Title: Tom Waits, 20 Questions
Source: Playboy magazine, by Steve Oney. Published: March, 1988. Transcribed by Gary Tausch as published on Gary's Tom Waits Miscellania. Kind permission: Gary Tausch.
Date: Los Angeles. Ca. late 1987.
Key words: Commercial success, Harry Partch, Prince, The Replacements, Jack Nicholson, Los Angeles, Family, Slang terminology, One From The Heart, Club Tenco

Magazine front cover: Playboy magazine, March 1988

Accompanying pictures
Playboy magazine. March, 1988. Entire article
Playboy magazine. March, 1988. Photo credit: unknown


Tom Waits 20 Questions


Most people know singer-songwriter Tom Waits as the poet of late-night metropolitan areas, the bard of smoky lounges and cue-ball moons. But lately, Waits has been experimenting, both on his past three albums, which have included songs nailed together from pieces of 'found sound"--deafening jackhammers, sirens, strains of an Irish jig--and as an actor ("The Cotton Club," "Down by Law," "Ironweed"). Writer Steve O'Bey showed up at a favorite Waits hangout, a seedy cafe on the fringes of downtown L.A. "Waits, now 37, arrived looking wild-haired and mystic eyed and dressed in a parson's black suit and tie," he reports. "He was insistent upon talking into a tape recorder for fear of being misquoted, but he began the conversation with the warning, "I'm going to pull your string from time to time.'"

1. PLAYBOY: In spite of the fact that your albums have won you a loyal following, your work is rarely heard on the radio. What kind of payola do you think it would take to get disc jockeys in Des Moines to play a few cuts from Franks Wild Years?
WAITS: Send them some frozen Cornish game hens. That would probably do the trick. Or maybe some Spencer steaks. The people who succeed today essentially write jingles. It's an epidemic. Even worse are artists aligning themselves with various products, everything from Chrysler-Plymouth to Pepsi. I don't support it. I hate it. So there.

2. PLAYBOY: Early in your career, some of your songs--for instance, Ol' '55, which the Eagles covered(1) --became hits, and almost all of them, no matter how unconventional, relied upon pretty melodies. But lately--especially on your past three albums -- you've moved from hummable tunes to what you call "organized noise." Why?
WAITS: I was cutting off a very small piece of what I wanted to do. I wasn't getting down the things I was really hearing and experiencing. Music with a lot of strings gets like Perry Como after a while. It's why I don't really work with the piano much anymore. Like, anybody who plays the piano would thrill at seeing and hearing one thrown off a 12-story building, watching it hit the sidewalk and being there to hear that thump. It's like school. You want to watch it burn.

3. PLAYBOY: To create a marketable pop song, do you have to sell out?
WAITS: Popular music is like a big party, and it's a thrill sneaking in rather than being invited. Every once in a while, a guy with his shirt on inside out, wearing lipstick and a pillbox hat, gets a chance to speak. I've always been afraid I was going to tap the world on the shoulder for 20 years and when it finally turned around, I was going to forget what I had to say. I was always afraid I was going to do something in the studio and hate it, put it out, and it was going to become a hit. So I'm neurotic about it.

4. PLAYBOY: Who was Harry Partch(1) , and what did he mean to you?
WAITS: He was an innovator. He built all his own instruments and kind of took the American hobo experience and designed instruments from ideas he gathered traveling around the United States in the Thirties and Forties. He used a pump organ and industrial water bottles, created enormous marimbas. He died in the early Seventies, but the Harry Partch Ensemble still performs at festivals. It's a little arrogant to say I see a relationship between his stuff and mine. I'm very crude, but I use things we hear around us all the time, built and found instruments-things that aren't normally considered instruments: dragging a chair across the floor or hitting the side of a locker real hard with a two-by-four, a freedom bell, a brake drum with a major imperfection, a police bullhorn. he's more interesting. You know, I don't like straight lines. The problem is that most instruments are square and music is always round.

5. PLAYBOY: Considering your predispositions, which modern artists do you like to listen to?
WAITS: Prince. He's out there. He's uncompromising. He's a real fountainhead. Takes dangerous chances. He's androgynous, wicked, voodoo. The Replacements(3) have a great stance. They like distortion. Their concerts are like insect rituals. I like a lot of rap stuff, because it's real, immediate. Generally, I like things as they begin, because the industry tears at you. Most artists come out the other side like a dead carp.

