|Title: Waits' Notes On Life & Death
Source: Houston Chronicle (USA), November 19, 2006. Telephone interview by Andrew Dansby. Transcription (exerpts) as published on Houston Chronicle site. Copyright 2006, Houston Chronicle
Date: published November 19, 2006
Key words: Orphans, age, fans, parents, Abilene, Kathleen
Waits' Notes On Life & Death
After talking about music and death for an hour, Tom Waits looks out a window, sees a bird, and mentions one of those facts he keeps in a notebook.
"Vultures have holes in the tops of their heads," he says. "It allows them to breathe while they have their heads stuffed inside a carcass."
Waits' factoids are like his music: curious and creepy, smart and stylishly presented, compelling and sometimes macabre, funny and factual but infused with a little poetic license.
They often are concerned with things such as insects, mammals or the durable properties of honey.
They also reflect Waits in some weird way. Take the vulture, an ominous bird of prey associated with death. But it's not a killer, it's a scavenger, circling and grabbing sustenance from here and there. The bird isn't vicious; it's hungry.
Waits' voice is his tool - a big grumble that invites scores of descriptions. His throaty bark is easily caricatured, but not so easily replicated. It's expressive and versatile. It's also what scares some listeners away.
Waits' songs, from dark postmodern blues shouts to beautiful ballads, don't coddle. But snippets of his music permeate our electronic culture. They dig around in various media, undoubtedly breathing out of the top of their heads.
Several film trailers have made use of his Cold, Cold Ground; the 1995 feature film Smoke rolled its credits to Innocent When You Dream; HBO series The Wire opens to Way Down in the Hole. Advertisers, bugged that Waits won't sell his songs, have hired imitators to shill their products. He's successfully sued most of them. Clearly something about his singing from the gutteral howls to a mutant falsetto (think Prince, but hairier) creates a connection.
"There's something immediately identifiable about him," says filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, who directed Waits in films such as Down by Law and Coffee and Cigarettes. "But there's a great sense of mystery too." He's been covered by artists of all stripes: Bruce Springsteen (Jersey Girl) and Rod Stewart (Downtown Train) best-known among them. But Johnny Cash, Norah Jones, the Ramones, Bob Seger, the Eagles, Shawn Colvin, and Hootie and the Blowfish have also recorded his songs.
"He's a big, fat, (expletive) genius," says Austin singer-songwriter Jon Dee Graham, who has covered Way Down in the Hole. "You can't be an intelligent musician and deny that. He approaches music from a destroy it as we know it and built it back up in this beautiful unrecognizable structure way. He changed music in a way sort of like Miles Davis or Jimi Hendrix did."
Waits' latest project is his biggest and perhaps most representative of the scavenger-ish way he makes music, and the sly way it pops up in various media.
Orphans, in stores Tuesday, is a three-CD set, 56 songs, nearly half of which are brand new, the others culled from soundtracks, compilations and tribute albums already familiar to Waits obsessives.
He's divided the CDs into categories Brawlers, Bawlers (which he says his wife and collaborator Kathleen Brennan wanted to call, "Shut Up and Eat Your Ballads") and Bastards. The songs are united by his voice, naturally, as well as some recurring themes and details: wanderlust, death, love, bones and the occasional historical figure.
We hit on most of those in the course of a conversation. Though death kept coming up, either directly or in the form of trivia about vultures or the inscription on the tombstone of poet Charles Bukowski, who influenced Waits.
The packaging for Orphans includes old newspaper clippings and other such ephemera. "Dying words of famous men," was an eye-catcher. Samuel Johnson's was to the point ("I am about to die."), while George II's seems funny today ("Don't let poor Nellie starve.").
Waits' favorite is "Either that wallpaper goes or I go." "I hope it's not prophetic," he says of the packaging. "I have to be careful these days at my age."
Waits sometimes treats truth like a song, making it more interesting by whacking at it with his wild imagination. "I'm in my late 30s," he says.
He turns 57 next month.
