Title: Tom Waits: Dancing In The Dark
Magazine front cover: photography by Danny Clinch
Tom Waits: Dancing In The Dark
By Tom Moon
Undisguised glee creeps into Tom Waits' voice when he talks about the instructional dance song he heard on the radio the other day. He can't quite believe he stumbled onto such a thing, a hip-hop station in 2004 playing what amounts to the bling generations Mashed Potato. It's Terror Squad, featuring Fat Joe, doing 'Lean Back', but in his telling, the song becomes a pearl in the order of "The Twist." "It was so wild, they're telling you how to do it. The only phrase I caught was "lean back," but you couldn't mistake it. I mean, I haven't had anybody tell me how to do a dance in a long, long time."
The wheels are turning because it just so happens that he, Tom Waits, has an instructional dance song on his new disc Real Gone. He's not going to delude himself, but the more he thinks about this the more he realizes that as a semi-obscure cult artist with limited commercial prospects, it's his duty to at least try to drum up business for the latest work - and his contribution to the storied dance-step genre, "Metropolitan Glide,"(1) a junkyard symphony of rattling skeletons, slurpy mouth percussion and urban-gangster fabulousness that harkens to a bygone era. No one will confuse it with "Lean Back." but still, he might just be on the front end of a trend. He says he's already placed calls to several executives at his label, alerting them about the Terror Squad track's prodigious airplay. "I said, honey, look into that. we gotta get on this station." he says in a tone that's death-letter serious and at the same time playfully self-mocking. "This could be the opening we need."
This unleashes a fantasy on the theme of Tom Waits having a hit. He's asked what might happen to him if "Metropolitan Glide" someday broke large. "You mean people from all over, Indiana to Hong Kong, out in the street doing the Metropolitan Glide? Poet laureate of America and all that? What would it do to me?" He pauses for a moment to contemplate such an oddity. "I'd get the truck fixed. Whatever came in on that net, we'd have to freeze. I'd have to get a freezer. I'm not 21, I've got most of the stuff I want."
Yet try as he might to dismiss it, "Lean Back" won't leave him alone. It appeals to his sense of continuum, his belief that everything old can be new again. It's fuel for his argument that there is something intrinsically valuable, if not noble, about going back and doing the grimy work of transformation. In the Waitsian view, it was only a matter of time before those dance-like-this songs stormed back onto the airwaves - either as a viable commercial endeavor like "Lean Back" or more of a nudge-wink commentary, as on "Metropolitan Glide." During an extended telephone interview from his home in Northern California, the 54-year-old singer occasionally refers to himself as "Recyclerman," or, less grandiosely, "Finderman," - the one to call when your car keys are lost in the couch. That's who he is in the studio: Waits' recordings proceed from the belief that any discarded spare-pan relic from the pop-culture heap can be found, dusted off and repurposed. That the drive-train from the old Rambler, long past its usefulness as a drivetrain, might just be the perfect authentic thing for some wood-grained restoration hardware contraption designed to look like a throw-back and glide ever so subversively, like a stealth bomber. Waits' musical repertoire/ architecture is made exclusively from cobbled parts, some unfrozen from as far back as Louis Armstrong and others lifted from the Fat Joe production trickbag. He gets a certain delight in hearing how the discontinuous pieces coexist, how the bigfoot hip-hop backbeats rub against vocal phrasings he's borrowed from a time when the blues was new.
But the dance steps - the ones he talks about and the ones he doesn't - are the secret killer underpinning most of the transfixing Real Gone. It's the first Waits effort since Rain Dogs to benefit from the input of guitarist Marc Ribot(2), and not coincidentally, is the most rhythmically intense offering since that 1985 benchmark. There are moments when the music herks and jerks with the customary Waitsian sadsack swagger, moments devoted to slow Afro-Cuban ritual processions and rock-steady grooves that won't let you sit still. The conventional reading divides Waits' ouvre into the broad categories "grand weepers" and "grim reapers," and while both exist on Real Gone, the latest iterations of both archetypes aren't cut precisely from the old molds - this time Waits evidently believes both can benefit from a goosing on the dancefloor.
Waits says that after the interior contemplations of his last project, the twin discs Alice and Blood Money(3), he wanted radical change. He avoided the piano entirely. At first he avoided even conventional instruments entirely. Seeking music that was less fussy, less European (though Real Gone does contain several parlor songs), with less instrumental elaboration, he began by returning to the organic mouth-percussion textures he'd experimented with in the late '80s. He wanted, he says, to fly on instinct, and so he assembled hundreds of rhythm ideas generated on the fly and worried about the songforms later. He began to relate everything to dance. His acid test for ideas: Did it make you dance?
