Title: Waits Measured: A Multifacted Singer Looks For New Directions
Source: Chicago Tribune - Arts section (USA), by Lynn Van Matre. Transcription by Peter Dubsky as sent to Raindogs Listserv Discussionlist, August 30, 2000
Date: October 18, 1987
Key words: Commercials, Franks Wild Years, Chicago, Commercial success, Jack Nicholson, Acting


Waits Measured: A Multifacted Singer Looks For New Directions


At various times, Tom Waits has gone on record as liking -among other things- pointed-toe shoes, gum (underneath tables in expensive restaurants), small lapels, cigarettes and luggage. But don't expect the raspy-voiced singer to turn up singing the praises of any of them in a commercial pitch.

''If I just wanted to make money, there are a lot of other ways to do it,''(1) says Waits, who finds the idea of corporate sponsorship and the current craze for using rock songs to sell products abhorrent. ''People, have asked me about using my songs in commercials, but I'm not interested. that's not why I'm in music."

''What kind of commercial offers have I had?'' Waits pauses briefly, apparently pondering whether to play it straight or have some fun with the question. Given his wildly improvisational sense of humor, the outcome of the decision is never really in doubt - a fact that becomes increasingly clear as Waits plunges on with comedic abandon.

''Well, they wanted me to be the spokesman for American Airlines,'' he says. ''that's right, they wanted to show me in the cockpit as a reliable pilot in the friendly skies. There would be this real close-up of my face. I'm kind of smiling, with bad teeth-as we take off over the skyline and the plane turns upside down."

''Yeah, a lot of different kinds of products want me,'' adds Waits, warming to his subject. ''Women's hair removal stuff. And moisturizers - the whole line of Lancome products. that's right, they wanted me to be the Lancome man. And then there are all the offers to sell cigarettes and underwear. So many offers are coming in, they're clogging up our telephone lines and we can't make calls out.''

In the nearly 15 years since he burst into ''this business called show,'' as he likes to refer to it, with his gravel voice, a bunch of beatnik-influenced songs and a persona composed of equal parts Bohemian intellectual, streetwise hipster and garden variety gutter rat, Tom Waits has worn and continues to wear a variety of hats, literally and figuratively.

There's Waits the jester, a facet of his personality that turns up most frequently in interviews. There's Waits the raconteur, Waits the singer and songwriter with 10 albums to his credit, Waits the movie actor (''Rumblefish,'' ''Down By Law'' and now ''Ironweed,'' starring Jack Nicholson, scheduled to open in December).

In the summer of 1986, he made his first foray into theater with ''Franks Wild Years,''(2) a musical co written with his wife, Kathleen Brennan; the show which premiered at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater, starred the 37-year-old singer as a down-and-out saloon rat with dreams of grandeur. The production drew full houses but mixed reviews, and, rather than rework the show for a possible New York run, Waits decided to drop the idea, return home to Los Angeles and put out an album instead.

''I just didn't have the time to do the work that the play would have needed,'' says the singer, who will reprise some of the ''Franks Wild Years'' songs along with older material in concert (''with kind of a floor show, hula girls and all that'') Oct. 30-31 at the Chicago Theatre. ''We would have had to have taken it someplace else first before New York, and the chain just seemed too long and involved.

''But doing the play was a great experience for Kathleen and myself,'' he adds. ''It was great, living in Chicago. I miss it. What do I miss about Chicago? You're going to put me on the spot? Uh, the cigar stores and the road conditions.''

The record, released in August(3), bears the same name as the stage show. Right down to the missing apostrophe.

''Why's there no apostrophe in 'Franks' ''? repeats Waits, sounding puzzled, when asked about the matter. ''Gee, I don't know. I don't think the question of an apostrophe ever came up. I guess I'm a bad speller . . . what do you want me to say? I never was the best guy in the class.''

The songs, however, have been completely revamped - set to raucous, wildly offbeat arrangements that cross-pollinate pop with a mixed bag of field hollers, blues, Jamaican and Cuban music, rhumbas, even a little electronic-age Rudy Vallee. (Waits insists that he did all of the vocals through a $29.95 battery-operated bullhorn.)