And so it goes. Some things he says seem sincere and others feel like fiction stitched to fact: Frankenfaction, if you will. The dizzying way he tells his tale feels a little like listening to a Tom Waits album.
The lazy account of Waits' career is to divide it in half. There's the jazzy '70s era that produced the gritty and great Small Change and the cool, swinging live set Nighthawks at the Diner. Then there's the period after he met Brennan, who would become a collaborator and co-writer. The beginning of this period is marked by 1983's otherworldly Swordfishtrombones.
The problem with calling Waits' career two-pronged is that it fails to acknowledge the variety of the second act.
Blood Money, released in 2002, was inspired by the dark Georg B�chner play Woyzeck, and is appropriately old European in its sound and mood. Mule Variations (1999), taking its name in part from a quote about Robert Johnson, feels rootsy and bluesy. Bone Machine (1992) was a howling gospel-touched album full of anxiety and apocalypse.
Some of these albums spring from the piano, others are yanked from a guitar. Some have earthier percussion, others more metal-on-metal clanging.
"The things that people enjoy usually are things that are rather exotic to them," Waits says, talking as much about his fans as himself. "Blues guys don't sit around and listen to the blues (all the time). Sure they do some. They scrutinize it and make judgments about it. And they're still trying to advance their own work. But the things that nourish you are usually the things that are foreign to you in some way or other."
Part of Waits' enduring allure is a mystique he's maintained throughout his career. A foreignness and an ability to surprise. He fesses to an appreciation for Liberace. "I got a kick out of him. He'd come out with all the rings. It was like, You can have this too. I'm going to bring a little elegance to your rotten-tomato life.'
"I heard he had a heater installed in his lawn. He had a whole series of pipes so the lawn would always be warm. (Laughs.) Hey, if you got it, flaunt it."
The only time he recoils during our conversation which included talk about growing up, getting sober and missing cigarettes, all personal stuff is when I ask about periods of writer's block.
"Most of the things that people know about me are the things I've allowed them to know because I told them. My real life is different. It's not for show." I ask if he enjoys feeding people phony information. "Oh god, yes. That's the only real kind to get out there. I was married and divorced twice by the time I was 17. I was smoking three packs a day when I was 9. "It's like magic tricks. You want to be fooled. As soon as somebody tells you the secret, you're like, Man I wish you hadn't told me, you blew it.'"
He was born in Pomona, Calif. He tells me his father was from Texas, Jesse Frank Waits, named after the James brothers. He "grew up in the orange groves in East L.A. listening to mostly migrant workers and their songs."
Waits says his father taught him Woody Guthrie songs. His mother, he says, sang in a four-sibling "Andrews Sisters-type thing." She was a member of the Friends Church. He says his grandfather, named Wealthy Howard, "drove a bread truck. . . . He had a great low singing voice. He was able to find all the roots of the chords, and I always appreciated that.
Waits offers a little more about his youth. He says "the family kind of hit the wall and cracked up and it went by the wayside. But I do remember the music."
Twice he brings up the influence of radio when he was a kid. Once concerns the first time he heard Wolfman Jack. "I thought I discovered him," he says. "I thought nobody else had ever heard him. I felt like I had to listen. I thought this guy lived in a hole somewhere in Guadalajara."
We discuss songs we would or would not want played at our funerals. He mentions, "the first song that hit me hard was George Hamilton's Abilene.
"I had a broken radio. My dad had left, and I had this radio he left. I worked on it and finally got it working, and that's the song that came right out. That would be just as good as anything else."
"These are real end-of-the-line questions. Do you want a bow tie or a neck tie? Do you want the shoes on? Because they won't show . . . the coffin ends right above your knees. The suit, we're gonna go with just half. I can save 60 bucks there. Doesn't your mother deserve mahogany?"
Waits doesn't relish talking about his younger, wilder years even though they're part of what makes him relevant today in ways that musicians a few years older are not.