6. PLAYBOY: What do you think of when you hear the name Barry Manilow?
WAITS: Expensive furniture and clothes that you don't feel good in.

7. PLAYBOY: In your musical career, you've tried to retain maximum creative control; yet within the past few years, you've become more and more involved in the most collaborative of all media, theater and film. What's the attraction?
WAITS: It's thrilling to see the insanity of all these people brought together like this life-support system to create something that's really made out of smoke. The same thing draws me to it that draws me to making records--you fashion these things and ideas into your own monster. It's making dreams. I like that.

8. PLAYBOY: In Ironweed(4), you worked with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. What did you learn from them?
WAITS: Nicholson's a consummate storyteller. He's like a great bard. He says he knows about beauty parlors and trainyards and everything in between. You can learn a lot from just watching him open a window or tie his shoes. It's great to be privy to those things. I watched everything - watched them build characters from pieces of things in people they have known. It's like they build a doll from Grandmother's mouth and Aunt Betty's walk and Ethel Merman's posture, then they push their own truthful feelings through that exterior. They're great at it.

9. PLAYBOY: Have there been musical benefits from involvement in theater and film?
WAITS: Just that I'm more comfortable stepping into characters in songs. On Franks Wild Years, I did it in I'll Take New York and Straight to the Top. I've learned how to be different musical characters without feeling like I'm eclipsing myself. On the contrary, you discover a whole family living inside you.

10. PLAYBOY: Three years ago, you made much ado about leaving Los Angeles for Manhattan. You praised New York as "a great town for shoes," but now you're back in California. What happened?
WAITS: I was developing Tourette syndrome. I was blurting out obscenities in the middle of Eighth Avenue. I turned into an eraserhead. But it's been arrested. With research, there is hope.

11. PLAYBOY: If you were to give a tour of L.A., what sights would you include?
WAITS: Let's see. For chicken, I suggest the Red Wing Hatchery near Tweedy Lane in south central L.A. We're talking both fryers and ritual chickens. Hang one over the door to keep out evil spirits; the other goes on your plate with paprika. For your other shopping needs, try B.C.D. Market on Temple. Best produce in town; also good pig knuckles, always important in your dining plans. Ask for Bruce. Below the Earth, on Hill Street, is the best spot for female impersonators; then you're going to want to be looking into those pickled eggs at the Frolic Room, by the bus station. Guy behind the bar has the same birthday as me, and his name is Tom. Finally, you have to take in Bongo Bean(5), who plays the sax on the sidewalk in front of the Hotel Figueroa. We're talking Pennies from Heaven time. Bongo is tall, good-looking, there most every night. Accept no substitutes.

12. PLAYBOY: While L.A. may be your stomping grounds, your other great love is the wee-hours world of America's big cities. From all your travels, what have been your favorite dives?
WAITS: The Sterling Hotel, in Cleveland. Great lobby. Good place to sit with the old men and watch Rock Hudson movies. Then there's the Wilmont Hotel, in Chicago. The woman behind the desk, her son's the Marlboro man. There's the Alamo Hotel, in Austin, Texas, where I rode in an elevator one night with Sam Houston Johnson. He spit tobacco juice into a cup while we talked. Let's see: The Swiss American Hotel is San Francisco's insane asylum. The Paradise Motel, right here on Sunset in L.A. It's nice in the summer when there's a carnival across the street. And, oh, the Taft. I think they're a chain. You can probably get off a train in just about any town, get into a taxi and say, "Take me to the Taft Hotel" and wind up somewhere unsavory. Yeah, say, "Take me to the Taft, and step on it."

13. PLAYBOY: Despite your reputation and songs that glorify hard living-and carousing, you've been married seven years and have two children. How do you balance your domestic and creative lives?
WAITS: My wife's been great. I've learned a lot from her. She's Irish Catholic. She's got the whole dark forest living inside of her. She pushes me into areas I would not go, and I 'd say that a lot of the things I'm trying to do now, she's encouraged. And the kids? Creatively, they're astonishing. The way they draw, you know? Right off the page and onto the wall. It's like you wish you could be that open.

14. PLAYBOY: Do you do all-American-dad things, such as go to Disneyland?
WAITS: Disneyland is Vegas for children. When I went with the kids, I just about had a stroke. It's the opposite of what they say it is. It's not a place to nurture the imagination. It's just a big clearance sale for useless items. I'm not going back, and the kids won't be allowed to return until they're 18, out of the house. And even then, I would block their decision.

