Title: Tom Waits For No Man
Magazine front cover: Time Out London magazine (UK). November 17-24. Issue 17-24.
Tom Waits For No Man
Out in northern California, with the leaves starting to fall from trees blacked with crows, Tom Waits momentarily stops rocking in his chair, his tan face fixing into a slow, sly, squinty stare. ' I feel like Evel Knievel,' he says. 'In mid-air.going over the Grand Canyon.'
Yes life for Waits is good. His new album, 'Real Gone', has garnered widespread acclaim. His revived theatrical collaboration with Robert Wilson and William Burroughs, 'The Black Rider'(1) (which premiered at the Barbican in the summer), has just finished a successful run in San Francisco. His photograph showing a leaping horse chewed into a stable door by equine teeth recently beguiled America when he showed it off on 'Letterman'(2). And this week he plays his first London concert for 17 years(3).
Waits is an artist at the peak of his powers, digging deep, reaching back and pushing ever on. What makes him so unusual is that he has maintained this position over two decades. And just as he exercises complete control over his working life, so he manages to keep his family life private. A perfect balance of self and other, mythology and enigma. 'I do what I want,' he affirms. 'But I don't think of that as something unique or bizarre. You can pretty much make your own way in the world, make your own rules. Of course, it's easier to ride on the road that's already there, but sometimes you need to make your own road.'
Of those left standing, probably only Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, Elvis Costello and Nick Cave come close to Waits in stature or gift and none is ageing quite so gloriously or with such savage mystery and sheer aplomb. Elsewhere, apart from the whole retro scene, Radiohead and U2 try hard - too hard probably - and as for the rest, well, so many just seem like icily conservative, pudden-faced businessmen at heart.
'If you listen to contemporary music, a lot of it is really like processed cheese,' says Waits. 'You're not going to get a lot of nutrition from it. So I go after listening to stuff that's more, I don't know, rougher. I mean ultimately the only reason to make a record is because you can't find the record that is in you in the stores. I go to a record store and say, " Hey John Boy, what's new man? You got something I'd like?" "Aww, I don't know. You may like these guys but I don't know..You heard The Spastic Colons?" "Yeah, I heard their first record, but I thought they went nowhere after that." "What about The Shitheads?" "Well, I used to like 'em. Is the new one good?" "Nah. It's not as good as the first one...". So you know, you're hungry for something that isn't there, and a lot of the time the answer is in you.'
Success without ego compromise or greed is rare, but Waits is an exception. 'I'm not Zsa Zsa Gabor,' he rasps. 'I'm not Liberace. I'm not a showbiz animal. My life is different from my career. People will only pry as far as you allow them to. I mean we're not sitting in my kitchen with the dog at your feet. I'm very careful about what I allow to be public and what I allow to be private.'
With wife Kathleen a long-time inspiration and collaborator, and now their 18 year old son Casey playing percussion and turntables on the new album and in his live band, is there a danger of these public and private worlds colliding? ' Well, gee.. I don't know,' he says. 'It's just the family business. I'd been trying to get Casey to put his own band together, but I don't know..in the studio with your kids..it can be kind of ..sketchy. Like I might say "Case, turn that drum upside down, take the snare off, play with a mallet, go outside, stand right in the doorway there and play that bass drum." And he'll just say "You do it!" Or you get into these things where what you thought you said was "Play that backbeat with a brush and the downbeat with the stick." But he heard "After you done taking out the trash, would you please feed the dog and watch your brother 'cos we're going to the movies." So.. You gotta watch it. but it turned out good!'
One of the reasons it has taken so long for Waits to return to London is the lack of a suitable venue. He prefers 2000-capacity places with character, style and a little bit of hole-in-the-sole pizzazz - like the glorious art deco Le Grand Rex movie palace in Paris(4). London, for all its old theatres and venues, just kept coming up short. Hammersmith Apollo blatantly isn't ideal, but there is a kind of synchronicity to choosing it as it's where he played his last English dates - November 19-22 1987. This weeks show is on November 23. I was there 17 years ago and they were memorable shows; expectations are again running high. No problem: live, as on record, Waits just improves with age. These days, a Tom Waits show is a darkly theatrical carnival of noise, a circus for the soul, a ticket to a lost world of beauty and wonder. A unique experience. Hence the clamour for Hammersmith tickets, which sold out in 30 minutes.
'We're going to do this one night,' he says, 'then we're hoping to come back(5) and do like a couple of weeks at a place. I think that's the plan...' Next spring seems to have been tentatively pencilled in.
Tom Waits is witty, entertaining, smart: a rascal of a man. There's always been a big humanitarian streak running through his songs too, but these days it's rare for him to record anything as stripped-down and pointed as 'Day After Tomorrow'(6) - a song from the new album written in the form of a letter home from a soldier. In the current political climate, he explains, this was just something he felt compelled to write. 'Well, I read the papers and all that and I got kids who are draft age and I guess you get to a point where if you say nothing that becomes a political statement too. I feel like my job is to maybe put a human face on the war. The fact that we aren't seeing what's really happening. They're very careful about what they allow to come home. If you saw the dead babies and houses on fire, it would change how people feel, but that's why they're so careful. Certain things are on a need-to-know basis, that's the part I hate. It's kind of like we're livestock who are being fed.' He shrugs. 'I don't know...follow the money. Who has the most to benefit? It's all a mess right now.'
He pours another cup of coffee. 'This is a plan that was in place many, many years ago - the whole global combination and star wars stuff. This is a play that they wrote, and we're reading it a page at a time. We're acting it out, doing our lines. I don't understand the world, the political theatre, but I remember what Kissinger said - "America doesn't have any friends we only have interests" - and it's true. We have stuck a hypodermic needle into a very fat animal and we are slowly drawing out the blood to feed our babies.'
At 54, Waits could be forgiven for wanting to ease up, but far from it. He wanted to make the new record, felt impelled to stretch himself. So he shelved plans for 'Orphans', a compilation album of his film music. 'Maybe we'll put that out next,' he says. An album of Howlin' Wolf songs ('Waits Sings Wolf') had also been discussed - 'It's a good idea,' he acknowledges. But right now, it seems he's consumed by more creative urges. 'I already got a good title for another record,' he beams.' "Hell Breaks Loose" - but breaks is b-r-a-k-e-s and loose is l-u-c-e.'
So tell me, Tom: you have three kids whom you're obviously proud of, you're still very much in love, you've achieved success on your own terms, you enjoy respect, acclaim.things seem to have turned out pretty well. Are you happy?
'Oh yeah," he purrs. 'To say otherwise would be ridiculous! I mean I like to be busy. I can't imagine me doing something else. I'd never make it as a plumber or a botanist..Yeah, I love what I do. I got the three cherries, y'know. I pulled the handle and all the quarters came out. I just caught them in my hat and I'm on the way to the window to cash out.'
(1) The Black Rider: further reading: The Black Rider full story
(2) Letterman: The Late Show With David Letterman. September 28, 2004. Further reading: Letterman 2004 full transcript
(3) First London concert for 17 years: Last London shows were Hammersmith Odeon. London/ UK. November 19-22, 1987
(4) Le Grand Rex movie palace in Paris: This is where Waits did 3 shows promoting Mule Variations. May 29-31, 2000
(5) Then we're hoping to come back: the first hint at another Real Gone tour in 2005
(6) Day After Tomorrow: read lyrics: Day After Tomorrow