|Title: Tom Waits For No Man
Source: Melody Maker, by Brian Case. Photography by Tony Barrat. Thanks to Kevin Molony for donating scans
Date: October 29, 1983
Key words: Swordfishtrombones, Victor Feldman, Soldier's Things, Tommy Sheehan, One From The Heart, Francis Ford Coppola, Rumble Fish, Colin McInnes, Steve Taylor/ Loose Talk
Tom Waits For No Man
Tom Waits has quit smoking, fallen out of with Kerouac, and got into opera. Brian Case chronicles his bizarre progress. Pictures: Tony Barratt
Beat image aside, being on the road suited Tom Waits no better than it suited Kerouac. Everything ran down. He might look like he'd just swung down off a B&O box-car, or awoken in fuddled panhandler's wonder beside a trashcan to an audience of alley cats, but the truth was the road was a drag, sickening the eye with the sight of self in motel mirrors.
"Yeah it wears a little thin you know," he husks. The uncontrollable urge to play Iowa has finally left me. The problem is usually you never have the chance to really be in charge of every detail of the show. You play cafeterias, student unions and nightclubs a different nightmare every time, so. "
He still has those rumdum roadrat gestures, flipping his stingy-brim onto the adjacent chair and chafing the back of his head like he's feeling for the fingerholes in the bowling-alley ball, but actually the guy is in great shape. First off, he's quit smoking. Talking with Tom on the road always used to conjure up memories of Harry The Hipster Gibson's rap - "let's smoke up the joint so a man can breath". And most importantly, not touring has resulted in his finest, most consistent album to date, "Swordfishtrombones". He is typically modest about the actual music, giving credit to British expatriate jazzman, Victor Feldman. "He suggested instruments I wouldn't have considered - squeeze drums, Balinese percussion, marimba - things I'd always been timid about." The result is startlingly original soundscape, a blend of wild, raw ethnic and crooning brass, barroom organ and New England schoolmarm piano. The lead in the "Town With No Cheer", for example, uses a struck Freedom Bell and bagpipes to convey the lonesomeness and tumbleweed of a ghost-town. "Yeah, Anthony Clark-Stewart played the bagpipes, looked like he was strangling a goose, had to record him separately," said Tom. "I was trying to do a bit of an - uh - adventure, do some type of 'Beggar's Opera' in a way, with songs that had some kinda relationship to each other, whether it was later on in the story, or in some kinda discombobulated sequence. Thematically, I put in the instrumentals to try and provide connective tissue." Which is a shy artist's way of avoiding saying a concept album.
He wasn't excited by comparisons with bluesman Howlin' Wolf on "Gin Soaked Boy". "Oh yeah? Howlin' recordings sounded like that because there was no tracking in those days. You were only as loud as your distance from the microphone. I wanted the instruments to be predominant on that number, just wanted to be in the back there." And I liked "Soldier's Things" more than he does. Like most reincarnations, he loves a list, but unlike most understands the pathos of objects, the misery of merchandise that once had a home, and can itemize his way to a tragedy. There is a heartbreaking pay-off to this garage-sale song. "And this one is for bravery/ Oh, and this one's for me/ And everything's a dollar in this box. "Soldiers? Yeah. I worked in National City(1) in a crummy restaurant for a long time, full of soldiers most every night, tattoo parlor next door, country-and-western diner-dance type of place down the street, Chinese restaurant, Chinese laundry, pool hall all real close, walking distance. So I called up some of my memories of that time. Sit out on the sidewalk, wearing the apron, paper hat, watching the traffic go by, you know?" He gazes off into space, remembering all those jobs he did before climbing on the stage of Los Angeles' Troubadour back in 1972 - dishwasher, lavatory attendant, fireman, ice-cream truck driver, bartender, doorman ("I was a jack-off of all trades") - and finally hooks on, "It was a rainy night at a pawn shop, and all these sailors, and I looked around, I saw all these musical instruments, picture frames, and - uh - one of the sailors pawned a watch, and the song was just there, sitting there..." Uh-huh. In what spirit did you redeem the song? To move the listener? To activate pity for the predicament? If so, tick one of the following: (a) sympathy for the object? (b) sympathy for the sailor/ soldier/ airman? Answer: "No - just trying to chronicle it." And "Frank's Wild Years"? "Insurance investigator in California. Just eavesdropping. Added my own funhouse mirror."