Unorthodox instrumentation, however, is now something of a tradition with Waits, who sees ''Franks Wild Years'' as the third in a trilogy of albums that began with 1983's ''Swordfishtrombones'' and continued with ''Rain Dogs.''

''The songs themselves are basically very simple,'' he says. ''With 'Franks Wild Years,' they're like field hollers and jail poems and Irish folk songs in terms of structure - this isn't (modernistic, atonal Austrian composer) Schoenberg or anything like that. If you stripped these songs down you could play them on a guitar; there hasn't been any deep, radical departure from my approach to writing.

''But I think that there comes a time when you get to an impasse and you have to break the vertebrae of your previous approach and reset it, you know. I just started thinking that I really had put governors on most of my ideas. I had surveyed a very small place to work from and write about.

''So with 'Swordfishtrombones,' I tried to open my eyes and ears to things that I had been listening to for a long time,'' says Waits, an avid fan of a wide variety of primitive and ethnic music since his teens. ''I just had never before found a way to incorporate those things into my own music and my own ideas. I've always liked the idea of musical cross-fertilization, any kind of mutant cannibalization of music that's imposed over another culturally.''

His adventurous, distinctive approach has won him critical kudos for originality, but Waits remains largely a cult artist - something he insists doesn't bother him in the least. He's vague about record sales - he knows that he has fans in Europe, Hong Kong and behind the Iron Curtain as well as in the U.S. - but acknowledges that none of his albums has sold the 500,000 copies necessary to earn a gold album, pop music's standard measure of commercial success.

''It doesn't bother me,'' says Waits. ''I do fine. All of that stuff is just hubcaps and headlights, anyway, and I don't really go in for trophies and all that. I don't believe in it.

''A lot of people approach music like crop-dusting. Or ballistics. They create things that are a certain size, that fit in a chamber - and when those people are gone, somebody else will come along and create things that are exactly the same size. I know that (we have) a mercantile heritage,'' adds Waits with a laugh, ''but I'm nervous about that kind of a system.''

''Franks Wild Years,'' muses Waits, probably ''closes a chapter, I guess,'' in terms of his current recording approach. ''Somehow, 'Swordfishtrombones,' 'Rain Dogs' and 'Franks Wild Years' seem to go together,'' he says. ''Frank took off in 'Swordfish,' had a good time in 'Rain Dogs,' and now he's all grown up in 'Franks Wild Years.' The next album probably will be different. In some ways, acting and working in films has helped me in terms of being able to write and record and play different characters in songs without feeling like it compromises my own personality. Before, I felt like 'this song is me, and I have to be in the song.' I'm trying to get away from feeling that way. I'm trying to let the songs have their own anatomy, their own itinerary, their own outfits.''

According to Waits, he approached acting the same way he initially approached music. ''I didn't go to school to learn how to write songs. I just said, 'I can do that,' '' he says.

''Working with Nicholson was great(4),'' adds Waits. ''He knows about everything, from beauty parlors to train yards. He's really a wonderful conductor of electromagnetism.

''Actually, the reason I usually take these acting jobs is so that I can get in there and replace the director if he should happen to be called away. It hasn't happened yet, but that's my plan.

''But, listen, I'm looking forward to coming to Chicago again,'' says Waits, getting back to the tour at hand. ''I'm going to do some highway surveillance runs when I get there. Yeah, when I was there doing the play I was out with the city road commissioner, surveying conditions, and he assured me he was going to be working on some of the problems. So I'll be checking up on that as soon as I get into town.''


(1) If I just wanted to make money, there are a lot of other ways to do it: Further reading: Quotes on Commerce

(2) Franks Wild Years: Further reading: Franks Wild Years

(3) The record, released in August: some sources claim this to be March, 1987

(4) Working with Nicholson was great: the two had just been working together for the movie "Ironweed". Movie directed by Hector Babenco. An adaptation of William Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Ironweed. With Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. TW: actor. Plays Rudy the Kraut.