Title: Tom Waits: The Beat Buff Speed Poet Home Booze Hayseed
Source: New Musical Express (UK). By Ian Penman. March 28, 1981. Transcription by Larry DaSilveira as sent to RaindogsToo Listserv discussionlist October 18, 2004
Date: London, March 1981. Published March 28, 1981
Keywords: Heartattack And Vine, One From The Heart, Kathleen, drinking, religion

Magazine front cover: New Musical Express. March 28, 1981


Tom Waits: The Beat Buff Speed Poet Home Booze Hayseed

Or: the ten piece Tom Waits jigsaw puzzle
As manufactured by Ian Penman


"She was late for her mother's funeral. At last she arrived, ferociously appropriate in a black turban. A number of jazz musicians were there. The late morning light fell mercilessly on their unsteady, night faces. In the daytime these people, all except her, had a furtive, suburban aspect, like family men who work the night shift. The marks of a fractured domesticity, signals of a real life that is itself almost a secret existence for the performer, were drifting about the little church, adding to the awkward unreality ." - Elizabeth Hardwick (on Billie Holiday), Sleepless Nights.


My favourite drinking lyric of all time - so far - is that of a song called 'Rhythm Death' (itself contender for favourite song title ever), the totality of which runs: "Drinkin' rum and Coca-Cola, rum and Coca-Cola, rum and Coca-Cola..."

The song was written by Sandy Linzer and L. Russell Brown, and sung by the greatest and most unfairly unpopular vocalist in the world, Ms Cory Daye, on her solo LP Cory And Me, which, unfortunately, I believe is deleted.

None of Tom Waits' seven LPs are deleted, but fragments and snatches of alcoholic language throughout run 'Rhythm Death' a close second. He's also got a natural - and, in this modern world, nigh unimpeachable - way with arrangements: saxophone semi-colons, trumpet notes held like long slow kisses, tiptoe-through-the-shadows string bass and melancholic sheets of strings. The echoes I hear are Dolphy, Miles, Gil Evans, B-movie soundtracks, old musicals and certain exhausted nights I'd rather forget.

On the most recent LP, Heartattack And Vine, things are a bit more electrified than usual; which term, in this context, rather brings to (my) mind the ancient Glaswegian cocktail electric soup, the mether's adaptation of cheap sherry or wine - and like as not the cure for the common cold we all believe doesn't exist. (How do you think those guys survive winters? Vitamin C?).

For a long time, Tom Waits' style and grace have been defined in a manner which renders mythology and reality all but inseparable; an interesting fog, if you can peer through it with enough academic detachment. The trouble is, it's hard to study when the romantic demons take over all traces of analytical sensibility. Or, put it another way: when you're pissed, you know which pictures you prefer.


"...one of those scenes that clarified everything, totally. If you only see that one scene, nothing else, you know more about that way of life than...It's the way people think and survive and what their values are ." - Martin Scorsese (on a scene in Mean Streets).

"I was so crazy I wanted to kill this kid. Meanwhile, I gotta get back in the game - bing! bing! bing! - I lose 400 dollars. Meanwhile, Frankie Bones is over there, Frankie Bones, I owe him 13 hundred for like seven eight months already. He's after me, I can't even walk on Hester St, without bucking up this guy ..." - Johnny Boy (as played by Robert De Niro, in the aforementioned scene).


I'm waiting for Tom Waits in the snug, unnatural silence of a Kensington Hotel. A little video monitor above the reception desk screens a fuzzy monochrome image of the front door, and whoever enters or exits through it - mostly, it seems, pairs of richly outfitted male Arabs, clutching their Saturday shopping.

Waits manoeuvres the hotel stairs like one or other of his legs is fitted with a D-I-Y splint, or he's worldweary enough to have met a stick insect after an hour or so of amphetamine intake.

