Title: Tom Waits, All-Purpose Troubadour
Source: The New York Times (USA) by Robert Palmer. Photography by Ed Kashi. Transcription by Juanita Benedicto, as sent to Rain Dogs Listserv Discussionlist, May 8, 2001. Also published as "Meet The Real Tom Waits, All Of Them", International Herald Tribune. November 16, 1993
Date: Limbo Lounge/ San Francisco, November 14, 1993
Key words: The Black Rider, Harry's Harbor Bazaar, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Public image, Acting, Robert Wilson, Theatre, William Burroughs, Bone Machine, Religion
Accompanying picture
Also published in International Herald Tribune, November 16, 1993. Credits: photography by Ed Kashi


 

Tom Waits, All-Purpose Troubadour

 

Tom Waits is sitting in Limbo, dreaming of Harry's Harbor Bazaar(1).

Limbo is a Mexican cafe in downtown San Francisco; Harry's Harbor Bazaar is in Hamburg, Germany, where the singer/ songwriter/ actor/ composer collaborated with the director Robert Wilson and the author William S. Burroughs on "The Black Rider," a dark Teutonic fairy tale of a pop opera that will have its American premiere(2) on Saturday as part of the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Mr. Waits, who is almost 44, looks remarkably fit for a fellow who was recently seen portraying a weathered alcoholic limousine driver in Robert Altman's new film "Short Cuts," and before that chewing bugs in Francis Ford Coppola's "Dracula." In his porkpie hat, black leather jacket, white T-shirt, tattoos and motorcycle boots, he looks exactly like Tom Waits, the Troubadour whose mid-70's albums, "The Heart of Saturday Night," "Nighthawks at the Diner" and "Small Change," celebrated a fugitive roadside America of short-order waitresses, beatniks and barflies, and established him as one of pop music's most distinctive voices.

Since then, Mr. Waits has grown as an artist, not only musically but as an actor and a composer for theater and film. Hamburg and the traditional German folk tale that provided the starting point for "The Black Rider" seem worlds away in space and time from the Kerouacian epiphanies of Mr. Waits's early work. But perhaps not; once he found Harry's Harbor Bazaar on the Hamburg waterfront, Mr. Waits felt right at home.

"It's a crude little junk shop," he says approvingly; "crude" is a positive word in Mr. Waits's vocabulary. "Sailors from all over the world, when they land in Hamburg, that's where they sell their $2 guitars, stuffed snakes, zebra jackets. It's a real swampy place. You can buy insects from everywhere, under glass, in little boxes; elephant beetles the size of a child's shoe. It's all mildewed in there, full of weird musical instruments, half-decomposed baby giraffes stuffed with straw. They even had a shrunken head you could look at for, like, two marks. They advertise the shrunken head in the window; that's what brings 'em in. Harry's rarely there; if he is, all the prices are doubled."

Mr. Waits's eye for the specific image and the telling detail served him well on "The Continued on Page 10 Black Rider," the variation on "Der Freischutz" ("The Free-Shooter"), the 1821 opera that Carl Maria von Weber also based on the folk tale. Weber made the ending happy, but the Wilson-Burroughs-Waits version more closely follows the original. Imbued with a "Cabaret"-like carnival ambiance, with many of the actors in white face, dark eye makeup and somber 19th-century costumes, "The Black Rider" tells the story of Wilhelm, a clerk. To win Katchen, a forester's daughter, he makes a pact with the Devil to learn how to shoot -- with disastrous consequences. The nearly $1 million production, performed through Dec. 1 in the BAM Opera House, employs subtitles for the German sections of the text.

"The Black Rider" had its world premiere at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg in March 1990. And thus, inevitably, Harry's Harbor Bazaar found its way into Mr. Waits's opening song, "Lucky Day (Overture),"(3) which also kicks off his new album. In the stage production, the actors sing Mr. Waits's songs; on "The Black Rider" (Island), he sings them himself, with a memorable guest vocal by Mr. Burroughs on the opera's one non-original number, a period piece called " 'Tain't No Sin" (" . . . to take off your skin/ And dance around in your bones . . . ").

The album also includes some of the instrumental music Mr. Waits wrote for the show with the help of his arranger, Greg Cohen, music that is by turns gloomily nocturnal and nightmarishly lively, scored for banjo, bass clarinet, cello, French horn and other instruments not generally heard in contemporary pop music. Strains of vaudeville, rock, waltz and cabaret weave in and out with a hurdy-gurdy regularity.

This is not such a dramatic departure for Mr. Waits. Ever since his film score for Mr. Coppola's "One From the Heart" (1982) and his own ground-breaking album "Swordfishtrombones" (1983), he has been resolutely broadening his musical palette, gravitating toward odd instruments (including a wheezing old proto-synthesizer called the chamberlain and a percussive sound sculpture known as the conundrum) and sonic textures.

