|Title: Waits Happening
Source: Beat magazine. March 1986, by Pete Silverton. Thanks to Kevin Molony for donating scans
Date: New York. Late 1985/ early 1986
Key words: Rain Dogs, Agnes Bernelle, New York, Lounge Lizards, Keith Richards, Bob Hoskins, Franks Wild Years
Magazine front cover: Beat magazine. March, 1986
|Page lay-out (second page of article). Photography unknown. Thanks to Kevin Molony for donating this scan|
Indisputably one of America's finest lyricists, Tom Waits has taken more than a decade to find even a moderate level of success. Now, he's turned his energies towards acting and play writing. Pete Silverton cornered him on 14th St., New York.
Tom Waits chose to meet in the heart of his own territory, in a cheap restaurant just down the road from what he said was his eight home in New York. Outside, the 14th St. market was in full Saturday lunchtime swing. Like Petticoat Lane it flourishes amidst, or because of, rumours that most of the goods have been dishonestly acquired. It was easy to feel he'd have chosen it for the interview even if he didn't live close by. So Tom Waits. Or, at least, so like the backdrop of so many Tom Waits songs.
It's an easy distinction to blur. Waits encourages the blurrings. When his PR handed me a copy of 'Tom Waits talks about 'Swordfishtrombones'(1) he advised me. "Full of tall stories, wondrous inventions, downright lies and maybe the odd truth."
For many years a notoriously difficult interviewee, peppering long gasps in the conversation with the occasional grunted "Yes" or "No", he's now developed a Tom Waits persona he can wheel out for interviewees. Its only major fault, apart from saying "you know" too often, is a tendency to use the same set phrases in different interviews. "Champagne for my real friends; real pain for my sham friends," was his favourite this time around.
The new ease with the press seemed to coincide with two other big switches in his life; his marriage to Kathleen Brennan who he met when she was working as a script editor for film director Francis Ford Coppola, and the change in his music which happened with his switch of record labels. Bar-fly groanings gave way to a music which encompassed everything from Charles Ives to Howling Wolf.
'Currently," he said, "I'm not operating with a full staff." No manager(2). He was hoping, he joked, that Bullets Durgen, an old-style showbiz manager, would take him up. I suggested Mickey Duff, the boxing promoter. He liked the name, promised to give him serious consideration. His favourite record of the moment was Agnes Bernelle's Father's Lying Dead On The Ironing Board(3). When the interview was over, he asked how he'd done, was it alright?
You've lived in New York a couple of years now. yet, in most people's minds, you're still strongly linked with California. Not the Beach Boys' California maybe but Nathaniel West's...
"Well, we moved here for the peace and quiet, you know. Somehow I was misinformed. I came here for a movie (Cotton Club) with a suitcase and everything's still in boxes. I've moved eight times since I've been here. New York is like living inside of an engine. Some of the simplest things require a great deal of concentration and patience. It bears no resemblance to any place on the globe. So it kind of gets you prepared for nothing else. It's like being on a ship. People are even terrified to go to Brooklyn. Like that's the water, this (Manhattan) is the ship and anything outside of this and you're in the water. It's very peculiar. But there is something interesting about Manhattan. Someone could stand out in the middle of 14th St. stark naked, playing a trumpet with a dead pigeon on their head and no-one would flinch. In fact, tomorrow there will probably be two guys like that. They'd be lease-letting, trying to get more subscribers. I wouldn't bring up a family here, not unless I had a whole lot of money. You can't really live in a completely civilised manner in New York unless you have a lot of money. Dead presidents (i.e. dollar bills). Lots of dead presidents, please. get them right over here. You see, I think the place that you write stuff usually ends up in the song. I wrote most of Raindogs down on Washington St. It's a kind of rough area, Lower Manhattan between Canal and 14th St., just about a block in from the river. I started sharing a rehearsal space with the Lounge Lizards(4). I had nights there in this boiler room and a Siamese cat would go by sounding like a crying baby, every night. And there was a drummer down the hall. It was a good place for me to work. Very quiet, except for the water coming through the pipes every now and then. Sort of like being in a vault. "With music, it's difficult to talk about the writing of it. It gets so pedantic. It's all made out of smoke. When you really think about it, it's invisible. And you're afraid it's not going to come and sit next to you anymore. and that keeps you doing it. "when I'm writing I have sort of waking dreams. I try to go inside, go through a window someplace."
