Title: Tom Waits For No Man
Source: Spin magazine (USA), by Glenn O'Brien. Photography by George DuBose. Transcription by Larry DaSilveira as sent to Raindogs Listserv Discussionlist, October 8, 1998
Date: November, 1985
Key words: Rain Dogs, Franks Wild Years (play), Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet, Commercials, New York, The Pogues, Agnes Bernell, Down By Law, Candy Mountain, Hennepin

Magazine front cover: Spin magazine (USA). November, 1985


Tom Waits For No Man


How to act. How to watch Mr. Rogers. How to pick a road manager. How to live in the big city. And more solid information. Interview by Glenn O'Brien

Tom Waits has a voice that could guide ships through dense fog. He sings songs that are poetic, hilarious, scary, touching, hallucinatory, and fine. Maybe he's like John Lee Hooker, Mose Allison, Neville Brand, Francois Villon, Soren Kierkegaard, Lenny Bruce and Wallace Beery rolled into one. Sometimes his band sounds like a Salvation Army combo covering a Stones tune. But nothing really sounds like Waits. Or writes like. Or looks like. Or talks like.
His new album, "Rain Dogs", is his tenth. His songs have also been done by the Eagles, Bette Middler, Jerry Jeff Walker, Lee Hazelwood, Dion, Richie Havens, Manhattan Transfer, Martin Mull and Barbi Benton(1). His score for Francis Ford Coppola's "One From the Heart" was nominated for an Oscar. He has also acted in Coppola's films: "The Outsiders", "Rumble Fish" (pool hall owner), and "The Cotton Club" (club manager Herman Stark). In the next year he will star in films directed by Jim Jarmusch and Robert Frank(2), and, he hopes, bring the musical play he's been working on for a couple of years now to Broadway.

GB. What's happening with your musical?
TW. It's going to be done in Chicago in the late spring by the Steppenwolf Company, which did "Balm in Gilead" and "Orpheus". Terry Kinney is going to direct it(4) . He's in "Orpheus". It's called "Frank's Wild Years".

GB. That was a song on your "Swordfishtrombone" album. Are you using songs from that album?
TW. It's going to be all new, written just for the show.

GB. Are you in it?
TW. Yeah, I'm Frank. I never acted on stage before. I'm studying for it.

GB. What do you have to learn?
TW. I just have to learn honest, truthful behavior, that's all.

GB. How do you learn that?
TW. Just from practice, like anything else. It's kind of early on in the production now. We're going to have a reading of it in a few weeks. We'll find out what sticks to the wall and what doesn't. I'd like it to be as unconventional as possible and still have some focus and structure and credibility. It's going to be stylized. I don't think I've ever seen a musical that I've liked, really.

GB. Did you write the book?
TW. I wrote it with Kathleen Brennan.

GB. How did you collaborate?
TW. With great difficulty.

GB. Did you work together or did you send stuff back and forth?
TW. Well, she's my wife. We sent stuff back and forth. Like dishes, books, frying pans, vases.

GB. Does it start out like the song, with Frank burning his house down?
TW. It actually starts out with Frank at the end of his rope, despondent, penniless, on a park bench in East St. Louis in a snowstorm, having a going-out-of-business sale on the whole last ten years of his life. Like the guys around here on Houston Street with a little towel on the sidewalk, some books, some silverware, a radio that doesn't work, maybe a Julie London album. Then he falls asleep and dreams his way back home. I've been saying that it's a cross between "Eraserhead" and "It's a Wonderful Life".

GB. Ever work with your wife before?(5)
TW. No, this is a first. And a last.

GB. Do you think it's hard to be critical with somebody that you're close to?
TW. Yeah. Or it's hard not to be critical.

GB. So, what's your day like?
TW. Well, lately it's been a little easier. I get up at about 7 o'clock with the baby and I get the Rice Krispies going and the French toast, then I put on Mr. Rogers.

GB. How old is the baby?
TW. Two.

GB. Does the baby watch Mr. Rogers or do you?
TW. I watch it and I make her watch it with me. I do subtitles. I do a Fourteenth Street version of "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood", where everybody's out of work and selling drugs on the corner. When I was a kid the show was Sheriff John(6). He was a policeman. That's who I was forced to get to know.

