Title: Waits Plays Out `Variations' On A Twisted Persona
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (USA), by James Sullivan. Transcription by Larry DaSilveira, as sent to Raindogs Listserv Discussionlist, April 16, 1999
Date: April 18, 1999
Key words: Mule Variations, Get Behind the Mule, bandmembers, Kathleen, Cult status, The Systems


Waits Plays Out `Variations' On A Twisted Persona


SAN FRANCISCO - "All life interests me,'' lisps Renfield, the feverish asylum inmate Tom Waits plays in Francis Ford Coppola's film "Bram Stoker's Dracula.''(1) (Then he eats a worm).

That small scene might best capture the singer-actor's trademark affinity for life's strange beauty. Waits has cultivated an image that's slightly out of whack, and it has served him well. A cult phenomenon by the early 1980s, the scat-singing raconteur recast himself as rock 'n' roll's ingenious rag man with a masterful series of experimental yet deeply traditional albums. He took swatches of immigrant music - secondhand tangos, pub ballads, Weimar-era cabaret songs - and made them uniquely American, uniquely his own.

On April 27, Waits releases his 12th studio album. They came in bunches in the '70s, but this is his first, not including soundtracks, since 1992's Grammy-winning "Bone Machine.'' Anticipation is high.

His first release for the punk label Epitaph, "Mule Variations'' will be Waits' most public project in ages. In recent years he has earned a reputation as a bit of a recluse, playing only the odd benefit concert while working on plays and soundtracks at his family's home in the Sonoma County countryside, north of San Francisco.

He's planning select live dates, as well as a concert taping for VH1, which recently named him one of the "Most Influential Artists of All Time.'' Not that he buys it, exactly.

"I don't know what it is I do yet,'' Waits rasps on a recent afternoon, hunching over a plate of sweet-and-sour chicken at an old-fashioned, dark-paneled Chinatown restaurant. "I guess if you figure it out, you're kind of all done.''

True to form, Waits is dressed in rail-yard garb-scuffed black boots, stiff jeans, a tight denim jacket buttoned up like a shirt. When he takes off his ever-present battered fedora, his kinky hair springs up like a wire garden. It's the same look he took onstage at one of his first concerts in years, in Austin, Texas, at the South by Southwest music conference(2) last month.

Waits is reluctant to do interviews and will do only a handful to promote his album, but he is less socially uneasy than simply preoccupied. One thing about Waits is certain: He's the sort of guy who will answer a question with a question. Asked about his long stretch between albums, he replies: "Did you know a rat's teeth will grow through the roof of its mouth into its brain if it doesn't keep eating?'' There's a clear lesson to be learned from that zoological tidbit, Waits claims, suppressing a smile: "Always keep snacks around.'' He cranes his neck for an imaginary waiter: "Could we get a little something over here as a starter, really quick?'' he hollers. "My teeth are growing.''

Waits has lived in rural Sonoma County for several years with his wife and longtime collaborator, Kathleen Brennan, and their three children(3). "Mule Variations,'' he suggests, is his attempt to get back to the land. "You know, Robert Johnson started writing about automobiles, and from then forward people stopped writing about animals.''

He says the title phrase of the slow-roasting blues "Get Behind the Mule'' comes from something the late bluesman Johnson's father told his shiftless son: "You gotta get behind the mule in the morning and plow.''

For years Waits lived out the gutter-trawling lifestyle of his characters. "There have been plenty of days when I've gotten up too late in the morning and the mule is gone,'' he says. "Or somebody else is behind the mule, and I have to get behind the guy who's behind the mule.''

The album, recorded last year, features contributions by Bay Area musicians including harmonica veteran Charlie Musselwhite, brass and woodwind player Nik Phelps of Clubfoot Orchestra, drummer Andrew Borger of the Beth Lisick Ordeal and guitarist Joe Gore and multi-instrumentalist Ralph Carney of the Oranj Symphonette. Primus serves as Waits' backing band on the rambunctious lead track, "Big in Japan.''

It was Brennan, Waits says, who urged him back behind the mule. They met almost 20 years ago, while working at Coppola's Zoetrope Studios. Among her many songwriting credits with her husband, Brennan co-wrote Waits' music for "Bunny,''(4) the short animated film that just won an Academy Award.

In between words of devotion, Waits takes great joy in making up a past for his wife: He claims she's been an elevator operator and an anchorwoman, among other things. "She was Yma Sumac's hairdresser for a very short period of time.'' His slate-colored eyes twinkle devilishly. "They had to let her go - too much overhead!''

