Title: Tom Waits: Town Crier
Source: Creem magazine. January, 1988. By Bill Holdship. Transcription by Larry Da Silveira as sent to Raindogs Listserv discussionlist March 6, 2005. Also published as "A Flea In His Ear" City Limits magazine, May 12-19, 1988.
Date: Traveler's Cafe/ Los Angeles. Early 1988
Key words: Public image, Commercial success, Commercials, Musical transition, The Pogues, Waits name

Magazine front cover: Creem magazine. January, 1988


Tom Waits: Town Crier


I'M A LITTLE nervous - and I don't get this way often these days. But I've heard that Tom Waits can be a difficult interview. Plus, he's probably one of the most mysterious people I've ever had to profile. A lot's been written about him, but no one seems to know much about him.

Some people do know that, with his last three albums, he's produced some of the best experimental music of this decade. Hell, one could even call it "psychedelic" - and it sounds nothing like Echo & The Bunnymen. 'Course, he wasn't always this way. I remember seeing Waits in some small clubs during the mid-to-late '70s, and people were calling him an heir to the Beat tradition back then. He used to come out, looking like a wino or the kind of vagrant you'd find in any major city's "mission" district, playing piano and singing behind a standard '50s jazz trio. He had a perpetual cigarette in his mouth. His voice had more gravel than even Louis Armstrong's (whose voice he sometimes seemed to be mimicking). He wrote songs about defeated dreamers with broken hearts - hookers, strippers, alcoholics, the like. And he wrote these beautiful haunting melodies that had almost the same effect on a listener as a Stephen Foster song or the saddest Christmas music.

He doesn't smoke anymore, but he's still singing about broken dreamers. Except the music's "weird" now. Some people have made Captain Beefheart (who, after all, was a psychedelic Howlin' Wolf) comparisons. But, beyond Beefheart, Tom Waits is one of the most amazing synthesists making music today. He takes stuff from all over the place, uses all kinds of unusual instruments and vocal effects, and makes it all work within the confines of a song. But just because the music can be described as "weird," that doesn't mean that Waits has lost his ear for melody, as anyone who's heard the absolutely gorgeous 'Hang Down Your Head' from Rain Dogs, or the sad 'Cold Cold Ground' and 'Innocent When You Dream' (which sounds like perfect Christmas music) from his wonderful new Frank's Wild Years would testify. Hell, 'Yesterday Is Here' from the new one sounds reminiscent of 'Ghost Riders In The Sky' - or at least it creates that mood. Waits often takes sentimental musical elements and then mutates them. Other songwriters respect him immensely; his songs have been covered by artists from Bruce Springsteen to Marianne Faithfull. His albums rock, glide, bop and weep. They're unlike anything else you'll hear on vinyl today.

Frank's Wild Years(1) began as a play which was produced by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company for several months in 1986. Waits's wife, Kathleen Brennan, wrote most of the dialogue; he wrote the music and played the lead character. The story concerns Frank, a singer and entertainer who has some minor success but ends up destitute, sleeping on a park bench - just another broken dreamer. There's a good chance that Frank's Wild Years could someday be a movie, only because Waits has a second career in films, having played roles in several Francis Ford Coppola flicks, including One From The Heart (for which he also wrote the music), Rumblefish and The Cotton Club, as well as playing a major role in Jim (Stranger Than Paradise) Jarmusch's Down By Law. He'll be appearing onscreen with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep in the film version of Ironweed right around the time you'll be reading this.

Of course, if you're a Waits fan, you already know most of this. Tom Waits has talked about all of this in interviews numerous times since the release of Frank's Wild Years. We're sitting in the Traveler's Cafe, a funky little coffee shop in a funky L.A. neighborhood. (I called for directions the day before, saying I was supposed to meet a friend there. "Who? Tom Waits?" came the gruff reply. Well, yeah. "It's my office" Waits later explains.) And even though I think I was into Tom Waits before it was real cool to be into Tom Waits, this interview's going nowhere.

