Title: Tom Waits "Big Time"
Source: Big Time press kit. Thanks to Kevin Molony for donating scans
Date: September, 1988
Key words: Big Time, Musical transition, Kathleen, Chris Blum


Tom Waits "Big Time"


Island Records Inc.
14 East Fourth Street New York
New York 10012
Phone: 212-995-7800
Telex: 710-581-5293
Fax: 212-477-5918


About the Production

Big Time, an Island Visual Arts presentation of a Vivid productions film starring Tom Waits, is more than just another concert film. In the hands of singer-songwriter-actor-raconteur-student of life Waits and director Chris Blum, Big Time is musicotheatrical experience played in dream time, or in Wait's words, "Un Operachi Romantico."

Big Time, filmed in November 1987 at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco and the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles, crackles with the same vivacity and curve-ball humor that has animated Tom Waits' work throughout his 15-year career, Waits' uncommon streetcorner serenades and subway balladry, full of poignant and wildly funny observations about life on the sidetracks of America, have won passionate acclaim from international critics and fans, who have heard a unique lyrical voice an the 11 albums he has released so far.

Waits has enjoyed the greatest accolades of his career for the three startling original albums he has made for Island Records from which 20 of the 21 songs heard in "Big Time" are taken. Beginning with Sworfishtrombones (1983) and continuing through Rain Dogs(1985) and Franks Wild Years (1987), he funneled his own distinctive vision through a musical montage that incorporated a diverse catalogue of stylistic influences and utilized a spectacular array of unexpected instrumentation. One hears the echoes of avant-garde American composer Harry Partch, blues man Howlin' Wolf, Frank Sinatra, Argentinian tango master Astor Piazzolla, Irish tenor John McGormack, Kurt Weill, wild man Louis Prima, Mexican norteno bands, and a martini tumbler of Vegas lounge singers.

Explaining the exotic flowering of his music, Waits says, "I was trying to get my music to be more like what goes on inside my head. For a long time I wrote in a very restricted world. I gave myself limited tools to work with. It got to a point where my life and what was really going on in my head what I was really hearing, was very different from what I was writing.

"You get to an impasse with your work and you have to do something about it," he continues. "You can't go forward and you can't go back, and sometimes you fell like you have to break all your vertebrae and then reset 'em. That's what I tried to do, a little bit at a time. It's a nose job."

"Franks Wild Years," the most breathtakingly radical and brilliantly melodic of Waits' Island recordings, began like as the score of a theatrical production of the same name. Inspired by a track on Swordfishtrombones and written by Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan, the play was mounted by Chicago's noted Steppenwolf Theatre Company in the summer of 1986. Waits himself played the title role for its entire sold-out run.

On the eve of the release of the Franks Wild Years album, Waits was already making plans for a film that would incorporate footage captured on his 1987 tour, which ultimately proved to be a 3-month road stint that played to 12 US cities and many European capital, to packed houses and stunning reviews. According to Waits, it was his wife who provided much of the impetus for the feature.

"Kathleen was the only one who really pushed to have a film done, "Waits says, "I'd get home from the road, and I wouldn't have any pictures of the band or anything. We'd talk about it like something that didn't really happen. It was the first that we pursued pulling it together."

Chris Blum, Waits' friend and collaborator, was selected to direct the feature. Blum is a well-known creative director for television commercials; he has supervised the TV spots for Levi Strauss for 17 years(1), and during that time he helped develop the company's memorable campaign for 501 Jeans. His documentary on the training of athletes for the 1984 Olympics, "Dreams Of Gold," he ran as a three-part cable series. His work with Waits included spots for Franks Wild Years, a music video for the song "Blow Wind Blow"(2)from the latter album, and a 12-minute interview piece prepared for European Television. Blum also served as the scenic designer for the Chicago stage production of Franks Wild Years.

Blum became involved with the production of Big Time early in the project's development. Like Blum, four of the five musicians in Waits' 1987 touring band were old associates, who had performed with the singer on his 1985 Rain Dogs tour. Bassist Greg Cohen has played with Waits for the last nine years; he was the musical director on Steppenwolf's production of Franks Wild Years, Saxophonist Ralph Carney, who also appeared on Waits' last two albums, was formerly a member of two seminal Midwestern new wave bands - Cleveland's Tim Huey and Akron's The Waitresses - and has also recorded with the B-52's, in addition to leading his own New York based groups. Guitarist Marc Ribot (of the New York punk-jazz band the Lounge Lizards) and drummer Michael Blair (featured percussionist on the '85 tour) also played on Rain Dogs and the Franks Wild Years LP. The sole newcomer to the tour band was accordionist Willie Schwarz, a Chicago based musician.

