|Title: Tom Waits For No One?
Source: Northeastern Ohio SCENE, by Jim Gerard. Volume 7, no. 51. Photography by Bob Ferrell
Date: December 23 - 29, 1976
Keywords: Cleveland, The Agora, Elektra Records, Bunny O'Hare, The Keg & Quarter (Swingo's Celebrity Hotel), round bed, square bed, WMMS, Murray Saul's "Jabberwocky", Kid Leo, Small Change, two-track machine, The Eagles, childhood, Closing Time, The Heart of Saturday Night, Nighthawks at the Diner, Jerry Jeff Walker, country music, narratives, session musicians, touring.
Magazine front cover: The Scene. December 23-29, 1976. Photography by Bob Ferrell
Tom Waits For No One?
by Jim Gerard
With this guy they call Tom Waits, the accent, of course, is on the bizarre. Bizarre was the word of the day when Tom Waits rolled into Cleveland to play to a sold out Agora crowd two Mondays ago(1). The very minute he hit town people started acting strange, trying to change their modes of life to suit his fancy. Disc jockeys started talking all gravelly and hoarse, and everyone drank a lot. The music business felt his presence, and in short, people started acting bizarre. I walked around the early part of last Monday talking in be bop phrases and, generally, acting stupid.
The Elektra Record's Cleveland man, Fred Toedtman(3), had his hands full planning an evening nobody would forget.
First, he planned (with a little help from SCENE Extra Curricular Activities Board) a pre-press reception at The New Era Cinema for the guys in the record business. Then, there was a formal (brain damage) press party below The Agora before the concert began at 9 p.m. Then, of course, there was the concert itself and the finale of finales - a real, live stripper, Bunny O'Hare, bounded on-stage during Waits set, shook her stuff and danced with the seedy character in question(2). And on and on...
It's too bad all of you couldn't have been in my shoes last Monday. Because if you had been, you would have been able to see several dozen normal people acting like fools and going out of their way to fit, somehow, into the general scheme of Tom Waits' existence.
The Agora management even visited every room and The Keg & Quarter (Swingo's Celebrity Hotel on 18th & Euclid)(4) to pick-out the most tacky and bizarre suite they had. It was a brash one with a round bed and really loud decor - rococo would be more the word. They were trying to give Waits what they thought he would want.
The joke was on them, on Elektra's Toedtman, and on everyone else who tried to pamper him that day. One gets the impression that Tom Waits would rather be left alone. When he has to deal with a lot of people, he hunches up and withdraws. A bowery bum would be jealous.
As Tom Waits ambled into the lobby of The Keg & Quarter from the elevator, he was still miffed about his hotel room. He made them give him "a square room with a square bed. I couldn't sleep in that Marilyn Monroe Memorial Room they put me in," he had said. And, yes, the first thing you notice about him is that he smells stale - as funky as he dresses. When we got in the car to drive to WMMS (to tape Murray Saul's "Jabberwocky" talk show and do a short visit with Kid Leo on the air(5)), I noticed that his street garb was wrinkled, smelly, tattered and worn. If he's putting us on, I thought, he sure has gone the whole route.
We made some (very) small talk while in transit to WMMS. Upon arriving, Tom sat sucking piping hot coffee through the hole in the plastic lid of a paper cup and coughing while he chain-smoked Salems because he couldn't find Camels. We drifted into the control room where Kid Leo was playing a Kiss record. After the song ended, an amiable Waits was handed a Budweiser and started talking to Leo about jazz. Then it was time for a few on-the-air comments about that night's show. However, Tom got distracted because he couldn't decide if he should put his cigarette out on the floor or not. He did and was asked to introduce the next cut being played, one from Waits' new SMALL CHANGE album, entitled "Step Right Up."
Tom explained it as being a song about "the kind of guy who'd sell ya a rat's asshole for a wedding ring." End of the on-the-air interview. Time to tape "Jabberwocky" with Murray Saul(6).
With half of the WMMS staff huddled around the corridor, we were all ready for a hot discussion.
The first thing Murray asked the 27 year-old Waits (by this time on his third beer, with more at bay) was:
"The way you sing and the way you write, one wonders if you ever had a childhood? You're like a full grown adult; the only thing there could ever be was a man. Was there ever such a thing?"
Waits: (Here he grumbles and chortles low) "You, uh, mean did I have a childhood? Or was I ever a child hood? (More grumbled laughter) I grew up in a neighborhood. "Well, I was, uh, born at a very young age and I was born in the back seat of a Yellow Cab at Murphy Hospital parking lot in Pomona, California. But I was actually more interested in where I was conceived than where I was born."
Murray: Do you have any information on that?"
Waits: (Grumbled laughter again) "No, uh, it's kinda hard to find that kind of thing out. But I was a kid, sure. My father's a Spanish teacher in a downtown L.A. high school. I had a pretty normal childhood. I learned to handle silverware and all of that stuff..."
And so it went for better part of an hour. We then took Waits to his sound check where I would leave him until the Agora party.
So how does a normal kid with normal parents from southern California grow up to be degenerate?