He says a few interesting things, but you'll probably read the same info somewhere else. He's tired of talking about the music and the movies. Sometimes, he's serious but brief; other times, I can't tell if he's putting me on or not. "Cuban-Chinese. That's what I'm doing," he says in response to what his forthcoming live shows will be like, and he says "a slaughterhouse" is his favorite environment for writing. He says "D.J. Pancake" is one of his favorite writers, and he tells me he's been focusing on light fixtures and air-conditioning units constantly these days. He must say the words "I don't know" a hundred times. The worst is when I ask him - because all his dreamers are losers - if he thinks that dreams are a good or bad thing. We sit in silence for several seconds. He then says, "Ask me another question."

So I do what I often do when I'm nervous, picking up my pad of paper and reading questions directly from it. Tom also has a small notepad that he's taken from inside his jacket pocket, and - although he uses it once to read the possible titles for his next LP ("I'm going to do something completely different. Here are some titles. Pitch Black. The World I Hate To Live In. I'm just trying these out on you. They Only Kill Their Masters." That was the name of a movie. "Oh, well. That's out then. How about For Crying Out Loud? I don't know. I'd like to do something harder. Something like jail poems.") - he spends a lot of time with his eyes glued to this little book.

I ask: Is that your notebook? "Yeah. Phone numbers. Grocery lists. You've got one. So do I."

I put my notebook down. What do you want to talk about? Is there something I should be asking you? "Well, I've been asked all these things before. If I sound a little like I'm watching the clock, it's because I've been asked every one of those questions. I'm just being honest with you. When someone does a lot of interviews, that's what happens. You've picked every question that I've heard."

Even the "dream" one? "Yeah. I don't mean that to be an open criticism of your work. I'm just being candid:"

OK. What would be a question that no one's asked you before?

"Oh, I don't know. 'Who won the World Series in 1957?' "

Do you know who won the World Series in 1957? "I think it was the St. Louis Cardinals. See? But, no, I just figure this is CREEM magazine. Now, let me tell you what I think. Now, it's a magazine that deals with a lot of musicians and a readership that, in probably most cases, I'm old enough to be their father. I'm almost 38 years old. So you're asking me very focused questions on the work. I thought you were going to ask me more things that tie what I do into something your readership would be interested in, not just people who already know who I am. It's like a nightclub - CREEM magazine. People pick it up every week who don't know who I am."

You really think so? "Sure. Who's on the cover of CREEM this week? AC/DC?"

No. We don't really cover heavy metal much anymore.

"What do you do?" Well, I think we're going for more of a college audience who've heard of Tom Waits. Where do you think you figure into this scheme of things? Where do you think you figure into the sphere of "rock 'n' roll"?

"I don't know:" He pauses, and sighs. "I think the kind of thing I'm working on now, I would hope in some cases - I don't want this too sound pretentious - but it may earn me a bit of youth...Particularly in Europe, you know, I have much more of a younger audience, an audience that sort of began with Swordfishtrombones. Here, I have a lot of people who've been listening to me since 1972. They want me to come out, unshaven, drink whiskey and tell stories about broken-down hotels; you know, Hoagy Carmichael style. But what I'm trying to do is something that incorporates certain ethnic influences, but has a harder edge than that. That other stuff's something I've already been through. It's like being on the edge of a house fire and describing it. Now, I'm going in the house while it's on fire.

"I'm not a commercial artist. I don't get a tremendous amount of airplay. It seems that I reach a certain amount of people by talking to magazines. You'd be more apt to see me in a magazine than you would to hear me on the radio. It's kind of strange. It's like reading about a bird in an electronics magazine. You hope that you'll be on the radio, but radio is so changed now. It's like NBC or CBS, the demographics of it. There's so much money involved that it's like network television, with the exception of a few struggling stations with a limited range and format.

"I mean, you can glue decals all over your head that say 'Coca-Cola' and 'Pepsi' and advertise cigarettes and underwear. That's one way to get across. You know, like race car drivers that have every product known to man tattooed across the side of their car. And a lot of groups choose to align themselves with big companies to underwrite their tours. And I hate that shit."

You've probably been asked to do commercials over the years.

"Yeah, but I don't do that. It's just not something for me."

Do you think it's been more difficult for you, in that you did go through a change in your musical style and...

