Title: Tom Waits: A Poet of Outcasts Who's Come Inside
Source: New York Times (USA) by Jon Pareles. Transcription as published on http://www.nytimes.com/. ARTS AND LEISURE DESK. May 5, 2002. Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company.
Date: Flamingo Resort Hotel & Conference Center 2777 Fourth Street, Santa Rosa, CA. February/ March. Published: May 5, 2002
Keywords: Alice, Blood Money, Kathleen, songwriting, Swordfishtrombones


Tom Waits: A Poet Of Outcasts Who's Come Inside


SAN FRANCISCO -- SUNLIGHT wouldn't seem to be Tom Waits's element. His songs tend to take place in rainy nocturnal realms filled with outcasts and freaks, where his slurred gargle of a voice and his junkyard assortment of sounds won't upset passers-by. Yet there Mr. Waits was on a bucolic northern California afternoon a few weeks ago, lunching on minestrone soup in a small-town restaurant near his home, and talking affably about how he has created and maintained his own peculiar zone - more like a back room or a bunker full of debris - in American music.

"I just try to walk my own path," he said. "You have to believe in yourself and you have to ride out the seasons. Everybody wants it to be summer all the time, in relationships and with their career. And when the weather starts to turn, they think they better get out. So it takes a certain amount of persistence."

Mr. Waits, 52, is a family man now, getting up early in the morning to be with his wife and musical collaborator, Kathleen Brennan, and two of his three children. (His 18-year-old daughter is attending college.)

He hasn't taken a drink, he said, in nine years, and his self-destructive alcoholic patches are two decades behind him. But from his first album, "Closing Time" (Asylum) in 1973, to the two new ones being released simultaneously on Tuesday, "Blood Money" and "Alice"(1) (both on Anti), he has peered into dank recesses and populated his songs with drunks, hobos, prostitutes, carnies, transvestites, suicides and a few stray politicians.

In the songs, true love collides with callous fate and close observation dissolves into surrealism. The music drags hymns and parlor songs, blues and ballads into a sonic menagerie that, on the new albums, includes Swiss hand bells, calliope and a four-foot-long Indonesian seed pod, which is "as wide as a Bible," he said, and has "seeds as big as CD's."

The tunes hold some Stephen Foster, some Kurt Weill, some Louis Armstrong, some Lightnin' Hopkins, some Harry Partch(2), some Captain Beefheart and some circus music - clear points that Mr. Waits has connected into his own constellation. He doesn't mind that his influences show. "Most songwriters, you can trace back what they've been listening to," he said. "It's like you can go through the entrails of any animal and tell what the last three days were like. How do you reconcile your irreconcilable musical desires and dreams and wishes and memories? You may not be able to make one thing out of it. I think I feel more comfortable trying to visit different places. I don't know if I have anything that I've made that's a synthesis of the things I love. I don't think I leave it in the blender long enough."

There has been enough straightforward melody and romance to let some of Mr. Waits's songs, like "Ol' `55" and "Downtown Train," be shined up and turned into pop hits by the Eagles or Rod Stewart. But others never will be. "Blood Money" starts with songs called "Misery Is the River of the World" and "Everything Goes to Hell"; "Alice," a collection of songs written for a music-theater collaboration with Robert Wilson in 1992, is haunted by solitude and death. But both albums are bipolar, with deep-seated misanthropy and pessimism sitting alongside pure, un-ironic love songs like "Coney Island Baby" from "Blood Money," on which he rasps, "All the stars make their wishes on her eyes."

"I'm an old softie," Mr. Waits said. "Most songwriters are probably writing one or two songs over and over again in one way or another. Kathleen said that with me, it's either Grand Weepers or Grim Reapers. Yeah, I run hot and cold. I like melody, and I like dissonance. I guess maybe it's an alcoholic personality. I get mad, and I cry."

Outside the restaurant window, a truck rolled by from a company called Tight Access Excavation, and Mr. Waits grinned at the name. "That's what I do," he said. "It's hard to get in there. You're either not wanted or it's too dark, and there's not a lot of room, and it's never comfortable. So those are good places to look. You do give voice to people who don't have songs written about them or don't have a chance to tell their story, and it's actually good to get all those people out of my head. Download and make room for some other stuff."

