Title: Tom Waits: The Restless Iconoclast
Source: The Oregonian (USA), by Michael Evans. Transcription as published on Oregon Live
Date: October 15, 1999
Key words: Captain Beefheart, touring, acting


Tom Waits: The Restless Iconoclast


The gravelly voiced singer, appearing tonight in Eugene(1) , reflects on a long, strange career

Remember that episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" where Capt. Picard gets trapped on a planet with an alien who speaks only in metaphors?

Well, if you didn't know better you'd swear that Tom Waits was that alien.

From barfly troubadour to latter-day experimental music maven, it's always been about taking the elliptical path less traveled for the gravelly voiced California-born singer/songwriter. Although none of the 16 albums Waits has put out during his quarter-century career have been big sellers, that hasn't prevented him from garnishing a considerable amount of critical acclaim and a fervent, cult-sized following for his quirky songs. Waits also has dabbled in avant-garde theater and has appeared in nearly two dozen films, from "Short Cuts" to the recent superhero spoof "Mystery Men." It comes as no surprise, then, to find Waits playing the role of restless iconoclast with gonzo gusto on his latest release, "Mule Variations." His first album in five years is consummate Waits, a clattering collection of bullhorn blues, gospel and cabaret music featuring offbeat examinations of love ("Hold On"), fame ("Big in Japan"), spirituality ("Chocolate Jesus") and barbecue ("Filipino Box Spring Hog"). In the midst of his first major concert tour in eons (which has him playing Oregon for the first time since 1978)(2), Waits recently spoke to The Oregonian about his long, strange career.

Q: Many of the records that you've made since 1981's "Swordfishtrombones" have this avant-bluesy, Captain Beefheart feel to them. How much of an influence has he been on your work?
A: "Once you've heard Beefheart, it's hard to wash him out of your clothes. It stains, like coffee or blood. (The music) encouraged a lot of people to go into some kind of a cocoon and come out as something (different) than when they went in. "(But) it's not just Beefheart (for me) . . . I like Tricky, the Staple Singers, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Charley Patton. . . . You start out being the sum of those parts, and at some point you've got to decide when you're soup yet."

Q: Until this year you've only played a handful of concerts since 1987. Why go back out and play now?
A: "Exactly. Why? (Laughs.) There's so many other things I could be doing. Target practice. Hat shopping. Looking for arrowheads. Getting good with a bullwhip."

Q: Well, has it been good for you going out and playing live?
A: "Well, some call it live. You're dealing with viscosity and thermal breakdown, the variables of everything. It's physics. And then you gotta break it down, move it, put it back up again in another town."

Q: So how do you get your voice to sound like that -- like you're gargling bourbon and broken glass?
A: "There are days that your voice is unmanageable, like bad-hair days. You can't get it to lay down or stick up. You have a relationship with it. You use it to transmit delicate information . . . and some days you can't do a single thing with it."

Q: Do you prefer acting to music?
A: "There's so many people involved, it's difficult. There's so many who do it well. I've done it and I've had some good experiences with it, but nothing, as of yet, that has compared with the transcendence that I've experienced through music."

You can reach Michael Evans c/o The Oregonian, 1320 S.W. Broadway, Portland, OR 97201.


(1) Appearing tonight in Eugene: October 15, 1999: Hult Center. Eugene/ USA (Mule Variations tour). Further reading: Performances

(2) Playing Oregon for the first time since 1978: unknown/ unidentified show