|Title: Tom Waits' Wild Year
Source: Musician magazine, by Mark Rowland. Transcription by Gary Tausch as published on Gary's Tom Waits Miscellania. Kind permission: Gary Tausch
Date: January, 1993
Key words: Bone Machine, Studio recording, Keith Richards, Dracula
Magazine front cover: Musician magazine. January, 1993
Tom Waits' Wild Year
Not long ago, Tom Waits and his family uprooted from Los Angeles, his home for many years, and moved up the coast to the quieter, rustic expanse of Petaluma County. "I came for the waters," he deadpans. "I was misinformed. Now what I like to do is get three radios, turn 'em up full blast and imagine I'm back in town. There's my thrill. Sirens really kill me; I get all choked up." Of course Waits is kidding -- maybe. On the other hand, few contemporary musicians are as attuned to the atmosphere in which songs are born and bred, with what he calls "negative space." And as for the perversity of pining for L.A.'s urban cacophony, well, part of what has always made Waits special is his knack for finding diamonds in the rough. Take "Bone Machine", Waits' first album of non-instrumental music in five years and his first not joined to a play or a movie since 1985's "Rain Dogs". All that time between records may have facilitated "Bone Machine"'s relatively easy birth process: "It came out of the ground like a potato," Waits says proudly. But when it came time to incubate all the new songs he'd written--there are 16 on the album--he couldn't find a studio he liked. As a consequence, the album was recorded in the storage room of a warehouse(1).
"I was so disturbed; the studio we got was totally wrong," Waits explains, still a little pained by the memory. "I was stomping around thinking, nothing will ever grow in this room. I'm more and more inclined toward texture, and you can't get texture with this whole bio-regenerator flesh approach to recording. It gets a little too scientific for me. But the great thing about DAT is that you can record anywhere now. Because the room becomes a character. And fortunately, we stumbled upon a storage room that sounded so good--plus it already had maps on the wall," he recalls fondly. "So I said, 'That's it, we're sold.'"
A composer whose best songs often combine elements of mystery, grit and romance, Waits has spent much of the last decade developing a musical language in which arrangements of sound can be as emotionally evocative as his already distinctive voice, lyrics and melodies. That approach has made for some fascinating experiments (Tony Bennett once described "Swordfishtrombones" as sounding like "a guy in an ash can sending messages," which pretty much hit the nail on the head), but on "Bone Machine" Waits molds those elements with his surest sense of harmony and control. The results range from the spare brass dirge of "Dirt in the Ground" to "Goin' Out West" 's demented surf-pop to the spaghetti Western ambience of "Black Wings" to "That Feel", a paean to individual essence Waits co-wrote with Keith Richards, which sounds, well, like a cross between Tom Waits and Keith Richards.
"It's great to have somebody to write with," says Waits, who tends to compose by himself or with his wife Kathleen Brennan. "It's still really a mystery why songs come around and then leave. Keith is always pondering these same questions; he's extremely down-to-earth and very mystical at the same time."
Listening to "Bone Machine", you get the sense that Richards' influence extended beyond his appearance on "That Feel." On the primal love call "Such a Scream," for instance, Waits whips his guitar along in decidedly Keith-like fashion. "Yeah, right--you can't help it if you're around him," he laughs. "You start walking like him, and you know, it's just impossible. He's got arms like a fisherman. He's physically very strong, and he can outlast you. You think you can stay up late? You can't even come close. He can stay up for a week--on coffee and stories."
You mean you tried to compete with him?
"I gave up the first night. I was hospitalized."
No Waits album would be complete without his droll graveyard humor, but most of "Bone Machine" is far from jokey; several songs probe the subject of death and its various guises--murder, suicide, fate, surrender--with unblinking narratives. Waits says he's as surprised as anyone that the record should congeal around this theme, but as coincidence it's worth noting that the making of "Bone Machine" was interrupted for several weeks while Waits took on the part of Renfield for the Francis Ford Coppola movie "Bram Stoker's Dracula."
"That was something I felt strongly about, that I was going to be Renfield. I got to go into this whole lurid, torrid tale, which was a metamorphosis for me, to go into your own dark rooms...yeah, there's some horror on this record, but I didn't think about it at the time. I just thought, oh God, I have to stop recording and go get a bad haircut and eat bugs. And then come back home again."
Waits tends to view his songs the way an overprotective parent regards his children, and he sends them into the world with similar ambivalence. "I want it to do well," he says of "Bone Machine". "I seem to have a wide reputation, but my records don't sell a lot. A lot of people seem to have bought one record or they heard one record a long time ago and got me down, so they don't have to check in anymore: 'Oh, that guy. The one with the deep voice without a shave? Know him. Sings about eggs and sausage? Yeah, got it.'
"But you send 'em out there, 'cause it's true that things kind of land in your back yard like meteorites. Songs can have a real effect on you--songs have been known to save lives. So some of them are little paramedics. Or maybe some will be killers. Some of them will die on the windshield. And some of them will never leave home. You beat them but they never leave. Others can't wait to get out of here, and will never write. They're ungrateful little bastards."
Maybe you can scare them by writing more songs.
"Hey, there's only one reason to write more songs," Waits figures. "It's what Miles Davis said. Because you're tired of the old ones."