Title: Tom Waits Tries A Dramatic Voice With Demon Wine
Source: Los Angeles Times (USA), by Robert Koehler. Transcription by Dorene LaLonde, as sent to Raindogs Listserv Discussionlist August 8, 1999
Date: February 10, 1989
Key words: Demon Wine, Acting, Public image


Tom Waits Tries A Dramatic Voice With Demon Wine


Tom Waits has made a life out of fooling people. Just when the pop music cognoscenti had pegged him as a singer-songwriter who spent his time lamenting lost loves and dreams over warm glasses of booze, along came his 1983 album, "Swordfishtrombones", which dove into dark maelstroms of fury with weird, sly instrumentations and vocals. Just when Waits seemed forever stuck as a passionately revered cult figure, along came his brief performances in several Francis Coppola films ("Rumblefish", "The Outsiders", "The Cotton Club"), followed by meatier appearances in "Down by Law", "Ironweed" and the upcoming "Cold Feet" by Thomas McGuane, with Jeff Bridges, Bill Pullman, and Sally Kirkland.

And just when it looked like as if Waits were going to follow the flow of pop performers crossing over into film acting (the crowded list includes Sting, Phil Collins, Cyndi Lauper, David Bowie, the Clash's Joe Strummer), he cut a different path. In 1986, he created and performed in "Frank's Wild Years" (subsequently an album) as a musical at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre. Last year, he joined a sterling cast, including Rene Auberjonois, Bud Cort, and Joe Frank, at the Doolittle Theatre for a performance tribute to French playwright Eugene Ionesco(1) . Those were the warm-ups. Starting tonight, Waits appears in the world premiere of playwright Thomas Babe's "Demon Wine"(2) at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. It is Waits' first full-length performance in a role written by someone else. (Babe is best-known for his works "A Prayer for my Daughter" and "Father and Sons").

"I feel a little intimidated", he uttered in a low, almost slurred growl -- his natural voice. "There's this great cast around me: Phillip Baker Hall, Carol Kane, Jan Munroe" -- plus reunions with his longtime friend Cort, and Pullman, who showed Waits the "Demon Wine" script during the filming of "Cold Feet". "I kinda feel like I'm surrounded by Jascha Heifetzes, and there's me coming on with three chords." In past interviews, Waits has often talked like the crazy-wise character in his highly theatrical concerts. When asked in Rolling Stone magazine(3) about shifting from musician to actor, he responded: "It's like going from bootlegging to watch repair." However, as he sat in a Theatre Center office and thought about the task of putting Babe's blackly comic and poetically styled play on stage, Waits spoke plainly -- or as plainly as Tom Waits can. He even became a little tough on himself. "I'm very undisciplined. The schedule is the hardest thing for me. I'm not used to getting up, working [in rehearsals] for eight hours and then back home to go over the text and prepare the next days work. I have my own way of working on my own stuff. This schedule requires a discipline that's unknown to guy's like me." Then as if stringing together straight statements was too much to ask, he added, "It [the discipline] is a bone I do not have in my ribcage."

The man setting his schedule is director David Schweizer, whose reproduction of Marlane Meyer's "Kingfish" last year at LATC set the local theatre community buzzing that a gifted stage maestro with post-modern tastes had arrived. Even as an actor, Waits views Schweizer and "Demon Wine" through a musician's glasses. "David is like a conductor, and we're his orchestra, and he brings out something new in us every day. He's pretty intricate as he keeps an eye on things. He has to be. Like he was telling us just the other day, this play's a surreal comic opera with words and arias for each character. What Babe wrote is a lot closer to Prokofiev than [Delta blues man] Robert Johnson. It's loaded for bear." Then, too, the production's music score by Steve Moshier, Waits emphasized, "is a great emotional spark. Very heroic and confident, like an Alex North score, and then it gets into a style called 'urban church'. It's nice not being the musician for a change." Waits' character, Curly, works for his mobster father (Hall) and gets his unemployed pal Jimmie (Pullman) a job as a loan shark. As Jimmie's fortunes rise, Curly's plummet. "We talked about this rise and fall stuff a lot in rehearsals," Waits said, "but it's another thing to actually play that. As Jimmie becomes more financially secure, he becomes morally bankrupt. But as Curly goes lower, he gains a certain amount of wisdom about what's happening to his friends. The material and this world are so rich, you hope you're up to the task." "Sometimes," he said of the acting life, "I feel like I'm an ant hanging onto a cracker in the middle of a storm."

Yet Waits, in the eyes of observers of pop stars-turned- thespians, is doing better than most. Christopher Connely, a senior editor and music columnist at Premier magazine, thinks that Waits has avoided the problem facing musicians who have established an identifiable persona as they bid for crossover fame. "Film or stage requires taking on different characters. Waits' advantage is that he's a character actor, which allows him a lot of range." Ironically, another advantage, says Connely, is that "he doesn't have a mass following. Not like Madonna [who recently appeared, and was critically panned, in the premiere of David Mamet's "Speed-the Plow"]. He's not used up as a cultural icon." But Waits, as an emeritus member of LA's cultural underground, is dubious of having icon status, or success. "Both my songs and Tom's [Babe] play are about the 'gravel of the earth,' as he puts it. He's written this comedy that really slams into the American idea of success, the Horatio Alger myth that you can get what you want, and if it means climbing over a few people's backs to get there, then it's just a chance for a fancier stroll."

For a man who has penned lyrics like "the piano has been drinking," he professed awe at Babe's own lyrical ability. "There's language in this that goes from the Greek to the Arthurian to the Italian. The lines pop up in [the casts] conversation, so we're doing lines from the play when we're not doing the play." Not unlike Tom Waits fans talking in Waits-ese to each other. "That's when you get an idea that this play's gonna last. It's someplace inside you that's more permanent than what you get, say, out of a fortune cookie."


(1) Last year, he joined a sterling cast, including Rene Auberjonois, Bud Cort, and Joe Frank, at the Doolittle Theatre for a performance tribute to French playwright Eugene Ionesco: French absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco (1912-1994). "Evening of Eugene Ionesco", Doolittle Theatre, Los Angeles, 1988: unknown/ unidentified performance.

(2) Thomas Babe's "Demon Wine": Further reading: Demon Wine

(3) When asked in Rolling Stone magazine: unknown/ unidentified article