15. PLAYBOY: Your songwriting technique is very unusual. Instead of sitting down at a piano or synthesizer, you hole up alone somewhere with nothing but a tape recorder. Why do you work that way?
WAITS: I don't want to sound spiritual, but I try to make an antenna out of myself, a lightning rod out of myself, so whatever is out there can come in. It happens in different places, in hotels, in the car - when someone else is driving. I bang on things, slap the wall, break things - what-ever is in the room. There are all these things in the practical world that you deal with on a practical level, and you don't notice them as anything but what you need them to be. But when I'm writing, all these things turn into something else, and I see them differently, almost like I've taken a narcotic. Somebody once said I'm not a musician but a tonal engineer. I like that. It's kind of clinical and primitive at the same time.

16. PLAYBOY: While you may strive for musical crudity, lyrically you're quite sophisticated, interior rhymes, classical allusions and your hallmark, a great ear for the vernacular. In a sense, you're the William Safire of street patois, rescuing such phrases as walking Spanish--inebriated saunter--and even coining some pretty good lingo of your own, such as rain dogs: stray people who, like animals after a shower, can't find their markings and wander aimlessly. What are some of your other favorite bits of slang, phrases you'd like to see get more everyday use?
WAITS: For starters, I'd like to see the term wooden kimono return to the lexicon. Means coffin. Think it originated in New Orleans, but I'm not certain. Another one I like is wolf tickets, which means bad news, as in someone who is bad news or generally insubordinate. In a sentence, you'd say, "Don't fuck with me, I'm passing out wolf tickets." Think it's either Baltimore Negro or turn-of-the-century railroadese. There's one more. Don't know where it came from, but I like it: Saturdaynightitis. Now, it's what happens to your arm when you hang it around a chair all night at the movies or in some bar, trying to make points with a pretty girl. When your arm goes dead from that sort of action, you've got Saturdaynightitis.

17. PLAYBOY: You have said that you'd rather hear music over a crackly AM car radio than over the best sound system. What's the matter with a good CD player?
WAITS: I like to take music out of the environment it was grown in. I guess I'm always aware of the atmosphere that I'm listening to something in as much as I am of what I'm listening to. It can influence the music. It's like listening to Mahalia Jackson as you drive across Texas. That's different from hearing her in church. It's like taking a Victrola into the jungle, you know? The music then has an entirely different quality. You integrate it into your world and it doesn't become the focus of it but a condiment. It becomes the sound track for the film that you're living.

18. PLAYBOY: Your score for One from the Heart was nominated for an Oscar. Did you enjoy writing it enough to try another?
WAITS: Working on One from the Heart was almost a Brill Building approach to song-writing - sitting at a piano in an office, writing songs like jokes. I had always had that fantasy, so I jumped at the chance to do it. I've been offered other films, but I've turned 'em down. The director comes to you and says, "Here, I've got this thing here, this broken toy." And in some cases, he says, "Can you fix it?" Or maybe he just wants interior decorating or a haircut. So you have to be sure you're the right man for the job. Sort of like being a doctor. Rest in bed, get plenty of fluids.

19. PLAYBOY: You've remarked that Franks' Wild Years is the end of a musical period for you, the last part of a trilogy of albums that began with Swordfishtrombones. Have you turned a corner? Is this album your last experimentation with the scavenger school of songwriting?
WAITS: I don't know if I turned a corner, but I opened a door. I kind of found a new seam. I threw rocks at the window. I'm not as frightened by technology maybe as I used to be. On the past three albums, l was exploring the hydrodynamics of my own peculiarities. I don't know what the next one will be. Harder, maybe louder. Things are now a little more psychedelic for me, and they're more ethnic. I'm looking toward that part of music that comes from my memories, hearing Los Tres Aces at the Continental Club with my dad when I was a kid.

20. PLAYBOY: How far would you go to avoid getting a star on Hollywood Boulevard?
WAITS: I don't think it works that way. It's pretty much that you pay for it. I'm not big on awards. They're just a lot of headlights stapled to your chest, as Bob Dylan said. I've gotten only one award in my life, from a place called Club Tenco in Italy(6). They gave me a guitar made out of tiger-eye. Club Tenco was created as an alternative to the big San Remo Festival they have every year. It's to commemorate the death of a big singer whose name was Tenco and who shot himself in the heart because he'd lost at the San Remo Festival. For a while, it was popular in Italy for singers to shoot themselves in the heart. That's my award.