His score for the director Jim Jarmusch's film "Night on Earth" (1991) used some of the same instrumentalists and comparable, if somewhat brighter, sonic shadings. Several of the songs on his 1992 album "Bone Machine" were recorded in a shed and feature a group of musicians and friends, including his wife, Kathleen Brennan, beating on wood and metal with sticks.

The music on "Bone Machine," which won a Grammy as best alternative album of 1992, is more intimate than "The Black Rider" but no less bracing or challenging. With these recordings, Mr. Waits, who hasn't performed in concert since the shows captured on his live album "Big Time" (1988), has been creating a music that is beyond category -- and beyond the scope of the character he portrayed in his early performances, the hard-drinking, gruff-voiced chronicler of bleak rooming house days and road-weary nights. Or was it a character?

Will the real Tom Waits please stand up?

Thomas Alan Waits was born in Pomona, Calif., the son of schoolteachers. His father was from Texas and was named Jesse Frank Waits, after the outlaws and folk heroes Jesse and Frank James. Though his parents divorced when he was 10 and his mother brought him up along with two sisters, Tom Waits was taken with his father's rambling ways and patterned his early stage persona partly on an idealized version of Jesse Frank.

"With my own character, I don't know, I just put together something," Mr. Waits says today, sitting at a corner table in Limbo over coffee and cigarettes. "I was trying for a little bit of Jesse Frank, a little bit of Cantinflas, a little bit of, I don't know, Crazy Guggenheim? But I found after a while that I was limiting myself. It was too much like I had my own TV show and it was the Red Skelton show; I was doing sketches. I got kind of tied up in my own creation; I wouldn't allow myself to spread out."

The turning point came in the early 80's, when Mr. Coppola gave Mr. Waits an office and a piano at his Zoetrope studios to work on the score for "One From the Heart." Mr. Waits found himself being highly productive, perhaps because of rather than despite the unaccustomed discipline. He hadn't just been chronicling the lives of the whisky-soaked down-and-outers who populated his songs, he was living that way. Writing a creative and widely praised film score gave him confidence in his work; so did meeting his future wife, who was working as a script editor at Zoetrope.

"My first record after we got married, 'Swordfishtrombones,' was also the first one I produced myself," he recalls. "She gave me the guts to just do it. Up to that point, I think I had created a character for myself and given him lines; I had a lot of fears concerning my own growth and development. She really helped me open up and not be afraid to do something." The characters began to stay in the songs, many of which are now Waits/ Brennan collaborations, and Mr. Waits began to apply his considerable acting talent to film work.

His extensive filmography extends back 15 years. His debut as a film actor was a bit part in "Paradise Alley" (1978), directed by Sylvester Stallone. After he had other small roles in "Wolfen" and "The Stone Boy," Mr. Coppola took an interest in him and cast him in "The Outsiders," "Rumble Fish" and "The Cotton Club." In 1987 he worked with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep in "Ironweed," but most of his fans single out his major part in Jim Jarmusch's "Down by Law" (1986) as his finest acting work so far. Of course, the character he portrays in that film, and in several others, rather closely resembles "Nighthawks at the Diner"-era Tom Waits. Nevertheless, the film critics have consistently given him good reviews -- better ones than he gives himself.

"I don't really consider myself an actor," he says matter-of-factly, reaching for another cigarette. "I do some acting. I've chosen to just identify myself as a creative person; I don't have the confidence I'd like to have as an actor at this point. But I've learned that the acting and the music and the other projects all serve each other. There's things you learn in one that you can bring with you to another.

"I learned a lot from working with Robert Wilson. He's an actor; every physical gesture, every movement onstage, he did it first. And he puts his actors through the wringer. When we were getting 'The Black Rider' together, I went onstage for an hour to stand in for somebody who was sick, and it was like, 'He's using these people like clay.' And this particular group of German actors were thrilled, they'd melt themselves down, pour themselves into any mold.

"By the end we were all transformed. I know the experience changed me. Things you planned turn out to be meaningless, and that which you accumulated without knowing it becomes your real treasure, your innocence, your confidence. I love that."

For his part, Mr. Wilson said from Paris, "Tom and I are very different men." His soft, measured tones contrast markedly with Mr. Waits's voluble hipster cadences and gravelly speaking voice -- reminiscent of his singing voice but not as emphatically gruff. "Tom and I dress differently, have different styles; I tend to be cooler, more formal. But nevertheless, I think we're emotionally tied somehow. "In my work, the emotion is sometimes hidden or buried," he continued, "and Tom's music has a very deep emotional center for me. I immediately liked it when I first heard it; I liked it very much. And Tom knows theater; it's in his blood. We can talk. I can ask him about how things look on the stage, and that really helps."

Mr. Waits teamed up again with Mr. Wilson on "Alice," another pop opera, based on "Alice in Wonderland" and the life of its creator, Lewis Carroll. It had its world premiere last December, also at the Thalia in Hamburg. Like "The Black Rider," he says, it is a true collaboration.

