Title: Tom Waits Peers Through The Looking Glass On Two New Discs
Source: Star Tribune (USA) by by Jon Bream. Transcription as published on http://www.startribune.com.
Date: Telephone interview. Published: May 5, 2002
Keywords: Alice/ Blood Money, Kurt Weill, Alice demo tapes


Tom Waits Peers Through The Looking Glass On Two New Discs


Singer/songwriter Tom Waits likes to pepper his interviews with unexpected asides, little non-essential nuggets that remind an interrogator that, with Waits, an interview is all part of his beatnik-meets-vaudeville shtick.

"Did you know that mosquitoes prefer children to adults," he piped up the other day, "and blonds to brunets?"

"Does the mosquito discriminate between a bottle blond and a natural one?" I asked.

"That's a very good question," he said. "I'm sure some have evolved to that point."

Waits, 52, a cult figure who has managed to have an acclaimed career without ever getting a hit record, lives by his wit and his wits. So it's fun to toss him unexpected questions.

We were on the phone to talk about his new CDs, coming out Tuesday. Since Waits is releasing two albums, will he get to sing two songs instead of one when he performs Wednesday on "Late Night With David Letterman"?(1)

"Gee, I don't know. I haven't asked him," Waits said from his home near Eureka, Calif.

Ever the outsider, he wasn't aware that he's at the forefront of a new trend for singer/ songwriters. Paul Westerberg released two albums simultaneously a couple weeks ago -- a punk-rock record and a collection of acoustic ballads. Country veteran Jim Lauderdale also is doing it on Tuesday -- a disc of alt-country original songs and another of bluegrass tunes.

Unlike them, however, there's no purposeful dichotomy between "Alice" and "Blood Money." Both feature music for theatrical productions by adventurous director Robert Wilson(2). If a distinction can be made, it's that "Alice" is about dreams, while "Blood Money" is more earthbound.

Both discs are filled with vivid characters, the portraits so detailed and compelling that the songs play out like cinematic scenes. Both feature some of Waits' most consistent songwriting and accessible sounds. Both were inspired by real stories.

"And they involve some disturbing emotions," said Waits, who co-wrote the material with his wife and longtime collaborator, Kathleen Brennan.

A knife in the cake

"Alice" was sparked by Lewis Carroll's obsession with young Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired his "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass." The musical was first presented in 1992 by a theater in Hamburg, Germany.

"Blood Money," a newer work, is based on an 1837 German play about a soldier, driven mad by army medical experiments and infidelity, who murders his lover. The music often is pretty, but the lyrics tell terrible tales.

"Kurt Weill does that(3)," said Waits, who hummed a Weill melody. "I thought that was so subversive. It's like cooking a knife into a cake and serving it to prisoners. It is one way to get people to listen, too. You got to put a little sugar on it."

As has been his approach for the past two decades, Waits has "tried to reconcile certain disparate influences," he said. "I have no trouble jumping from a parlor song to a Nazi carousel."

On the albums, the self-described "sound hound" used some odd instruments, including a Stroh violin(4) (a violin with a horn appendage), a calliope (found by his brother-in-law on a flatbed truck in Iowa) and percussive Indonesian seed pods (with seeds the size of grapefruits).

Both musicals have toured Europe, where avant-garde visionary Wilson is "like Da Vinci," Waits said. The two first worked together on "The Black Rider(5)," issued in album form in 1993. "Woyzeck," the musical that yielded "Blood Money," premiered in Copenhagen in 2000 and won Denmark's award for best musical last year. It will be presented this fall in New York and Los Angeles.

"Alice" almost didn't get off the ground. When Waits was working on the piece in Hamburg 10 years ago, his car got broken into while he was at a "curiosity shop buying a taxidermied anaconda,"(6) and his briefcase, which contained his songs and work tapes, was stolen.

"The theater had to pay like four grand to get it back," Waits said. He later ended up buying a bootleg copy of his music on eBay.

Like the mosquito story -- not true, according to a Notre Dame entomology professor I know -- it's hard to tell the truth from the fiction in Waits' yarns.

With his last project, 1999's Grammy-winning "Mule Variations," he undertook a brief concert tour, which included two brilliant shows in Minneapolis. This time, he's considering a weeklong run in New York and Los Angeles, but he won't do a tour.

"I don't travel like I used to," he said. "I get grumpy."

He sounded grumpy when he started talking about opening for Frank Zappa in the 1970s. It was something of a hostile environment, but his strategy was all about a newcomer building an audience. Now that Waits has a following, he stays home with his wife and three children.

"I've finally got my crowd, and I refuse to play," he said, chuckling at the irony.

-- Jon Bream is at popmusic@startribune.com or 612-673-1719.


(1) Late Night With David LettermanLate Show With David Letterman CBS TV show (USA). Ed Sullivan Theater. New York/ USA. May 8, 2002

(2) Productions by adventurous director Robert Wilson: Alice (the play) premiered on December 19, 1992 at the Thalia Theater, Hamburg/ Germany. Further reading: Alice. Woyzeck (the play) premiered November 18, 2000 at the Betty Nansen Theatre in Copenhagen/ Denmark. Further reading: Woyzeck.

(3) Kurt Weill does that: Waits covered "What Keeps Mankind Alive?" Official release: "Lost In The Stars - The Music Of Kurt Weill". Various artists, 1985. Original words by Bertolt Brecht (published 1928). Music by: Kurt Weill (Second finale, Drei Groschenoper)

(4) Stroh violin: To overcome the lack of carrying power of string instruments, John M.A. Stroh introduced new "violins" in England in the early 1900s. Stroh replaced the violin's usual wooden body with a metal resonator to produce a louder, more penetrating sound. The aluminum horn at the end of the fingerboard directed this sound either into the recording horn or into the ear of the singer. The performer placed the smaller aluminum horn at his or her ear in order to hear what was being played more distinctly. Further reading: Instruments.

(5) The Black Rider: The Black Rider: The Robert Wilson/ Tom Waits play premiered March 31, 1990 at the Thalia Theater, Hamburg/ Germany. Further reading: The Black Rider.

(6) While he was at a "curiosity shop buying a taxidermied anaconda": That would be Harry's Hamburger Hafen Basar (Harry's Harbour Bazar) as mentioned in Lucky Day Overture (The Black Rider, 1993)