We cross from the hotel to a clean and respectable little Italian restaurant, which Waits has been using for interviews. He takes off his grotty grey coat and brown jacket and homburg, disgruntled because the waiter won't give us a booth. "Aw, don't gimme a hard time here," Waits growls as he sways before the bemused waiter like a punchdrunk fighter. "All I want is a booth." But the booths is all booked up.

We get an open plan table. Despite the chain-smoking, the coughs and hat-shrinking sniffs, Waits doesn't look at all unhealthy - not what I'd been led to expect, either by people who've met or written about him, or by the state of progressive dissipation conveyed through his seven LP cover shots. But he has over-scheduled himself. Trying to pack in too many interviews in too small a space, trying to give too many quotes in a couple of days' stop-over in London: "I can't just hit the button and talk, you know."

The day I see him, I'm the third newshound on his tail, with two more slotted in after me - before a midnight rehearsal with a band that's just flown in, and a flight out to the Continent the same morning. So the show goes on and on and on. He admits: the over-scheduling is obscene. We eventually leave our particular game of media chess at a useful stalemate.

"Record companies, the way the whole thing works - they'll pee on your back and tell you it's raining, you know? But that's not the point. I enjoy talking to people - but not at gun-point. It's just raining magazines right now. So I just do it, then I go home and..."


Tell me your life story, I say, all interview interviewer.

"Oh no," he flaps.

Instead we exchange ages. I'm 21 and he's 31: he's been doing this a lot longer than I have! Go on, tell me your life story: all the young kids like me got handed an awfully misty, mystified '60s.

"It's not a very exciting story."

We're getting a little progress here, but the whole thing's obviously bothering him. I know the signs. Next!

"When I was a kid, when I was your age, I was out on the cusp, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I didn't want to be a bricklayer or a cabdriver or work in an aircraft company. Didn't want to be a butcher or a shoemaker or...I knew what I didn't want to do. Singing and writing and travelling attracted me at that age - like running away to the circus, I guess. In '72 I went on the road for the first time. I opened up shows for Frank Zappa and Billy Preston and Charlie Rich and Jerry Jeff Walker and Buffalo Bob and Martha And The Vandellas and The Temptations..."

(Buffalo Bob?)

Basically: infamous Los Angeles rock manager Herb Cohen opened up the rockbiz doors for him. The first LP on Elektra Asylum, Closing Time, came out in 1973 - pretty 'of its time', hard-nosed American folksy jazzy songwriting and playing with a few hints of the gravel drive & dribbled beer storyteller Waits was pointed towards. Tim Buckley (also managed by Cohen) covered 'Martha' off Closing Time on his Sefronia LP. (Pity he didn't stay around to cover more - of everything).

The second LP, Heart Of Saturday Night, continued in more or less the same vein; but the third, Nighthawks At The Diner was what might best be called the staggering point - four sides of mock-live raconteur, beat buff, speed poet, jazz-consciousness hayseed. Ever since (Small Change, Foreign Affairs, Blue Valentine and Heartattack And Vine) Waits has refined through repetition, peppered the menu and polished the dish.

The music gets more and more mature and nastier; the musician got married seven months ago.

Her name is Kathleen and she works at 20th Century Fox. Waits himself has an office, these days. He is employed by Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope mini-empire - on the musical score of a film called One From The Heart(1), which he has been doing since April of last year. The last film to use Waits was Nicolas Roeg's epochal Bad Timing: 'Invitation To The Blues' off Small Change rolled over the opening credits, Milena and Alex looking at some pictures...

"and you feel just like Cagney/ looks like Rita Hayworth/ at the counter of the Schwab's drug store/ you wonder if she might be single/ she's a loner likes to mingle/ got to be patient and pick up a clue"

And he accepts her invitation to the blues, of course.

I ask Waits what he thought of Bad Timing but he won't really budge. I ask him what directors he likes and he says Ken Russell, Francis (Ford Coppola) and Martin Scorsese. I say I think him and Scorsese make a natural partnership and he just grins. I ask him if he saw Heartbeat and he says no. I think he just didn't want to talk about it.