"Well, I had to. I was really at an impasse. My head was exploding. How dramatic the change has been is probably more personal than anything else. I gave myself a reprieve, you know? I was headed for the electric chair. It's hard because when you do music to make your living - and you have something that's going over you start to inhale all these ridiculous American capitalist concepts of maintenance, and that what you do is in some way a kind of product. Keep making the Quaker Oats. Keep loading your wagon. So I don't know. I felt like what I was doing was becoming difficult to keep doing. And, in many ways, I haven't changed at all as much as I'd really like to. But that all has to come naturally."

I think a lot of people mistook you for the role you were playing back then, although you did stay in transient hotels and stuff like that. Were you playing a role? "Well," he's chewing on ice, "I think you have to. It's one thing if you manufacture recliners or radios. But when you, yourself, are what goes out there, you have to have something to protect you. People begin saying terrible things about you - or you get great praise. And it doesn't really mean anything because it's not personal. They're reacting to something that you put out there in the window, put a light on it, and a price tag next to it. So if someone thinks you're great, it's not really you they think is great. And if they do a hatchet job on you, it's not really you. So the best thing to do is protect yourself. Put on a moustache and sunglasses and stripes in your tie. Shave your head, change your name - and then keep the rest of you off to the side for your friends and family. Otherwise, you're in a shooting gallery. Stick your neck out, and they'll skin you, hang you on the wall, and throw back the bones. So you have to focus on your own work. That's what's important - your own growth and development.

"And it happens on every level. Whether it's someone like Elvis Presley or it's whoever it is. That's why a lot of people end up writing about what they're going through inside the machinery. I think you have to focus on other things, and keep as open as you can to different musical influences. That's what I'm trying to do."

Frank's Wild Years seems to fit into all of this somehow. "Well, it's the story about a guy who went out to be an entertainer, left a small town, went to Vegas, had this song 'Innocent When You Dream'. And a year later, he has taken the same song and turned it into 'You're In A Suit Of Your Dreams' to advertise suits at an all-night clothing store. And that's the type of thing that happens."

It's like in 'I'll Take New York', where you sing "They'll name a street after me:" as though that's the biggest thing you can get out of it.

"Yeah. If you're lucky. Hollow dreams, you know."

On that song, the way you deliver the first line sounds like it could almost be the first line in Frank Sinatra's 'New York, New York'.

"Well, it's another song about New York. Those other ones try to make it bigger or prettier - but in this case, I was trying to make it more like something from the Jerry Lewis Telethon, and somehow the song and the singer are cancelling each other out as it's happening. As you're singing 'I'll Take New York', someone's stealing your billfold. You know? It's like the guy singing in the middle of Times Square with his pants down around his knees."

So your wife is obviously a writer as well? "Yeah. We co-wrote a lot of the songs together."

Is that painting inside the cover of the new LP(2) by either one of you? "Yeah. Kathleen did that. She's Irish-Catholic. She's from Dublin...She was from, uh...I rescued her from the nunnery."

Seriously? "Yeah. She was going to be a nun. We've been married seven years."

Did you meet her in Ireland? "Yeah."

I read somewhere that you're a big fan of the Pogues.

"I love the Pogues. Yeah, they're it. They're really it. I love those guys."

So you might end up doing a project with the Pogues? "I'd love to. They have a quality. I love that group. I love Shane's voice. But he ought to get his teeth fixed...You Irish?"

Yeah. Half.

"You're from here, but your grandparents are from where?" I don't know, but we're listed in both the Belfast and Dublin phone books.

"Well, your name is Gaelic. It's like Callahan is from calloused hands - Callahan/calloused hands. Waits is really Scotch-Irish - and Waits is the guy who came out in the town at the end of the night, and said 'All is well,'(3) and sang the town news and put the streetlights out. So they called him a 'Waits.' He sang like a town crier:"

I loved the people I met in Ireland. A lot of really kind-hearted people. They like to drink a little bit, though.

"Well, there's nothing wrong with that. Keeps you honest. What's some groups you can recommend that I hear? You're probably more up on things than I am."

Well, speaking of drinking, the one rock 'n' roll band I love right now is the Replacements...

