|Title: Waits In Wonderland
Source: Image magazine/ San Francisco Examiner (USA), by Rip Rense. Transcription by Larry DaSilveira, as sent to Raindogs Listserv Discussionlist, August 9, 1999. Interview reprinted as: "Island Bone Machine press kit" (Island Records, Inc.). Rip Rense. Date: Late 1992
Date: December 13, 1992
Key words: Bone Machine, Experimental musical instruments, Keith Richards, Alice, Robert Wilson, Dracula, Coffee and Cigarettes
Magazine front cover: photography unknown
Waits In Wonderland
Tom Waits talks about the "digestive sculpture" of screech owls, random conundrums and the insects that lie in wait for us all.
By Rip Rense
After more than 20 years as a performer, Tom Waits has come to regard the telephone a lot like he does the microphone--both are instruments through which he can play to an audience. "I said I'd do phone interviews in lieu of touring -- which, believe me, is a lot more pleasant," he says. "Just talk to the countries instead of going to them. You know, they're calling me from Israel--and Belgium! And Greece! I have been brushing up on my upcountry Swahili, because I like to be in step."
If Waits makes good on his promises, this interview might be the closest readers will get to experiencing a live Waits performance -- since it is based on a phone conversation conducted from his home of four years in a small rural Northern California town (which will go unnamed, at his request). The piercing cry of a local screech owl decorates this "appearance", along with Waits' periodic whispery, sardonic chuckle. Oh, and... "Somebody gave me a ram's horn the other day," says Waits. "Listen to this baby!"
With that, the 42-year-old composer/songwriter/singer/actor/vocal contortionist - who portrays the bug-addicted Renfield in Francis Coppola's recently released "Bram Stoker's Dracula" - put down the receiver and made a sound that could only have been made by a ram's horn being blown through a telephone line. He marvels at the noise. "You could really use this!" he says triumphantly.
It's been a long time since Tom Waits was a misunderstood opening act for Frank Zappa (!) way back in the early '70s. A long time since the mildly bewildered jazz drummer Shelly Manne, who played on a couple of Waits' more "beat" albums, chuckled, "He's kind of an anachronism, isn't he?" Since the press wrote all those "Tom Waits For No Man" headlines over articles depicting Waits as a bluesy, boozy, Kero-wacky musical raconteur--with a very gifted sense of melody and lyrics, underestimated compositional skills and a lovely command of the piano. Since his delicate first album, "Closing Time", debuted in 1972 with sentiments about an "old '55" and a "grapefruit moon, one star shining..." Since he used to baffle reporters visiting him at the Tropicana Motor Hotel in West Hollywood(1) with talk of sawing off a drain board so he could put a piano in his kitchen. Since his 1976 album, "Small Change", with its noir cover of a stripper in a seedy dressing room, arrested doubts about his weight as a writer and melodist. Since his songs for Coppola's "One From the Heart" were nominated for an Academy Award in 1982. Since the endless tours and endless cigarettes - both of which had pretty much burned out by the end of the '70s.
To say that Waits rose to fame on that hipster image, as many did, is to imply it was a pose. Well, any posing Waits did was on stage. He has always been true to his vision: Obsessively thoughtful, unfalteringly driven, he has a relentless eye for absurdity, irony, pathos. The one inarguable constant about him has been a compulsion to create.
"Small Change" was a breakthrough; the ensuing albums of the late '70s contained compelling songs - gritty, poignant, whimsical, narrative - and contain experiments, like his symphonic, orchestrated tale, "Potter's Field". It was not until after his work on "One From the Heart" that Waits seemed to finally take a breather, take stock of his career of 10 years. He had been married -- to writer/poet Kathleen Brennan -- since 1980, had a couple of kids, and by any measure, had "made it." (Hell, he was driving the car of his choice -- a '62 Cadillac.) Maybe the freedom of now-what-do-I-do seemed to bring him the realization that his art need not necessarily be fueled primarily be angst (and heart and hard work); that it could be more aesthetically dressed up.