It's probably been said many times before but your songs remind me of Edward Hopper paintings which also often look through windows. He'd ride the subway and look at the secretaries working.
"Oh yeah. Well, I like listening to music through the wall. I like hearing things incomplete. New York's a place to do that because it's an international city, a cosmopolitan city. There's Little Italy, Chinatown, Russian cab drivers. You have a chance to hear a lot of different kinds of music."
Keith Richards plays on three tracks of Raindogs(9). He hardly ever plays on other people's records. Did you just think of a particular texture he could provide?
"There was something in there that I thought he would understand. I picked out a couple of songs that I thought he would understand and he did. He's got a great voice and he's just a great spirit in the studio. He's very spontaneous, he moves like some kind of animal. I was trying to explain Big Black Maria and finally I started to move in a certain way and he said, "Oh, why didn't you do that to begin with? Now I know what you're talking about.' It's like animal instinct."
How about your acting?
"I'll be going to New Orleans soon to work with Jim Jarmusch for about five weeks on a film called Down By Law. It's about three guys in prison who make a jailbreak through the swamps."
How large a budget?
"It's under a million."
So it's basically just a cheap film.
"I wouldn't say that to Jim if I were you. If you're not careful. I'll tell him you said that."
That's a compliment. I mean, people waste so much... You worked on Cotton Club, you know how money...
"Yeah, that was like Cleopatra."
Did you meet Bob Hoskins(5)?
"Yeah, he's great, he's something else. I liked him a lot. He kept wanting to go out to the bar. I think he felt a whole lot better once he located that tavern right down at the end of the block. A little beer bar. He was holding court down there. He had his own little film going on. I think it relaxed him a lot."
How long did you work on it?
"About twelve weeks."
Hoskins was on it for about eighteen months, wasn't he?
"Yeah, it was like joining the army, like being shanghaied. But that film was, er... I don't know what to say about it apart from that it dealt with a very important period of American history."
'New York is like living
inside of an engine. It
bears no resemblance
to any place on the globe.'
Any other acting planned?
"I'm doing a film with Rudi Wurlitzer and Robert Frank(6). (Wurlitzer wrote the films Two Lane Blacktop and Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid. Robert Frank has been a photographer for many years. The Rolling Stones used some of his photographs of the ugly side of The American dream for the cover of Exile On Main St, then commissioned him to film their 1972 tour of America, The result, Cocksucker Blues has remained suppresses, by the Stones, to this day. Frank also took the portrait of Waits on the back of Raindogs.) It's an odyssey about someone in New York searching for someone. I hesitate to say what it's really about, I doubt if it would be... you know, it's Robert's film. I'm just in it.
Your musical, Frank's Wild Years(7) , is it ever going to appear?
"Oh yeah, in the spring. Chicago's Steppenwolf (a theatre company) is going to do it. Terry Kinney is going to direct. They did Orphans and Sam Sheperd's True West. My wife wrote the play with me. Her name's first on it, not mine. It still needs a lot of work but, I mean, it's finished."
Does it bear any relation to your song of the same title?
"Yeah, that's the same Frank. Basically, it's about an accordion player from a small town who goes out into the world to make his mark and ends up despondent and penniless. I play Frank so I'm going to take accordion lessons. I'm ready. I love the accordion, I tell you. I think it's going to come back and it's going to come back big."
At the end of the song Frank burns the house down with the dog inside. Does he get charged with arson?
"No, he goes to Vegas, ends up dreaming his way back home."
And the dog's gone?
"The dog has disappeared."
Did you like One From The Heart?
"Well, that's a loaded question. It was a two and a half year project and it had some real nice moments. What I got out of it was learning how to collaborate with someone who has a great imagination. Francis (Ford Coppola) was like a university for all ages to learn the craft of film making. It was really something to be a part of. It was a great feeling. I had a little office with a piano."
You once said 'Success will kill you faster than failure', or at least it will kill your soul quicker. Do you think you'll ever get to the level where you'll be able to judge that for yourself?
