Title: Tom Waits Lives His Haggard Vision And Survivers
Source: Colorado Daily (USA). November 3, 1977. By Michael Zangari(1)
Date: published November 3, 1977
Key words: Foreign Affairs, Bette Midler, Waits arrested


Tom Waits Lives His Haggard Vision And Survivers


"Well, I'm not a surfer..." Tom Waits rolls his eyes in disbelief. He's got an "Oh Jesus, did-I-really-say-that-" look on his face. He regroups his thoughts. The question was in reference to Jackson Browne's recent comment that Waits is the diffinitive Californian. Waits recovers. "I'm from California, ya know?" Waits was not in California. He was at University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) Sunday for a concert appearance(2). In a cluttered conference room that served as a dressing room he spoke with several people and his road crew as they wandered freely in and out. Whether Waits is a typical Californian or not doesn't seem too imporant at the moment. He looks like a typical wino. Amend that. He looks like what you'd expect a typical wino to look - circa 1949.

In dark stage lighting that hangs down like street lamps on a foggy night, Waits steps out of a nicotine cloud, like a Raymond Chandler character. He is chain smoking Winstons that he loosely fishes out of a crumpled pack in his coat pocket. The lapels on the coat are almost as thin as he is. It covers a torn black T-shirt and a loosely knotted skinny tie. His shiny cuffed pants barely cover pointed scuffed-up black shoes. He approaches the microphone cautiously, finally he wraps himself around it and opens his mouth to sing.


What comes out knocks out a lot of people back. He sounds like a hard drinking 80-year-old bluesman. It's a sound you expect to hear when you run into a garbage can at 50 miles-per-hour. A hard-core Waits fan will tell you that part of the beauty of his work is the sensitivity and phrasing in that same voice. The man hurts. Still it's hard to ignore the marked detorioration of his voice over the years. The Tom Waits on the album Looking for the Heart of Saturday Night has a much stronger voice than the frightening voice from his Small Change LP. Waits cautiously approaches the subject of his voice. He admits he's had problems. Like a hurt child he asks defensively if I don't think his voice is better on his new LP Foreign Affair. It is stronger, I reassure him. Eight months on the road has taken its toll though, he indicates that it's hard on any singer's voice.

In talking with Waits, you get the impression that he really doesn't realize that he's achieved any measure of recognition. He seems very vulnerable in the interview. The biggest manifestation of what success means to him is that he doesn't have time to breathe anymore. He is always busy.

Hotel is home

"I live in hotel rooms," he said. When he's home his friends say "Let's make Medesto," or "Let's go to a bar," all he said he wants to do is sleep twelve hours a day. A dream he probably could achieve if he had the time. He says he'd like to get married someday. Heads turn around in surprise. Waits shakes his head and retreats, "Yeah, I even want to have kids. I'll call the first one "Get off the rug" and the second one "You too".

The problem it seems is that people can't seem to separate Tom Waits from his songs. On stage he becomes his characters. The loners and losers, drinking too much and "spending tha facts of their lives like small change on strangers." He's concerned with the "asphalt dance floor." The homeless and the lost. In fact his characterizations have been compared to the decadence in much of Charles Bukowksi's literature. Waits turns in surprise at the mention of Bukowski. He has worked with him in several clubs, but immediately denies any comparison between the two. "I'll never write half as well as he does," he says in all earnestness "Buk's incredible." Someone in the room ventures that Waits is one of the best living lyricists. He turns to them and asks them to amend that. "Actually I'm not feeling too well.," he says.

Waits' image

With Waits's image he has some problems. People worry about him. "People I don't even know write to me because they are concerned about me. I don't understand it." I cautiously mention how much his music means to me - the stuff is so personal you can't help but get involved. I can't believe it. He is honestly embarassed and sheepishly smiles. He says "thank you."

On the back of his Small Change album he printed his address because he likes to get mail. In order to get the lyrics to his minor hit song "Step Right Up"(3) (You remember - "the print giveth and the small print taketh away") you were to send two dead Creeping Charlies and a photograph of yourself to him. He says he wanted to see how gullible people were. He got his answer. There are several dead plants laying around him and he has received many photographs. Some men tried to look tough. Waits smiles.

He is a very visual man - he pantomimes and accentuates with flowing gestures. The Waits cult has expanded without much airplay. Aside from disastrous appearance on the Dinah Shore show(4) with William F. Buckley (Who didn't like him...) his exposure has been minimal. "I don't write for the radio. I'm more concerned with what I can do with it on stage, or whether my father would like it or not," Waits said.