Before tour rehearsals began, Waits, Brennan, and Blum engaged in In-depth discussions about the stage set, which would have to be adaptable to filmic uses.

"The original stage set started out as a junkyard," Blum, explains. "We had an idea for these huge plexiglass signs, like the ones you see in L.A.'s Koreatown - back lit, primary colored." Eventually Waits and lighting designer Darryl Palagi simplified the concept to the light boxes seen in the film.

"We designed everything else around the light boxes - it's like having an elephant In the middle of the room. Each band member in the film was assigned one. Even though they're supplemented by other sources, we wanted to give the impression that they were the only light sources. Then we developed the red-and-black checked floor."

"The attempt was always to have things look non-art-directed," Blum concludes. "It took on a Count Basie-art-deco-Copacabana kind of look, in the end."

"The hitch about concert films is that they just are not live," says Blum. "I always use the analogy of standing next to a little babbling brook or a river or a creek, and then taking a picture of it and looking at it. It just is not the same. I had to take the show and put it in a dice box and throw it out. I had to get past the problem of that river - turbocharge it, some drive, some of the essence of the stage show."

Waits also realized the problem intrinsic to translating a live concert experience into a motion picture: "You want a concert film to have something other than just concert footage, but at the same time, it is that kind of animal. So Chris weaves in a subplot about a guy working in a theatre - the usher, the ticket taker, the fella in the booth - who falls asleep and dreams about show business." Blum says, "In his own slightly warped mind, he's hit the big time."

The thematic and pictorial elements that give Big Time its unique mood have as their inspiration the stage and album versions of Franks Wild Years. The plots of both works hinge on dreams of show business success conjured up by the lead character. "Innocent When You Dream," the signature song of the record and play (and the last number in the film) highlights the longing and pathos of small-town dreamers.

Big Time throws Tom Waits' skills as a mime, actor, storyteller, and verbal sleight-of-band artist into startling relief. In round-robin fashion, the viewer meets an ever-shifting rogue's gallery: the brimstone-spouting preacher beating the Devil "Down In the Hole;" the wisecracking guy who drives his piano like a truck through the film; the smarmy white-jacketed lounge entertainer taking a nightmarish journey "Straight to the Top;" the silk-robed theatrical jack-of-all trades whose reveries shape the action of the film; and a masterly singer who may or, in the context of the film's dreamy logic, may not be Tom Waits himself.

As Blum says, "With Tom, there is a combination of so many styles - there's vaudeville, burlesque, minstrel man, lounge performer, soulful balladeer, there's some mime, there is even some kabuki."

During post production, the film makers added a few starling audio effects. In the finished picture, the stamping of Waits' boots on the Warfield's wooden floors becomes a gunshot, the beating on a basement pipe becomes a metal ricochet. Blum notes that these bizarre embellishments are merely an embroidery on Tom Waits' out-of-the-ordinary approach to music: "Tom uses musical instrumentation as sound effects. He sometimes uses sound effects as music."

The extraordinary music from Big Time is now and Island records album, produced by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan and engineered by Biff Dawes, who helped create some of the unique recording techniques heard on Swordfishtrombones and Franks Wild Years.

There are two previously unreleased songs: "Falling Down" and "Strange Weather." Waits is known for his diversity of interpretation of his own songs from night to night. Therefore, some alternative versions of songs in the film appear on the album. In addition, there are some songs on the album that do not appear in the film ("Falling Down" and "Red Shoes").

With imagination and energy, the creators of Big Time have shaped a vital and ethereal feature film of striking originality - one that richly fulfills Tom Waits' objective: "to take a show and give it some dream life."

About Tom Waits

Waits began his writing and performing career when he was still a Los Angeles teenager. Living in a car and eking out a paycheck as the doorman at a local night spot, he soon traded in life in the back seat for his long-standing and fabled residency at the Tropicana Hotel(3), the hospitably seedy Santa Monica Blvd. haven for itinerant musicians that was lamentably razed in 1987. At the Trop', Waits began crafting his pungent and melodic early work, which grafted the energetic word-jazz lyricism of Kerouac and Ken Nordine to bluesy musical hues that reflected the deep influence of jazz artists and popular songwriters of the pre-World War II era.

Waits' first album. "Closing Time," created a small stir on its release in 1973 with its elegantly shaped melodies and touching and resonant depiction of life beyond midnight in the barrooms and back alleys of the American underlife.

The Heart Of Saturday Night (1974), the first of six albums produced by Bones Howe, found Waits' talents and voice both deepening; the nicotine-stained rasp that became the singer's expressive and unmistakable trademark was coming into its own. The 1975 two-record set Night Hawks at the Diner, recorded live at the record Plant in LA, remains the definite showcase for Waits' mesmeric talents as a live performer, as he delights his audience with his imitable blend of song, story-spinning, and street-level philosophizing.