"The only reason people dance is that they're supplying with their body the mining syncopated notes," Waits says. "You know, raise your elbow, throw your head back and kick the dirt. That's a pretty great thing. You almost can't talk about it. It's just natural to do."
What Waits was after wasn't the line-dancing perfection found on MTV or the Super Bowl halftime show. Instead, he wanted real dancing abandon. "What I mean is dancing like nobody's watching." Waits says. "I heard that from (comic) Dave Chappelle(4), and I can't stop thinking about it....Music right now is, you know people are going to be watching. Even when you make a record there are people watching what you do, and I'm not sure that self-consciousness helps anything. The other day my little boy (Sullivan, age 11, is the youngest of the three Waits - Kathleen Brennan kids) had a record on full blast, and he was dancing, totally in the moment. I saw him through a crack in the door. It was amazing how he believed in it. As soon as he knew I was there, he stopped. Turned off the music. Well that's really what you're trying to accomplish in the studio. My job is to locate that mood, enlarge it and then put everybody in the middle of it. You want them to dance like there's nobody watching. You want them to be talking in tongues."
Dancing while nobody's looking is not necessarily easy to capture on tape. It means suspending judgment, putting self-consciousness on the deep back burner. It takes a certain kind of person - someone with a highly developed ego and the ability to keep moving through what would be, for most people, embarrassing situations. It requires a bit of hustler chutzpah, and it is this last trait that Tom Waits has covered. He might not be the most ruthless operator, but inside him beats the heart of a sideshow huckster. His songs are full of schemes and scamming, of rigged games in shady parts of town and frauds unraveled before they can begin. His favorite characters are broken-down show people with one good eye and the obligatory heart of gold, who are endlessly willing to proclaim undying love for romantic interests described as "Horse-faced Ethel" and the like. His stories take place in the dusty open fields and backlots where the carnivals roll in and set up. He follows the road-rough types employed by small-time circuses, watches them doing their one sellable skill - sword-swallowing or the flying trapeze - and then follows them back into rat-ding trailers, where they medicate themselves with not-so-magic potions and face those nagging existential demons.
On Real Gone, there's an extended spoken-word reverie, "Circus,"(5) that Waits says came out in a daydream torrent. Running away with the circus, he says, was "a thing I used to think about in school.... I remember George Burns once said that after he saw some vaudeville show, he realized he wanted to get into show business as soon as possible. What is it about that? Some grand old tradition, I guess. Usually it's filled with people who are in some way fractured or bruised or chipping. It's the old irritation-in-the-oyster-making-the pearl."
What he likes about the circus is the show isn't simply what happens in the center ring. "You think you're going to the circus looking at the show people? They're looking at you. You're just an extra in their show that night. Your being there is twofold - to be entertained, and as background noise, part of the strange pattern of faces in the crowd."
That awareness, expressed in a strange megaphone vocal that tells of music sounding like 'electric sugar," gives "Circus" its poignancy, its energy. "Of course it's highly romantic the way I put it," Waits says, asked about his storytelling strategies. "It all has to do with what you leave in and what you leave out. There's an art to that, telling a story to make somebody split a gut... It's 'How do you take a picture of your driveway and make it look like the road of life?'"
He doesn't provide an answer. There is no answer. But this is one of Waits' special niche skills. "Usually people who do that don't know how to do other things. My wife, she can take apart the truck, spread the parts out on a blanket and put it back together with no parts left over. She's been a heavy equipment operator and a suicide hotline gal. She can fix the television set. So for everything you can do, there's something you can't do - otherwise, all of business collapses."
Leaving aside Waits' economic theories, there is a certain essential check-and-balance to his creative relationship with Kathleen Brennan, who has served as adviser, ear, lyricist and copilot. She'll clip stories she thinks he might have missed from the paper. She'll toss ideas out when he's stuck. He doesn't like to break down the "who does what," but will say that Brennan serves as his bullshit detector and sounding board.
"Having someone to check your work is a good thing," he says in a grudging grumble. "Just to be able to say, "Honey, is this crap?" Tell me. I think it's great, but I'm biased. I think everything I do should be for sale. But tell me am I full of it. That's what you do when you collaborate. The doing of it becomes richer, and hopefully the work becomes richer."