Such absurdities peppered Waits' performance in Austin, a midnight show that was the festival's most coveted ticket. At one point he offered Brennan's description of his music. "My wife says I have two kinds of songs - grand weepers and grim reapers,'' he said.

Like all his records, "Mule Variations'' is exquisitely paced. The tender numbers - the ones on which you can hear the piano pedals creak ("Picture in a Frame,'' "Take It With Me'') - arrive at regular intervals between Waits' rattletrap, anything - goes stomps and his craggy falsetto hymns.

That pacing goes all the way back to his days in a high school band called the Systems(5), when aspiring musicians learned to play "three fast ones and then one slow one,'' he says. "That's still the shape of most records.'' It might be argued that Waits is revisiting those high school years. Epitaph, the Los Angeles label that launched Rancid and the Offspring, seems like a curious home for a man who turns 50 in December.

But Waits says the label has been a good fit thus far. "The fact is, if I told them I wanted to do Cuban gospel disco cartoon music, they'd say, `When are you going into the studio?''' As proof of the company's unflagging support of its artists, Waits cites the case of the die-hard punk band NOFX, which demanded that one of its songs be removed from commercial radio stations. "They got their song taken off the air,'' he marvels. "I like that. Most people are trying to get on the radio.''

Once touted as another "new Dylan'' along with a young Bruce Springsteen, Waits has long since abandoned any desire to achieve mass acceptance. 'I've heard myself on the radio once or twice,'' he says. "It's kind of a thrill.'' He hasn't always been such a skeptic. "There was a time when I was a kid and I had my little crystal set and my aerial on the roof, listening to Wolfman Jack, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Johnny Horton, Floyd Cramer. The radio was a pretty great thing.''

He won't find himself on today's airwaves, other than on some adventurous college stations. But Waits has been blessed by the admiration of a wild array of performers. He's made considerable publishing money with the help of Rod Stewart, for instance, who has covered at least three Waits songs, including "Downtown Train,'' a No. 3 hit single in 1989. At the height of the Eagles' fame, they covered "Ol' 55,'' the first song on Waits' first album. Springsteen did 'Jersey Girl''; Holly Cole did a whole album of reinterpreted covers ("Temptation''). Waits' ex-girlfriend Rickie Lee Jones has sung his songs; so has his former touring partner Bette Midler. "Johnny Cash did a song(6),'' he says. "That felt particularly validating.''

He's also fended off dozens of requests from advertisers. Waits is adamantly opposed to songs being sold as jingles, and he won a $2.5 million court decision some years ago from Frito-Lay(7), which had hired a sound-alike for an ad campaign. More recently, he battled his ex-manager, Herb Cohen, who sold Screamin' Jay Hawkins' version of Waits' "Heartattack and Vine'' for use in a Levi's commercial.

Advertising aside, Waits is philosophical about sending his songs out into the world to be reinvented by other artists. "You might not like the version they do, but I may do the same thing with somebody else's song - bend it around, change it,'' he says. "If the arm's sticking up, I'm gonna break it so it'll fit in the box.''

Like every record Waits has done since 1983's revelatory "Swordfishtrombones,'' "Mule Variations'' teems with weird sounds: plunking xylophones, wheezing pump organs, makeshift percussion instruments, roosters. "Everything finds its way onto the records in some form or another,'' he says, "if you allow yourself to be open to the experience.

Always on alert, Waits can be excitable and high-strung. It's one reason he all but dropped out after "Bone Machine.'' By all accounts, he needed a break from his own mythology. "You're constantly saying, `Notice me, notice me,' and then `Leave me alone,''' he says.

Sometimes it's annoying living up to cult status, he acknowledges, "but sometimes it's annoying to be a taxidermist, or a train conductor. And there are times when, hey, this is about the coolest thing there could ever be to be.''


(1) Bram Stoker's Dracula: Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) Movie directed by Francis Ford Coppola. TW: actor. Plays R.M. Renfield. Rip Rense (1992): "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." (Source: "Waits In Wonderland" Image magazine (USA), by Rip Rense. Date: December 13, 1992). Further reading: Filmography

(2) South by Southwest music conference: March 20, 1999 South by Southwest music conference (SXSW '99) "A late Evening With Tom Waits" at the Paramount Theatre. Austin/ USA. Tom Waits: vocals, piano, bullhorn. Smokey Hormel: guitar, banjo. Larry Taylor: bass. Stephen Hodges: drums. Further reading: Performances

(3) Three children: Sullivan (1993), Kellesimone (1983) and Casey-Xavier (1985)

(4) Bunny: Bunny (1998) Oscar winning animated movie directed by Chris Wedge. TW: composer (w. Kathleen Waits-Brennan). Soundtrack: "Bend Down The Branches", later re-released on Orphans (Bawlers), 2006.