Four more albums release by Elektra and Asylum charted Waits' burgeoning talents as the poet laureate of street life - Small Change (1976), Foreign Affairs (1977), Blue Valentine (1978), and Heartattack and Vine (1980). His albums and tours earned him the devotion of an international following, and his unmistakable style inspired many young artists.

In 1979, Waits' vivid presence came to the screen for the first time, when he landed a supporting role in Sylvester Stallone's Paradise Alley. Waits subsequently began a fruitful association with Oscar-winning director Francis Coppola; he appeared as an actor in The OutsidersRumblefish and The Cotton Club, and composed and sang the Academy Award-nominated score for Coppola's 1982 musical romance One From The Heart.

In 1983, Waits was signed to Island Records, which released Swordfishtrombones, the first of his triptych of lyrically surreal and musically exploratory breakthrough recordings. Rain Dogs and Franks Wild Years, which were universally viewed by critics as two of the most vital and electrifying records of the 80's, further established Waits as one of the era's most distinguished singer-songwriters.

The stage production of Franks Wild Years was co-written by Waits and Kathleen Brennan and directed by Gary Sinise(4) for Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 1986.

Waits is increasingly in demand as a film actor. he received outstanding notices in 1986 for his performance in Jim Jarmusch's deadpan comedy Down By Law. In 1987, Hector Babenco cast him as the ill-fated hobo, Rudy, opposite Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep in the screen version of William Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize winning novel Ironweed. 1988 saw the release of famed photographer-director Robert Frank's Candy Mountain, in which Waits had a featured role.

Upon the completion of post-production work on Big Time, Waits left for Montana to play a starring role in director Robert Dornhelm's comedy Cold Feet(5). Waits says that the title of the new film by the director of Echo Park refers to anxiety over marriage, and also what happens to you after you're dead."

September, 1988


(1) TV spots for Levi Strauss for 17 years: In 1993 Waits would take legal action against Levi Straus & Co. for them using a version of "Heart Attack and Vine" by Screamin' Jay Hawkins for a TV-commercial (called "Procession"). Further reading: Copyright

(2) Music video for the song "Blow Wind Blow": Blow Wind Blow (1987) TW: musical performer/ actor. Music video promoting: "Blow, Wind Blow" (Island, ca. August, 1987). With Val Diamond. Directed by Chris Blum. Shot at The Chi Chi Club run by former "exotic dancer" Miss Keiko, on 438 Broadway in San Francisco.
- Tom Waits (1987): "Kathleen and I put together the ideas for it. It was done up there at the Chi Chi Club ... in [San Francisco's] North Beach. Miss Kieko's Chi Chi Club right there on Broadway next to Big Al's. I worked with a girl named Val Diamond, who played a doll. She drew eyeballs on the outside of her eyelids and wore a Spanish dress and I unscrewed one of her legs and pulled a bottle out of it. It's got some entertainment value." (Source: "Morning Becomes Eclectic": KCRW-FM, Deirdre O' Donohue. August, 1987). Further reading: Filmography

(3) His long-standing and fabled residency at the Tropicana Hotel: Further reading: Tropicana Motel.

(4) Directed by Gary Sinise: Jay S. Jacobs (2000): "Terry Kinney was set to direct Frank's Wild Years, but just a few weeks before it was scheduled to open, Kinney resigned (or was fired) over creative differences with Waits. Steppenwolf's head was actor Gary Sinise (who would later win an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in Forrest Gump and turn in strong performances in Apollo 13, Mission to Mars, Ransom, and Of Mice and Men). Sinise stepped into the breach and became Frank's director. There was some talk of retooling the production - building new stage sets - but by this point both time and money were in short supply. Waits remained calm. He told O' Donohue he felt that such turmoil was "normal. Sometimes the spark comes from a conflict of ideas. It's just wood and lights and people walking around until you somehow bang up against something, and something breaks, and something sparks, and something catches and then it has a life. Until then it's just on the page." The cast included Steppenwolf regulars Gary Cole, Moira Harris, Vince Viverito, Randall Arney, and Tom Irwin. Waits's touring band played Frank's band, and Teller (of Penn and Teller) worked up some magic tricks for Frank to perform. Frank, of course, was played by his creator, and Waits carried the production solidly on his shoulders. But the play remained in a state of flux; they tinkered with it constantly, even during its run. The reviews were decent, but there were no raves. Frank's Wild Years played Chicago's Briar Street Theater for three months." (Source: "Wild Years: The Music and Myth of Tom Waits. Jay. S. Jacobs, 2000). Further reading: Franks Wild Years

(5) Cold Feet: Cold Feet (1989) Movie directed by Robert Dornhelm. TW: actor. Plays Kenny the hitman. Further reading: Filmography