Title: Tom Waits: Rock Classics, With A Gravelly Rasp
Source: NPR's World Caf� from WXPN (USA) by David Dye. December 15, 2006. Transcription from tape by "Pieter from Holland" as published on the Tom Waits Library. �NPR 2006
Date: aired December 15, 2006
Key wordsOrphans, Home I'll Never Be, Ginsberg, Leadbelly, soundtracks, covers, touring, Tom Traubert's Blues

Accompanying picture: David Dye promo picture, 2006


Tom Waits: Rock Classics, With A Gravelly Rasp


DD: One of the most important figures in American popular song is our guest today, and a true iconoclast. Tom Waits joins us for conversation, and we'll hear performances from his recent Orphans tour. Waits is from California, and brought his boho persona and style to the southern California scene in the seventies, dominated by the country-rock of The Eagles. In fact The Eagles recorded Waits's Ol' '55(1). A change in his music took place in the eighties, following his marriage to Kathleen Brennan who became his collaborator. His audience followed into a strange more dissonant and often beautiful world. A lot of songs that didn't find a home in many of those post-1980 albums, plus film soundtrack work, Waits has developed a second career as an actor, and new songs all live together on Orphans, his new album. And I asked Waits if he had any concerns about making the songs from various places all work together.

TW: Well, that's always a concern. It's like making a film or anything else. You know, you have to create some kind of meaningful uh experience out of all this uh raw material.
DD: Well, you've been talking about it, at least you've mentioned it since I guess 2004. Did it really take that long to put it together?
TW: Well you know, it's like taking chickens to the beach, you know? Uh, they ran off in all directions. And I don't really have an archive and... So it's kinda hard to get them all in the same drawer. So uh, some of them I had to buy from a plumber in Russia. Who actually keeps better... takes better care of my songs then I do.
DD: Yeah, I read about that. How did that... Do you know how he got a hold of 'em, or you didn't ask?
TW: I didn't ask. You know, it's kind of like a cloack and dagger thing you know? It was just uh... There's this guy and he had a translator and everything and uh with kind of muffled voices and weird sounds. You know, we made a deal and sent him a cashier's check and you know? It was all very uh... Yeah it was like 007.
DD: Yeah, you didn't have to meet in a freighter in the Baltic sea or anything?
TW: No, but I would have!
DD: That would have been fun actually! (laughs) Uh, let's talk about some of the pieces on there, because there's some really really interesting things from all different places. I wanna talk about some of the spoken word things. Ehm, or sort of spoken word things. There's a... there's a Jack Kerouac song on there...
TW: Yeah.
DD: ... now, where the heck did that come from?
TW: Well you know, he recorded it on a little reel-to-reel in a closet in the middle of a party one night, and uh... his uh... one of his nephews, Jim Sampas uh got a hold of it, and put it on a Kerouac compilation(2). Uhm so, I heard it and uh, yeah he was singing. It was really nice to hear Jack singing. I think it worked pretty well on that sequence after that Bukowski thing about the kid on the bus in North Carolina, and then it set ways on this piano, that's "Home I'll Never Be".
DD: Yeah. That's one of the points where the Orphans get along really well. Uh, why don't we just listen to that sequence. Because I was gonna talk about Bukowski anyway, so let's uh...
TW: Oh yeah?
DD: ... let's put those two together.

("Nirvana"/ "Home I'll Never Be" of Bastards)