Rolling Stone magazine has taken a casual interest in him. But he vehemently dislikes the magazine. Someone gives him a copy of the latest issue (which contains a review of his latest album) and he reads it out loud, mugging outrageously. Coming to a line that says "you can't ignore 'Burma Shave' (A song on the album,) he comments. "That's a typical Rolling Stone line. About success he has no illusions. They could turn on me tomorrow," he said.

New album good

Waits's new album is good. Aside from some piercing blues trumpet work and some nice tenor sax, the songs are delivered with a raw urgency and even a little humor. Waits's themes remain consistent with his previous work, and no less haunting. He even gave in to Bette Midler's request to do a duet with him on the album(5). "Bette has been after me to write her a song for years," he said. Reflecting a moment on Midler, Waits says "Bette comes on like Marilyn Monroe on stage, but she is really like an old Jewish lady." Again Waits smiles.

On other topics Waits talks about his recent arrest in a California restaurant(6). "I was framed," he said, "I've always had problems with the cops because of the way I look. I mean I've been charged with everything from child molesting to homiocide." In the case he says he was set up on disturbing the peace. A bum rap. "I never even had the chance to hit the guy, they had the cuffs on me before I could do anything." After a four-day trial he was acquitted.

A woman at this point asks for Waits's autograph. She presents him with a business card from Napolean's Pizza Parlor(7), (A place Waits wrote a song about). He gets the giggles and again reminisces. He can't believe she's been there. A member of the production crew does an impression of the owner of the parlor: "You are supposed to be making money now Waits, but you still dress like a bum. You'll always be a bum." Everyone is laughing at this point. Waits signs the autograph and suddenly looks up. "Yes," he says, "there is success without college."

Waits looks tired so I reluctantly let him go. He seems untouched by his new status and wanders around the Union hallways comfortably. As Waits leaves it occurs to me that he isn't drunk, and again I wonder about the myth versus the man.


(1) Michael Zangari: "The article itself is fun, but obviously shortened to fill space. It doesn't read as well as some of my later pieces. It is one of my first entertainment pieces. I wanted to put my whole night in the article. I wrote it that way. There wasn't room for it. The late Mark Billingsly was the photographer on this article and did some fantastic portraits as well as concert shots. We hung out back stage after the show. There was a big ice filled chest filled with Hieneken on the floor for the crew. Waits didn't drink. We talked for about an hour. At one point a women came in dressed to the nines. He said "I don't usually get them like that." He asked her if she'd like to come to California with him. She said yes. The next album was "Blue Valentine." It was full of images of a Nebraska girl lost in the big city who got abandoned, robbed and got put on the streets. The mind does fill the gaps, doesn't it? I think she was a ringer. I don’t know how I started doing the present-tense style that I built my career on. I never worked less than three jobs in Lincoln while I was in school. Most of the time over night on the radio. All the writing I did was single draft and intense. It’s a blur. I didn’t think about it, I just did it. The style is part radio, part writing fiction and part rock journalism. I never missed an issue of Rolling Stone Magazine and the Village Voice in the 1970-1980s. I'd spend all day Saturday reading. I'd had everything Tom Waits had recorded at this point. I was listening to "Foreign Affair" Non-stop. That and Joni Mitchell's "Hegira," Bob Dylan's "Street Legal" and Van Morrison's "Common One." (Source: Zangorijournalism: Michael Zangori official site, 2007) .

(2) He was at University of Nebraska at Omaha: October 30, 1977. University of Nebraska. Omaha/ USA. Foreign Affairs tour. Further reading: Performances

(3) Step Right Up: read lyrics: "Step Right Up"

(4) Dinah Shore show: Syndicated/ CBS television talkshow with Dinah Shore/ USA (Interview and "Warm Beer And Cold Women"). With Cindy Williams and Lord Buckley. Aired February 3, 1976 (recorded January 13, 1976). Tom Waits (1976): "I must admit that I hoisted up six tall cool ones in the back with the stage crew, before I actually went out into the limelight, and I got to sing one song and sit on the panel...she had a good personality. It was a little awkward I must admit. I was at the end of the couch....but they talked to me, they tolerated me..." (Source: unidentified BBC Interview, 1976). Further reading: Filmography

(5) To do a duet with him on the album: read lyrics: "I Never Talk To Strangers"

(6) His recent arrest in a California restaurant: read full story: "Tom Waits And The Cops"

(7) Napolean's Pizza Parlor: rad full story: "Napoleone Pizza House"