|Title: WAMU Radio Interview
Source: audio tape. Transcription (excerpts) by Gary Tausch as sent to Raindogs Listserv Discussionlist. August 9, 2001
Date: Washington, DC. April 18, 1975
Keywords: Lord Buckley, The Eagles, Rolling Stone, National City, Napoleone's, Nighthawks At The Diner, Favourite artists, Frank Zappa, Shelly Manne
WAMU Radio Interview
On Lord Buckley
He was someone that I listened to for several years. I still enjoy listening to him for what he had to offer. He was a real bebop prosody cat, certainly a real pioneer in the 50's along with Ken Nordine and Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso, all those cats. He did a lot of nightclub dates but for the most part he's not any sort of a household word now, He was kind of a ghost out of the 50's that kind of left before he arrived.
Interviewer - how did the Eagles come into contact with Ol' '55?
I was in a bar one night and I ran into one of those guys and they said that they'd heard the record and they might want to do it on one of their records and then I was on the road for 3 months and I never heard anything about it and then it showed up on that album(1). I frankly was not that particularly crazy about their rendition of it. The song is about 5 years old, it's one of the first songs I wrote so I felt like it was kind of flattering that somebody wanted to do your song but at the same time I thought their version was a little antiseptic and then it got picked up by Ian Matthews(2) and Eric Andersen(3) - and I don't know, frankly I guess I'm a little more fond of my own version of it than I am theirs.
On "Diamonds On My Windshield"
I didn't really know what to do with that piece cause it was written out just as some spontaneous verse that I had written on the back of an itinerary and I didn't know what the hell to do with it. So we went in the studio and I tried singing it, tried doing it a-capella - nothing worked. Jim Hughart(5) was playing the upright bass with me for that session just started playing a modal bass line and I just started talking and Jim Gordon(4) started playing a cool 12 bar shuffle on brushes and we just winged it in one take and we had it and I like the way it came out. I'm gonna do more of that on this 3rd album that I'm thinking about right now and writing for out here. I bring a tape recorder with me and when I get back to the hotel I talk to myself and I'm working on some spoken word pieces that I want to do with accompaniment. I call it Metropolitan Doubletalk and I'm going to be doing more of that on this forthcoming album. It's called Nighthawk Postcards From Easy Street so I'm going to explore some more of that kind of thing.
On doing spoken word with snapping fingers
You have to use your imagination a bit and it works better in some clubs than it does in others - when it's quiet up there I can usually get away with murder - so I like playing the Cellar Door(6) , cause I can do just about anything I want up there, I can stretch out, improvise, do things, tell stories I've never told before, make something up. It's a club where you can experiment. I like that about it.
On his use of words
I'm fascinated with American literature. I read a lot. I'm concerned about imagery in a song and not going for the easiest possible description. It helps when I sit down to write something to be able to use my imagination and it certainly is a craft after a while, it's a whole combination of craft and your own past experience and your own crazy ideas about things. I come from a good family and everything but I've over the years developed some ways about me that just aren't right so you just have to look for the kinks in your personality and it helps sometimes.
I have 2 sisters. I got an older sister and a younger sister.
Interviewer - do they listen to you?
Yeah, they think I'm all right. My old man likes me a lot. He comes to clubs when I play in town in Los Angeles and he sits right up front and tosses down Scotch and rocks and gets snookered and enjoys himself thoroughly, says, "That's my son up there".
Well, my pants are too tight, can I have another cup of coffee, I just got up.
On Rolling Stone Interview
I wasn't really interviewed by Rolling Stone. A friend of mine who works for the LA Times and he comes to me and says look, I got an idea for a story and I don't know what's going to happen to it, we just do it on spec and then he sent it out a few places to see what happens and I was playing at the Troubadour at the time and afterwards we went to a cafe and sat up all night and shot the breeze and he sent it in to Rolling Stone and they published it cause they said they had been looking for one anyhow.
Interviewer - with the article in Rolling Stone did you feel you'd kind of made it now?
No, not really, I'm still an opening act. I'm looking forward to going out in the fall with - I'd like to go out with Ray Brown, Shelly Manne(7) and Paul Desmond but they don't come cheap so I'll probably end up with just friends of mine but I'd like to use upright bass, a small trap set, calfskin heads and brushes and maybe an alto, something small and discreet so I can do my spoken pieces as well as the songs themselves and have a little more continuity to the set. I'm looking forward to that and I hope to go out and headline all these clubs I've been opening the show for 3 years. Cause I've opened for everybody and I enjoy headlining now.
Interviewer - when did you start playing professionally?