GB. In New York we had Officer Joe Bolton, an Irish cop; he was the host of the Three Stooges show, which, I guess, was supposed to keep a lid on the knucklehead behavior. What's your baby's name?
TW. Well, we haven't picked a name yet. I told her that when she's 18 she can pick any name she wants. In the meantime, we'll call her something different every day.

GB. What is she today?
TW. Max today. She's been everything. We just can't seem to make up our minds. When she meets somebody and likes them she takes their name. She speaks 17 languages. She's now in military school in Connecticut. I only get to see her on weekends. At night when I get home all the kids line up in their uniforms and Joe Bob's got my martini and Max has my slippers and Roosevelt has my pipe. They all say "Hello, Daddy!"

GB. So what happens after Mr. Rogers?
TW. Well, I usually go to sleep under the table somewhere. Every day is different. I go over to the seminary on Tenth Avenue a lot. For a couple of hours. Just to relax. It reminds me of Illinois. I've been doing the record for months, so I just got a break. I was getting two or three hours of sleep for a couple of months.

GB. Did you record in the daytime?
TW. Yeah, from about 10 in the morning. I was working in midtown. I had to fight all the traffic and all the other commuters. The hardest thing was just getting to the studio. After that I was alright.

GB. This album has really a lot of songs on it.
TW. Nineteen. Everybody says that's too many.

GB. Did you record others that didn't make it on the record?
TW. Yeah, I had about 25 all together. There's a religious song that didn't get on the album. It's called "Bethlehem, PA". It's about a guy named Bob Christ. There were a couple of others.

GB. I'm really interested in the songs that don't make it onto albums.
TW. I end up dismantling them. It's just like having a car that doesn't run. You just use it for parts. "The rest of the guys are gonna have to go out there and stick together. Bob, you look out for your younger brother there. And all of you go out there into the world of radio and performance value." I feel like Fagin. It took a long time to record this album, two and a half months. The recording process has a peak, and then it dissipates. You have to be careful that it doesn't go on too long. Then you start to unravel everything. Nowadays, if you want a certain sound you don't have to get it now, you can get it later. When you're mixing, electronically. I wanted to get it now, so I felt I cooked it and I ate it. You can establish percussion sounds later electronically. But I ended up banging on things so I felt that it really responded. If I couldn't get the right sound out of the drum set we'd get a chest of drawers in the bathroom and hit it real hard with a two-by-four. Things like that. That's on "Singapore". Those little things made me feel more involved that sampling on a synthesizer.

GB. How did you wind up getting Keith Richards to play on this album?
TW. I had this thing I used to say. This sound, I didn't know how to identify it, and I used to say, "That Keith Richards-type style thing." So instead of learning how to explain what I meant, I heard he was coming to New York, and it worked out.

GB. Now you're going on tour(7). Do you pick your tour band just on musicianship or do you try to pick people who are easy to get along with?
TW. In a way, I pick people who are easy to get along with. I just have the road manager make announcements. "Whatever you do, don't go to Tom with all of your problems. If you have problems with girlfriends, if you have problems with your instruments or travel plans, please see the road manager. Do not approach Tom with any personal problems! I repeat: do not approach Tom with any personal problems!" I'm best when I don't get involved. "Do not discuss salary with Tom!" It's going to be good.

GB. Do you ever listen to music?
TW. It's hard for me to sit down and just do that. I like it best when I hear it coming through the wall in a hotel room. I like it best on a bad speaker from a block away.

GB. I find that if I go for a long time without listening to any music, I become vulnerable to what I hear. Like, I'll go around for a whole day whistling "This Bud's for you..."
TW. Yeah, you really have to watch your musical diet, especially when you're trying to write something. A couple of years ago on my wife's birthday we heard a song called "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet"(8). and it stayed in my head for so long.

GB. Have you ever been asked to do a commercial?
TW. A couple. They wanted me for American Airlines. But we couldn't get the money up. A recreational vehicle company wanted me to do an ad for them. I've had offers for beer commercials.

GB. I could have sworn I saw Robert Gordon in a Budweiser commercial.
TW. Yeah, that was him.

GB. Dr. John does that toilet paper commercial(3).
TW. Yeah, "Roll all night long." He also does a cookie commercial.

