Title: What Do You Say To Tom Waits?
Source: The Village Noize, by Bill Dolan. Photography by Jean Baptiste Mondino. Illustration by Robert Brookins Cook. Transcription by Linda Gehrlein as sent to Tom Waits Library. December 12, 2001
Date: Issue 14, 1993
Key words: Bone Machine, percussion, fatherhood, studio recording, religion, covering songs

Magazine front cover: Photography by Jean Baptiste Mondino. Thanks to Linda Gehrlein for donating this scan

Accompanying pictures
Page lay out (second page of article).
Photography by Jean Baptiste Mondino.
Photography by Jean Baptiste Mondino.
Illustration by Robert Brookins Cook.


What Do You Say To Tom Waits?


What do you say to Tom Waits? The man who had big hair before Bon Jovi, before Seinfeld's Kramer. The man who makes Shane McGowan's style look GQ. The man whose voice, when you first hear it, is like your first shot of whiskey: stinging, but you find yourself continually reaching for more. Respected in music, film and theater, Tom Waits is now champion of another field; litigation battle through appellate courts, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. No, he's not replacing Jimmy Smitts on L.A. Law. Frito Lay decided to play "Frito Bandito"(1) and have a known Tom Waits impersonator sing a Frito related jingle sounding remarkably similar to Tom's "Step Right Up" in a radio advertisement. Mr. Waits can now muncha buncha whatever the hell he wants with the two-and-a-half million dollars awarded him for punitive damages.

I heard Henry Rollins describe Tom Waits as the "real thing." Fact. Waits has continued to do what he holds true, and continues to be sought after by those wearing the magical glasses capable of seeing through bullshit. I was warned that Tom was a tough interview - strictly one word answers - but nothing could have been further from the truth. We were laughing almost the entire time and eventually ran out of tape. Just your average story; everything from donuts to Hitler toilet brushes. Just a few of the many elements contributing to the whole thing called the Bone Machine, a 1992 Grammy winner for Best Alternative Album. After returning from working on Robert Wilson's Alice In Wonderland in Europe(2), Tom is now taking a much deserved rest. He has worked non-stop for the past twelve months at a furious pace (no wonder he has no time to comb his hair). Also watch for Robert Altman's Short Cuts, in which Tom plays a limo driver with a drinking problem. So without further distraction, "let's take a look under the hood," as Ross the Boss might say.

