Title: Tom Waits: The Drifter Finds A Home
Source: Rolling Stone magazine, by Elliot Murphy. Published: January 30, 1986
Date: Chelsea, New York. Late 1985
Key words: New York, Bruce Springsteen, Francis Ford Coppola, Rain Dogs

Magazine front cover: Rolling Stone. January, 1986

Accompanying picture
Source: "Rolling Stone - The Photographs" (Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group, 1989). Date: January, 1986 or earlier. Credits: Matt Mahurin


Tom Waits: The Drifter Finds A Home


Married and the father of two children, the singer/songwriter has finally settled down BY ELLIOTT MURPHY

Hurricane Gloria has hit New York City like a neutron bomb; the buildings are fine, but the streets are deserted except for a few solitary wanderers who share a faraway look in their eyes. Walking briskly among them, Tom Waits pops into a tobacco shop for a pack of Pall Malls and then darts across Fourteenth Street into a shiny coffee shop in Chelsea, his newfound neighborhood, on Manhattan's West Side.

The eatery is nearly empty, and Waits nervously checks out its straggling customers as he settles into the Naugahyde booth. The storm has passed with minimal damage, but its aftermath has Waits worried. There is something about those who, like him, are drawn to the stillness of a city still holding its breath that makes Waits uneasy. He's been seeing people on the streets this afternoon who look as if they haven't been out for months. "It's like it's safe to come out," he says.

Like those recluses he's so wary of, Waits seems to have decided that it's once again safe to come out. He has a new album, - Rain Dogs -, a tour, plans for a play based on one of his songs, another film role and, at last, a "real" city to call home. - Rain Dogs - is the first of Waits' ten albums to be written and recorded in New York, where he's been living for the past two and a half years. The move east was never meant to be permanent, but the attraction was irresistible. "I stayed for the shoes," he says. "It's a great town for shoes." Noticing his multi-buckled black fence climbers, I don't doubt the man's sincerity. But for the thirty-six-year-old Waits, the honeymoon with the city was overdue. His long identification with Los Angeles never seemed to fit; too many palm trees and not enough mean streets. "I don't know what it is, but I've waited for this for so long. I dreamed of this time." And for a wordsmith such as Waits, New York has proved to be an inspirational nirvana. "It's the contrasts," he says. "There are distinctive lines of demarcation, but for the most part it's like an aquarium. It's almost overwhelming. Words are everywhere." He points to a discount stereo store with bilingual advertising. "All you have to do is just look out the window and there's a thousand words."

Married and the father of two children -- two-year-old daughter Kellesimone and newborn son, Casy -- Waits abruptly ended his nighthawk days five years ago, when he came upon Kathleen Brennan, a playwright and short-story writer. "We met on New Year's Eve. Roy Brown was playing(1). It was love at first sight. We got married in Watts, at the Always and Forever Wedding Chappel, twenty-four-hour service on Manchester Boulevard." Waits pauses. "She's my true love," he adds soberly. The drifter has found a home and a collaborator. Brennan co-wrote the plaintive "Hang Down Your Head" on - Rain Dogs -, and she and Tom are now finishing a play based upon "Frank's Wild Years", a song Waits wrote for his 1983 album - Swordfishtrombones -. It will be presented by Chicago's Steppenwolf Company this summer(2).

Waits' career seems to be moving in all directions at once. Not only is his version of "What Keeps Mankind Alive?" one of the highlights of the current Kurt Weill tribute album - Lost in the Stars -, but Bruce Springsteen's rendition of "Jersey Girl", which Waits wrote for his wife, has given that song anthem status west of the Hudson. Waits and Springsteen sang the ballad together in Los Angeles a few years back(3), but Tom was unprepared for Bruce's impact. "There are T-shirts with Jersey Girl!" he exclaims. "It always reminds me of a social group. Is this like a gang or what?"