Waits wasn't oblivious to the musical happenings of the '60s, but he cast his stylistic lot with the smoky, jazzy, wordy, wandering Beats of the '50s rather than the three-chord theatrics of the British Invasion, the Summer of Love, post-Altamont and the other pillars of the classic rock Parthenon.
When his creativity began to flower in strange new ways in the '80s and '90s, Waits had none of the baggage of classic rock's dinosaurs: no cynical groans at new albums, no pressure to tour and play the old warhorses, no silly, tight-trousered posturing that looks ridiculous on a grown man.
Which isn't to say Waits is lacking theatrics. His contorted stage style is closer to a stomping bluesman than one of rock's bare-chested and blonde golden gods of the '70s.
"You've got to be able to sell it I, guess," he says. "That's what it comes down to. There are great interpreters and there's people who are good back stage and there's people able to do both. I never thought about who wrote those Frank Sinatra songs. I figured Sinatra wrote them. I think the same was true of Elvis. Essentially you want to make a song your own. That it sounds like it's coming out of you Otherwise it's like you're reading something in another language. Most of the things you absorb you secrete."
Many of the people Waits absorbed, like Hoagy Carmichael, were behind-the-scenes types.
"Yeah, that's true, isn't it? It's never fair. Because they have social problems. They weren't able to get it together and get it across. " Waits later compares his wife is to one of those characters. He's cautious talking about their routine as spouses, but he spills when talking about her creativity. "My wife is much more adventurous than I am," he says. "She has a wilder mind than mine. She has more rhumbas and bossa novas and tangos in her head. She can sing like Maria Callas.
"She's one of those people that socially is so shy you'll never hear her." He says they met on New Year's Eve. They were introduced while he was doing music for One From the Heart for director Francis Ford Coppola, and they married in 1980.
They now live in California wine country with their three children. Their yard, apparently, is full of vultures.
"Miles Davis said the only reason to write new songs is because you get tired of the old ones," Waits says. "You're essentially hungry for something you're not getting, you can't get at the record store. So you do what folks do, you make one. Whether it's a meal or a pair of pants or a fence or a roof or a radio, you build one. If you're kind of a tinker, like I am, it kind of comes natural to do that."
A lot of tinkering went into Orphans. Some of the songs like Walk Away, which appeared on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack in 1995 are years old. But the presentation the massive outpouring of songs, doesn't feel forced. Waits' music has always been full of Brawlers, Bawlers (or ballads crisp with healthy roughage) and Bastards.
"If we didn't get 'em all in one box, I don't really have an archive, (so) they'll end up in a drawer with who knows what," he says.
"Yeah, knives. Hair oil, and you know, paper bags. We're just trying to get them all in one spot so I don't lose them."
Several times, Waits steers close to talking about his legacy, which feels a little like death talk, but he's quite skilled at closing such talks with a quip.
"Nobody knows how long they're going to be able to stay meaningful and continue to work," he says. "Everybody wonders that. You're at the mercy of your audience in a lot of ways, which is really scary."
He lets loose a chesty laugh.
That audience is substantial. Mule Variations sold 440,000 copies according to Nielsen SoundScan(1), a huge figure for an independent artist on an independent label. It's a whisper away from what the Recording Industry Association of American would certify as a gold album. By comparison, Paul McCartney's past three albums have been certified gold, but no better.
Waits has succeeded commercially and creatively in ways that no other iconic weirdo of the past 40 years has not Frank Zappa (discounting his Valley Girl novelty), not Captain Beefheart, Frank Black, John Cale, Roky Erickson, Daniel Johnston, Karlheinz Stockhausen or Ornette Coleman.
"You try to make it a thoroughly balanced and meaningful listening experience for these strangers out there," he says. "(But) I'm more of an innovator. I don't really follow what my audience necessarily wants to have or hear. I just strike out and look behind me and there's a bunch of people following me. Go away! Go away!"
(1) Nielsen SoundScan: Nielsen SoundScan is an information system that tracks sales of music and music video products throughout the United States and Canada. It is the sales source for the Billboard music charts. Mule Variations is said to have sold over 1,000,000 worldwide.