Despite their busy schedules, Mr. Wilson, Mr. Waits and Mr. Burroughs are not the kind of artists who like to work by phone and fax. "There's a real crude aspect to the way Wilson works," Mr. Waits says, again, admiringly. "It's kind of like you have entered some sort of dark Cape Canaveral. There's a long table in the dark, with a lot of papers and cups of coffee and wires and microphones and a few lights; you feel like you're in the Pentagon or something. Onstage there's a cleared space with black curtains, and he kinda starts with nothing, and so does everybody else.

"To go into that world, it's like going to sleep and then being able to communicate from that state. Sometimes Wilson can be like a tyrant, sometimes it's like he's 6 years old, but everyone is very open about bringing in anything they think could be part of the show. There's an innocence about the whole process."

"Innocence" is not a word one associates with William Burroughs, the perennially iconoclastic author of "Naked Lunch." Mr. Waits grew up reading Jack Kerouac and the other Beat writers, including Mr. Burroughs, the Beat godfather, but they hadn't met until they sat down in the novelist's home in Lawrence, Kan., to begin work on "The Black Rider." Mr. Burroughs still sounds enthusiastic about the collaboration.

"When Tom was here in Lawrence," he said recently by telephone, "and we were sketching out the basic structure of 'The Black Rider,' he had some very good ideas. I had the idea of comparing the magic bullet in the original German story to heroin. Once you use one, you'll use another. Tom said, 'Yeah, and the first one's always free,' and of course that went right in."(4)

Mr. Burroughs, Mr. Waits said, "was always the scary old man to me, and he was scary when I met him. But he let everyone be a part of his whole creative process." In Hamburg, Mr. Waits and Mr. Burroughs worked separately, at night, bringing their results to Mr. Wilson's rehearsals the next morning. "Because of the way we worked," Mr. Waits said, "the recordings naturally tended to be kind of crude, like work tapes, and I didn't realize at the time that a lot of these recordings would eventually be released. Which was great for me. I've always struggled with that; as soon as I think we're doing something for real, it just freezes me up. My favorite recordings tend to be those kind of uninhibited moments in music that had no idea that they were music.

"To me, everything is really music -- words are music, every sound is music, it all depends on how it's organized. In terms of an actor's choices, all behavior is fair game, so why isn't all sound considered music? I really like the physicality of music-making and the possibility of human error. As much as you rehearse and perform it, the music never really wants to stay the same. You can make it do that, but then what you've got to do is respect the moments when it escapes your control."

But the darkness, Tom, the darkness. Mr. Waits is happily married and lives in Sonoma County, Calif., with his wife and three young children, yet if he's exorcised the demons from his life, he hasn't exorcised them from his music. "Bone Machine" kicks off with "Earth Dies Screaming," a song as cheerful as its title, and touches on murder and madness; "The Black Rider" concerns death and deals with the Devil, exuding an almost biblical miasma of impending apocalypse. Darkness, darkness all around. "Well, if you're a songwriter, you spend a lot of time in motel rooms, and sooner or later you're going to pick up a Bible," Mr. Waits deadpans.

"Songs about death are really as old as death itself. Writing those songs can be kind of scary; you don't know if you're keeping death away or bringing it in. Songs are like oddball prayers sometimes, they can have great power. But I've always been prone to those things, those dark places, and I'm not afraid of writing songs about that. I don't know, there's always music at a funeral. What song would you want played at your funeral? It's something to think about."

How about "Louie Louie"? Mr. Waits takes time to consider the proposition. "Good as anything," he finally decides.

GRAPHIC: Photos: Tom Waits at the Limbo Lounge in San Francisco -- "Things you planned turn out to be meaningless, and that which you accumulated without knowing it becomes your real treasure." (Ed Kashi for The New York Times)(pg. 1); Lily Tomlin as a waitress and Tom Waits as a limo driver in Robert Altman's "Short Cuts." (Joyce Rudolph/Fine Line Features); Gerd Kunath, top, and Klaus Schreiber in "The Black Rider," a work by Robert Wilson, William S. Burroughs and Mr. Waits. (Monroe Warshaw)(pg. 10)

Notes:

(1) Harry's Harbor Bazaar: as mentioned in "Lucky Day Overture" (The Black Rider, 1993). Harry's Harbor Bizarre: "Harrys Hamburger Hafen Basar" formerly known as "Harry's Hafen Basar": An existing shop and meeting point in the Hamburg harbour area (Balduinstra´┐Że 18, nowadays Erichstrasse 56). This is a 5-minute walk from the St. Pauli district (Reeperbahn). Further reading (in German): Harry's Harbour Basar

(2) Its American premiere: Brooklyn Academy of Music (Next Wave Festival), New York City/ USA, Nov. 20 - Dec. 1, 1993 (Wilson production). Further reading: The Black Rider

(3) Opening song, "Lucky Day (Overture)": read lyrics: Lucky Day Overture

(4) And the first one's always free,' and of course that went right in.": read lyrics: Just The Right Bullets