But in spite of the media attention, Tom Waits has managed to remain an outsider. It's exactly that lonesome-drifter persona that has always made his work so compelling. The seams were invisible between the desolate characters in his songs and the character standing onstage with a jazzman's goatee, a secondhand suit and a hobo's roar. Born in a taxi in Pomona, California, Waits spent his early days in Whittier before moving to San Diego. He was "discovered" while performing at a "hoot night" at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. His first album, -Closing Time-, was released in 1973, and soon afterward the myths started to grow about the all-night rambler who stayed in skid-row hotels and hitched rides with truckers from gig to gig. Waits remembers long nights full of "liquor, girls, liquor and more liquor." But his fame started interfering with his preferred lifestyle. "It became more difficult to stay where I wanted than where I should. I wanted to stay in these places like the Men's Assistance Center." Fondly, he can rattle off the names of some of the best dives across the country. His criterion was simple: "Mingus(4) stayed there, I said I'll stay there."

His tenuous home base was the Tropicana Motel in Los Angeles(5). The piano was in his kitchen. With gutwrenching sincerity, his gravel-edged voice sang of those on the shadow line -- prostitutes, derelicts and misfits -- with equal measures of melancholy and desperation. He gained a strong following both here and abroad, but unlike most of the Seventies singer/songwriters, whose allegiance was to lyrical country rock, Waits leaned towards Jack Kerouac's American wordscape and Stephen Foster's homesick melodies. When the Eagles covered Waits' classic highway lament "Ol' 55", there seemed to be a generation gap as wide as the one between the Stones and Muddy Waters. Waits seemed to be twenty-five going on sixty-five, with a lot of hard times in between.

What the masses seemed to be missing was a consummate American artist with a boundless range and the uniqueness of Mark Twain. Waits' stage performances revealed a beat poet extraordinaire with an instinctual mastery of theater. Not surprisingly, movie people began to take notice of pop music's misfit. He had a bit part in Sylvester Stallone's - Paradise Alley - in 1978, then composed the title song for Ralph Waite's - On the Nickel - in 1980, before coming to the attention of Francis Ford Coppola.

"I met him in a bar," Waits says. "I gave him a ride home. He started borrowing money from me. And I said, 'Look, I'll do what I can to help you.'" Waits' historical perspective does little to help clear the smoke away from the myths that surround him. He deals with questions about his past like a one-man improvisational troupe. The afore mentioned help became eighteen months in a cramped office at Zoetrope Studios working on the score for - One from the Heart -. The soundtrack was nominated for an Academy Award in 1982, and his relationship with Coppola continued in front of the camera. First, he portrayed the sour-faced owner of Benny's Pool Hall in - Rumble Fish - (1983) and then Herman Stark, the nightclub manager in - The Cotton Club - (1984). Waits' admiration for Coppola is apparent, though, as usual, masked: "He's daring. He's a tightrope walker."

Later this year, Waits will be appearing in - Down by Law(6) -, a film directed by Jim Jarmusch, whose low-budget classic - Stranger Than Paradise - brought him international recognition. It's his most ambitious role yet, and the story is tailor-made: "It's in Louisiana in the winter, and it's three guys in prison. And they escape. I play a disc jockey," he says with a mischievous smile.

Movies and music seem interchangeable in Tom Waits' mind lately. Even the title of - Rain Dogs - reminds him of "some kind of war movie starring Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin and Rod Steiger(7), as Solomon the watchmaker." The album -- whose title, Waits, says, refers to dogs who search in vain for their "touchstones", forever erased by rain -- is a step further in the "junkyard orchestration" style he introduced on - Swordfishtrombones -. The music's percussiveness is startling but perfectly suited to Waits' ever-deepening voice. "I'm more interested in things that make noise," he says. "I had a pile driver by my window last summer that worked all day, every day and Sundays, and I started making tape recordings of it, and my wife says, 'Jeez Christ, not only do we have to listen to this unnatural sound, now at night, he finally knocks off and you have to play tapes of it!"