The grit in Mr. Waits's voice - "I'm the sand in the sandwich," he said - suits his lowlife characters and keeps his lovelorn narrators from getting too sentimental. But in the first phase of his career, when he was recording for Asylum (later Elektra-Asylum) in the 1970's, his singing cut against his relatively conventional backup.

When he married Ms. Brennan in 1980, she urged him to be his own producer. "I like my music with lumps and rind and pits and pulp," he said. "Until that time, I felt like I was being photographed with my head on somebody else's body. Kathleen said: `Look, we can find musicians. We'll find the engineer. We can get money from the record company. We have 12 songs here. Let's go, we'll do it ourselves. You don't have to give six points to a producer.' "

What resulted was Mr. Waits's 1983 album, "Swordfishtrombones," with arrangements that lurched and sputtered and plinked, as they would through Mr. Waits's next two decades of work. "There's certain sounds that I am attracted to," Mr. Waits said. "I always like things that sound like they're trying to reach you from far away, so I feel like I need to lean in and give them some help. I like clank and I like boom and I like steam. I thought that would be a good title for a record: `Clank, Boom and Steam.' Clank, boom, pssssst! There's something kind of locomotive about it, coal-driven."

Mr. Waits brought the "Swordfishtrombones" songs to the president of Elektra-Asylum. "And he said: `You'll get no new fans and you'll lose all the ones you used to have. We're not interested,' " Mr. Waits recalled. But Island Records picked up the album and kept releasing albums as the songs grew more angular and apocalyptic. By the time his Island contract ended, however, the company had been bought by Polygram, which was later absorbed by the Universal Music conglomerate. "The big companies are more like countries than companies," he said. "Or they are like jellyfish. They have no anatomy. But they sting."

"Record companies are no longer interested in maintaining or nurturing or supporting the growth of an artist," he continued. "They want you as a cash cow on the day you get there. And then, when you stop making milk they want you on the barbecue right away."

Mr. Waits eventually moved to the independent company Epitaph and its Anti label, on a roster that includes the punk band Bad Religion and the country legend Merle Haggard. After a six-year gap between albums, Mr. Waits's twangy "Mule Variations" (Anti), 1999, sold a million copies, as alternative-rock fans embraced a fellow misfit.

"Alice" and "Blood Money" were recorded concurrently. "It's such a big deal to crank up a band and the whole bit," Mr. Waits said. "Once you crank up the machine, it seems a shame just to make one pancake." But the albums are as different as sleepwalking and chronic insomnia. "Alice," which was very loosely inspired by "Alice in Wonderland," is full of lyrics about dreaming, and many of the songs proceed in a haze of brushed drums and breathy horns. "Blood Money" is more hardnosed, veering from warped carnival oom-pah to ominous lullabies.

Both albums largely avoid using guitar. a deliberate gambit. "Kathleen said, `Let's try and solve some of these problems without guitar,' " Mr. Waits said. "The guitar is so versatile. There's so many times when you hear a guitar that it pulls your focus, and there's a certain normality to it. I like to hear things that are a little more conflicted sometimes. So it's like a little tease or a challenge for yourself. It's like, let me see if you can walk to the corner with a blindfold."

Mr. Waits is likely to tour this summer(3). "I worry sometimes about recording, because it feels like you're eating the feathers and you're throwing away the bird," he said. Performing live is different, "because I really ran away and joined the circus," he said.

"That's what everybody did who got into music. You went to a show somewhere and you said, `Man, that's it.' Maybe it's kind of like alligator wrestling, because you're dealing with something that's alive. And you might be thrown by it and you might be gored by it, and it's bigger than you, but you may get to ride it."

Meanwhile, he's working on songs. "Sometimes they're coming so fast there's not enough to catch them in," he said. "And other days you have to do a rain dance for it. You wait. I've got tape recorders all over the house. I can scribble notes on a napkin. But what I've really done is learn to exercise my memory. If I have a melody in my head, my challenge is to keep it in my head all day. And then try to sit down to dinner, forget it and then go back in the car and see if I can remember it again. I think if this is a really good melody it'll never leave me. Some you lose. A lot of them get away. Those are the best songs, the ones that got away.(4)"


(1) Blood Money and Alice: 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. 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) Mr. Waits is likely to tour this summer: this didn't happen. There was no tour following the release of Alice/ Blood Money

(4) The ones that got away: might be refering to "The One That Got Away" from Small Change (Asylum, 1976)