On the road with him a few years ago(2) - Tom, my nephew Tommy Sheehan, and I drinking at dawn with the lesbian chapter of the Eskimo Hell's Angels - he had spoken of high hopes for his screenplay, "Why Is The Dream So Much Sweeter Than The Taste"(3). The title turned out mainly prophetic. "Never got off the ground. Hah! Actually, I told Coppola the story and he used a piece of it in 'One From The Heart'. Where the guy conducted some cars and a woman did a tightrope walk across the junkyard. I was the music department on 'One From The Heart'. It was a real collaboration. You have to write a piece of music of a certain length for a scene, and then you get the music to fit. It was my first experience with films, so I wasn't complaining. Francis'd come and play me some music and describe a scene and he'd get the musicians together in a small room and we'd start playing and he'd start conducting in his own way. I'd throw out song titles. Some of it works better than others. Putting music to film is an old problem."
Tom's respect for Coppola is unbounded. The man made "The Godfather", "The Conversation" and "Apocalypse Now", and besides that, was very civil to me when I phoned him from his sleep in New York one dawn to chat about this and that. Of the up-coming "Rumble Fish" Coppola said this: "It's an art film for kids. It doesn't hafta be 'Porky's', you know? 'The Outsiders' and 'Rumble Fish' are heroic epics for 14-year-olds." "That's right," Tom agrees. "Francis is in touch with childhood. Well - he has an entire city in his head, all departments. He's an inventor, a real visionary. He inspires everybody. In 'Rumble Fish' I play Bennie of Bennie's Pool Hall. I'm like Doc at the Maltshop, that kinda, you know? It's where the kids hang out, it's my joint, keep ya feet off the tables, knock it off, watch ya language. I got a chance to pick out my own costume and write my own dialogue. Gotta nice scene with a clock." I push for the scene with the clock. Tom stirs his hands around in the carny's misterioso, and quotes, "Time is a funny thing. Sometimes you wish you could take the time, put it somewhere, save it, because there's times when you haven't got time. Spend it there.. Ahhh - you kids! Gotta full life ahead of ya. I've had 35 summers. That's all/ Think about it."
Yet another film in the pipeline is Coppola's "Cotton Club", set around 1929 at the famous Harlem night-spot when Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters and Lena Horne played residencies. Was August Darnell playing Cab Calloway, the King of Hi-Dee-Hi? "Dunno. There's a remarkable physical resemblance, a certain tipping the hat effect to that period, and he's duded from the conk to the stump himself. He'd be a shoo-in. All I know is Gregory Hines and his brother Maurice. I play the stage manager at the Cotton Club."
Currently, Tom Waits is writing a musical about unemployment(4), and planning to stage a New York revue. "Kinda follies, my own Kabuki Burlesque called Martini Plans or Bad Directions, haven't decided. See, by running a small theatre, if I want a blue light and an oversized cocktail glass and a red clock and a midget in a wet-suit, I can have it without having to send out, tuba, trombone, banjo, accordian, electric stick and an emcee with a pencil-thin mustache and a Mexican accent." A new start for Cecil Parkinson, I wonder, but suggest Pee Wee Marquet, fabled midget emcee from Birdland. Which brings us to bebop, and we hit the street, Tom toting his Colin McInnes novels(5) and rapping about Eddie Jefferson, Slim Gaillard and Moondog.