The answer, naturally, is that he doesn't. He isn't. No way.
Now, this doesn't mean that his voice is a fake, nor are his way of life and mannerisms. However, his stylized way of dealing with poetry and music come from choice, not from being born into poverty. Pomona isn't exactly Watts, you know. If you had opened as many shows for The Mothers of Invention as young Tom Waits has in his career (the two acts have the same manager), you might get a little squirrelly, too. Seriously though, Tom Waits is a deliberate enigma.
He drinks beer instead of breathing air and totally engulfs himself in his image, but Tom Waits is by no means a derelict. His mind is razor sharp and his wit can be as charming as his coldness is disarming.
In an interview conducted about one hour ago before his rousing Agora set, Tom Waits proved to be less relaxed than he was earlier that day. And although we were in a quiet room above The Agora, Waits squirmed his way through the following dialog - constantly complaining about it being cold up there and how he was nervous about the show and that he didn't know they were taping his show for radio and that he wanted to get back to the party and the bar and everything else he could think of to get out of it. Whereas the afternoon found him relaxed, he was all hyper about the show now, and his personality changed from clever to cold. But not without some valid explanations thrown-in.
Below are the highlights of our discussion
SCENE: Most people are just catching-on to what you are doing. I suppose The Eagles did a lot in getting your name around by doing "Old 55" from your CLOSING TIME album.
WAITS: I recorded CLOSING TIME five years ago, more than a year before the Eagles did that song.
SCENE: I know that, but most people don't, I suppose. Most people think you have two albums out instead of four.
WAITS: Yeah (he wipes his mouth nervously and lights another cigarette).
SCENE: Your four albums are really very different from one another. You have really moved into a more jazzy style. Like the first album was very much a singer / songwriter album. THE HEART OF SATURDAY NIGHT was a lot more street-oriented, but in a suburban way. Then, NIGHTHAWKS AT THE DINER was really funky and urban and very real. Now, SMALL CHANGE is even heavier in that same way, but with an even deeper accent on jazz and less production. Was all of this evolution intentional; was it a plan to get what you wanted gradually or was it just that you changed as you went along?
WAITS: That was one of the longest questions I've ever been asked and I'll guarantee ya that my answer is...I'm not gonna even touch that one.
SCENE: Okay. How about this - your music has really changed a lot, right?
WAITS: I've been uh, writing songs for a while now and each album is, uh, it ends up being a separate project, you know. It's completely separate from the one before. CLOSING TIME was the first album I ever recorded, and so it was a collection of a lot of old songs of mine. You know when ya go into the studio for the first time you get a little nervous and you don't know as much. Well, ever since CLOSING TIME came out, I've been on the road ever since. Continually, I write all the stuff out here now and my schedule has changed a great deal. That is bound to have an effect on what I do and what I say.
SCENE: I would imagine that you try out your new material on-stage before it gets recorded if that's the case.
WAITS: I usually try to stay ahead of myself, yeah. In that case, it is sort of a blessing and a curse at the same time. The problem with that is...when you have a tune it is nice to be able to test it on the road. When I was playing small clubs and playing all by myself without a band and opening shows for people, it didn't much really matter what the hell I played on-stage. I could have played "Fernando's Hideaway" and nobody would have batted an eye. It was entirely up to me what I played back then. See, nobody was really familiar with my stuff. Now it is a little different because I'm playing to people who come to hear me, and they want to hear specific stuff and certain tunes I do. That kind of ties you down a little. Up in Cleveland and around here I am doing a lot of stuff from the new album because that's what people here are familiar with more than anything I've done before.
SCENE: Tell me a little about THE HEART OF SATURDAY NIGHT.
WAITS: Well, all of the material was written in a couple of weeks. Whatta ya wanna know about it? We recorded it in a recording studio. Did you wanna know if the engineer had a moustache?
SCENE: You used session people on that album like Jim Gordon and other well-known people.
WAITS: Who is people like Jim Gordon? He's a drummer, that's all.
SCENE: Most of the other session players on the other albums are great players, but they seem to be relatively unheard of.
WAITS: A lot of people haven't heard of a lot of other people. That doesn't hold any water or hurt their credibility. But, you know, when you decide to cut an album you sit down and decide what cast would be best to get a hold of. It has to do with availability and you see who is in town and who is not and who might be back and who is double scale and triple scale. Who is available has as much to do with it as who you would like.
SCENE: It has to do with practicality, I suppose.
WAITS: Practicality couldn't make it; he was out of town.
SCENE: Jerry Jeff Walker recorded "The Heart of Saturday Night" on a recent album(7). Have you heard it? It's sort of country, and I think a lot of your songs are able to fit into a country format, especially lyrically. Have you ever thought about that - I mean people doing your songs in a country style?
WAITS: Boy, you're long-winded all right. Let me see... NO! How do I answer all those questions? I heard Jerry Jeff Walker do the song when I opened up for him on a show once. I never heard the record or anything. What is country anyway? People categorize music according to their own frame of reference; they hear a pedal steel and it must be country. If they hear a sax, they think it must be jazz.