Nonetheless, the pleasure of both home and career have finally caught up to Tom Waits. The night after the birth of his son (who Tom was named Senator Waits, adding that his wife wanted Representative but he won out), he sits on a tall conductor's stool in a rehearsal hall in New York's garment district with his legs double-crossed and his porkpie hat hung nearby on the mike stand, rehearsing for his first U.S. dates in five years. He's gathered a versatile, jazz-flavored band(8) that's now waiting for the count-off while Waits rocks back and forth, as if in a trance. His introverted air is deceptive, though, for only a few bars into the title cut of - Rain Dogs -, his instinctual musicianship is awakened as he demonstrates to the percussionist exactly how the parade drums must sound.

Two months later, Waits is onstage at New York's Beacon Theatre(9), where he has easily sold out two shows. The stage is darkly lit with overhead pencil spots that exaggerate his angular gestures and mimelike movements. The songs from - Rain Dogs - are even more harrowing live; Waits appears to be a modern Long John Silver with a grisly tale to tell an enraptured audience. But Waits' offbeat sense of humor is ever present. At the beginning of "Shore Leave", a song from - Swordfishtrombones -, he slides to the side of the stage and deftly opens a black umbrella hanging on a street-lamp prop. Twirling it with finesse over his shoulder, he smiles to the audience. They cheer. One palm is extended to check for any condensation in the local weather pattern. And as Waits peers toward the heavens, sparkling little silver "raindrops" fall from on high, splashing irridescently on his umbrella. Tom Waits the rain dog is howling. And looking for a home. Maybe he's found it.

Elliott Murphy is a musician and freelance writer. He once did a week-long stand in Chicago with Tom Waits.


(1) Roy Brown was playing: Waits referring to this New Orleans blues/ rockabilly singer. Brown died on May 25, 1981, in Los Angeles. Further reading: Roy Brown at Hoyhoy. Further reading: Always Forever Yours Wedding Chapel

(2) Chicago's Steppenwolf Company this summer: 17 - 22 June, 1986. World premiere and theatrical debut. Three month run as Frank in the play: "Frank's Wild Years" at the "St. Briar Street Theatre", Chicago. The Steppenwolf Theatre. Further reading: Franks Wild Years

(3) Waits and Springsteen sang the ballad together in Los Angeles a few years back: August 24, 1981, guest appearance with: "Bruce Springsteen & The E. Street Band" at the L.A. Sports Arena, Los Angeles (live version of "Jersey Girl").

(4) Mingus: American Jazz composer and bassist Charles Mingus. Further reading: Official Charles Mingus siteCharles Mingus Home Page

(5) His tenuous home base was the Tropicana Motel in Los Angeles: Further reading: Tropicana Motel.

(6) Down by Law: Movie directed by Jim Jarmusch (1986). Shot on location in New Orleans. Waits as actor & composer. Plays leading role as DJ Zack. On soundtrack: "Jockey Full Of Bourbon" and "Tango Till They're Sore". Further reading: Filmography

(7) Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin and Rod Steiger: that would be a mix of The Longest Day (Released: 1962 Director: Ken Annakin, Bernhard Wicki, Andrew Marton) starring Rod Steiger and The Dirty Dozen (Released: 1967 Director: Robert Aldrich) starring: Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine

(8) He's gathered a versatile, jazz-flavored band: Ralph Carney: saxophones, horns, baritone, alto, clarinet, violin, bass clarinet, banjo, harmonica. Marc Ribot: electric guitar, trumpet. Greg Cohen: upright bass. Michael Blair: percussion, bass marimba. Stephen Hodges: drums (November 20 - 21 Beacon Theatre. New York and November 23 - 24 Beverly Theatre. Los Angeles: Rain Dogs tour)

(9) Waits is onstage at New York's Beacon Theatre: November 20 - 21 Beacon Theatre. New York. Further reading: Performances