It's been that way long enough for these two. Waits had already recorded several key albums when they met, at Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope studios where he'd come to write the music for One From The Heart(6) and encountered Brennan, who worked there as a script editor. By then, Waits had played out the Heart Attack and Vine boho thing and was ready to move on. The two married in 1980 and began collaborating shortly afterward - on the work that became Swordfishtrombones, released in 1983.
Around that time, Waits began to get serious about acting - he played the pool hall owner in Rumblefish (1983) and a sharpie in The Cotton Club the following year, though his most powerful role was as Zack in Jim Jarmusch's 1986 road film Down By Law. He also wrote several plays, including The Black Rider(7). It's tempting to conclude that the theater work has influenced Waits' music since Rain Dogs - the themes have grown more universal (even as, perversely, the characterizations sharpened), the insights delivered in language that moves beyond circus-barker patter. But it's equally possible that the maturity and wisdom was Brennan's contribution.
Waits won't say. He describes the creative end of their partnership this way: "A lot of times, it's like lighting firecrackers - who gets to light, who throws. We take turns. Sometimes it's: I'll get the cherry bomb, you hold, I'll light!"
Most singing voices have one singular overriding characteristic - a honeyed purity, a porcelain sheen. Tom Waits' vocal instrument is a broad-spectrum assault weapon: Sometimes when he sings, extreme high harmonics resembling the squeaks of a churchmouse are audible, way in the ether. Running beneath them is a sawtooth snarl in the upper-midrange that sounds like paint being scraped from a ceiling. Along with that comes a touch of battery-acid bray, then down low, in the bass range, the formless howl of a marine animal. You hear him sing several of the demanding vocal things from Real Gone - the brutal "Hoist That Rag." the more mannered "Sins of My Father" - and there's so many textures coming through at once it sounds like Waits multitracked himself.
Then there's the phrasing. Though he's always been a student of the soul singers - Ray Charles is in his DNA. as is Solomon Burke - Waits affects not just the contours of soul, but its peculiar pacing; an ambling, tempo-defying slowness runs throughout his singing on the new songs. Recognizing, perhaps, that his voice is the ultimate manifestation of the word "jalopy" he lurches and putters and sputters along, and only in the albums mannered moments (the parlor song "Dead And Lovely") does he suspend the feeling of constant motion. Also more evident this time is a Louis Armstrongian tick, an appraising, murmuring curl that provides some phrases with world-weary finishing punctuation. Maybe he always had Satch in his sights, but now he's located the gravitas to pull it off.
Waits says he began Real Gone with hours of vocal percussion taped in his bathroom. The idea was to make little groove contraptions using his voice - on some tracks Waits can be heard chugging and spitting as the one-man-beat-boxing foundation, popping out rhythms that might sound looped but were often recorded in linear fashion, from start to finish. ("I didn't want things to be so perfect." he says. "I did it for four minutes just like you'd do a drum part, get all sweaty, and that way it would feel like I was really inside the tune, with everything sliding a little bit.")
Then, after cobbling together basic rhythmic structure, he invited his 18-year-old son Casey (a turntable artist), Ribot, bassist Larry Taylor and percussionist Brian Manita to play along. He expected some fireworks, simply because he'll set up a collision between modern cut-and-paste production methods and the old-school-all-live approach. Since Rain Dogs, Ribot's musical diet has included hard urban sounds and clever updates of Cuban guitar music of the 1950s. Waits suspects that Casey showed up because there was money involved - "he saw it as a new skateboard kind of thing" - but he found himself pleasantly surprised at the textures and energy his son brought to the music.
"What happened this time was there's one guy in my band who's 18 and one guy's in his mid-60s, and when everybody gets together you know they're gonna learn something - Each wants what the other knows.....We'd used turntables before, but the techniques have changed all over the place - They've changed in heavy equipment and in bird sanctuaries. People are always saying 'I remember when he used to go out with a shovel and a rag around his head to do the fields.' Everything is available to you in the modern studio, and that can be liberating: There were days when the decision was: Am I gonna put the mic in the bathroom and hit that trashcan with a two-by-four, or am I gonna go with the Pearl snare?'"
Waits allows that the biggest mindblower for him was singing on top of the percussive tracks he'd made with his voice. "When I do it, and then sing over it, it's like harmonizing with yourself in a way. There's already a rapport. It's like in science - They're injecting human genes into pig fetuses now, so that when the pigs come to maturity their organs will be accepted more readily in humans. The voice seems to sound different when there are all these other vocal things around it. We got at a whole different energy in the rhythm, too."
