Title: Tom Waits, Artist Choice
Source: Hear Music Artist's Choice(5). Transcription as published on HearMusic
Date: October, 1999
Key words: Musical favourites, Kathleen, Francis Ford Coppola, Raul Julia, Rolling Stones, John Lurie, Lomax


Tom Waits, Artist Choice


A poet's heart on a Saturday night
"The thing is, if you're driving across Texas, you're gonna want a lot of music." Tom Waits sat in the corner booth of a truck stop cafe. Our waitress, Vida, stretched across a box of records that were sprawled across the table and poured another round of coffee. "You don't want just one record." Just in case, he had brought about 300 along: CD's, old LP's, a cassette entitled 'Fascinating Sounds of The Animal World'.("You can't go wrong!") Over a three hour breakfast, we found out not only which records to drive to, but which records make him unable to drive (Ike & Tina Turner and Big Maybelle: "It's like a mixed drink"), which is like drinking a fifth of rum, and a whole lot more.

Writing with Kathleen
Writing with Kathleen is great, because with her - "the way you do anything is the way you do everything... the way you paint a fence, the way you hammer a nail, the way you drive to work, you know? So we have a good way of working together. It's telepathic and compatible, it's pugulistic, it's fascinating. She's a great collaborator."

Driving across Texas (Various artists: The Texas, Czech, Bohemian & Moravian bands 1929-1959)
"I love these Czech-Bavarian bands that landed in Texas of all places. The seminal river for mariachi came from that migration to that part of the United States, bringing the accordion over, just like the drum and fife music of post-slavery, they picked up the revolutionary war instruments and played blues on them. There's a piece called the "Circling Pigeons Waltz," it's the most beautiful thing -- kind of sour, like a wheel about to go off the road all the time. It's the most lilting little waltz.

'Nessun Dorma' on a jukebox (Various artists: Aria - A Passion For Opera)
"I heard "Nessun Dorma" in the kitchen at Coppola's with Raul Julia(1) one night, and it changed my life, that particular Aria. I had never heard it. He asked me if I had ever heard it, and I said no, and he was like, as if I said I've never had spaghetti and meatballs-`Oh My God, O My God!' and he grabbed me and he brought me to the jukebox (there was a jukebox in the kitchen) and he put that on and he just kind of left me there. It was like giving a cigar to a 5 year old. I turned blue, and I cried."

'The altar of Ray' (Ray Charles: Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music)
"I knelt at the altar of Ray Charles for years. I worked at a restaurant(2), and that's all there was on the jukebox, practically, that and some Patsy Cline. "Crying Time", "Can't Stop Loving You", "Let's Go Get Stoned", "You Are My Sunshine", "What'd I Say", "Hit The Road, Jack." I worked on Saturday nights and I would take my break and I'd sit by the jukebox and I'd play my Ray Charles. His piano playing. He would kind of skate across country and sound like Floyd Kramer some times on the piano and he brought that in there with the Jelly Roll Morton and he could play like Nat King Cole. It was just amazing what he absorbed and that voice, for years it was just "the Genius of Ray Charles ." I also love a record called "Listen." He did "Yesterday" on electric piano and it just killed me, to hear that voice, it was like he crossed over a bridge, because he remained in R&B territory, yet there was something so timeless about his voice, and hearing him do a Beatles song was just indescribable."

'Long may his records rant' (Bill Hicks: Rant In E-Minor))
"Bill Hicks, blowtorch, excavator, truthsayer and brain specialist, like a reverend waving a gun around. Pay attention to Rant in E Minor, it is a major work, as important as Lenny Bruce's. He will correct your vision. His life was cut short by cancer, though he did leave his tools here. Others will drive on the road he built. Long may his records rant even though he can't."

'A planet to be explored' (Bob Dylan and The Band: The Basement Tapes)
"With Bob Dylan, so much has been said about him, it's difficult so say anything about him that hasn't already been said, and say it better. Suffice it to say Dylan is a planet to be explored. For a songwriter, Dylan is as essential as a hammer and nails and a saw are to a carpenter. I like my music and the rinds and the seeds and pulp left in, so the bootlegs I obtained in the '60s and '70s are where the noise and grit of the tapes became inseparable from the music, are essential to me. His journey as a songwriter is the stuff of myth, because he lives within the ether of the songs. Hail, hail The Basement Tapes. I heard most of these songs on bootlegs first. There is a joy and an abandon to this record, it's also a history lesson."

'The roughest diamond' (Captain Beefheart & his Magic Band: Trout Mask Replica)
"The roughest diamond in the mine, his musical inventions are made of bone and mud. Enter the strange matrix of his mind and loose yours. This is indispensable for the serious listener. An expedition into the center of the earth, this is the high jump record that'll never be beat, it's a merlot reduction sauce. He takes da bait. Dante doing the buck and wing at a Skip James suku jump, an underground serist. Drink once and thirst no more.