In any case, Tom --now occasionally writing with Kathleen-- headed into the studio, and came up with what proved to be another landmark album, "Swordfishtrombones", in 1983. Drastic experiments in tone color, percussive texture, sonic atmospheres and subject matter ("Underground" concerned sewer-dwellers) now accompanied the distinctive, durable melodies and poetic lyrics. Instrumentally, Waits had gone from a sax-bass-guitar-drums configuration to using everything from Balinese metal aunglongs, pump organs and banjos to bass boo-bams and bagpipes.
His 1985 album, "Rain Dogs", written during a two-year stay in New York City, took the new direction further. Suddenly, Waits' songs were whole individual worlds quite distinct from each other: They were composed and sculpted and chiseled, torn up and pasted back together asymmetrically--not merely chords and words.
There were more significant accomplished: In 1987, Waits and Brennan wrote a somewhat surreal stage play/musical, "Frank's Wild Years", performed by the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago, with Waits in the lead role. In 1988, he released a critically acclaimed concert movie, "Big Time".
Although his new work, "Bone Machine", is his first album of new songs in five years, Waits as hardly been retired. He wrote and recorded the soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch's latest film, "Night on Earth" (including three songs), and penned the songs for a work by avant-garde opera director/producer Robert Wilson, "The Black Rider". (The opera, with a libretto by William S. Burroughs, is based on a longtime death-allegory staple of German theater.) He made a video and sang a song for the "Red, Hot & Blue" AIDS benefit album(2) , sang two songs on tenor sax great Teddy Edwards' album, "Mississippi Lad"(3), contributed two spoken pieces to Ken Nordine's 1992 word-riff opus, "Devout Catalyst", and just weeks ago recorded E.Y. Harburg and Jay Gorney's "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"(4)("one of my favorite songs") as a theme song for the Coalition for the Homeless. Last spring, he organized, hosted and performed at the first major fund-raising concert for post-riot Los Angeles(5) (featuring Los Lobos, Fishbone and his old friend Chuck E. Weiss of "Chuck E's in Love" fame).
It is now a good decade since the press got tired of pigeonholing Waits as a guy with a werewolf of a voice, beat lyrics and a touch of jazz. His song catalog alone attests to his diversity and prowess; yet it might take one of those "songs by various artists" tribute albums to convince those who still "can't get past his voice." About that voice - Waits calls it the "right horn for my car" - it is doubtful that anyone has ever so completely altered the sound of their pipes - and style of singing - to fit the atmosphere of a song. If a roaring falsetto through a rusted exhaust pipe gets the feeling Waits is after, well, he goes looking for an old Chevy.
"Bone Machine", Waits' 14th album, released by Island Records in September, is another edge-pusher - his most poetically and sonically daring work yet. No, it's not the "rural" Tom Waits: You can imagine critics writing about the "earthy" influences that life in the sticks has had on his new album, but the only difference in environment Waits will acknowledge is that "there's more road kill up here." It is, however, a heavier side of Waits. From moving tracks like "Whistle Down the Wind" to the Dali-esque horror of "The Earth Died Screaming" or the Mardi Gras-in-purgatory of "All Stripped Down", "Bone Machine" is rather pointedly otherworldly, and rather pointedly concerned with the more durable stuff of life, and the omnipresence of death. An excerpt from "Dirt in the Ground" reveals Waits' unsparing vision: "The quill from a buzzard/The blood writes the word/I want to know am I the sky or a bird...And we're all gonna be/Just dirt in the ground."
Asked to describe what's outside his window, Waits gives a description not of languid pepper trees or country lanes, but of screech owl "digestive sculptures, Out the window sometimes at night I see owls - screech owls," he says. "There's a tree that they live in. There are a lot of mouse skeletons around the base of a tree. I've found hundreds of regurgitated mouse skeletons beneath the base of this tree. You could say it's almost a hobby. I mean, examining them. There like reorganized mice. They've gone through the digestive process inside of an owl's stomach, and get brought back up. Some of them look better than they did before. And there's a variety of insects on the glass as well. I do see the occasional white wings of the owls."