(1) Ol' '55, which the Eagles covered: On The Border. The Eagles, 1974. Elektra/ Asylum LP 1004 (re-released by Elektra Entertainment in 1990). Further reading: Discography - Covers

(2) Harry Partch: San Diego multi-instrumentalist. 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. Further reading: Partch, Harry 1Partch, Harry 2Partch, Harry 3;

(3) The Replacements: Waits often expressed his appreciation for The Replacements. He contributed vocals to the track "Date To Church" w. The Replacements (I'll Be You (single), The Replacements, 1989. Sire (Sire 7-22992-B, Sire Australia MX-302453). Also released on "Just Say Mao" (Vol. 3 of Just Say Yes), various artists. July 11, 1989. Warner Brothers/ Sire Records (Sire 9 25947-2) and "All for Nothing, Nothing for All", The Replacements, 1997. Reprise (Reprise 9 46807-2). Further reading: TwinTone RecordsPaul Westerberg homepage

(4) Ironweed: Ironweed (1987) Movie directed by Hector Babenco. An adaptation of William Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Ironweed. With Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. TW: actor. Plays Rudy the Kraut.

(5) Bongo Bean/ Bonggo Beane:
The One And Only Bonggo Beane. By Rip Rense.
"I would only believe in a god who could dance. And when I saw my devil, I found him serious, thorough, profound, and solemn." - Nietzsche. "Listen to that tenor saxophone calling me home." - Tom Waits. 
"Years ago, when I bluffed my way through reviewing the L.A. Philharmonic for a year, primarily to go to a lot of free concerts, I came to look forward to seeing Bonggo Beane almost as much as hearing the orchestra. On the nights when he wasn't there, outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, after the symphony or concerto had ended, the world seemed a little more solemn, a little too profound. Music still hung heavily in the night air; Mahlerian questions of life and death tainted shadows. Bonggo played saxophone, after a fashion, not because he was prodigiously gifted, or because his mother made him take lessons, or because he had dreams of picking up where Charlie Parker or John Coltrane left off. He played because he wanted to. Someone gave him a worse-for-wear old tenor, if I remember right, and after some pad replacement and a few rubber bands to hold the keys in place, Bonggo blew. Bonggo---this was his given name---was about six-foot-twenty. Skinny as a telephone pole's shadow on a late June afternoon. Looked like something drawn by Walt Kelly, or Walter Lantz, or the other Walt. Always wore a great, tweedy trenchcoat and an oversized cap. When he played sax, his cheeks inflated like two blowfish, his eyebrows leaped nearly to his scalpline, his eyes crinkled like those of a laughing baby. He somehow managed to smile and wave and dance around while wailing away with the thickest vibrato I've ever heard on his favorites: "Over the Rainbow," "When the Saints Go Marchin' In," "Theme from 'Rocky'," "Battle Hymn of the Republic," "The Star Spangled Banner," "Hava Nagila," "Yesterday," "Misty". . . I used to pop 50 cents or a buck into his beat-up sax case, accepting him, as everyone else did, as human bric-a-brac. In time, though, I came to value him more, especially after being cooped up for two hours in a concert hall surrounded by people being death- ly, self-consciously still. Sometimes, I found myself enjoying Bonggo as much as a good performance of Brahms' quiescent third symphony, or the exquisite "Four Last Songs" of Richard Strauss. Sometimes I'd stop and sit under that huge Lipschitz sculpture outside the Music Center, "World Peace," that looks like upside-down elephants tied in knots, and listen to Bonggo and his enchanted saxophone. It was probably at that time that I decided there were two kinds of music: music with integrity, heart, and sincerity---and music with artifice and pose. I also, more or less, broke people into the same two categories. I first encountered Bonggo one blustery Christmas Eve in the courtyard of the Shubert Theater complex, where I had just seen a movie. I was full of the Christmas spirit, which is to say, I felt like having a stiff belt of high-quality juice and going to bed. A sound stopped me like a swig of bad eggnog: "Hooooonnnnnkk! Honk-honk-honk!" It cut right through the perfumey, holiday-opiated crowd, annihilated the Christmas lobotomy Muzak sneaking into my ears, and commanded---no, demanded---attention, like Michael Jackson coming down your chimney. It was Bonggo, and the music of the moment was "Jingle Bells"---a "Jingle Bells" unlike anything I'd ever heard. Imagine a whale yodeling. It was the kind of sound