'A shipwrecked Aznavour' (Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man)
"Euro, Klezmer, Chansons, Apocalyptic, Revelations, with that mellifluous voice. A shipwrecked Aznavour, washed up on shore. Important songs, meditative, authoritative, and Leonard is a poet, an Extra Large one."

'Seasick and sacrilegious' (The Pogues: Rum Sodomy & The Lash)
"Sometimes when things are real flat, you want to hear something flat, other times you just want to project onto it, something more like .. you might want to hear the Pogues. Because they love the west. They love all those old movies. The thing about Ireland, the idea that you can get into a car and point it towards California and drive it for the next five days is like Euphoria, because in Ireland you just keep going around in circles, those tiny little roads. You never get that feeling ta ta ta tum, da ta ta da ta TUM! "Dirty Old Town", "The Old Main Drag." Shane has the gift. I believe him. He knows how to tell a story. They are a roaring, stumbling band. These are the Dead End kids for real. Shane's voice conveys so much. They play like soldiers on leave. The songs are epic. It's whimsical and blasphemous, seasick and sacriligeous, wear it out and then get another one."

Dusty road record (Houndog: Houndog)
"Houndog, the David Hidalgo record he did with Mike, now that's a good record to listen to when you drive through Texas. That's a great record. I can't get enough of that. Anything by Latin Playboys, anything by Los Lobos. They are like a fountain. Colossal Head killed me. Those guys are so wild, and they've gotten so cubist. They've become like Picasso. They've gone from being purely ethnic and classical, to this strange, indescribable item that they are now. They're worthwhile to listen to under any circumstances. But the sound he got on Houndog, on the electric violin. The whole record is a dusty road, Hidalgo plays through stabbed amps and Mike and he find the Brown sound. Dark and burnished and mostly unfurnished. Superb texture and reverb. Lo-fi at its highest level. Songs of depth and atmosphere."

'Never go fishing' (The Lounge Lizards: The Lounge Lizards)
"They used to accuse John Lurie of doing fake jazz, - a lot of posture, a lot of volume. When I first heard it, it was so loud, I wanted to go outside and listen through the door, and it was jazz. And that was an unusual thing in New York, to go to a club and hear jazz that loud, at the same volume people were listening to punk rock. Get the first record, The Lounge Lizards. You know, John's one of those people, if you walk into a field with him, he'll pick up an old pipe and start to play it, and get a really good sound out of it. He's very musical, works with the best musicians, but never go fishing with him(3). He's a great arranger and composer with an odd sense of humor."

'Tree of life' (The Rolling Stones: Exile On Main St.)
"I Just Want To See His Face." That song had a big impact on me, particularly learning how to sing in that high falsetto, the way Jagger does. When he sings like a girl, I go crazy. I said, `I've got to learn how to do that.' I couldn't really do it until I stopped smoking. That's when it started getting easier to do. "Shore Leave" has that, "All Stripped Down", "Temptation." Nobody does it like Mick Jagger; nobody does it like Prince. But this is just a tree of life. This record is the watering hole. Keith Richards plays his ass off. This has the Checkerboard Lounge all over it.

'Her own woman' (Sam Phillips: Martini's & Bikini's)
"Peculiar, innovative, soulful, and reasonably undiscovered, with a deeply expressive voice and challenging, unusual topics for songs. Kurt Weill with a revolver. Her cracked vocals and surreal lyrics make for an odd and familiar ride. She, her face yellow and her hair red. T-Bone gives her a third eye and together they make tough records. She's Dusty Springfield via Marianne Faithfull with a dash of Jackie DeShannon, but very much her own woman."

'Bless Keith' (Wingless Angels: Wingless Angels)
"Bless Keith for this record. The first thing you hear is crickets. You're outside, in Jamaica, it's July, he left all the patter in. That was a magic album. The mics were so far away, you got texture and air around everything, felt like it was recorded outside in the dirt at night. You always hear bands playing in tin shacks ten miles away, and it sounds close because they are so freaking loud. You couldn't go in the shack and listen, you have to be ten miles away. Keith went out to the meadow of this. It is pulsing music of the earth, full of joy."

'Rogue academic' (Harry Partch: The Harry Partch Collection: Volume 1)
"The new CDs have been reissued and the sound is excellent. These are an excellent introduction to his whole oeuvre. Start with 'Volume One' and you're infected. He'd worked as a migrant worker and had been on the road for half his life, and he was one of those rogue academics who worked outside the matrix. So they feared him and pretended to admire him. Like most innovators, he become gravel on the road that most people drive on. So he was the first one through the door and he gets trampled by the crowd. But nobody has done anything like that since. The idea of designing your own instruments, playing them and then designing your own scale, your own system of music. That's dramatic and particularly for the time that he was doing it. It was rather subversive. It's always fascinating to hear something being played that doesn't sound polished or evolved as an instrument. It still sounds a little bit like you're hitting tractor parts or dumpster door. Or you're still in the kitchen, to an extent. The music has that extra texture to it. And then of course he's very sophisticated and well versed in mythology so it's got that other side to it."