Has marriage mellowed him? "Yeah."

Cut down on the booze? "Just got someone to drink with now."

Has that big myth always been just a little tipple anyway? "You mean how much I like to drink? Am I a notorious alcoholic?"

Well, a hard drinker.

"I enjoy a little wine with supper." A little grin.

"...have a glass of sherry before I go to bed."

So you don't hang around in bars as much as the songs would seem to suggest?

"No, not really. I don't like crowded bars all that much. When I was your age I was in bars a lot more than I am now. Bars in the United States seem so grotesque compared to the whole national attitude towards having a beverage here."

Really? I gasp in disbelief. Those great, efficient, electric, round-the-clock bars against our nine-hour-a-day dungeons?

"In the States it's real dark and feels so illegal."

Is this the same guy who just gave the waiter daggers because - at 5.21 am on a Saturday afternoon - he couldn't get a head-clearing brandy?

"I don't think it (Britain's licensing strait-jacket) cuts down on the national drinking problem. I think people just drink more in a shorter period of time."

Er, Tom, isn't that the problem? Instead of just having a useful drink when we want it, there's a two-hour preface to it crammed in? "I don't want to go to a bar at four o'clock in the morning, anyway. It doesn't really matter to me. I much prefer drinking at home."


I tell Tom Waits that I think he's getting a lot more moral with his mythology in his old age, and quote from the title song of the last LP.

"...don't you know there ain't no devil, there's just god when he's drunk/ well this stuff will probably kill you, let's do another line/ what you say you meet me down on heartattack and vine ."

That line about God is great.

"The line was just...I was just sitting on the toilet, and there was this spider web in the corner, and I lit a match and a cigarette, and I held the match up to the spider and the spider started crawling up the web. So I got the match closer. I opened up a can of beer, drank the beer, tried to decide whether I should burn the spider off his web or let him go on his way...

"I figured there must be somebody like that up there: has a coupla cocktails every now and then and there's trouble on Times Square."

Is that your last word on religion?

"There's...these evangelists in the States like stand-up comics. They have the same kind of delivery. Actually advertise that they can heal the sick, raise the dead. It's just an epidemic, it's big business. Thousands and thousands come to see them and bring them their crippled children and their blind grandmother and their dead dog. And stand in front of this guy in a 700 dollar suit..."

It's a metaphor for something. Rock music!?


There's not really much point in miles of quotes from Waits' songs. If you know them you've got your own favourites that you bore your drink-sodden friends with already; if you don't then I'd simply advise you to get copies of Small Change and Foreign Affairs (definitely) and (eventually) Heartattack And Vine.

But just a little flirt..

"The piano has been drinking/ my neck tie is asleep/ and the combo went back to New York/ the juke box has to take a leak/ and the carpet needs a haircut/ and the spotlight looks like a prison break/ cause the telephone is out of cigarettes/ and the balcony's on the make .."


"I am no longer thinking about myself. I am thinking about that fellow out there who composed this tune, one day in July in the black heat of his room. I try to think about him through the melody, through the white, acid sounds of the saxophone. He made that. He had troubles, everything wasn't working out for him as it should have: bills to pay - and then there must have been a woman somewhere who wasn't thinking about him the way he would have liked her to - and then there was this terrible heatwave which was turning men into pools of melting fat. There is nothing very pretty or very glorious about all that. But when I hear the song and I think that it was that fellow who made it, I find his suffering and his sweat...moving. He was lucky. He can't have realized that, of course. He must have thought: with a little luck, this thing ought to bring in fifty dollars ." - Jean Paul Sartre, Nausea.


"I don't claim to be anything other than an entertainer ." - Tom Waits (on my little tape machine).

� Ian Penman, 1981


(1) One From The Heart: further reading One From The Heart (full story)