(5) A high school band called the Systems:
- Interviewer - Did you always want to be a musician? TW: "Yeah, I guess so, I couldn't think of anything else I really wanted to be, seems to be today nobody wants to be anything but, nobody wants to be a baseball player anymore or anything - everybody wants to be a rock n roll star. I was always real interested in music, it never really struck me to write until I guess about the late 60's, about '68 or '69 I started writing, up until then I just listened to a lot of music, played in school orchestras, played trumpet in elementary school, junior high, high school, went through all that and hung around with some friends of mine that played classical piano and picked up a few little licks here and there, played guitar and stumbled on the Heritage - and actually the first real songwriter I really saw and really got enthused about was Jack Tempchin and that was in about 1968 at the Candy Company on El Cajon Boulevard, he was playing on the bill with Lightning Hopkins and he was real casual and everything, it was just something I wanted to try my hand at, so I tried my hand at it, I don't know, I guess you get better as you go along, the more music you listen to and the more perceptive you become towards melody and lyric and all. The only place really to play in San Diego were folk clubs. I used to go to a lot of dances. I played in a band in junior high called The Systems... I played rhythm guitar and sang. I listened to a lot of black artists, quite a few black artists. I had a real interest in that - James Brown and the Flames were real big, I went to O'Farrell Junior High School, all black junior high school, and I went out to Balboa(?) and saw James Brown - he knocked me out, man, when I was in 7th grade. So I've kept up on that scene too and I listen to as many different kinds of music as I can." (Source: "Folkscene 1973, with Howard and Roz Larman" (KPFK-FM 90.7). Date: Los Angeles/ USA. August 12, 1973)
-TW: "I did a few rock things; I was in a group called the Systems, I was rhythm guitar and lead vocalist. We did Link Wray stuff. Hohman: Link Wray - that's the guy who made all those killer rock instrumentals back in the late '50s, Rumble, Rawhide, Comanche, The Swag. TW: Yeah, Rumble was his first hit. I've been trying to pin down Frank Zappa's guitar style for a long time and I think Link Wray is the closest I can get. I think Frank is trying to be Link Wray. We did stuff by the Ventures, too, a lot of instrumentals. I finally quit that band; we had a drummer with a harelip and a lead guitar player with a homemade guitar. Actually, there were only three of us, so in a sense we were sort of like pioneers." (Source: "Bitin' the green shiboda with Tom Waits". "Down Beat" magazine. Marv Hohman. Chicago. June 17, 1976)
-"Around this same time Waits formed his first group, soulfully named The Systems. "I played rhythm guitar and sang," he comments. "Rhythm and blues - a lot of black Hit Parade stuff, white kids trying to get that Motown sound. I went to an all-black junior high and was under certain social pressure. So I listened to what was around me." Tom dropped out of high school during his junior year, because he was already working by that time - not as a musician, but as a cook. Several years on the graveyard shift at an all-night diner in San Diego, besides providing him with what would become fuel for subsequent songs and stories, convinced him that there had to be a better medium through which to channel his energies and words. As he told the Los Angeles Times, "I knew when I was working there I was going to do something with it. I didn't know how, but I felt it every night." (Source: "Tom Waits - Offbeat Poet And Pianist". Contemporary Keyboard magazine, by Dan Forte. April, 1977)
- TW: "Heck I don't know if it was a soul band. It was surf and soul. I played guitar and sang. In those days, you didn't play a lot of gigs. You'd play a dance every now and then. I knew I wanted to do something with music, but navigating that seems almost impossible. It's like digging through a wall with a spoon, and your only hope is that what's on the other side is digging with the same intensity towards you... The band was called the Systems. Up until that point, you know, I played the ukulele when I was a kid and I played a guitar - my dad gave me a guitar. There was always music in the house. Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte and Louis Armstrong and Mexican radio." (Source: "Tom Waits". SOMA magazine. July, 2002 by Mikel Jollett)

(6) Johnny Cash did a song: "American Recordings". Johnny Cash. 1994 Label: Sony/ Columbia (1994), American Recordings (re-release 2002). Song covered: "Down There By The Train". (Written by Tom Waits). Waits version released on Orphans, 2006

(7) Some years ago from Frito-Lay: Full story: Waits vs. Frito Lay