DD: A couple of pieces uh, that where not written by our guest today Tom Waits. The Jack Kerouac song "Home I'll Never Be" and a Charles Bukowski spoken word piece in there as well. I understand at one point people were looking to you to play Bukowski in uh a film?
TW: Oh yeah, in Barfly yeah. There was a little too [...?...] the money I thought.
DD: (laughs)
TW: Well Mickey Rourke did a great job on his. Barbara Schroeder asked me if I was interested in pursueing it and I was working at Zoetrope at the time and... Yeah, I wasn't really that confident as an actor to be honest with you. That was a little too much for me to take on at that time. But I'm, you know, a great admirerer of Bukowski's and uh all of his incarnations, you know?
DD: Well so much of his work has actually made it to the screen in one form or another.
TW: That's true yeah, yeah.
DD: Uhm, speaking of Kerouac and the Beats. One has to assume that they were a huge influences on you early on. I noticed this probably gone way back in your mind, but do you remember when you were introduced to them?
TW: Teenager I guess. I was a doorman at a nightclub(3) and then the guy who owned the club was a great Kerouacian. He gave me a book and... Gave me "On The Road" I guess and I got glued to it you know? Sitting out there on the door you know, half in the rain and half out of the rain and it just spoke to me. It's like hearing a song on the radio or something. That all of a sudden just everything winds up and uh the recipe is just right. So a lot of those guys kind of became father figures for me and I... Well they were real uh buccaneers you know?
DD: I guess Ginsberg would have been one of the ones you would want to meet?
TW: Yeah, I met Ginsberg a couple of times, you know? And I did that song uh "Home I'll Never Be" at a memorial for him(4), that was done in Los Angeles. And uh, yeah he's one of the great ones.
DD: Another one of the people, I guess from a similar era, probably a little earlier, is Leadbelly. You do a version of "Goodnight Irene"...
TW: Oh yeah.
DD: ... and "Fannin Street" which is your song. But isn't there a Leadbelly...
TW: Yeah he's got one with the same title. Uhm, he died the day after I was born.
DD: Wow...
TW: And uh, I read a lot about him and you know, I heard all the records. Yeah I really... He really speaks to me. And I had a chance at one point to be part of a compilation, pick a Leadbelly song. One of his distant relatives had his guitar, that had been beneath her bed for the last fifty years or whatever, and uh she was gonna let everybody on the record play his guitar and do a song. But I don't think they can get clearance from Alan Lomax, who has a lot of his songs tied up. I guess that whole Lomax estate, you know? So it's kind of a mess legally.
DD: Was it a big old 12-string or?
TW: Yeah, yeah! The same one!
DD: Wow, that's amazing.
TW: Uhu.
DD: Tom Waits is our guest on the Caf� today. We're talking about some of the Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards, which are part of Orphans, a "sprawling" shall we say, new release. One of the songs that I heard before was, uh that one was in the film Big Bad Love, uh... "Long Way Home".
TW: Oh yeah.
DD: And uh, did you uhm, did you write that for them, or were they looking for a song, or how did that work out?
TW: Yeah, yeah they wanted a tune. They didn't know what they wanted, but uh... But yeah, so uh.. Yeah, sometimes a song is really the right angle to what the film's about and you don't always hit it right on the money, and you don't always wanna. So uh, left of center is usually the best way to go and... Yeah the mind will make sense of just about anything, you know? If you show somebody a filmclip of a shark attack and then you play uh a little snippet of uh... you know uh... "That's Life" of Frank Sinatra you know (laughs), people will make sense of that. Your mind will go: "Okay, shark attack, That's Life, yeah okay I got it." Uh so, sometimes you have to create a riddle. I think those are the songs that last the longest. The ones that you don't necessarily understand. Not that that's one of those songs you don't understand. It's pretty clear. You know: "It takes a long way home", you know? But uh, sometimes there's a little nagging misunderstanding or uhm it helps uh glue the song to the picture so... Because a song is really a complete item in itself. It's really a movie for the ears. So you don't wanna be redundant.
DD: Well, this one stands up pretty well on its own. You can take it out of the context quite obviously and it works well. And uh, this is "Long Way Home" from Tom Waits...