3 years ago, I've been on the same club circuit, it starts in LA, goes to Denver, Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, DC, New York, Boston, Philly, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland, San Diego, Los Angeles. I fly, it's fast when you're playing 6 shows a week, 2 a night- it gets to the point where you got a day off to travel.
Interviewer - do you get tired of playing sometimes?
Yes, sometimes I do, I get tired of playing when I'm playing like at the El Mocambo club in Toronto, like a steak house or a barbecue pit. When it's just a dragged week. But a week at the Cellar Door(6) perks up your spirits quite a bit. It's a very good club and they enforce the fact that it is a listening club, in fact they even got it on a little card that sits on the table that says, "Quiet please". Only club I've ever played where they have that.
Interviewer - do you have a favourite town?
Yeah, New York City, Denver, Los Angeles, I like Los Angeles a lot, downtown Portland, a few.
About high school - working
I dropped out of high school, I worked at restaurants, I was a bartender, I worked as a firefighter for a while, I drove delivery trucks in town and worked at a jewelry store and several gas stations, washed dishes, I was a janitor, a cook, I just took all the odd jobs everybody takes odd jobs when you're just kicking around, ended up I was taking tickets on the door at a coffee house in Mission Beach and I was the official bouncer. I got bounced every now and then. You get these big, obstinate conventioneers that come down to the Beach to go slumming and they come elbowing their way through. They gave me like the leg of a chair to defend myself with. Slowly I worked up to where I was doing a weekend now and then and I was playing a little guitar, a little piano, doing Mississippi John Hurt songs and Reverend Gary Davis and it was basically a traditional club with the emphasis on stringbands, banjo, fiddle, bluegrass folk music, traditional blues, very few songwriters. I was just one of many and it was kind of a beach community musical school where people come and hang out, just local talent, no big thing.
On National City
National City is this naugahyde town in Southern California and it's a sailor town, lots of vinyl white booted go go dancers, I worked until 4 in the morning in a pizza house(8) as a cook, started off as a dishwasher, worked for Sal Crivello and Joe Sardo, worked there for 5 years as a matter of fact. That's where the mile of cars is, that's where I got snookered in a deal for $125, I bought a 1955 Buick Roadmaster down there. The Roadmaster didn't have fins, the body was a little more sleek, it was a pioneer GM product with the Dynaflow hydramatic transmission, a leviticously deuteronymous catastrophe sort of automobile, it was kind of a scenic cruiser for cross country family outings and that sort of thing, really gripped the road. It lasted for 3 years, I sunk $3,500 into it over a period of 3 years, I sold it for 12 bucks, I had it parked out in front of a cleaners, the brakes went out and I had several parking tickets and a number of moving violations in the glove compartment and I'd been cited and they had stacked them up in a little envelope right underneath the wiper and I couldn't do anything else but call Ace Wrecking and have them tow it away - so I bought another one. I never spent more than $150 - $200 for a car. It's just against my ethics, although I did invest $300 in a 1954 black Cadillac 4 door sedan I bought at a place called Jerry Lee's Autos, from a crooked car dealer, that was just recently, I paid cash for it, I took the bus down there and I ran into this guy. I'll tell you a story, I did this last night at the Cellar Door(6), a friend of mine, John Heard, accompanied me on piano, a great piano player, he sounds like George Shearing or early Dave Brubeck, Steve Allen, he's a great piano player - it's called Nighthawk Postcards From Easy Street which is going to be the title of my next forthcoming album(9) and it'll be out in October some time, a little narrative piece, I started writing it on the corner of 12th & Wazee St in downtown Denver, Colorado, out in front of a place called the Terminal Bar, now that's about a half a block from the Santa Fe Freight Depot there and originally the name they gave to the bar had to do with the fact that it was so close to the Santa Fe Freight but now 20 years later every terminal case in town beats the pavement to get there. I started writing it in Denver, I finished it up on 23rd St in New York City - so this is kind of an improvisational adventure into the bowels of the metropolitan region, kind of a travelogue piece - when the highway is a wet slick anaconda of a 2 lane and you're motivating and negotiating a hairpin turn behind the wheel of a serious powder blue Ford Fairlane, with the whispering brushes of wet radials on wet pavement ..... (10)
Intro to Eggs & Sausage
This is new, I don't know what the hell to do with it really yet, but after you hang around enough diners, it seems a place you always go when you're feeling like a refugee from a disconcerted love affair - you end up at a 24 hour place, in LA we got a place called Norm's(11) - all the losers are there and the waitresses are all good looking.
Things don't necessarily have to rhyme, a lot of songwriters feel you gotta stick with that verse, chorus, what rhymes with orange?