So can we expect an erotic sex photo book from Tom Waits any time soon?
- Gee, I don't know. I didn't think about it until now.
Well, I get a percentage of the royalties now.
- Okay.
So how's country living compared to city living?
- A lot of vultures out here. A lot of gun racks, roadkill...
A lot of street signs with bullet holes through them?
- Oh yeah. And the newspapers are full of car wrecks and murders.
Do you consider yourself more creative in the country? A lot of people consider you a city person.
- I don't know. The idea is that your own temperament and musical growth and how adventurous you want to be is still something personal. It depends less on what's going on outside your window. I like to turn on four radios at the same time with different stations and listen to the collision.
So it's more introspective than just commentating on what goes on around you?
- Yeah. You write songs real fast and the best ones just come out of the ground.
Did Bone Machine happen relatively fast?
- It did. Seems like it was supposed to have happened. Sometimes when you're working on something, you feel like you started at the wrong time, and you've been off balance since the beginning. You know a journey that was never meant to be? Bone Machine felt like there was a signpost up ahead. Worked in a room that had maps on the walls. That was a good indication.
Is the Cunundrum(3) made up of any of those signposts [the Cunundrum is a percussion instrument Tom created out of things he found and wanted to bang on]?
- Yeah, mostly found metal objects. Alternative sound sources like a crowbar. I'm listening to more things that are like that lately. I don't know if it has anything to do with living in the sticks or what. Going into a hardware store, looking around and saying, "Goddamn!"
- Like a kid in a candy store?
Yeah! "Jeez look at that! I bet that would make a great sound." But people have been doing that forever. When you're recording, you're always looking for something that sounds better than the stuff you brought in there. Or you start hitting somebody else's equipment...or the floor.
Kind of like french fries; they always taste better when they're somebody else's.
- Yeah!
How would your children describe you? Are they aware of what you do?
- My boy(4) got into a fight with a kid up the road and said "My dad can sing better than your dad." Well, that was easy for me. I won that hands down. But yeah, they're aware of what I do. They're embarrassed when I take them to school sometimes. "Hey dad, your pants are halfway down around your knees dad. And do something with your hair! Kids are starting to talk!"
How old are they now?
- They're...ten and eight. But they like to go out for a spin. I go out on a curved road with them on a dark or rainy night and I get the Cadillac up to about 99 mph and they scream. Now when I say "Let's go for a spin," they know what I'm talking about.
How did you decide to record where you did?
- I don't know...the room felt great. It wasn't built for recording and I think maybe that's why.
So it wasn't forced.
- No. I told them, "We want to work down here. It's got a better sound." I think they were a little bit embarrassed. They were like, "We have a room up here that we sank about half a million dollars into. At least give it a try." I said, "Well I did. I spent a whole day up there and it sounded like dog meat to me." But that's how any discovery happens. And it [the room downstairs] has all the natural requirements of a great sound room. It's got wood walls, a wood ceiling and a cement floor. It's not sound proofed, so the world comes in. I think that was good for this record.
Did you record when it was raining?
- Hey, I think it rained the whole time we were down there! And I think the room changes when it rains. The air is charged with something different. A lot of rooms that I recorded in were like laboratories with a ventricular decapitator emergency room. And you think, "My God, nothing will ever grow here." So we got lucky.
Tell me about Dracula.(5) What was exciting about it for you?
- I had to eat bugs. Well, I didn't actually eat the bugs. You put 'em in your mouth, move 'em around and spit 'em out after the take. At first I thought I should eat them and really go all the way, but...
It must get pretty rough around the fifth take.
- Yeah, and it's also rough on the insects. You want the bugs to treat you right after you're gone. [To the insects] "Remember me, I was the guy who treated you right." So it's more like a funhouse to them. They go in your mouth, walk along your teeth and get to come back out. It was a massively torrid drama and I had a very small part. I went in for two weeks, that's all. I got one of those institutional haircuts; the one they have to hold you down to give you. I wore a straightjacket. Made me look like a moth. I learned a little Romanian, spoke with an English accent. I was surrounded by English actors.
Kind of rubbed off?
- I don't know. We'll see.
Playing a lot of cricket lately?
- Hah! No, but I screamed a lot. I scared myself.
What spooks you? Are you superstitious or believe in ghosts?
- Yeah, I'm superstitious. Well, I think that religion and politics and the Judeo Christian ethic have pretty much annihilated superstition and replaced it with science and all that...but I'm very superstitious. You know, that red heads cause typhoons and things like that.
You mean they don't?
- [laughing] Yeah!