Waits acknowledges writing "darker" material ("A great many songs live there, so that's where I've been digging lately"), yet ultimately his new work is not macabre. The music is unfailingly whimsical, if rather ominous, and the words can be downright funny - as in songs like "Jesus Gonna Be Here" ("I'm gonna watch the horizon/for a brand new Ford") or "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" ("When I see the 5 o'clock news/I don't wanna grow up/Comb their hair and shine their shoes/I don't wanna grow up/Stay around in my home town/I don't wanna put no money down...")
The album actually ends upliftingly, with "That Feel", co-written with Keith Richards. Of Richards, who previously recorded with him on "Rain Dogs", Waits says: "He writes songs in some ways similar to the way I do - you kind of circle it, and you sneak up on it; it was a real joy to write with him. You can't drink with him, but you can write with him. I felt like I have known him for a long time, and he's made out of very strong stock, you know. He's like pirate stock. He loves those shadows."
Kathleen's work with Waits dates to "Swordfishtrombones", which is dedicated to her. Her participation on "Bone Machine", for which she co-wrote half the songs, seems to be the most extensive yet. "Writing with here has been great," he says. "It pushes me into new areas. She was raised Irish Catholic, grew up in Illinois on a farm, she's seen cats strung up by their necks swinging over the barn doors. She's got all kinds of things that she dredges up."
He calls the new songs movies for ears: "If you can make a little painting for the ears with a few words, well, I like words; I like cutting them up and finding different ways of saying the same thing. To me it's more what they sound like, because ultimately you're going to have to put them in the soup, and decide whether it's a tomato or a bone...I get into a spell, and it all comes easy. I don't labor over it. I go inside the song, I think you make yourself an antenna for songs, and songs want to be around you. And then they bring other songs along, and then they're all sitting around, and they're drinkin' your beer, and they're sleeping on the floor. And they are using the phone, they're rude, thankless little f---ers."
As an investigation of sound, "Bone Machine" also breaks new ground. If he'd had that ram's horn a few months earlier, it probably would have wound up on one of the tracks. As it is, "Bone Machine" utilizes, among other items, clattering sticks, an ancestor of the synthesizer called a Chamberlain, violin and accordion (played by Los Lobos' David Hidalgo) and a device Waits commissioned called a "conundrum"--rusted pieces of farm equipment hung from a huge iron cross that are beat upon and otherwise "played." Waits was so finicky about the sound worlds of the different pieces that midway through the project he nearly abandoned the studio and just recorded everything at home on a portable Sony.
And, as far as exploratory sound goes, you ain't heard nuthin' yet. Moments prior to this interview, Waits was packing his suitcases with socks, underwear - and experimental musical instruments called Wind Wands, photon clarinets, PVC Membrane saxophones, a Waterphone and something called a T-Rodimba.
"I'm still not packed," he says, a trace of panic in his tone. "But I'll never be ready for this trip till I get home from it." The trip is an eight-week stay in Hamburg, Germany. The instruments will comprise part of an "Alice in Wonderland"-like orchestra for Robert Wilson's forthcoming operatic production of, well, "Alice in Wonderland". Waits is serving as songsmith-in-residence again for Wilson--this time for "Alice", which premieres December 20 in Hamburg with the Thalia Theater Company. The "Alice" instruments, Waits excitedly points out, were built by "real pioneers" of music living in the Bay Area: Richard Waters (the Waterphone, a polytonal metal instrument filled with water), Tom Nunn (the T-Rodimba, a conglomeration of plywood and hardware with a violin pick-up), Darrel DeVore (Wind Wands, "which sound like Orville and Wilbur"), Bart Hopkins (PVC Membrane saxophones, which are too complex to explain succinctly) and Reed Ghazala (photon clarinets, which are played by beams of light bouncing off light-sensitive keys).