For much of the last decade, there's been a set of recurring complaints about Waits: That he's too obvious about recycling his tricks, that his chronicles of love undone and his almost-romantic odes pondering mortality have become boilerplate, that his sentimental stuff is sung by the same boho characters inhabiting the same vinyl-barstool, Schlitz-on-tap lounges. That the spectacular, almost shamanic street dramas of Rain Dogs and Frank's Wild Years have lost a certain animating quality in subsequent iterations.
This much is indisputable: The avid recyclers characters are a dying breed, denizens of frontier America who've vanished since the time when Jack Kerouac, another great chronicler of dissipation, took to the road. There might be more Tom Waits songs immortalizing the doings of the smalltime marginal schemers than there are actual humans living this way in 2004. Waits has painted himself into a curious cul-de-sac: He's scrounging the byways for rogue outlaw behavior now found mostly in theme parks, and so as much as the romantic in him wants to paint an outsized notion of circus life, say, he has to bring some sense of human truth, if not a human scale, to the enterprise.
Real Gone - the title, Waits says, appropriates the beat phrase for "crazy" and also refers to the preponderance of characters leaving or dying - manages to thwart that recycling criticism in several ways. through its vivid, screenplaylike lyric images, and the jackrabbit rhythmic urgency that carries them. The characters of Real Gone are normal enough folks, bit players whose hopes and dreams are relatively unremarkable. Waits makes them seem almost heroic, however - on the lo-minute processional "Sins of My Father," he tells of a wayward son's urge to cleanse, if not rewrite, the past; on the poignant bewildered-lover ode "Trampled Rose," he follows the thoughts of a fallen dandy who realizes he's been betrayed when he spots a flower in the street. Once Waits could rattle off the disconnected observations of a prison dweller, and that was exotic enough to carry a song; now, with "Shake It," he ventures deep into that convicts dreams and drives, catching something almost universal about the living charge he plans to do when freedom comes.
Waits has given some thought to this charge that he's just riffing. His conclusion is that there are no new notes. Everything in popular music is an update of something else, which is why he's so captivated by that instructional hip-hop dancestep. No matter how much he wishes to be regarded as an innovator, his contribution is primarily as an assimilator. What he does is, to an extent, further refinement and refraction of what he's already done - sometimes incorporating different colors or ideas. Do not look to him for the long-awaited reinvention of the wheel.
"Most artists you hear are really doing bad imitations of other people," he says solemnly. "And they're afraid you're going to notice it. If Howlin' Wolf told you he was really trying to sound like Jimmy Rogers, you'd say 'nice try, missed it by a mile.' Well, that mile is his work.....To me, what artists do is take in all this information, and send back a picture of something that's moving. Recordings are like little postings, an ongoing conversation that's part of living culture. You're always sending feelers out, to find new protein or carbohydrates, and sometimes what you bring back is a Salvation Army relic. Sometimes the most pleasant thing is to go backwards."
Among the other throwback moments on Real Gone is a soldier's letter home entitled "Day After Tomorrow." It doesn't talk explicitly about Iraq; in fact, it could be the voice of a Civil War soldier singing a lonesome late-night dirge. But Waits says he wrote it as a way to engage the world he lives in, at least in a distant, elliptical way. "I hate to sound cynical, but it seems to me that protest songs are like throwing peanuts at a gorilla." he says. "It's hard to believe that a song like that is gonna make any difference in the course we're on. But at the same time, that Pete Seeger song about the 'Big Muddy'(8) became more than a song. I don't want to contribute to the rhetoric, or even assume I have the ability to speak about these things on an intelligent level. I know my own limitations... I can sound like I know a lot about something for five minutes. Don't stay too long, or I slide into idiot. But I also know that everybody feels like we're going 90 miles an hour down a dead-end street, and we didn't make that feeling up."
There's a corollary to Waits'' theory about dancing while nobody's looking, and it has to do with being selective about information, and remaining ignorant when necessary. At one point when we're talking about the process of making Real Gone, Waits complains that breaking it down into such parts takes something away. "It's like we're separating all the ingredients - I had a little mint, I had the onions chopped and ready - Well it's not really as simple as a recipe.... Some things are better left unknown."
This, he continues, is what's wrong with the world. "Everything is explained now. We live in an age when you say casually to somebody 'What's the story on that?' and they can run to the computer and tell you within five seconds. That's fine, but sometimes I'd just as soon continue wondering. We have a deficit of wonder right now."
