Title: Tom Waits - Little Murders
Source: Twin Cities Reader. November 17, 1978. By Greg Linder. Thanks to Terry Hart for donating transcript
Date: published November 17, 1978
Key words: Blue Valentine, touring, Sweet Little Bullet. $29.00
Accompanying picture
Source: Twin Cities Reader. November 17, 1978. Date: Guthrie Mainstage, Vineland Place. Minneapolis/ USA. October 22, 1978. Credits: photography by Paul Shambroom. Thanks to Terry Hart for donating scan


Tom Waits - Little Murders

by Greg Linder

"I killed about four people. I mean, four people were murdered on the album." Tom Waits was mumbling as I was shown into his dressing room. He was sitting as if going through some sort of withdrawal, his arms hugging his torso in a posture that looked like agony. The emotion consuming him, it turned out, was closer to irritation.

Blue Valentine, his latest album and the homicidal vehicle refers to above, had been finished in August but was not available in the Twin Cities prior to his two shows at the Guthrie theater(1). Waits had just heard the news. "It's supposed to be following me around. It's supposed to be coming out a week before I come into a town. If I do a new song now, you see, no one's familiar with it, so I have to set it up. My records don't sell anyway. I'm going to put out one album from now on. One album, and sell it for a hundred thousand dollars."

As people began filtering into the dressing room Waits mood began to lift. Reacting to his tiny audience, which eventually numbered five, he began to assume a sort of friendly irascibility, even mugging slyly in the mirror for two photographers. There were moments of intentional comedy when he seemed to be enjoying his performance as we were, and moments when he seemed to withdraw to examine his private wounds, perhaps convinced he wasn't being taken entirely seriously.

Waits is not a clown. He's not a novelty act, or some kind of self destructive freak, although his Salvation Army lifestyle, his rapidly deteriorating voice, and his fondness for the beatnik strut often earn him that kind of reaction. He is, rather, a man captivated by a medium (piano beer jazz someone called it), and virtually obsessed with dramatizing certain grim realities. Urban realities. Hence the literary murders on Blue Valentine. "I mean, I'm not optimistic about things. I'm just as aware of what's going on as most people.I don't live in a vault or anything. I know this girl who had her arms cut off. It's getting very sick out there."

"I live in the middle of all this you know. Right now it's by choice. I live in a hotel in West Hollywood (the infamous Tropicana Motor Hotel)(2), And that's where all my friends are, and it's very important for me to stay in touch with them and where I come from. This business has a way of insulating you from the things that are important." Sometimes that insulation can come between an artist and his own creative processes. In Waits case, altough he's out seeing America for about eight months of each year, he's no longer able to write on the road. "I used to, cause I traveled alone. Now I got the whole catastrophe - I got a truck, bus, van and a road manager... and an agent and a crew, a prop man and a light man. The entire disaster."

One of the central paradoxes of Tom's career is the nature of his audience. He attempts to address the clockwork of living from one dime to the next, but his audiences are generaly people who come from a more comfortable end of the economic spectrum, people who can only empathize from a distance. "People who live in a dangerous urban environment don't want to hear about the dangerous urban environment. They want to hear about hope and some other place to go. People who live in the suburbs want to hear and experience vicariously the thrill of that life. That's why all these television programs are so successful. Police story, Adam 12, NYPD, Kojak. I was in Wisconsin last night and at the end of a story I brought out a chair and a television and I said 'What do you want to watch? Somebody in the audience said Kojak! So it's entirely vicarious. But it's because they're insulated from that and they can appreciate it only as something they don't have to deal with."

The low risk, "white shoes and white belt" segment of his audience doesn't particularly disturb Waits. Things that do disturb him are delays, business foul ups and even poor sales figures. "It bothers me that I work so hard at something and nobody hears it. It doesn't have to do with the Hit Parade I have my own challenges, my own rewards. I don't use bread or recognition as barometers for my success. It has to do with working so hard for people to know who I am and want to hear me and then it [ the record] doesn't come out on time..."

He sighs and although none of us in the room have heard the record, he's eager to explain. Blue Valentine is, characteristically, full of street bulletins. "See, I can't write about 'Dear baby I love you and everythings gonna be alright 'cause we're gonna get married.' It's presented problems in my personal life as well. I've just developed a more and more grim attitude. I've got a song on the album called 'Sweet Little Bullet from a Pretty Blue Gun'(3) It's about a suicide on Hollywood Blvd. About a year ago, this 15 year old girl jumped out of a 17th floor window with a guitar. Never made Crawdaddy magazine. You never hear those stories." You'll hear those stories on Blue Valentine but you'll hear a few sentimental signatures, prime among them a heart-wrenching, gruff version of "Somewhere" from West Side Story. In addition you'll hear some different musicians supporting Waits.

"Remember George Duke? I've known George since he worked with Frank Zappa and the Mothers. That's where I met George. I used to do a thing on stage with the Mothers. Frank called me Wino Man(4). Wino Man would come out and tell a little story. Anyway, before George worked with Frank he worked with Cannonball Adderly, and now he's on his own doing a get-your-hands-together kind of funk thing. He's more successful with that. So I took George and his group into the studio with me and they got into this sort of funk thing. (Demonstrates by clapping and stomping.) Hey-ah-doddely-ooh-dow. Hey-ah-doddley-ooh-dow. I said 'NO!' I was the only spot on the stage, if you know what I mean."

"I told George to play like early Ray Charles and we did a tune called $29(5). Brand new song called $29, which was originaly inspired by my neighbor. I live next door to two pimps and one night about three in the morning I heard somebody screaming on the phone. 'Twenty-nine dollars! Twenty- nine dollars! Twenty-nine DOLLARS!! One of his girls had her dress ripped by a trick and she wanted him to reimburse her for the dress and the dress cost $29. "So I heard $29 for an hour and I was trying to watch the Twilight Zone. So I opened the window and I said fuck a whole bunch of $29, and they got quiet. Months later it stayed abreast in my imagination and I wrote $29." Despite its humorous origins the song turned into a pavement poison saga, a near murder. The story is about "a little black girl in a red dress with a broken shoe" who gets picked up by a seemingly compassionate psychopath. It ends this way: And she's lucky to be alive The doctor whispered to the nurse She only lost half a pint of blood $29, and an alligator purse...

Someone in the dressing room (remember the dressing room?) asked Waits his age. "Twenty-eight. I feel 40." Carrying these biographies around in your suitcase can make for wrinkles around your eyes. It can be a heavy responsibility. It can be murder.


(1) His two shows at the Guthrie theater: October 22, '78. Guthrie Mainstage, Vineland Place. Minneapolis/ USA. Early show and late show. Opened by John Koerner. Further reading: Performances.

(2) The infamous Tropicana Motor Hotel: further reading: The Tropicana

(3) Sweet Little Bullet from a Pretty Blue Gun: read lyrics: A Sweet Little Bullet From A Pretty Blue Gun

(4) Wino Man: read: Ol' '55 Story

(5) $29: read lyrics: $29.00