'A bold iconoclast' (Thelonious Monk: Solo Monk)
"Monk said "There is no wrong note, it has to do with how you resolve it." He almost sounded like a kid taking piano lessons.. I could relate to that when I first started playing the piano, because he was decomposing the music while he was playing it. It was like demystifying the sound, because there is a certain veneer to jazz and to any music, after a while it gets traffic rules, and the music takes a backseat to the rules. It's like aerial photography, telling you that this is how we do it. That happens in folk music too. Try playing with a bluegrass group and introducing new ideas. Forget about it. They look at like you're a communist. On Solo Monk, he appears to be composing as he plays, extending intervals, voicing chords with impossible clusters of notes. "I Should Care" kills me, communion wine with a twist. Stride, church, jump rope, Bartok, melodies scratched into the plaster with a knife. A bold iconoclast. Solo Monk lets you not only see these melodies without clothes, but without skin. This is astronaut music from Bedlam."

'The Rosetta Stone' (Lead Belly: Lead Belly's Last Sessions)
"Leadbelly was a river, was a tree. His 12-string guitar rang like a piano in a church basement. The Rosetta stone for much of what was to follow, he died in '49. Excellent to listen to when driving across Texas. Contains all that is necessary to sustain life, a true force of nature. He died the day before I was born - I like to think I passed him in the hall and he banged into me and knocked me over."

Sinking impression (Gavin Bryars: The Sinking Of The Titanic)
"This is difficult to find, have you heard this? It's a musical impression of the sinking of the Titanic. You hear a small chamber orchestra playing in the background, and then slowly it starts to go under water, while they play. It also has "Jesus Blood" on it. I did a version of that with him(4). I heard this on my wife's birthday, at about 2:00 in the morning in the kitchen, and I taped it. For a long time I just had a little crummy cassette of this song, didn't know where it came from, it was on one of those Pacifica radio stations where you can play anything you want. This is really an interesting evening's music."

'The hair in the gate' (Various artists: Prison songs Vol. 2, Don'tcha Hear Poor Mother Calling?)
"Without spirituals and the Baptist church and the whole African-American experience in this country, I don't know what we would consider music, I don't know what we'd all be drinking from. It's in the water. The impact the whole black experience continues to have on all musicians is immeasurable. Lomax recorded everything. From the sounds of the junkyard, or he would go into a market and just record the cash register - disappearing machinery that we would no longer be hearing. You know, one thing that doesn't change is the sound of kids getting out of school. Record that in 1921, record that in 1999, it's the same sound. The good thing about these is that they're so raw, they're recorded so raw, that it's just like listening to a landscape. It's like listening to a big open field. You hear other things in the background. You hear people talking while they are singing. It's the hair in the gate."


(1) At Coppolas with Raul Julia: "Nessum dorma," from Puccini's 'Turandot':
- Tom Waits (1983): "Coppola is one of the most interesting people I have ever met. He's very obsessed and has a great sense of family and loyalty, but his real mistress is film, images and drama. He's the first one who ever interested me in opera, something I never dreamed of ever being interested in. He played me a Puccini aria called 'Nessun Dorma' and it just undressed me, I became unwrapped." (Source: "Swordfish Out of Water: Tom Waits" Sounds magazine by Edwin Pouncey. November 15, 1983)

(2) I worked at a restaurant: further reading: Napoleone Pizza House

(3) Never go fishing with him: refers to the hilarious sequal of "Fishing with John" (1998) where Waits gets seasick during a fishing trip and has to throw up. Fishing With John: John Lurie TV series (Bravo, 1992?). Stars as himself on a fishing trip with John Lurie. TW: actor, musical performer. Improvises: "River of Men" & "World Of Adventure"
- Tom Waits (1999): "John's an unusual guy. Met him in New York around the time of Rain Dogs. I did [Fishing] because of John. But once I got down there, I wanted to kill him. He knows this. It was pretty pathetic. A fishing show. High concept - the idea is that it doesn't matter if we catch anything, which is the whole idea of fishing, anyway, getting out in the woods and being together. Just an excuse to hold something in your hand and look off into the distance and talk about life. We caught nothing, which is embarrassing. It got to the point where we bought fish from fishermen in a passing boat, which was humiliating. And I got seasick and sunstroke -- I was an unhappy guy for most of it." (Source: "The Man Who Howled Wolf" Magnet magazine, by Jonathan Valania. Date: Astro Motel/ Mission Cafe, Santa Rosa. June-July, 1999)

(4) I did a version of that with him: Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet. Gavin Bryars, 1993 Label: Point Music (Point Music 438-823-2). TW contribution: "Tramp And Tom Waits With Full Orchestra" & "Coda: Tom Waits With High Strings"

(5) Similar articles printed in: "Guest Edit: Tom Waits" (Amazon.co.uk (UK). October 4, 2004), "It's Perfect Madness" (The Observer (UK). March 20, 2005).