I listen to Rudy Ray Moore, Oscar Brown Jr, Ken Nordine, Lord Buckley, Jack Kerouac who I've just been fortunate enough to obtain 4 albums from - from the 50's, he made an album on Hanover Records(12) with Steve Allen in New York City in 57 that did an instant nose dive except among his enthusiastic constituents that bought the record - it was essentially Steve Allen playing jazz behind Kerouac and Kerouac was just telling stories. I like Randy Newman a great deal, I like London Wainwright.
Interviewer - was Martha about anyone in particular?
No, I just made it up, just trying to write a musical short story on that song. I'm writing material right now. There was a time I couldn't write on the road but I found myself out for 7 months a year - I'd be on the road. A lot of cats say well as soon as I get home I'll be able to write - what you end up with is a lot of spare parts out here - you scribble on stuff and it's a matter of being able to relax and settle down and not have to play every night in order to put 'em all together.
Do I have hobbies? I work on my car at home, I got that '54 black Cadillac 4 door sedan I was telling you about. It loves gas, it's reliable, I got it parked at a friend's house under a tree. It's gonna be covered in pigeon crap by the time I get back. As far as hobbies, I don't build model airplanes or anything or collect stamps. I'm not an etymologist or anything. I'm a professional nighthawk. Hobby is a word like fun - gee, that was fun - I don't have fun really and I don't have any hobbies but I hang around, I like to drink beer, that could be a hobby, I collect empty beer cans.
Interviewer - are you close with your family?
Yeah, we do okay, my family's pretty much split up, I live in LA, so does my dad, my mother lives in San Diego and I got a sister in San Diego and one in LA, I hang out with my father when I'm at home. Songwriting's a craft, story telling's a craft and I would like to get to the point where I could deal with just about anything and do it well. Right now I'm writing about things I know the most about and that seems to be the best types of things to write about. I'm working on a concept album right now so I'm working with a kind of story line and hanging songs on the story line. I'm looking forward to playing with a group cause in a lot of ways it will be pioneering some stuff in the studio for me, experimenting a little bit, I'll be working with musicians that can deal with that level of spontaneity and not just need a chart in front of them.
Interviewer - do you feel comfortable in the studio?
Well, no, what it is, there's so much pressure in the studio, it's $100.00 an hour or whatever and time is money, it's a collective effort, there's six cats you're playing with and a producer and an engineer - it's very highly concentrated sort of effort. I enjoy it when something happens in the studio, when you come up with something, it's exciting, it's work producing an album.
Interviewer - will you be producing your album?
I'll go in with a second opinion, I won't go in just alone. There's been mention of me possibly doing a live 2 record set which I think is maybe not such a good idea right now. I guarantee it'll be entertaining.
On controlling the flow of a live show
You learn that after a while. It usually comes from playing in an obstinate club where you can't give a loud rambunctious crowd a chance to continue their conversation. So I try to deal with continuity on stage so they'll be able to follow you. In a lot of clubs you have to convince them that you're worth listening to. I by no means do as well as I did at the Cellar Door(6) in every club I play. I've played audiences that hate me, that'd love to do damage to my physical person.
Interviewer - what do you do?
Well, you think up a lot of insults before you go on stage, I learned a lot of 'em from Johnny Burnette. I opened the show for the Mothers of Invention for three tours, all over Canada and the East Coast, the South, the West Coast. It was a fascinating cultural sort of phenomenon that I found out there on that circuit - but it was by no means easy to do. The shows were very nervous. You'd come out and there's 8,000 screaming fans and it's a huge hockey arena and all this chrome furniture on stage and the house lights go down and the crowd gets quiet and Marty Parelis comes out and says -"And now, ladies and gentlemen, before Frank comes out" - everyone yells - "FRANK!!!" and then you come out and people are pretty upset. Every night was a new challenge that you just succumbed to.
Interviewer - which of your first 2 albums do you like best?
Both of them - for different reasons. I thought the second album was a move in a new direction as far as myself as a writer, I was developing and growing and I felt good about that. First album was a lot of old songs that I'd been keeping around until I got a record contract. A lot of the songs were already 3 years old or whatever.
Interviewer - how'd you learn how to play piano?
I just picked it up - it's pretty heavy - no academic study of the keyboard at all. I just investigated - I listened to records, playing on stage helps a lot.
Interviewer - If you could play with any musicians - who would you play with?
I'd love to play with Shelley Manne(7)and maybe Ray Brown and Paul Desmond, and Dave Brubeck - there's an album he did, a lot of the songs were the theme of Mr. Broadway, a television series, it was called Jazz Impressions Of New York City, it's one of my favourite albums of his.
