|Title: Waits Goin' On
Source: MelodyMaker by Karl Dallas. Vol 51. June 5, 1976. Thanks to Ken Langford for donating scans
Date: June 5, 1976
Key words: Ronnie Scott's, writing, inspirtation
Magazine front cover: Melody Maker magazine. Vol. 51. June 5, 1976
Waits Goin' On
Tom Waits, currently appearing at London's Ronnie Scott Club, talks to Karl Dallas
Talking to Tom Waits can be a dangerous business. It is rather like getting trapped in the stream of consciousness of a Transatlantic Lewis Carroll, in which you are the subject of someone else's dream, where the white rabbit wears the greasy apron of a soda jerk in a 42nd Street hamburger joint, and Alice is a young lady of very easy virtue.
You? You are the Jabberwock, about to get your head chopped off by a manic guy who sits hunched up in his chair like a sedentary Quasimodo, a filthy, twisted tweed cap whose colour might once have been rust wedged on to his head, his mumbling voice as sweet as a blunt rasp on stainless steel, whose monologue seems to wander along the wrong side of sanity.
Occasionally he laughs, his lips drawn back over his protruding teeth like a horse that decided to tip Princess Anne into the waterjump rather than try to jump it, but most of the time his face is immobile and hooded.
So who is he, you ask (as well you may), this walking spoonerism looking for somewhere to happen, and what makes him of any interest to your average rock and roller? Well, that's fairly hard to explain, not the least because he is likely to deny anything one says about him.
He is not, he insists, a poet, though I would have described him thus on the strenght of his three remarkable albums for Asylum, "Closing Time", "The Heart Of Saturday Night", and the live double "Nighthawks At The Diner".
If he wasn't a poet, then what the hell was he, I demanded, and he replied: "I'm an out-of-work service station attendant."
Tom Waits is, for me, a new breed: he talks you into confusion to stop you learning anything intrinsic about his art. He will deliberately misconstrue what you say to avoid giving you a serious answer to a civil question. For instance.
At one stage, he used the expression "imagist" to describe himself. Now if you did English literature you will know that imagists were a modernist school in post-World War I Europe, headed by Thomas Stearns Eliot and Ezra Pound - two of them Waits' countrymen it strikes me suddenly. However, how is this for an example of avoiding-the-issue dialogue?
"I'm a kind of curator," he said, "a collector of improvisational adventures from the bowls of the night. I'm a kind of an imagist."
Me: "In the Pound and Eliot sense?"
Him: "No. I'm not talking about my company. I'm just talking about, I dunno... The pound doesn't seem to be worth f--- nowadays, if you ask me. Mmmm, I'm a songwriter, a pedestrian piano player, performer. Yeah. I dunno. What d'you think? "You don't know, you're trying to find out. I'm a songwriter."
"A songwriter as opposed to a poet? Or are they the same thing?"
"No, they're not the same thing. Poetry is something that is kicked around a lot and the word is used loosely. Loose as a goose. I don't have enough of a thoroughbred pedigree to consider myself a poet."
"But you do some things that don't have tunes, you sort of talk them."
"That don't make me a poet. It may make me a storyteller. It don't necessarily make me a poet just because I talk instead of sing sometimes."
"What makes you choose to do things without tunes sometimes, and sometimes with?"
"Well, they got tunes happening behind them. It's just a little disjointed, maybe. What makes me do that? John makes me do that (his road manager)."
"Perhaps I can rephrase it. How do you decide that a given set of words needs a tune, or doesn't?"
"Depends on how many of them there are, or whether I want to use a hammer or a chisel or shove it all in there."
"And which is the hammer and the chisel? The song or the poem?"
"No, I'm not using that as an expression. I wasn't trying to be specific. I don't actually use a hammer or a chisel. Except when I get into a scrape, you know. It has to do with whether you choose... you know, there are times when you are so musically constipated you don't know what the hell to do.
"You get a lot of ideas right in here" (tapping his forehead). "They're gonna take form within the next three weeks, and I'm gonna go into the studio and do an album. Right now they're literally spare parts.
"I dunno, you're talking about the whole creative process. I can't boil that down. It's a lot easier to talk about than it is to do."
"You make it sound a lot easier to do than talk about."
"Easier to do? No, I just don't enjoy talking about it at length."
"Where do you get your subjects from? Are they personal or..."
"Used clothing stores. I mean, everybody has their own climate. I dunno. I mean, it's where you find it. Some people choose to write about cosmic garbage, what sign are you, and how many limousines there are. I just write about things that I see around me."
"Like what? What kind of things really move you?"
"Move me? Cars move me. Anything with four wheels. What they're designed for."
That extract of conversation, incidentally, was from the most lucid section of our discussion, when we did actually get around to talking about his work. I have spared you his reminiscences about Siberia (a country which, so far as I am aware, he has never visited) which arose from someone's use of the expression sidereal time and the somewhat rambling story about a Milwaukee baseball player.
Half the time, one feels he is trying out new verbal routines on you, or perhaps using up old discarded word plays that otherwise would go to waste.
I observed, at one point, that it had been fun getting to know him (which was, in a sense, rather insincere of me, since I didn't find it fun walking across yawning chasms on wire-rope bridges or cuddling up to man-eating lions)
"I haven't had fun since 1962," he announced, ponderously. "If you want to change all that, you have an incredible responsibility ahead of you."
Someone mentioned manipulation.
"Manipulated, huh," he exclaimed in quiet disgust. "That's one of those ten dollar words you get for like three-ninety-nine on sale. Well, I try to avoid the three syllable words because I dropped out of high school. I'm trying to tell you I never went to a constipation of higher learning, so let's keep 'em short and real smart little words."