Title: Tom Waits Takes A Commercial Break
Source: Los Angeles Times (USA). By Patrick Goldstein. Column: Pop Eye. Section: Calendar. Page: 66. Transcription by Dalsh 327 as sent to Raindogs Listserv discussionlist June 22, 2000
Date: published March 30, 1986
Keywords: Rain Dogs videos, Franks Wild Years (play)


Tom Waits Takes A Commercial Break

By Patrick Goldstein

Laurence Olivier did a Polaroid ad. Don Johnson and Glenn Frey peddle Pepsi-Cola. Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner pitch American Airlines. But Tom Waits doing a TV commercial? Don't worry--the shaggy pop storyteller isn't hyping throat lozenges or a new line of pork-pie hats. In fact, Waits is touting a perfectly believable product--himself.

Rock's leading (off) beat guru has just finished filming five 30-second spots for "Rain Dogs," his current album on Island Records. The spots, which begin airing tomorrow in San Francisco and a week later in Boston, are part of a test-market scheme designed to boost sales for his album, which has received almost no radio airplay and only minimal MTV video play, despite a chorus of rave reviews from critics across the country. Directed by Chris Blum, best known for his Levi's 501 jeans spots, the low-key ads offer a series of classic Waits tall tales, set in back-alleys, stairwells and barber shops in San Francisco's Chinatown (and blessedly free of any fancy come-on for the record).

In one, Waits stands in front of a vegetable stand, whispering furtively into a walkie-talkie, "All the doughnuts 'round here have names that sound like prostitutes. . . ." In another, Waits walks down a flight of stairs, explaining: "I had this friend who falls out a window on New Year's Eve--12 stories--not a scratch. Somehow his hat blew off. He said the only thing that broke his fall was the fact that he had a little confetti in his hair."

Waits noted that the whole project was a pretty low-budget affair. "We did 'em all in one day for practically nothing, about $1.50," he explained the other day over the phone in his trademark gravelly rumble. "It was really very pleasant. We shot them all right around an alleyway in Chinatown--it seemed like the right environment. You have to be out of there by dark, or the gangs descend on your film crew. "Blum likes to keep things simple, so most of the time I just started talking and went on from there, maybe improvising a little bit. He's one of those guys who uses everything, no matter how bad it looks at the time. So when you see me holding an umbrella in one of the scenes, it's 'cause it started raining the minute we started shooting."

According to Ellen Smith, a Waits associate, the spots cost about $10,000 and were financed by Island Records. If the campaign in San Francisco and Boston goes well, the label may buy additional ad-time in other major markets. Waits displays such a strong screen presence in the commercials that it's a good bet that the spots might earn him a host of acting offers. He's already appeared in several films, including "The Cotton Club," and he recently completed filming a major role in "Down by Law," a Jim Jarmusch film due out this fall.

"Acting is still a riddle to me--I'm kinda finding my way in the dark," he said. "I don't have the confidence yet that I have with my music. But 'Down by Law' was a good experience. It's about a pimp, a deejay and an Italian tourist--I play the deejay--who all end up in jail together in New Orleans. "I got to wear a hair net, drive a Jaguar, have a lot of records broken over my head and spend a few weeks in a parish prison." Waits laughed. "So it was a real attractive job opportunity. Especially since the last offer I had was to play a Satanist cult leader."

Waits is branching out into another area besides TV commercials and film. He leaves for Chicago next month, where his new play, "Frank's Wild Years,"(1) goes into rehearsals for a June opening (it will be directed by Terry Kinney, a member of the city's prestigious Steppenwolf theater group). Waits plays the lead role of Frank O'Brien and has written a batch of fresh songs for the show. "You see, most people don't want you to be able to do two things at once--either you're a plumber or you play the violin," he said. "But I like doing both. The writing comes from essentially the same place, your muse or something."

Waits seemed a bit more in awe of mounting a play than polishing off a few TV commercials, but he wasn't letting the prospect of that enormous undertaking spoil his impish sense of humor. "You know, it is Chicago," he said with a laugh. "We've taken out plenty of fire insurance at the theater. You never know--the whole place could just go up any minute, couldn't it?"


(1) Franks Wild Years: Further reading: Franks Wild Years (full story)