Separate article "TALK" section:
Now firmly established as television's most sheerly embarrassing chat show since they last allowed Eamonn Andrews to confuse a motley selection of guests on the air, Channel 4's "Loose Talk"(6) clambered towards new peaks of unintentional hilarity last week when croaking old wordsman Tom Waits ran rings around sloth-witted presenter Steve "Shakespeare" Taylor. Taylor had heard that Tom liked living in dives. "Ya mean places where they got swimmin' pools?" Waits groaned. Steve squirmed; no, he meant, well, you know, places that were, like, low-rent. "Low-rent? Ya mean somewhere like Rangoon or Iowa?" Poor old Shakespeare: this series alone he's been wound up more times than a shiftworker's alarm clock. In a later confrontation with Steve's co-presenter (some oily oik drafted in from Private Eye), Tom came perilously close to losing what little remained of his patience. Admitting that he was in Blighty just to promote his new LP, Waits was told by the PE lardpot that he should be promoting it more volubly. "I'll promote it my own damn way," snarled Waits.
(1) Yeah. I worked in National City: Further reading: Napoleone Pizza House
(2) On the road with him a few years ago: as documented in "Wry & Danish to go" MelodyMaker magazine. Brian Case, Copenhagen. May 5, 1979
(3) Why Is The Dream So Much Sweeter Than The Taste: this project would never be realized. It is generally assumed the script was later used for Waits's play "Frank's Wild Years". A small part at least was used for Coppola's "One From The Heart" (Used Car Lot scene): Also mentioned in "Wry & Danish To Go" MelodyMaker magazine, by Brian Case. Copenhagen. May 5, 1979. "The Neon Dreams Of Tom Waits" New Musical Express (UK), by John Hamblett. London. May 12, 1979; "Tom Waits: Hollywood Confidential", BAM magazine (US). Travelers' Cafe/ Echo Park. February 26, 1982; "A Simple Love Story", City Limits magazine (UK), by Peter Guttridge. London. July 1-7, 1983.
(4) A musical about unemployment: this would later turn out as "Franks Wild Years"
(5) Colin McInnes: British novelist best known for his '60s novel of Swinging London, "Absolute Beginners".
(6) Channel 4's "Loose Talk"/ Steve Taylor: Channel 4 television talkshow with Steve Taylor. Newcastle/ UK (aired Tuesday October 18, 1983). Further reading: Loose Talk transcript.
- Edwin Pouncey (1983): "Tom's storytelling technique suits the image many people have of him down to the ground. Mention him to many people and they will probably shoot back the image of a down-heeled alcoholic scraping for a bottle of cheap wine behind the keyboard of some smoke filled, dock-side bar. It was certainly the image chat host Steve Taylor was expecting when Tom turned up to promote his brilliant Swordfishtrombones album on Channel 4's ghastly, but masochistically watchable Loose Talk show recently. Taylor's "research" (ie: skimming through Face and NME interviews) went horribly awry as Tom proceeded to turn the gabbling cuckoo's beat-speak into the nonsense it ultimately was. For those of you who missed this conversation at cross purposes it went something as follows; Steve: "What part does this infamous image that we have of you over here play? This sort of low life, American..." Tom: "I beg your pardon?" Steve: "You've lived in some dives have you not?" Tom: "I don't know if I translate in my language. Do you mean a place with a pool?" Steve: "No not really. I'm thinking of more of the other side of the housing scale really, something pretty rough. Low rent? Is that an American expression?" Tom: "Low rent. You mean like Rangoon?" Steve: "I'm thinking of the seedier parts of LA probably." Tom: "You mean like a farming community?" Steve: (getting impatient now): "No, not that kind of seed. Have a go, have a guess. Try and guess what I'm getting at, yeah? Tom: "I think what you're trying to ask me is, uhhh, have I ever lived in a cheap hotel?" His cool thus blown, Steve's brain is far too fuddled to conduct a sensible, patient interview where much of Tom's true personality would have eventually trickled out. I suppose Tom Waits makes for a lousy young people's chat show guest. He is an artist and television moves too fast, before Tom had time to get his head out of his shell his slot was over and Steve's bandwagon had rolled on to its next fashionable guest." (Source: "Swordfish Out of Water: Tom Waits". Sounds magazine by Edwin Pouncey. November 15, 1983)