"Oh, I love the Replacements. I love them." Have you heard Pleased To Meet Me? "Oh, yeah, I've heard them all. I saw them here in L.A. at the Variety Arts Center. It was like an insect ritual. It was very peculiar, and very thrilling. Paul Westerberg is a killer. He's a great writer." Well, gee, you've probably heard everything I've heard. "I liked Hootenanny, all that raw stuff. And I liked Boink! I like Alex Chilton a lot, too. He's really great. First thing that caught my ear by him - like about 10 years ago or so - was that thing he did, 'Bangkok'. In fact, I saw Chilton and the Replacements play together at CBGB's about four years ago."

One final question. Some people would call Tom Waits a bit of a genius. What do you think about that?

"Oh, Jesus, no!" He seems embarrassed. "God, I don't even know what 'genius' is. I guess a genius is someone who can stay out of jail. Uh, I don't know."

And with that, Waits drops a few bills on the table like they do in the movies when they're in a hurry, and he's up and out of the booth. He points at the ceiling. There's an extremely weird light up there.

"See what I mean? Lighting fixtures. You probably would've never noticed that if I hadn't pointed it out to you. Pay more attention to them."

And with that, Tom Waits is out the door.

� Bill Holdship, 1988


(1) Franks Wild Years: Read full story: Franks Wild Years

(2) That painting inside the cover of the new LP:

(3) And said "All is Well":
- "From medieval times up to the beginning of the 19th century, every British town and city of any note had a band of Waits. Their duties varied from time to time and place to place, but included playing their instruments through the town at night, waking the townsfolk on dark winter mornings by playing under their windows, welcoming Royal visitors by playing at the town gates, and leading the Mayor's procession on civic occasions. Their instruments also varied, but were for the main part loud and penetrating wind instruments such as the shawm, which was so closely associated with them that it was also known as the Wait-pipe. Waits were provided with salaries, liveries and silver chains of office, bearing the town's arms. As a result of the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, Waits were abolished, though their name lingered on as 'Christmas Waits', who could be any group of singers or musicians who formed a band in order to sing and play carols for money around their town or village at night over the Christmas period. Unfortunately, it is these largely amateur musicians who have become associated in peoples' minds with the name 'Waits', when they have heard of them at all, rather than the important civic officers and accomplished musicians who were true Waits." (Source and further reading: The Waits Website)
Tom Waits (1985): 'I don't think it's that important to tell the truth,' he once said. Like the boy who cried wolf, he is disbelieved even when he's being honest. Waits, I'd said, was an unusual name. 'Well, he deadpanned, my name was Waitsosky and then we dropped the -osky." Oh really, said gullible me. TW: "No, Waits is a musical term. It's the guy that puts out the lights at the end of the day and sings all the stories of what's happened in the town.' Disbelievingly, I laughed. The dictionary put me right." (Source: "The Sultan Of Sleaze", YOU magazine, by Pete Silverton. Date: New York. Early October, 1985).
Tom Waits (1992): "My name is in all the music dictionaries you know. "Waits" - those are the people who go through the city singing carols and singing the story of the day and putting out the lights. The town crier. All is well, it's 10:00 and all is well and Mrs O'Malley's cow has died and Charles Foster was hit by a train and Bill Bailey was run in with his own sword. The quintuplets are now three years old. That's what my name means in the music dictionaries." (Source: "Telerama Interview", Date: September 9, 1992).
Tom Waits (1999): ''My name defines a calling as well. The Waits traditionally turned out all the lights and put the town to sleep. I've spent a lot of time researching the meaning of names. ''Hmmm . . . ,'' he adds, as if intending to continue the thought. He doesn't. He was clearing his throat." (Source: "Talking With Tom Waits Is Like Trying To Converse With A Ghost In A Fog", The Toronto Star (Canada), by Greg Quill. Date: August 19, 1999)
Margaret Moser (2002): What is Waits, English? TW: Scotch-Irish, I think. Waits is a musical term. A "waits" is the man who put out the lights at day's end and sang the song of the day. "It's 8 o'clock and all's well." Then he told the things that happened that day: Somebody's cow ran away, Mrs. Ferguson was found bound and gagged in the barn, it rained like hell ... whatever. That's what a waits was." (Source: "This Business Called Show'. Austin Chronicle (USA) Vol. 21, No. 26. May 10-16, 2002 by Margaret Moser)

"The Waits, and may they continue to wait!"
St. Stephens cartoon by Tom Merry. December 25, 1886