("Long Way Home" of Bawlers)

DD: "Long Way Home" from Tom Waits. A song you made... actually Norah Jones ended up covering that one as well(5).
TW: Uhu, yeah.
DD: Uh, I know it's such a huge question with you about covers, I don't even know where to begin. There's so many songs that have been done by other people. I uh is it still flattering? Or is it uh...
TW: Oh yeah, sure. Uhm, yeah of course. That's really uh... I mean the idea that you can do something that someone else finds interesting for themselves to sing is... and find it meaningful that it's not overly personal to you yourself, you know, that they can find a, you know a place they can sit down in the song, and yeah that's kind of what you're looking for. I had a song covered by Johnny Cash(6), that was like a huge uh... thrill for me, you know? He would change some of it and I thought: "Oh, boy! Well I guess he must have thought it needed some changing!"
DD: (laughs)
TW: I should have talked to him before I finished! Probably could have helped me! But uh... and then you know uhm... Yeah it's interesting. You hear songs recorded by a... you know, a band from Finland or Norway or Thailand or... you know? Tokyo, you know? It's... I love it!
DD: Well, I wanted to go completely in that direction with this next thing because I guess I'm kind of an [...?...] for some of the spoken word things that you do. Because I love it how you use your voice to conjure up things. And this here one I think combines a couple of years uh... Your scientific interest and... I'm talking about "Army Ants"...
TW: Oh yeah, yeah.
DD: And I just kind of wait for the beep on the filmstrip on this one. It's a ... How did you and Kathleen come up with it?
TW: Well, most of that is from uhm... the Audubon Society field guides for insects, you know?
DD: Yeah.
TW: So, you know I think we both like uh the arcane measures of life, you know? And the little things that hold us all together. And uh, I don't know. Those are "fascinating facts". And uh, I guess I'm hooked on "fascinating facts". Like uh, did you realize in Texas you are considered legally married by publicly introducing a person as your husband or wife three times?
DD: Wow..
TW: Yeah...
DD: That could be usefull or not!
TW: It could really hurt! It could really get ya! But, I don't know. I thought those were interesting things about the insects, because they do live paralel lives with us I guess.
DD: Well, let's listen to a little of the uh "Army Ants".
TW: Yeah.

("Army Ants" of Bastards)

DD: Tom Waits is our guest today on the World Caf�. Uhm you... I mean if you look at the credits of a whole lot of these songs, once you and Kathleen worked on it together, uh your wife Kathleen Brennan, uh who says: "Com'on hon' we need to get to work." Is that... how does that work?
TW: Uhm, Ghee I don't know. It kind of uh... you throw down the gauntlet and you know, for eachother... I don't know how you get started, you get started with a deadline usually.
DD: Yeah.
TW: That's the only way I know: "We got three days on this baby, we better start working." You know? I'm one of those people who likes to write in the car on the way to the studio. And she'll do that too. She's a good sport. You know, she's quick on her feet. And a "remarkable collaborator", and so she's... Yeah, if two people know all the same stuff, one of you is unnecessary. You know, we come at it from two different angles. You know, she's got the Rhumba's and the Bossa Nova's and the Gregorian chants and... She had one of those record collections, at one point I said: "Baby, I don't know if I'm marrying because I love you or just because you got such a great record collection." You know? Uh, it was a little bit of both I think. All my records were like, you know, out of their sleeves. And you know, in pizza boxes. And she uh, she keeps it all together. But we had a lot of fun writing together. It's a hoot, you know?
DD: Your life changed so dramtically when you met her and obviously you have kids.
TW: Yeah.
DD: I guess around that time you stopped drinking, a certain domesticity would, some say, can kill art, but you know, it certainly didn't in your case. But there was also a kind of a real major change in your music. Kind of a second act. Uhm, although kind of hinted at before I guess. It was pretty dramatic. Can you kind of pinpoint, or even draw kind of a large circle around, around that change? And how that happened?
TW: Uh, oh god ghees, I don't know! Uh, ha ha! Uh, I don't know about that. I think those things are like uh... fevers you know? "Ghee, when did I get that fever?", "How long did that fever last?", "How high was that fever?" I don't know. You start out early on by kind of imitating and doing bad impersonations. Uh, and slowly you evolve more into yourself.
DD: Wel "amen" to that. Uhm, one of the things we're gonna be doing today is listening back to some of the performances from the Orphans tour this past summer(7).
TW: Alright.
DD: A tour that was a remarkable "love fest" by all reports. You seemed to enjoy it and I know people who flew in from the east coast, where we are, to any of the various venues you played in, uh... Akron or wherever, and had a great time. Uh, do you like playing live? Do you... How do you treat it after doing theaters? Do you treat is as a theatre piece at all? Or how is it... for you?
TW: Wellll... there's usually a lot of technical things that needs to be dealt with. And I... sometimes it ruins the whole experience for me. It's like uh, you know it's kind of like open heart surgery and now we're gonna move it!
DD: Yeah.
TW: Now we're gonna take this whole thing, we're in mid-operation, we're gonna move this to uh, you know, Alaska. So it really bothers me at first, and I... I have a lot of great people working with me. And uhm, the whole gang went out. My son played drums. Uh, so yeah, it was really good. It was really good. I actually had a good time inspiring myself and surprise myself. I'm usually pretty grumpy out there. Cause you're dealing with physics all the time. And a lot of people will like the fact that it's different every night. And I don't know, uh... Cause if it was the same every night you'd stop doing it.
DD: Well, I wonder, maybe ask about a couple of tunes that we're gonna hear. What are the things that uh you know we could talk maybe about a couple of different areas about what you do and a song that you do live a lot, which is one of the early ones, is uh "Tom Traubert's Blues"(8).
TW: Oh yeah?
DD: And uh, this may just be a really dumb question, but I was trying... Is there any... Is Tom Traubert somebody who you made up or is there a Tom Traubert? Or uh what do we know about him? Even if you did make him up! (laughs)
TW: He is a friend of a friend of mine.
DD: Really!
TW: Yeah, who lives in Denver... and died in jail.
DD: Oh...
TW: And uh... So, he's a real guy. And uhm... so that's you know, a song that is about a lot of things. But mostly I think, you know, the idea that uh... A "Mathilda" is a backpack, you know? So it's about going on the... being on the loose. Out on the road. Chasing your dream and all the things you encounter in the process.
DD: Well, that's one of the ones we'll hear when we get to the concert portions and things. Tom, thanks a lot for your time.
TW: Yeah, yeah!
DD: We totally appreciate talking to you. And congratulations to you and Kathleen on this work. It's just uh, just great to have it.
TW: Thanks. Good. Thanks a lot man.