GB. Springsteen turned down $12 million to appear in a Chrysler commercial for three seconds.
TW. Yeah, they came to me first. The same offer, $12 million, but they wanted me to be in it for one second. I said, "Forget it! Go ask Bruce."

GB. Maybe they could get John Cougar. Unless his name identifies him too much with General Motors.
TW. Honda offered me $150,000 to do that commercial. That's twice what Lou got. They said I could write my own copy. Chevrolet! They won't leave me alone. Then a feminine hygiene commercial wanted me.

GB. Summer's Eve Disposable Douche makes you feel fresh as a country lane?
TW. Those were my lines! I just couldn't say them. I tried it so many different ways, I just couldn't make it.

GB. Like Rocky.
TW. It's hard, because we're so product-oriented that our only real spiritual leadership comes from that angle, chasing the dollar. It's like it's OK if you get enough money for it. Selling out is alright as long as you get enough.

GB. I don't hold the toilet paper commercial against Dr. John, though. There's a guy who deserves to make some money.
TW. But I don't know if he got enough!

GB. I've heard that record companies are sick of paying for videos, so they're trying to get companies to pay to have their products displayed in them.
TW. Yeah, you see that all over in films now. Whenever they're in the kitchen you're going to see Nasbisco. It's weird, though. You spend all this time on the road and then you realize that in a matter of seconds you can reach more people than you have in the last 17 years. That's a little hard to swallow.

GB. How do you audition a road manager?
TW. Well, you take a couple of candidates out to the Mojave Desert and you leave the car by the side of the road and you walk for a couple of days, and when you get to a stream, the guys that want to drink from a cup, those are they guys you don't want. It's the guys that throw themselves headlong into the stream and just drink, those are the best soldiers. What I'm really looking for, though, is an all-midget orchestra. They could all stay in the same room and on stage they could all share the same light.

GB. What's your life like on the road?
TW. Well, you get up in the morning, along with millions of other Americans, and you go to the airport. You get to a new town. I go to the Chamber of Commerce as soon as I get in and talk to whoever is in charge. Sometimes I do. But most of the time you really don't know where you are. It's very possible that you may come out on stage and say, "It's great to be here in St. Louis" and you could very well be in Denver or Seattle. That's happened.

GB. I really hate it when bands come out and say "Hello, New York."
TW. It's an arrogant remark, isn't it? Assuming that everyone of value connected with New York is there. I think it should be against the law for anyone to name a band after a city. Boston, Chicago, any of those.

GB. And those state bands too: Kansas, Alabama...
TW. It's criminal.

GB. I was so surprised when I found out that Oregon was a jazz band.
TW. Yeah, that's not right.

GB. When I met you about two years ago you were just sort of visiting New York, and you've been here ever since. Was that a radical change? Being a New Yorker by accident?
TW. We've moved eight times since we've been here. New York is like a ship. It's like a ship full of rats, and the water's on fire. People move to Brooklyn and say, "I feel isolated." That's insane.

GB. This morning I was driving on the Long Island Expressway and I realized that if I was in L.A. that kind of thing would never happen, because there's no rivers to be on the wrong side of.
TW. Yeah, people won't drop you as a friend if you live in Van Nuys or Santa Monica. You can't relate New York and what it requires of you as a citizen to remain civilized and cognizant and liquid...it doesn't relate to anyplace in the United States. For what you're paying here to live, if you were in Iowa you could have an estate.

GB. Have you heard any interesting bands lately?
TW. Have you heard of the Pogues? They're like a drunk Clancy Brothers. They, like, drink during the sessions as opposed to after the session. They're like Dead End Kids on a leaky boat. That Treasure Island kind of decadence. There's something really nice about them. I heard another record called "Robespierre's Velvet Basement" by Nikki Sudden(9). That's something to listen to. There's Agnes Bernell(10). She's a German singer from the '40s who just made a record of a lot of her old songs. Elvis Costello was the executive producer. Her lyrics are great. "Father's lying dead on the ironing board, smelling of Lux and Drambuie." That's one of her first lines.

GB. Are you doing any more movies?
TW. I'm doing a picture in New Orleans in November with Jim Jarmusch and John Lurie(2) . It's me and John Lurie and Bill Dana and Bob Wagner and Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr.

