|Title: Tom Waits For No One
Source: Circus Weekly, by Stan Soocher. Photography by Ebet Roberts. Thanks to Kevin Molony for donating scans
Date: January 23, 1979
Key words: Valparaiso incident, Blue Valentine, Herb Cohen, Rock Dreams, Tropicana
Magazine front cover: Circus Weekly magazine. January 23, 1979
Tom Waits For No One
by Stan Soocher
Tom Waits is plenty pissed off. In the middle of a 50-city tour in support of his new album Blue Valentine (Asylum), he's been rudely awakened in his Knoxville, Tennessee, motel room by a persistent telephone ring after two days without sleep. Plus his wallet has been stolen, to boot.
"It took me six months to get my license back since I had so many tickets for parking and moving violations," Waits growls before he plunges head-long into a series of incessant coughs. "I was doing a show in Valparaiso, Indiana (cough, cough) and some guy jumped on stage and stole my leather jacket (cough) with my license, letters, and money. You just can't trust anyone anymore. They're armed and they're dangerous."
Whether on the road or at home in West Hollywood, California, at the seedy Tropicana Motel(1), Tom Waits has had to learn how to deal with over-enthusiastic fans and overripe fodder for the police file.
"Most of the stories on Blue Valentine took place in Los Angeles in the last few months," Waits continues. 'Romeo Is Bleeding' is about a Mexican gang leader who was shot and died in a movie house in downtown L.A.
Waits' songs are extended poems, each telling a story, backed by blues and jazz shadings and a minimum of instruments. His vocals closely resemble a young Louis Armstrong who's received a quick kick to the crotch.
Produced by Bones Howe, Blue Valentine was recorded in six sessions at Filmways/ Heider Studios in Hollywood during July and August, with no overdubs. Waits plays electric guitar and acoustic piano.
Waits recently made his screen debut in Sylvester Stallone's latest film Paradise Alley(2). Stallone originally hired Waits to write three songs for the movie, but ended up creating the part of piano playing barfly, Mumbles, for him instead.
Born in a Pomona, California, taxicab in 1949, Waits grew up in several Southern California communities where his father taught high school Spanish. At 14, he got a job as a dishwasher at Napoleone's Pizza Parlor in San Diego. "Hookers would come in, grab and play with me. The point was to wash enough dishes as you could go outside and smoke a cigarette. I wish I had my old job back."
At 17, Tom took up the piano after he saved his first model from a junkpile when his parents threw it out in the rain.
Reading beatnik novelist Jack Kerouac and working as a night watchman, janitor, gas station attendant and doorman at an L.A. night club inspired Waits to write songs. He took them to hoot night at L.A.'s Troubadour(5) in 1969 where he was discovered by current manager Herb Cohen, who remembers, "I was on my way to the toilet when I heard Tom sing that night. When I came out of the toilet, I asked him what he was doing and he said, 'Nothing.' So I signed him up."
Waits has just completed the title song for On The Nickel(3), a film about L.A.'s skid row, and is writing the profiles for Rock Dreams illustrator Guy Pellaert's new book, Vegas(4).
Now that he's making it, will Tom Waits be moving out of his low-rent Tropicana Motel room when he gets back to Hollywood? "I like it because I'm very accessible there, but sometimes that's annoying. It's not Disneyland, you know. I've thought about moving out, but I never seem to get around to it. Where would I go? Probably another motel somewhere."
(1) At the seedy Tropicana Motel: Further reading: Tropicana Motel.
(2) Paradise Alley: Released September 7, 1978: movie and soundtrack album "Paradise Alley"
Jay S. Jacobs (2000): "Bones Howe remembers that Sly and Tom "got to be friends somehow or other. Maybe Sly saw him at the Troubadour or met him through somebody. I have no idea. He was suddenly there. But it wasn't unusual, because Tom had a way of accumulating people. Chuck E. Weiss. Rickie Lee Jones. People just sort of appeared all of a sudden." Stallone offered Waits the small role of Mumbles and asked him to record some songs for the Paradise Alley sound track album. Tom jumped at the chance to act, and the part was perfect for testing his wings. Mumbles, a piano player at a neighborhood saloon, wasn't exactly a stretch for him. Howe recalls that in the end he and Tom only contributed a couple of songs to the film's sound track - "Bill Conti was really upset because he wanted to do all the source music himself. He and Sly were very close, but Sly wanted Waits in that movie." Conti, a jazz musician, had scored Rocky, and he was thrilled when the movie's rousing, horn-based theme rose to the top of the pop charts. Of the five tracks that Waits and Howe recorded for Paradise Alley, only two made it into the sound track: " (Meet Me In) Paradise Alley," a pretty piano ballad in which one of Waits's barfly lovers wards off desperation in the local taproom; and "Annie's Back in Town," a sad love tune with just a touch of West Side Story grit. The other tracks that Waits and Howe had laid down for Stallone were a new version of the Small Change song "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart" (which incorporated the old standard "As Time Goes By" into its intro and outro) and two different versions of a song called "With a Suitcase." Neither version of the latter song was ever released. One was done with a rhythm section. The other - the "street" band version in which, says Howe, "we were banging on bass drums and all that kind of stuff " - reflected Waits's growing interest in experimental tones and instrumentation. Paradise Alley was released to scathing reviews, and it flopped at the box office. Tom, however, didn't experience the acute disappointment that Stallone must have felt. After all, the project had allowed him to become an actor, and he'd thoroughly enjoyed himself." (Wild Years, The Music and Myth of Tom Waits. Jay S. Jacobs, 2000)
(3) On The Nickel: Released 1980, documentary: "On The Nickel" by Ralph Waite. The sensitive story of two down-and-out alcoholics living in the skid-row area of downtown Los Angeles. Made for television. Title song "On The Nickel"
(4) Guy Pellaert's new book, Vegas: There's no confirmation this book was ever published, or this collaboration ever took place. The collaboration is also mentioned in "Wry & Danish To Go", MelodyMaker magazine, by Brian Case. Copenhagen. May 5, 1979: "He is collaborating with Rock Dreams artist Guy Peellaert on a book of heroes from Meyer Lansky to Lenny Bruce."
(5) He took them to hoot night at L.A.'s Troubadour: Monday's "hootnights" at Doug Weston's Troubadour (located at: 9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood) where Mr. Waits got his break into show business during the summer of 1971. Further reading: The Troubadour.