DD: Tom Waits coming up, a concert from the tour for Tom Waits' new Orphans album. We'll hear that classic song Tom and I were talking about, that "Tom Traubert's Blues". Song's been called one of his finest. You'll hear it in a moment here on the World Caf�.


(1) In fact The Eagles recorded Waits's Ol' '55: On The Border. The Eagles, 1974 Label: Elektra/ Asylum LP 1004 (re-released by Elektra Entertainment in 1990). Further reading: Discography - Covers.

(2) And put it on a Kerouac compilation: Jack Kerouac Reads "On the Road". Various artists. September 14, 1999 Label: Ryko. (Rykodisc 10474).

(3) I was a doorman at a nightclub: The San Diego Heritage coffee house. At the time run by Bob Webb. Further reading: The Heritage.

(4) And I did that song uh "Home I'll Never Be" at a memorial for him: Allen Ginsberg tribute at the UCLA Wadsworth Theatre, Westwood, CA, on June 21, 1997. Further reading: Performances.

(5) Norah Jones ended up covering that one as well: Feels Like Home. Norah Jones. February, 2004. Blue Note Records. Further reading: Discography - Covers.

(6) I had a song covered by Johnny Cash: Down There by The Train as released on American Recordings. Johnny Cash. 1994/ 1998. Sony/ Columbia, 1994. American Recordings, 2002. Further reading: Discography - Covers.

(7) Orphans tour this past summer: USA tour promoting Real Gone/ Orphans. August 2006. Tom Waits: vocals, guitar, keyboard, maracas. Casey Waits: drums. Bent Clausen: various woodwinds, keyboards, strings and percussion. Larry Taylor: upright bass. Duke Robillard: guitar. Further reading: Performances.

(8) Tom Traubert's Blues: read lyrics: Tom Trauberts Blues