Interviewer - Do you want to be a star? - I don't even know who Shelley Manne is
He's an old school jazz player - a leading drummer - he played a trap set with his hands on Peggy Lee's version of Fever if you recall that single - owned a club in LA called Shelley's Manne Hole - that folded - now I hear he's playing clubs and stuff.
When I'm home I do an hour show on KPFK once a week(13) and I get to play my own sides, I bring 'em from home and I do an hour on the air. I don't really jock, I just write out a playlist and tell 'em what I want to hear.
(1) Ol' '55/ The Eagles: Cover released on "On The Border". The Eagles, 1974 Elektra/ Asylum LP 1004
(2) Ol' '55/ Ian Matthews: Cover released on "Some Day You Eat The Bear... Some Day The Bear Eats You". Ian Matthews, 1974 Elektra.
(3) Ol' '55/ Eric Andersen: Cover released on "Be True To You". Arista Records. Recorded in Los Angeles, 1974. Arista AL 4033. 1975. For further reading please visit the official Eric Andersen site
(4) Jim Hughart: bassist and long time collaborator ('The Heart Of Saturday Night', 'Nighthawks At The Diner', 'Small Change', 'Foreign Affairs', 'Blue Valentine' and 'Heartattack And Vine'). Further reading: Who's Who?
(5) Jim Gordon: "Jim Gordon (who apparently collaborated on the album "The Heart Of Saturday Night") was a successful L.A. studio drummer, rivaled only by Hal Blaine, years before his association with Eric Clapton propelled him to the spotlight - when Clapton's Dominos collapsed, he briefly joined Traffic, then went back to being a session star, playing on records by Gordon Lightfoot (four in a row from 1973 to 1976), Alice Cooper (in 1976 and 1977), and plenty others. He was debilitated by schizophrenia later in the 70's, then murdered his mother in 1983, and now is in prison. A sad end to one of the more interesting careers in rock drumming".
(6) The Cellar Door: The Cellar Door opened in 1963 as a folk club, and featured live folk music. Located in Washington, D.C. Waits seems to be pretty content with the shows he did there, for he mentions the venue 4 times during this interview.
(7) Shelly Manne, percussionist. As a matter of fact the two would work together within a year for the 'Small Change' sessions (mid 1976). And their collaboration would be prolonged for 'Foreign Affairs' and 'One From The Heart'. Further reading: Who's Who?
(8) Napoleone's Pizza House: at the age of 14 or 15 Tom gets his first job at "Napoleone's Pizza House" 619 National City Blvd. in National City (San Diego) as immortalized in "I Can't Wait To Get Off Work", from the album Small Change, 1976. Further reading: Napoleone Pizza House full story
(9) My next forthcoming album: This turned out as "Nighthawks At The Diner" and was indeed released October, 1975.
(10) With the whispering brushes of wet radials on wet pavement: Waits is talking about (his early version of) "Nighthawk Postcards" as later released on "Nighthawks At The Diner", 1975.
(11) Norm's: Intro to "Eggs And Sausage" ("Nighthawks At The Diner", 1975): "Yeah, I've had strange looking patty melts at Norm's. I've had dangerous veal cutlets at the Copper Penny..." Also mentioned in pressrelease for The Heart Of Saturday Night
(12) An album on Hanover Records: "Poetry for the Beat Generation - Jack Kerouac and Steve Allen". Hanover Records HML 5000 . Fourteen poems read by the author to original piano accompaniment by Steve Allen. Side 1: October in the Railroad Earth; Deadbelly; Charlie Parker; The Sounds of the Universe Coming in My Window; One Mother. Side 2: Goofing at the Table; Bowery Blues; Abraham; Dave Brubeck; If I had a Slouch Hat Too one Time; The Wheel of Quivering Meat Conception; McDougal Street Blues; The Moon Her Majesty; I'd Rather Be Thin Than Famous. The second of Kerouac's recordings for general distribution. 33 1/3 rpm, 12" mono LP, with music by Steve Allen and poetry by Kerouac. Kerouac and Allen had met at the Village Vanguard at a poetry reading Kerouac was giving, and Allen sat in with him for the second show. After the show, they decided to collaborate on this album, which they produced in one take. Dot Records, which was to have released it, got cold feet at the last minute, after they had already sent out the review copies; it was issued by Hanover with liner notes describing the controversy over its release and also describing the genesis of the album. Gilbert Millstein, who had reviewed On the Road for the New York Times in 1957, wrote the liner notes.
(13) I do an hour show on KPFK once a week: Waits has done a couple of interviews for KPFK (Folkscene 1973, 1974, 1975), but nothing is known about him providing playlists for the station