Title: Tom Waits: A Sobering Experience
Source: Sounds magazine (UK), by Dave Lewis. Photography by Susan Carson & Michael Purtland. Thanks to Kevin Molony for donating scans
Date: August 4, 1979
Key words: Interviews, Stage persona, Tropicana

Magazine front cover: Sounds. August 4, 1979

Accompanying pictures
Page lay-out (entire article). Thanks to Kevin Molony for donating this scan
"Tom Waits shakes hands with an old friend." 1975/ 1976. Photography by Michael Purtland. Thanks to Kevin Molony for donating this scan
1975/ 1976. Photography by Michael Purtland. Thanks to Kevin Molony for donating this scan


Tom Waits: A Sobering Experience

Dave Lewis is left speechless by The-Man-They-Don't-Have-To-Gag

If the C.I.A. are ever short of an operative who's guaranteed not to spill the beans when the anglepoise is blazing in his face then I suggest they look no further than Tom Waits. Believe me, this guy would make a stammering tell-your-weight machine seem like a positive blabbermouth.

With Waits it's strictly name, rank and serial number (of his forthcoming album, of course) and you can forget about any top secret revelations. Mind you, it was a sleepy afternoon when we shared silences in some tacky Italian bistro and I was just another face in another conveyor-belt of eager scam-shovelers scheming to uncover the 'real Tom Waits'. And I can't really complain, I suppose, 'cos he was very complimentary about my white winkle-pickers ( "They're a real neat item, man") casting a wistful eye down to his own battered footware and sockless feet. "My socks are all dirty, man, and I didn't want any unpleasant smells wafting up from under the table").

Unfortunately for Tom Waits, he doesn't seem to have mastered the rules of this wonderful game we call 'The Interview'. He finds talking about himself both dull and repetitive and is certainly pissed off with people expecting him to put on an act and live up to his bizarre stage persona 24 hours a day.

Consequently, he tends to hide behind a mixed barrier of terse grunts and mumbles and stock one-liners like "I'm swimming through the bowels of the fascinating world of entertainment. I'm enjoying myself under the circumcision and it's a real prophylactic experience" or "I only drink when I'm alone or with someone". If you have never encountered the Waits phenomenon on record or stage than I can only suggest you stop reading right now and rectify matters, because nothing I say could begin to capture the strange, twilight world that he inhabits in his music - croaking in a Louis Armstrong-esque growl about the subterranean existence of hustlers, hookers and general all-time losers and painting 8mm word pictures on the true B-movie tradition of Hollywood, where he was born and bred and where he now lives in a shabby hotel that he sums up as "Oh how the mighty have fallen".

"The place has termites and bad plumbing, you know, and they've just painted the swimming pool black, probably so they don't have to clean it so often. But they take my messages at the desk and gather my mail and I don't have to pay gas or electricity, so it's not so bad". Although never blatantly evasive, Waits spent the interview slumped half-lidded over a chair and table like a man who hadn't slept in a week and answered most questions with a brief "Yes" or "no" or "I suppose that's one point of view", obviously wishing he didn't have to go through all that shit. "I'm a little run down at the moment and I apologize if I'm not as lucid or imaginative as you would like me to be. I find it hard to relax. Inside this quiet exterior beats the heart of a complete lunatic". he confided at one point, dissolving even further down into his chair and lighting up yet another cigarette. (He's currently trying to cut down on his customary 80 gaspers a day and described it as the hardest thing he'd ever attempted).

"I quite enjoy my own company and when I do get time to myself I usually like to spend it alone in some hotel room catching up on my sleep or working on my new project 'cos it takes a great deal of concentration. I'm a bit of a workaholic really". (The new project incidentally, is an album called 'Lucky Streak'(1) which is due out in the autumn and which Waits describes as being "a little harder than my past stuff". "But I'll tell you something, I get so fucking tired of all this 'come on, give me some entertainment, give me some one-liners' that I get all the time. Everybody wants me to be somebody different for them; what they expect me to be, they want me to live up to it, you know. It's an occupational hazard I suppose, but I ain't no different to anybody else, it's just somebody's image of me that changes."

Although aged only 29, Waits looks and acts a lot older, like somebody who's been through the meat grinder young, perhaps acquiring his cynical obsession with life's flotsam from his own encounters with too much too soon. "It's just the type of subjects I chose to deal with as a writer. It's kind of like being a private investigator or photographer I guess". Comparisons with Hunter Thompson, Jack Kerouac, James Dean and every other loner anti-hero have been legion, but to be honest I never really penetrated beyond the odd glimpses of Waits' real personality that he occasionally allowed to slip through to make any judgment. Just how close he really is to that intriguing bad-ass barfly persona he projects on stage only he knows and when asked he replied obscurely: " I think I'm a little more abbreviated off stage. I kind of create a character, you know, a sort of Mr. Lucky. But . well . it's not easy being Tom Waits", at which he broke into a throaty, staccato laugh that sounded like an asthmatic's last death wheeze.

