Title: Waiting Game
|Sydney Morning Herald (Australia). October 30, 2004. ANTI promo picture for Alice/ Blood Money. Date: 2002 (1999?). Credits: photography by James Minchin|
What he says may be true. It may not be. With Tom Waits, writes Bernard Zuel, anything's possible - and everything's entertaining.
Tom Waits once told an American newspaper that "I have a hard time talking about things directly". He was not joking. Like his songs, in which live characters like Molly Hoey, who "drank Pruno and Kool-Aid [and] she had a tattoo gun made out of a cassette motor and a guitar string", his answers are detailed, circuitous. And that route is the scenic one.
In his raspy but still languid tones he chuckles dryly and spins his yarns - sometimes true, sometimes fantastical - in the same way he might tell you about the workings of a piece of machinery on his Californian farm. You may choose to believe him; you may choose not to.
For example, a misunderstanding about to whom he was to speak finds him clarifying that this interview is for a morning paper, the one "that arrives whether you want it to or not". His wife and co-writer, Kathleen Brennan, is known for collecting at least four different papers each day, so I wonder if he reads them or prefers to keep away.
"Oh yeah, sure, I read the paper," he rasps. "The TV - I poured a soda in the back and we haven't been able to get a good picture ever since."
Was it a deliberate move?
"Yeah, it was a desperate move, trying to correct the vertical hold," he says. "Now it's a coffee table with an interesting light and nothing more. When I met my wife I had a TV where the picture had been getting progressively smaller and smaller and smaller until it was just a strip of light across the centre of the frame and I remember the last thing I was watching before the strip itself finally disappeared was basketball.
"It was like watching midget basketball: everything squished down to this little strip of light. It was a colour TV but you had to choose what colour you wanted everything to be. You could get it in red, blue, yellow or green, but one at a time. So I told her I've got colour TV, come over to my place."
Of course. It may well have happened, too. The 55-year-old former king of the Los Angeles demimonde, whose '70s albums of bar-room ballads and wordy, witty tales cast him as some kind of musical Bukowski, did win Brennan over in 1980.
"She's a botanist, went to med school for a while, worked at the good Samaritans who fly around doing medical work and she can fix the truck, take an engine apart and put it all together," he says proudly.
If she wasn't real, she'd be a perfect character for his songs.
"Yeah, I got lucky. And she's a certified public accountant. And remains completely accountable for all she says and does. She can even drive heavy equipment, earth movers. They used to leave the keys in those things on construction sites. We were driving by one of those sites one night ... [and] we found this earth mover, a big bulldozer, and she started it up and took a spin around the vacant lot. I think I fell for her at that moment."
Yes, it would be hard to say no to a woman after that. They've written together, produced together and, for some years now, lived in a dusty corner north of San Francisco, from where they record albums that can veer from neo-Broadway songcraft (in fact one of the musicals Waits has written, The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets(1) , in this case to the words of William Burroughs, will be performed in the Sydney Festival starring Marianne Faithfull) to what Waits has described as "junkyard orchestral deviation".
Waits's latest album, Real Gone , sits somewhere between those two points but may be said to lean towards the junkyard.
"Everything's valid. All sound is music to someone. That's my theory," Waits rumbles. "It's just how it's organised, whether it's pleasing to your ears or mine.
"For example, if you're in the middle of the ocean, your boat's just sunk, you're flapping around and sharks are circling, the most beautiful sound in the world would be the sound - very loud and very close - of a helicopter. Under most circumstances at home having a drink, you're not going to want to listen to helicopter music. You have to match the event with the sound."
Speaking of which, one of the things that permeates Real Gone, as it has many of his albums, is death. Not in a murder-ballad, glum manner but the raw visceral lives and the closeness of death to them - from the intimidatory Don't Go into that Barn and the soldier on a feckless leader's stupid war in Hoist that Rag to the road-living and road-dying folk of Circus.
What is it about fairgrounds and circuses that appeals?
"Probably the same reason that theatres are dark on Monday because that was hanging night. You couldn't really get a crowd at a theatre on a Monday night because everyone was at the hanging - including the actors in the theatre," Waits says, as if it were a perfectly natural answer.
"I don't know. Just the fact that before the circus got there it was just grass and trees. Everybody wants to run away and join the circus. That's what a lot of people do in music to some degree. You want something with heightened reality. That's what I wanted to do."
There's something about circuses: they're not real in some ways but the bare elements of physical life are something like what you get in a Tom Waits song.
He laughs. "I was thinking about the only horse in the world who did card tricks. His name was Lucifer. He worked for a carnival and the owner of the horse was old and he no longer was able to feed and care for this horse, so the horse fell into other people's hands. The horse got sold to another circus and eventually started pulling a wagon.
"At one time he'd been a big star, this horse, and one day a guy who knew about the card tricks was visiting the circus and said: 'In the name of God, what are you doing having Lucifer pulling a wagon, this genius horse?' So they ... put him back into his routine, where he was drawing crowds again.
"And when he died, when the horse died, they skinned the horse and took that skin and wrapped it around a barrel and used it as a wind machine in the local theatre. And they used that same wind machine for a hundred years.
"Isn't that wild? That's a true story, you know."
Of course it is.
(1) The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets: Further reading: The Black Rider (full story)