Even without the "Alice" assignment, though, it is likely that Waits would have found his way to these clever machines. This is, after all, a man who likes to sing through police bullhorns - as he did in a recent appearance before the startled members of the "Dog Pound" on the "Arsenio Hall Show"(6). He explains his penchant for bringing together disparate, high-profile sounds with characteristic irony: "I have an auditory processing problem that probably is at the center of my work." With a mere six weeks to write songs for "Alice", it would seem that Waits likes to work a little like the White Rabbit - late for an important engagement in strange terrain. The songs for "Small Change" were knocked out in a couple of days while, as legend has it, Waits was locked away in a London hotel room. For his Academy Award-nominated score for "One From the Heart" in 1982, he was sequestered on a studio lot, grinding things out on demand as per director Coppola's ruminations. In other words, Tom Waits (sorry) till the last minute. "Absolutely," he says. "Which is not to say you write at the last minute. It's to say you had six months to think about it, and six hours to put it down. If the equation is turned the other way, uh, it doesn't help you." Waits seems to relish working with other iconoclasts: Coppola (for whom he has acted in several movies), Jim Jarmusch (for whom he has acted and written music), Keith Richards, and now the avant-garde visionary Wilson. (Waits' songs from Wilson's "The Black Rider" are, incidentally, his next CD release.) But then, it's hard to imagine Waits collaborating with, say, Tommy Tune. (Or maybe not.) With "Alice", Wilson, long an appreciator of Waits' work, has offered the songwriter his most esoteric and perhaps most difficult assignment.
"Wilson's things come out of his head," says Waits, audibly scratching a stubbly cheek. "Everyone moves like Wilson moves. He really unscrews the top of his head and takes all the characters out of it, winds 'em up. Everything on stage comes out of his head. If there's a tree, he sketched it first, and then had it blown up and drawn exactly the way he sketched it. It's like you walk into a house and everything was made the guy who designed it. There's nothing in it that came from a store - nothing. The paint, lampshades, doorknobs, everything. And you go into it and feel a little strange. You know - That's a bird bone chair(7) , Bob. I don't know if I should sit there."
"They become meditations," he continues. "Time moves much slower in his pieces. Everything appears to be moving in slow motion, but really it's just giving you longer to register the theatrical information, so that you can really be inside the theater and experience it. If you don't change time in some way, it's not theater. It's real. So I find it riveting, really, to work with somebody with such a...spell. Hardest part is you want to introduce the right things to that spell, and that's what becomes the riddle. You don't want to be the garlic in the cinnamon cake." Yet a little garlic in cinnamon cake might be in order here, he admits. Although Wilson's opera more concerns the relationship between Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell (the girl who inspired Carroll's books), we're still talking about Wonderland here - the place where they use flamingos for croquet mallets.
"Once you go down the rabbit hole, anybody can say anything they want," Waits allows. "You could have songs about convenience stores. And you're far from home, which is a bit like falling down the rabbit hole, in a way. So it's conducive, Hamburg. But it's really Wilsonia. It doesn't matter where you are. That's what you're really entering, is the whole matrix of Wilson." To prepare for "Dracula", Waits entered the whole matrix of Bram Stoker's thrilling epic, disregarding film versions of the story. He actually sought his role, telling Coppola, "Think of me as Renfield" - the tormented half-vampire slave of Dracula with a hankering for spiders and flies. Although not influenced by Dwight Frye's indelible portrayal of Renfield in the 1931 version, Waits was certainly aware of it - plus the fact that the great character actor Frye never again played a role outside of bit parts in horror movies. "Somebody told me 'He never worked again after Dracula, and neither will you.'" Waits laughs. "Or if you do, it will be another Dracula film. As Renfield. Or if they want a one-eyed hunchback with a deep voice, you're gonna be the guy. So, anybody here want to ruin their career? You know what they say: Acting makes a woman more of a woman. It makes a man less of a man. Except in the case of Renfield."