Despite all the boozy atmosphere of so many of his songs and his general stumblebum manner, Waits is certainly nobody's bleary-eyed rum-raddled fool. "You know people always expect me to be a drunk, but I ain't no drunk, If I was a drunk I couldn't be an entertainer. 'cos being a drunk is a full time occupation."

Conversely, he's certainly no pristine tea-totaller either; nobody could have written such an incisive, hilarious pastiche of the scotch-sodden dive-bar pianist as 'The Piano Has Been Drinking' and not have at least rubbed shoulders with the real thing. "Well, I don't live in a vault. I get around, but the creative process is partly imagination and experience and partly your own lunacy or whatever... your nightmares and dreams, you know. Basically I'm just saving for my retirement. We're all just writing our own obituaries; I mean, in 50 years from now it won't matter much, but I'm trying to do something for posterity I guess. I think it's important to consider that there might be young people listening to me and I might just inspire at least one of them. "I remember when I was a kid I heard a songwriter in a club(2) and it gave me some purpose and an idea that I also wanted to be a performer. I didn't know anything about it, but I knew what I didn't want to do and just narrowed it down to that. "I suppose my style is reflected in my sales figures, but fortunately my record company doesn't stand over my shoulder and tell me what to do. If I wanted that I would've been working in a car wash or something."

Though no car-washer, the early Waits went through the usual treadmill of tedious jobs, working as a washer-up in a greasy restaurant, a labour organizer in a maternity ward, a fireman in a sleepy Mexican border town and a garage mechanic. Cars, in fact, are one of Waits' real passions. He sports an elaborate tattoo on his arm emblazoned with the word 'Nighthawk', which was the name of a 'car-club' he belonged to as a teenager and he can readily run off a list of the wheels he's owned, including his current emerald green '64 T-bird. About the rest of his childhood he is fairly reticent, however, admitting that he was often picked on at school for being skinny and "funny looking" then skimming swiftly over the rest of his background with memories of his mother singing in a group "kind of like the Andrews Sisters", his father picking around on a guitar a bit, of his two sisters, confiding that one is pregnant and the other a communist so he hasn't got much in common with either of them."

Waits' early career was red-eyed trudge around seedy bars playing mostly his own material but keeping the customers satisfied with a few dirty jokes and an Elvis Presley impersonation (which is something I would really love to have seen!) Though still far from a household name, he's now graduated onto larger concert halls, toured all over America, Europe, Scandinavia, Australia and Japan, is romantically linked with Rickie Lee Jones (her 'Chuck E's In Love' refers to Chuck E. Weiss, a close friend of Waits) and can even afford to pay someone 250 dollars a week on tour just so he can scream at them when he needs to work off his frustrations.

He also has the wherewithal to rent his own little office in L.A.(3) where he can escape into solitude and fiddle around on a piano instead of having to scribble down new songs on hotel menu's or his shirt cuffs (a style of working that he coincidentally shares with Randy Newman, who is probably the only lyricist to match Waits in my book).

Those, then, are the facts - most else Waits keeps well hidden under his battered pork pie hat (which he claims to have bought of a passer-by's head in New York for fifteen dollars). What's for sure is that he has no great love of being interviewed (though he described it as being "better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick") and a fairly jaundiced view of his own chosen profession. "The important thing is to continue to challenge yourself", he concluded. "Cos I think that I would rather be a failure on my own terms than a success on somebody else's. This industry has a tendency to chew you up and spit you out - today's heroes are tomorrow's service station attendants. "Most of the time the dream is sweeter than the taste."(4)


(1) Lucky Streak: This next album wouldn't turn out as planned. This is Waits at the low point of his life. Within a couple of months he would move to New York and break up with Rickie Lee Jones. In 1980 he would be approached by Francis Ford Coppola for working on the score for "One From The Heart". The next album was "Heartattack And Vine" released September 1980.

(2) I heard a songwriter in a club: One is to believe this songwriter was Jack Tempchin, but in other interviews Waits also mentioned other artists.
- Tom Waits (1973): "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." (Source: Folkscene 1973, with Howard and Roz Larman (KPFK-FM 90.7), Los Angeles/ USA. August 12, 1973)

(3) His own little office in L.A.: this is not the Zoetrope office Waits would use for composing the One From The Heart score, as Waits and Coppola hadn't met yet. One is to believe Waits had indeed rented an office to escape the hectic Tropicana and it's exotic guests.

(4) Most of the time the dream is sweeter than the taste: here Waits is probably referring to the project he was working on with Paul Hampton to be called "Why Is The Dream Always So Much Sweeter Than The Taste?"