GB. A Rat Pack movie.
TW. It's John Lurie and myself and this guy named Benigni who's a really famous comedian in Italy. It's called "Down By Law" and it's about three guys in prison breaking out, through the swamps, through the bloodhounds. They're all innocent victims of blind justice. Then I'm doing a film with Robert Frank, who took the picture on the cover of the record. It's called "There Ain't No Candy Mountain". It's going to be written by Rudy Wurlitzer and directed by Robert Frank. We're going to do it in the spring. It's about a guy like Les Paul who becomes really famous as a guitar designer and manufacturer. Then he completely abandons everything and disappears. And this young guy goes looking for him.

GB. Are you going to be the young guy?
TW. If it gets done according to schedule. Otherwise, I'll play the old-timer.

GB. How do you write a song?
TW. New York is really stimulating. You can get a taxi and just have him drive and start writing down words you see, information that is in your normal view: dry cleaners, custom tailors, alterations, electrical installations, Dunlop safety center, lease, broker, sale...just start making a list of words that you see. And then you just kind of give yourself an assignment. You say, "Im going to write a song and I'm going to use all these words in that song." That's one way. Or you can get in character, like in acting, and let the character speak. The song "9th and Hennepin" came out like that.

GB. Where's Hennepin?
TW. Minneapolis. But most of the imagery is from New York. It's just that I was on 9th and Hennepin years ago in the middle of a pimp war, and 9th and Hennepin always stuck in my mind. "There's trouble at 9th and Hennepin." To this day I'm sure there continues to be trouble at 9th and Hennepin. At this donut shop. They were playing "Our Day Will Come" by Dinah Washington when these three 12-year-old pimps came in in chincilla coats armed with knives and, uh, forks and spoons and ladles and they started throwing them out in the streets. Which was answered by live ammunition over their heads into our booth. And I knew "Our Day Was Here." I remember the names of all the donuts: cherry twist, lime rickey. But mostly I was thinking of the guy going back to Philadelphia from Manhattan on the Metroliner with the New York Times, looking out the window in New York as he pulls out of the station, imagining all the terrible things he doesn't have to be a part of.

GB. While other people are looking at New York imagining all the terrible things they can be a part of.
TW. When you see a leg come out of a cab with a $150 stocking and a $700 shoe and step in a pool of blood, piss and beer left by a guy who died a half hour before and is now lying cold somewhere on a slab, you just take it all in. But it doesn't really apply anywhere else. I don't know how you go from New York to anywhere else. It's like being in a very bizarre branch of the service. "I was in for four years." I read that there's a barge that goes out into the Atlantic with all the limbs from all the hospitals, and it got into a storm and capsized, and all the limbs washed up on Jones Beach. People were swimming and all of a sudden things got a little odd, a little dark. You've got to love it here, though.

GB. Is there anything you want to say to our readers?
TW. Maybe I should say something about the title of the album, "Rain Dogs". You know dogs in the rain lose their way back home. They even seem to look up at you and ask if you can help them get back home. 'Cause after it rains every place they peed on has been washed out. It's like "Mission Impossible". They go to sleep thinking the world is one way and they wake up and somebody moved the furniture.

GB. You've got a song called "Bride of Rain Dog". Is that the dog that's following the dog that's supposed to know the way back?
TW. Yeah. That's the one with the hair that goes straight up, with the big blue eyes and the spiked collar and the little short skirt and no underwear.


(1) His songs have also been done by the Eagles, Bette Middler, Jerry Jeff Walker, Lee Hazelwood, Dion, Richie Havens, Manhattan Transfer, Martin Mull and Barbi Benton: Details and further reading: Discography (Covers by Album)

(2) In films directed by Jim Jarmusch and Robert Frank: Down by Law (1986). Movie directed by Jim Jarmusch. Shot on location in New Orleans. Actor & composer. Plays leading role as DJ Zack. On soundtrack: "Jockey Full Of Bourbon" and "Tango Till They're Sore". Candy Mountain (1987). Movie directed by Robert Frank. Written by Rudy Wurlitzer. Also features Jim Jarmusch. Actor, composer, musical performer. Plays rich guy Al Silk. Performs: "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" & "Once More Before I Go".