SCENE: Do you like country music? Ever listen to it?
WAITS: It's hard to avoid, isn't it? There always is that spot on your dial. Actually I like very little country music. I like some of the narratives, but country is a little maudlin for me. Musically, it gets a little insipid. I try and be as selective as possible with it. If you go into a bar or something and you wanna get drunk, it's okay though.
SCENE: Is that why you did "Big Joe And Phantom 309" on NIGHTHAWKS, because it was an old narrative?
WAITS: Yeah, I liked the story - kind of like a "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" or "Ichabod Crane" and that. It was one narrative I've always enjoyed.
SCENE: "SMALL CHANGE" is one thing you've written that will probably stand out years from now. It's so cold and real. It's a true story of a murder, right?
WAITS: Yeah, in New York. It happens all the time. It's all over. I was there and some little kid got murdered. Stuff like that usually gets buried in the back pages of the papers. All I did was cover the homicide, so to speak.
SCENE: The SMALL CHANGE album is really sparse, as I was mentioning.
WAITS: Well, it was all stuff I wrote in a couple of weeks. Real fast. It was recorded in five nights. The whole album was done live with no overdubbing. It was done on a direct two-track machine; everything was done on the spot while it was being recorded. I like the album. It's got spoken word on it, ballads and a little comic relief here and there.
SCENE: On the first two albums you used overdubbing and a more elaborate method of recording.
WAITS: Yeah. The third, being a live studio album, had no overdubbing.
SCENE: Are you ever going to slacken your pace?
WAITS: Meaning what?
SCENE: I mean, will you ever tour less or record less ever?
WAITS: I don't think so. I got the writing covered as far as new musical fabric is concerned. I'm working on stuff for a new album now. Before SMALL CHANGE was released I was out on the road, though. As soon as I get home in February I'm going to start another album(8).
SCENE: Does touring burn you out?
WAITS: Doesn't burn me out. I just wanna get home. I've been gone so long and I don't get any time to myself. I just wanna go home.
When our interview ended - he finally got too restless to continue - Tom Waits resumed his beer diet, enforcing each one with several cigarettes. His Agora set was everything people came to see; he put on the whole routine for them, always aware that he was the center of attraction, as he chose his phrases and one-liners carefully.
As Bunny O'Hare pranced on-stage and began doing her (sparse) number, a surprised Waits played along. He put his coat around her and danced around with her as she shook her assets. When she left the stage for him to finish the set, he told the crowd: "That was great. I haven't seen my mother in years."
(1) Agora Ballroom. Cleveland/ USA (aka Last Call, One Night Stand, Sleeping At Drew's House). December 13, 1976 (also lists as December 03, 1976). Further reading: Performances
(2) Chip White (19??) on Waits and a stripper. December 7, 1976: "One night is Tom Waits' birthday and we had been playing Pasties & A G String - you know, that song on his album and the road manager decided to - you know, it's about a stripper - that's what the whole song is about - so he decided to hire a lady to come on stage in the middle of that tune and he didn't tell Tom about it, you know, so we got to that part of the concert, we played the tune and this lady comes up, looks like out of the audience, you know, he thought she was just somebody coming out of the audience and she begins to take off her clothes, like, and she gets down to pasties and everybody's like - this is in Cleveland, a club called the Agora in Cleveland, Ohio. It was 1976 - 77, in there, probably 76. So she came onstage and began to dance with him and he got into it right away cause he thought - wow, this is just somebody out of the audience. He didn't know that she was really a professional dancer so she started dancing and then she started to take off her clothes and she unzipped her dress, man, and she stepped out and she had pasties and a G string on. She had - like in the song. That was a funny night. So after that, every town that we were in, that was at the beginning of a tour, every town that we played he had the road manager call up a stripper and she would come up out of the audience. We started to rate the strippers. We played about 50 or 60 cities so there was one every night. And Madison, Wisconsin actually was the best stripper. We had Los Angeles and San Francisco. Salt Lake City, Chicago, You Know, everywhere, Phoenix. We did it across the country in every town so we were kind of like judging, checking out, see who was best. (Source: Unidentified European interview w. Chip White. As sent to Listserv Discussionlist by Gary Tausch. August 8, 2001). Further reading: Anecdotes
(3) Elektra Record's Cleveland man, Fred Toedtman: photographer Fred Toedtman?
(4) Swingo's Celebrity Hotel on 18th & Euclid: further reading Swingos On The Lake
(5) A short visit with Kid Leo on the air: "Coffee Break Concert Interview", Coffee Break Concert radio show on WMMS-FM (Cleveland/ USA): Kid Leo. December 3, 1975.
(6) Time to tape "Jabberwocky" with Murray Saul: unknown/ unidentified interview.
(7) Jerry Jeff Walker recorded "The Heart of Saturday Night" on a recent album: "It's A Good Night For Singin'" Jerry Jeff Walker, 1976 Label: MCA - MCA2022. Song covered: "Looking For The Heart Of Saturday Night".
(8) As soon as I get home in February I'm going to start another album: Foreign Affairs (Asylum: September, 1977).