Perhaps the most crucial question to be posed about Waits' portrayal in what he termed Coppola's "torrid, painterly nightmare" - the one sure to figure most prominently in the minds of those who might consider him for an Academy Aware nomination - is this one: Didja really eat the bugs, Tom? "I did not actually eat the bugs," he reveals exclusively here for the first time. "And I'll say that because I've lied to other people and told them I did eat the bugs. I didn't want anybody to think I didn't have the courage to eat insects. What I really did was put 'em in my mouth and give them kind of a funhouse ride. Uhhh - move them around, let them walk along the jagged cliff of my teeth. And then I brought them back out again. A lot of them wanted to buy a ticket and go right back in for another ride. It was only mealworms - but there were a lot of spiders. I was working with insects. I've been in show business for 25 years, and I'm working with insects." As Groucho might have said, it probably wasn't the first time. "Yes, well, eventually, we'll all be working with insects," he says, measuring his words. "That's why I thought I should treat them right. Maybe they'll go easy on me at the end of the line." Renfield was a masochist's nirvana. Waits wore a straitjacket for much of it, as well as manacles that imprisoned each finger individually (based on an actual apparatus used in Italy two centuries ago to teach young pianists to keep the proper position at the keyboard), thick glasses and one of those Supercuts-from-Bedlam haircuts. For a good deal of the movie, he was wet. "I was hosed down," he says. "And they seemed to want me that way...I got to have a really meaningful scene with Winona Ryder. Not how I imagined it would be, though. Bug juice dripping from the corners of my mouth. Unshaven. Totally gray. Screaming behind bars. Not how I saw our scene together. But I tried to rise above it."
One more "Dracula" item, heretofore unreported, bears mentioning: Waits' voice was employed for the "primitive" vocal utterances of the Count. Gary Oldman was unable to get the desired horrific element into the lusty animalistic grunts and snarls of the character, so Waits was enlisted: "There's the lady in the back of the room with the bifocals on the chain, and the sweater, and the hair up, coffee and a cigarette, looking at the script," says Waits with bemusement, "and they're telling me, 'Tom, it's deep growl - you're killing her, and yet you're drinking of her'. And she looks up from her coffee and says, 'Tom - savor it!' And then looks back at her script. 'Oh, OK, savor it.' It was like porno radio. It was actually demeaning. But I think it will be good."
And, oddly - if that word isn't rendered weightless in this whole context - Waits recently acted in a short Jarmusch film entitled "Coffee and Cigarettes"(8) - costarring Iggy Pop. As a result of the association, he has taken to using Iggy's term for Southern California - "Butt Town." While U.S. citizens do seem increasingly preoccupied with their posteriors - particularly in Los Angeles, where images are regarded with religious veneration - a comment seemed in order. Tom? "Iggy Pop and I play two characters in the short film. It was actually rather funny," says Waits. "It's just a little bit that Jarmusch does called 'Coffee and Cigarettes'. Using different people that you cast in it, you talk about coffee and you talk about cigarettes, and then it's over. Iggy and I did one, and it was really great. But we didn't really discuss Butt Town. I grew up in Butt Town. Last time I went back there, I noted an increased obsession with underwear. And it wasn't just my imagination. It was in the billboards, and there are more lingerie stores than I remember. Even in the newspaper, when they advertise, like Sears ads for bras and underwear, the ads are getting more seductive. And you can really... look at 'em. I don't remember them being that good when I was a kid. Or I would have noticed! But I think it's good that kids now can get the benefit of that." Waits audibly scratches that stubble again. In the telephonic background, a screech owl screeches. "Cigarettes and underwear," he adds. "That's what makes the world go 'round, I guess." With that, Tom Waits ends his tour-by-telephone-interview to resume packing those Wind Wands for his trip to Wonderland. There was no encore.