He laments that even the thing he likes to do more than anything else - making records - has become a more clinical enterprise, drained of its mysteries and its surprise collisions. "I made a tape once called The House of Sound. I took 24 tracks, and did something different, completely unrelated, on each adjacent track. There was screaming, there were rhythmic things. I'd bring the parts up and down one or two at a time, and it was always different, depending on which rooms you entered. And then we'd go into the common room. with everything happening at once, and it was like an orchestra tuning up, which is my favorite part. Somebody's playing scales, somebody else is going over a passage they trip up on, and the mash-up of all the sounds is amazing. Sometimes when the piece starts I'm disappointed. Because they had a good thing going and ruined it. Making music when they didn't think they were making music yet - essentially, dancing while they thought nobody was watching. And it was amazing. If you ask me, we need more of that."
(1) Metropolitan Glide: read lyrics Metropolitan Glide
(2) The input of guitarist Marc Ribot: - Ribot and Waits got acquainted in 1983, as Waits was temporarily living in New York and working on 'Swordfishtrombones'. Ribot was a member of John Lurie's avant-garde jazz group The Lounge Lizards. Further reading: Who's Who?
(4) Dave Chappelle: Dave Chappelle (born August 23, 1972) is an African American comedian, actor, and social commentator. Chappelle, the son of a Unitarian minister, began playing comedy clubs in his native Washington, D.C. at the tender age of 14, while studying acting at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts... His first major role was in Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Chappelle turned down the role of Bubba in the 1994 movie Forrest Gump, thinking the movie would be a box office bust, and has since admitted to deeply regretting it. He later appeared as the abrasive comedian in the remake of The Nutty Professor, had a minor role in Con Air, had a supporting role in Martin Lawrence's Blue Streak, and then wrote and starred in Half Baked, a cult film about a group of pot-smoking best friends trying to get their friend out of jail. In 2003, Chappelle debuted his own weekly television show on Comedy Central, Chappelle's Show. His outrageous sketch comedy, which (like All in the Family before it) relies heavily upon racial stereotypes and slurs, including but not limited to Chappelle's African American heritage, quickly achieved great popularity. By the end of the second season, it was one of the highest-rated shows on basic cable.
(5) Circus: read lyrics Circus
(6) One From The Heart: further reading: One From The Heart (full story)
(7) The Black Rider: further reading: The Black Rider (full story)
(8) That Pete Seeger song about the 'Big Muddy': Waist Deep In The Big Muddy (TRO � 1967 Melody Trails, Inc. New York, NY. Words & Music: Pete Seeger): "It was back in nineteen forty-two, I was part of a good platoon. We were on manoeuvers in Louisiana, One night by the light of the moon. The captain said, "We've got to ford the river", That's where it all began. We were knee deep in the Big Muddy, And the damn fool kept yelling to push on. The Sergeant said, "Sir, are you sure, This is the way back to the base?" "Sergeant, I once crossed this river Not a mile above this place. It'll be a little soggy but we'll keep slogging. We'll soon be on dry ground." We were waist deep in the Big Muddy And the damn fool kept yelling to push on. "Captain, sir, with all this gear No man'll be able to swim." "Sergeant, don't be a Nervous Nellie," The Captain said to him. "All we need is a little determination; Follow me, I'll lead on." We were neck deep in the Big Muddy And the damn fool kept yelling to push on. All of a sudden, the moon clouded over, All we heard was a gurgling cry. A second later, the captain's helmet Was all that floated by. The Sergeant said, "Turn around men! I'm in charge from now on." And we just made it out of the Big Muddy With the captain dead and gone. We stripped and dived and found his body Stuck in the old quicksand. I guess he didn't know that the water was deeper Than the place where he'd once been. For another stream had joined the Muddy A half mile from where we'd gone. We were lucky to get out of the Big Muddy When the damn fool kept yelling to push on. Well, you might not want to draw conclusions I'll leave that to yourself Maybe you're still walking, maybe you're still talking Maybe you've still got your health. But every time I hear the news That old feeling comes back on; We're waist deep in the Big Muddy And the damn fools kept yelling to push on. Knee deep in the Big Muddy And the damn fools keep yelling to push on Waist deep in the Big Muddy And the damn fools keep yelling to push on Waist deep! Neck deep! we'll be drowning before too long We're neck deep in the Big Muddy And the damn fools keep yelling to push on."