that made you want to get a one-horse open sleigh and dash through the snow. It wasn't uplifting, it was supercharging; it was adrenalin-as-noise. People danced, clapped, shimmied, dropped dollars into his beat-up old sax case, and smiled. They all smiled. I did, too. There was no more escaping it than. . .Christmas. Eventually, I realized that Bonggo was a concert worth reviewing. One night I wrote "call me---I want to write about you" on a business card and dropped it in his sax case. It was three weeks before he overcame his humility enough---or disbelief---to place the call. Bonggo turned out to be a former Jefferson High kid who lived in a hotel near The Original Pantry, and had a girlfriend with the poetic name of Jacqui Valentine. "I plant the songs in my mind," he told me. "I get the melody down real good, then I try to get the right keys that feel good, and hopefully, I reach the people, if you know what I mean." The article ran in the old Herald-Examiner in 1981, and he thanked me for years. I finally gave up trying to persuade him not to. I can still hear it: "So listen, I know you don't have much much time, and I sure appreciate you seeing me. You wrote that article and man I say this from my heart, I'll never forget it. You're a real gentleman and may God bless you. Hey, here's a picture of me and B.B. King. I went to see him, and I went backstage to tell him what a great man he is, 'cause you know people need that---especially famous people, but they need to hear it from the right person, you know? From somebody they don't even know." I can still picture the B.B. King snapshot, and many others he always carried: Bonggo and his old friend Tom Waits, back when Waits was starting out at the old Troubador in the early 70s, Bonggo and the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, backstage at who-knows-where. . . After the article appeared, Bonggo took to dropping by the Her-Ex once in a while, always wearing that trenchcoat and cap. His sax case was coated with laminated copies of the article, the head- line proclaiming, "The Great Bonggo." Once, I asked him as a favor to play "Battle Hymn of the Republic" for the city room (a kind of private joke on editors), and he kindly obliged. When he hit that downbeat, pens flew from reporters' hands, one especially delicate colleague popped a valium and swore, and the managing editor actually ducked into his private bathroom and locked the door. Bonggo also stopped in one particularly rotten day, when I was wondering if I'd gotten into the wrong business (I eventually concluded that yes, I had.) We sat together on a couch in the great, cavernous, white marble Her-Ex lobby, and he pulled out from under that perennial coat a portable keyboard---one of those $100 models---something he'd been saving for. "I been practicing something, and I want you to hear it," he said. Turning the little device on, he hit a couple of chords. The lobby, its corners braced with leviathan carved mahagony archways, echoed with petite, angelic sounds, like a solo celeste in an empty concert hall. The girls at the ad counter stopped working, looked up, and grinned. Bonggo was staring at me with the purest face you'd ever see, and he was singing, in a kind of light, elastic baritone, softly, that old Shep and the Limelites song: "Daddy's home. . .to stay. . ." His eyes crinkled up even more, and he smiled as he sang, more sincerely than I thought humanly possible. I. . .tapped my foot. It was good medicine. Soon after that---about 1983---Bonggo quit playing the sax. Vanished from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and the Shubert Theater. I don't know why; don't know which muse he followed instead. I didn't see him again for a good ten years, until we bumped into each other briefly at that post-quake fund-raising concert Waits organized at the Wiltern. We talked for a just minute, not long enough for me to find out what he's doing these days, or if he ever married his effervescent girlfriend, Jacqui. Haven't seen him since. But I do know one thing: This town is too serious, profound, and solemn without the honking, dancing saxophone of Bonggo Beane. (Transcription by Adriaan van Wiggen as sent to Tom Waits Onelist discussionlist, February 25, 2000).

(6) Club Tenco in Italy: Waits appeared at the "San Remo Festival (Club Tenco), Teatro Ariston", San Remo/ Italy (with Greg Cohen: upright bass) on November 22, 1986. Roberto Benigni attended the festival. Aired on Italian television by: RAI DUE (L'altra America). The Club Tenco event was founded by Italian Roba Di Amilcare. Further reading: PerformancesClub Tenco Sanremo