Title: Tom Waits 'Dogs' It In New York City
Source: Los Angeles Times (USA), by Christine McKenna. October 20, 1985. Faces pg. Y68
Date: published October 20, 1985
Key words: Rain Dogs, New York, Casey, recording, Franks Wild Years


Tom Waits 'Dogs' It In New York City

By Christine McKenna

Tom Waits has long been one of Los Angeles' best-loved native sons, so for him to up and move to New York, as he did two years ago, is akin to Bob Hope relocating to Moscow. But on the evidence of his new album, "Rain Dogs," the move appears to have been good for him. And recording isn't the only iron Waits has in the fire these days. He's acting, producing other artists, writing plays and in all ways thriving on the Eastern seaboard. On the face of it, Waits (who performs at the Beverly Theatre on Nov. 23 and 24) isn't the least bit homesick for his old stamping ground. But then, this man is nothing if not sentimental and he admits he misses owning and operating his own set of wheels.

"Yeah, I really miss having a car." Waits sighed during a recent phone interview from his new home. "I had one here for a while but it was impossible. I do like some aspects of New York, though. I seem to be able to blend in here and I like being able to confront people without feeling conspicuous. My wife says I lose my temper too much but people in New York are very open with their anger. My wife says. 'Well. you yelled at the guy at the hardware store so you can't go back there. You lost your temper at the cafe so now we can't eat there. You screamed at the guy at the cleaners so we have to find a new one.' I've become forced to forage for the things I need and must travel to increasingly distant neighborhoods for supplies!"

Free to rant and rave in a city of ravers, eh, Tom? Can the Influence of New York be heard in the music you're currently making?

"After it rains, dogs often can't find their way home and they wander around the streets, so rain dogs are the lost people who sleep in doorways," he replied, explaining the album's title. "You see a lot of that In New York. But the geography of your ideas is usually much different than the places you're living. You may use something you see out your window but it's not like taking photographs."

The move to New York was one of many changes that the '80's brought to Waits. In 1981 he married Kathleen Brennan(1) and they now have two children. Their second child, a son, arrived Sept. 30. "We named him Senator," announced the father. Waits' persona underwent major alterations when he segued from night owl to family man, and he quit smoking in an effort to take better care of his voice. He also launched a promising career as an actor, and with small parts in a handful of Francis Coppola's films under his belt, is about to embark on his first starring role. Written by Jim Jarmusch, who will also direct, "Down by Law" is the story of an Italian tourist, a pimp and an unemployed deejay who wind up together in a Louisiana jail.

None of this, however, would be guessed by listening to Waits' new LP. There are no songs about Mayor Koch, babies or movies. An exquisitely detailed song cycle of impressive range "Rain Dogs" includes mournful country laments, linking bits of incidental music, off-color nursery rhymes, shaggy dog stories and gut-bucket rhythm and blues, all delivered in Waits' inimitable street-cornerslang.

"People with cheap hoods on the last train to Palookaville, crazed in-laws and shipwrecked swindlers, the songs evoke a time and place where the gulf between the haves and the have-nots is impossibly wide (could be 1935 or 1985). With a stellar cast of contributing musicians that includes Keith Richards, John Lurie and Robert Quine, the album is lit with exotic instrumental seasonings - a wheezing Farfisa organ, marimbas, accordion - that place it in the land that rock forgot.

"Rain Dogs" conjures a brilliantly fleshed-out landscape that appears to be wholly fictional, but Waits insists that such is not the case. "When you're talking about yourself, it all comes down to the way that you do it. There are passages in the songs that refer to my life, but they aren't anything anyone else would pick up on."

Any cleverly disguised confession that may lie buried in the songs will no doubt be upstaged by Waits' staggering vocabulary of slang. The Shakespeare of hipster jive, Waits is a master of the sort of colorful colloquialism that you only hear at the race track, pool hall or in jail. Where does he pick this stuff up? Does he invent it? "This stuff is not a dead language," he asserted. "A phrase like "walkin' Spanish"(2) is pretty common. It means to fly by the seat of your pants or walk the plank. I listen and I hear people talk this way."

Though the themes on "Rain Dogs" are consistent with Waits' past work, the record marks a change for him in that it's the first of his albums that he's produced himself. "I produced the record because I didn't want to argue with anyone," he explained. "Recording is like getting a haircut. Before you know it it's too late and then you have to wait for it to grow out and look stupid in the meantime. The only difference is records don't grow out." "Recording has become very sophisticated and there are dozens of different sounds you can easily incorporate into your work at the touch of a button," he continued. "But in order to feel like it's my record I have to feel like I went out, found it. killed it and drug it back myself. I like to get in the bathroom and hit a bunch of drawers with a 2-by-4 and get down on my back and sing into a pipe. It makes me feel more involved."

Though Waits' 1982 LP "Swordfishtrombone" was hailed as a masterpiece by many critics, it didn't make much of an impression on the MTV generation - probably because the fine video for the album that he made with cinematographer Haskell Wexler didn't get the air play it deserved. Video tends to be a blatantly commercial form that seems distinctly at odds with Waits' low-key style, but surprisingly, he has no major gripe against it.

"Videos have come to be just like having your picture taken," he observed. "I don't object to doing them as long a I don't have to wear a dress, high heels and a funny wig."

Along with a possible video, other things looming on Waits' immediate agenda include a European tour this fall.(3) In December he heads to New Orleans to shoot "Down by Law." Somewhere in between he'll produce an album for Matt Johnson of the British group The The.(4) After things wind up in New Orleans he'll head to Chicago to work on "Frank's Wild Years,"(5) a play he wrote with his wife which will be staged by the Steppenwolf Company. Then it's back to New York and a possible film with legendary beat era photographer Robert Frank directing a screenplay by Rudi Wurlitzer. "Doing all these different things at once drives me crazy but waiting for something to come along drives you insane as well," he said "The biggest challenge ahead of me is the possibility of working with Robert Frank. He's a quintessential American artist and a very eccentric, visionary, unconventional men.

"At the moment we're working hard on finding all the financing for 'Frank's Wild Years.' Does that sound like a cheap bid? I've got some things out in the car I think you might be interested in! Take a look at 'em and if you see something you like then let's talk about it! This lamp here ... my grandfather made this with his bare hands! No, seriously, I shouldn't feel embarrassed to put the word out. So if you want to throw your money away on something we hope will be interesting, just send a blank check to yours truly."


(1) Kathleen Brennan: Further reading: Quotes on Kathleen

(2) Walking Spanish: Read lyrics: Walking Spanish

(3) European tour this fall: Tour promoting Rain Dogs: October 1985 - November 1985. Further reading: Performances 1981-1985

(4) Produce an album for Matt Johnson of the British group The The: this didn't happen for unknown reasons

(5) Franks Wild Years: Further reading: Franks Wild Years the play