus through North Carolina on the way to somewhere and it began to snow and the bus stopped at a little cafe in the hills and the passengers entered. he sat at the counter with the others, he ordered and the food arrived. the meal was particularly good and the coffee. the waitress was unlike the women he had known. she was unaffected, there was a natural humor which came from her. the fry cook said crazy things. the dishwasher. in back, laughed, a good clean pleasant laugh. the young man watched the snow through the windows. he wanted to stay in that cafe forever. the curious feeling swam through him that everything was beautiful there, that it would always stay beautiful there. then the bus driver told the passengers that it was time to board. the young man thought, I'll just sit here, I'll just stay here. but then he rose and followed the others into the bus. he found his seat and looked at the cafe through the bus window. then the bus moved off, down a curve, downward, out of the hills. the young man looked straight forward. he heard the other passengers speaking of other things, or they were reading or attempting to sleep. they had not noticed the magic. the young man put his head to one side, closed his eyes, pretended to sleep. there was nothing else to do - just to listen to the sound of the engine, the sound of the tires in the snow."

(8) I played on a bill with him in Pittsburgh many years ago: March 12/13, 1976. S.U. Lower Lounge, University of Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania/ USA.
- Tom Waits: (1992): "I had the pleasure of playing on the bill with him in Pittsburgh about 15 years ago. I opened the show for Bukowski. He came out - oh, he just leveled me. He was backstage with a redhead on his lap and drinking beer, he was great. His new book is really - I would highly recommend it along with everything else he's written but his most recent book is really powerful." (Source: "KCRW-FM Radio: Evening Becomes Eclectic". Date: Santa Monica/ USA. October 9, 1992 (?))

(9) You were saying, "I really like this rap music.": Tom Waits (1992): "I love rap. It's raw and hollering and violent. Black music in America is the only music that's changing and evolving. Maybe that's not accurate. It just seems that black music is a living music as opposed to a dead music. It's growing and it gets angry and then it shuts up and it breaks windows and it disappears and it comes back." (Source: "The Lie In Waits" VOX (USA), by Peter Silverton. Article reprinted as "A Conversation With Tom Waits", The Observer, by Pete Silverton. November 23, 1992 (1997?) Date: Paris, October, 1992)