"I think before I go to my reward I'd like to lie out by the pool with a cold drink and a couple of Egyptian girls fanning me... Everything has its darker side. There are lots of places you can go to you can't get back from. I don't know... I guess you get what you pay for. Some people play it like a board game..."
Do you have any recurrent nightmares?
"I do. I'm in this music store. There are these wooden masks, medieval ones from Upper Volta. This guy slams the door and nails it shut from the inside and puts oxygen masks over my face. I wake up at the Taft Hotel and all the clocks are turned back, all the magazines are from 1959. I climb out the window on an old bed sheet. I'm dangling there and there's this little kid with a cigarette lighter flaming at my feet. I hang there and I swing and then I drop into a tanker car. it's full of flowers and I ride it all the way up to Seattle, Oregon. I see smoke coming out of the train. I can't seem to shake that one."
What's the most scary part?
"The guy with the cigarette lighter at the bottoms of my feet."
What kind of child were you? Your father (Frank) left your mother, didn't he?
"Shouldn't I be laying down for this. All of a sudden I feel like I want to see your credentials... Oh, here it is 'D.R.'"
Just a B.A.
"Oh, just a B.A. Then you'll get nothing but B.S.(8) "
(1) Tom Waits talks about 'Swordfishtrombones: "A Conversation with Tom Waits" (P) 1983 Island records Inc. Music industry white label promo LP featuring an interview with Tom Waits talking about Swordfishtrombones. Read complete article.
(2) No manager: Herb Cohen - Manager for: Zappa and "The Mothers of Invention" (1966); - Co-founder (w. Frank Zappa) of "Bizarre Records/ Warners Reprise" (March, 1968); - Late 1969 or June 1971 Waits was discovered by rock manager Cohen at Troubadour's hoot night. Cohen suggested they work together and signed him to his management. Further reading: Who's Who?
(3) Agnes Bernelle's Father's Lying Dead On The Ironing Board: Agnes Bernelle: actress and entertainer, born in Berlin but lived in Dublin/ Ireland (February, 1999). She was best known for her performance of early 1930's cabaret songs, and a close association with the Project Arts Centre.
(4) Sharing a rehearsal space with the Lounge Lizards: Lurie and Waits got acquainted in 1983, as Waits was temporarily living in New York and working on 'Swordfishtrombones'; - The album 'Rain Dogs'. Album released: September, 1985. Alto sax; - The movie 'Down By Law' (shot on location in New Orleans, in 1985). Movie released, 1986. Directed by Jim Jarmusch. With Mr. Waits in a leading role as DJ Zack. On the soundtrack: "Jockey Full Of Bourbon" and "Tango Till They're Sore". Co-starring actor; - The video and TV soundtrack: 'Fishing With John'. Lurie and Waits on a fishing trip. June 16, 1998 (?). Soundtrack (Strange And Beautiful 14, 1998). Tom Waits performing: "River of Men" & "World Of Adventure". Co-starring actor, producer. Further reading: Lurie, John
(6) A film with Rudi Wurlitzer and Robert Frank: Candy Mountain (shot late 1986, released 1987). Movie directed by Robert Frank. Written by Rudy Wurlitzer. Also features Jim Jarmusch. Tom Waits as actor, composer, musical performer. Plays rich guy Al Silk. Performs: "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" & "Once More Before I Go". Further reading: Filmography
(7) Frank's Wild Years: 17-22 June, 1986. World premiere and theatrical debut. Three month run as Frank in the play: "Frank's Wild Years" at the "St. Briar Street Theatre", Chicago. The Steppenwolf Theatre. Further reading: Franks Wild Years
(8) Oh, just a B.A. Then you'll get nothing but B.S.:
- B.A: Bachelor of Arts(?) (Source: The American Heritage� Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Copyright � 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company)
- B.S: Bull-Shit (vulgar slang) (Source: The American Heritage� Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Copyright � 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company)
(9) Keith Richards plays on three tracks of Raindogs: The album 'Rain Dogs'. Album released: September, 1985. Guitar, ("Big Black Mariah", "Union Square", "Blind Love"), backing vocals ("Blind Love")