(3) Dr. John does that toilet paper commercial: "Dr. John was born Malcolm John Rebennack in New Orleans in 1940. He said he grew up on Bayou Road, in the neighborhood where Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton were born. He started playing piano when he was 6, studying with his mentor, Professor Longhair. His parents gave him guitar lessons with Fats Domino's guitarist, Walter "Papoose" Nelson. His father was a sound system repair man who sold rhythm and blues records on the side, so Dr. John said he got the first listen to anything he wanted. He spent most of his time in school writing songs, so he dropped out during his junior year in high school. His first album to gain critical acclaim was 1968's Gris-Gris (a Creole term for home-brew magic), which he said he recorded on Sonny and Cher's studio time. He created the "Dr. John the Night Tripper" stage persona in the 1960s. It is based on the legend of a 19th-century New Orleans hoodoo man, spiritualist and snake oil salesman. He used to have snake-handling dancers, flaming limbo sticks on stage as he appeared out of a cloud of smoke, dressed in glittery feathers and Mardi Gras beads. The bejeweled alligator skin he wore onstage and glitzy gris-gris charms are gone -- they burned in a studio storage fire a few years back... Dr. John sings the Popeye's jingle, and he has done commercials for cookies, toilet paper and dog food. (He just got a year's supply for his half-lab, half-bloodhound Lucy -- he calls her "loosely." "She ain't wrapped too tight in some ways," Dr. John said.)" (Dr. John doesn't want a cure for the blues, Augusta Chronicle by Wendy Grossman. September, 1998)

(4) Terry Kinney is going to direct it: 17-22 June 1986, world premiere and theatrical debut. "Frank's Wild Years" at the "St. Briar Street Theatre", Chicago. The Steppenwolf Theatre.
- 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 (play)

(5) Ever work with your wife before?: As a matter of fact they had worked before on the album Swordfishtrombones (released: September, 1983). But Kathleen's co-producing wasn't credited for.
- Tom Waits (1999):... a lot of credit has to do to Kathleen, because that record [Swordfishtrombones ],was really the first thing I decided to do without an outside producer. It was really Kathleen that said, "Look, you can do this. You know, I'd broken off with Herbie [Herb Cohen] , and we were managing my career at that point, and there were a lot of decisions to make. I mean, I thought I was a millionaire, and it turned out that I had, like 20 bucks. And what followed was a lot of court battles, and it was a difficult ride for both of us, particularly being newly weds. At the same time, it was exciting, because I had never been in a studio without a producer. I came from that whole school where an artist needs a producer. You know, they know more than I do, I don't know anything about the board. I was really old-fashioned that way. And Kathleen listened to my records and she knew I was interested in a lot of diverse musical styles that I'd never explored myself on my own record. So she started talking to me about that- you know, "You can do that." She's a great DJ, and she started playing a lot of records for me. I'd never thought of myself being able to go in and have the full responsibility for the end result of each song. She really co-produced that record with me, though she didn't get credit. She was the spark and the feed. The seminal idea for that record really came from Kathleen. So it was scary and exciting, but it was like, "Well, OK, let's find an engineer." And I found Biff Dawes, and he was into it. ("Mojo interview with Tom Waits". Mojo: Barney Hoskyns. April 1999).

(6) When I was a kid the show was Sheriff John: John Rovick might be better known to countless fans that grew up in the Los Angeles area as KTTV's Sheriff John. "Sheriff John's Lunch Brigade" and his afternoon show "Sheriff John's Cartoon Time" premiered in 1952 on Los Angeles KTTV and both were highly successful. The afternoon show being extremely popular, that it attracted more viewers than all the other programs during the same time period added together. The same year (1952) he won an Emmy Award for Best Children's Program and five other nominations. Further reading: Local Legends

(7) Now you're going on tour: Rain Dogs tour: October 1985 - November 1985. Further reading: Performances

(8) Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet: "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"

(9) "Robespierre's Velvet Basement" by Nikki Sudden: Robespierre's Velvet Basement (Nikki Sudden & Dave Kusworth), 1985 Glass Records, 2002 Secretly Canadian LP/ 2xCD. Further reading Nikki Sudden Official page

(10) Agnes Bernell: "The actress and entertainer Agnes Bernell, who was born in Berlin but lived in Ireland, has died at the age of 76. She was best known for her performance of early 1930's cabaret songs, and a close association with the Project Arts Centre." (RTE news, February 16, 1999)