(1) At the Tropicana Motor Hotel in West Hollywood: Further reading: Tropicana Motel.
(2) The "Red, Hot & Blue" AIDS benefit album: Red Hot & Blue (1990). Aids benefit music video (Chrysalis) featuring B&W music video for: "It's Alright With Me". Directed by Jim Jarmusch. Further reading: Filmography
(3) Teddy Edwards' album, "Mississippi Lad": Tenor jazz saxophonist Teddy Edwards. Waits toured with Edwards in the early '80s (Tour promoting 'Heartattack And Vine'. November 1980 - October 1981) and recorded the "One From the Heart" film score with Edwards in 1992. Waits also resurrected Edwards' career in the early '90s when he hooked up Edwards on the Antilles label and sang two of Edwards' compositions on the album "Mississippi Lad" ("Little Man" and "I'm Not Your Fool Anymore"). Edwards died April 20, 2003 of prostate cancer. He was 78.
- Tom Waits (2003): "I think music is going to miss him as one of the architects of bebop," ... "That tone of his is just unmistakable. He sounded like he was drinking champagne on a train, you know what I mean?" (Source: Los Angeles Times. Apr. 22, 2003)
- Tom Waits (2003): "Teddy Edwards always sounded like he was drinking champagne on a train and wise to the ways of the world. A consummate arranger and composer, Teddy Edwards was one of the original architects of bebop. An elegant man with a large heart and generous spirit, he always carried himself with poise and confidence. Kathleen and I have lost a friend, the world of music has lost one of the most innovative presidents of jazz and we all have the gift of the great music he left behind." (Source: "Teddy Edwards, Tom Waits' longtime Saxophonist has passed away..." By: Rob Partridge at Coalition in London Apr. 24, 2003)
(4) Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?: "Brother Can You Spare Me A Dime?" Various artists, 1992 (various artists compilation, recorded for the National Fund-Raising Day of Action, 1992) The Harburg Foundation (DIME 93). TW contribution: "Brother Can You Spare Me A Dime?" (first release)
(5) Fund-raising concert for post-riot Los Angeles: May 30, 1992: LA Riot Benefit at the Wiltern Theatre, Los Angeles/ USA. Tom Waits: vocals, piano, guitar, bullhorn. Larry Taylor: upright bass. Mitchell Froom: keyboards. Stephen Hodges: drums, percussion. Joe Gore: guitar. Further reading: Performances
(6) On the "Arsenio Hall Show": The Arsenio Hall Show (1992). FOX television talk show/ USA with Arsenio Hall (broadcast September, 1992). Interview and performs "Goin' Out West"
(7) That's a bird bone chair: Waits making fun of Wilson's "obsession" with absurdist chairs/ furniture.
(8) Coffee and Cigarettes: "Coffee and Cigarettes - part III" (1993) Movie directed by Jim Jarmusch. Subtitled: "Somewhere In California". Third installment of the film, shot in Northern California. This segment won the Golden Palm at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival as best "Short Film". TW: actor (conversation with Iggy Pop as himself)
- Jim Jarmusch (1994): "Tom was exhausted. We had just shot a video the day before for "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" and he had been doing a lot of press. He was kind of in a surly mood as he is sometimes, but he's also very warm. He came in late that morning-I had given him the script the night before-and I was with Iggy. Tom threw the script down on the table and said, "Well, you know, you said this was going to be funny, Jim. Maybe you better just circle the jokes 'cause I don't see them". He looked at poor Iggy and said, "What do you think Iggy?" Iggy said, "I think I'm gonna go get some coffee and let you guys talk." So I calmed Tom down. I knew it was just early in the morning and Tom was in a bad mood. His attitude changed completely, but I wanted him to keep some of that paranoid surliness in the script. We worked with that and kept it in his character. If he had been in a really good mood, I don't think the film would have been as funny." (Source: "Jim Jarmusch". Village Noize, 1994 by Danny Plotnick)