How do you feel about people covering your songs [Rod Stewart, Bruce Springsteen, etc.]?
- When I listen to songs...I know what it's like to listen to a song and say, "I'd love to sing that song!" I used to bellyache about it, you know. But I do think you should bring something into the song, otherwise it's like taking a photograph of a photograph.
What song would you like to cover?
- "Ode to Bill Joe," "Strange Fruit" by Billie Holiday, "In the Hall of the Mountain King."(6)
Tell me about your increasing interest in percussion instruments. Is your piano missing you?
- Anybody that plays piano really wants to see one thrown off a building, because you're always going to it. You always have to use ones that they provide on the road, and you hate them. You never get to bring your piano with you.
Kind of like a mistress in each city...each one different?
- Yeah, but you long for some continuity. I think it makes you angry. Pianos are a percussion instrument. But it has 88 sympathetic strings. I found a sound board and strings of a piano that had been destroyed by a heavy metal group. They had blown it up with some dynamite. I think it was just for fun. And they only left the sound board so I started banging on that with some drumsticks. Just leaned it against the wall and whacked it.
Since a heavy metal band used the piano before it blew up, when you ran your drumstick backwards over it did it play Satanic messages?
- Should of...but I'm not a drummer. I just like to hit things. I find it reasonable pleasing for myself. You can go crazy trying to communicate certain details of what you want to a drummer. So, I started hitting them myself.
Take out the middle man?
- Take out the middle man, yeah. It feels good to be sore at the end of the night.
I heard your mom didn't like the name "Bone Machine."
- She didn't like it. "Why must we always degrade, Tom?" I was like, "Mom, come on. Everyone else likes the title."
What was it like growing up? Did you have a strict religious background?
- Yeah. Had to go to church every Sunday. Wore a tie that cut off the circulation to my head. Then I discovered donuts, cigarettes and coffee when I was fourteen, and that was it for church. My mom said, "Don't forget that there's nothing the devil hates more than a singing Christian."
So I guess that puts the Baptists in first place.
- I think that's in the book of Rudy. That's right after Ruth. You know; Ruth, Numbers, Rudy.
So what does God say about donuts and coffee?
- Hah! I wonder.
How would you want to be remembered? Wait, you're not going anywhere are you?
- Be remembered? Why, do you know something I don't? Gee, I dunno. Eccentric. Uncommonly smooth, yet mild. Not a cough in a carload. Have you seen those new Adolf Hitler toilet brushes they're selling in Germany right now? To raise money to fight against the resurgence of Nazi activity?
It's not on my shopping list yet. The key word is yet. What kind of places are you going to play next tour?
- I dunno, small theaters...or just sports arenas. That's all I'm gonna do is arenas. I'll insist on arenas.
Will you be spitting blood or fire?
- Well, you gotta get pretty big before you can afford your own snake.
I think they have an easy payment loan now.
I think the big acts are getting like Broadway or Vegas, don't you think? Or P.T. Barnum?
- At least with P.T. Barnum you could smell the elephants.
Do you think MTV has irreversibly changed music for the worse?
- Basically, it's commerce. An international channel. The electronic circus.
What kind of consumer product would a Bone Machine be?
- I dunno, but the left-handed model is more expensive, that's the difference. Have you ever seen an old printing press? Have you seen them work? The sound they make? Thrilling! They make that clang, and that cling and that whoosh. That's like a Bone Machine. Always looked like a big insect eating ink to me.
So what new acting projects are you working on?
- Some oddball production of Alice in Wonderland in Germany.
Can you bring me back a toilet brush? If they're all out, I'll settle for the Goebels model.
- I was just reading about a boy who pulled a gun on his parents to get his braces taken off.
Leg braces?
- No! Off his teeth!
Why didn't he chew a lot of gum or taffy? Probably a lot less expensive than a gun.
- I also read about a man in Korea who was arrested for using his wife for shark bait. They were fighting and he said, "One more out of you and you're shark bait!"
Was that man Les Claypool?(7)
- No, but he'd like that story.
Do you ever find old stuff you had written years ago and say, "This is great! Why didn't I use this?"
- Sure. The stuff that's left over you always cut up and use for bait. I believe in the Frankenstein theory; a good butcher uses every part of the cow. It's all medical to me. You can always use if for research. I have a hard time throwing things away. I save food...for months. I find food in my briefcase. I wear the same clothes for three months when I'm writing. I'm impossible to be around.

Bill Dolan found coffee at the age of eight.


(1) Frito Lay decided to play "Frito Bandito": further reading: Waits vs. Frito Lay

(2) Robert Wilson's Alice In Wonderland in Europe: further reading: Alice

(3) Cunundrum: should be spelled "Conundrum". Percussion rack with metal objects. Made for Waits by Serge Etienne. Further reading: Instruments

(4) My boy: First born son: "Casey Xavier" (second child, born October 24, 1985). Some sources claim this date to be September, 1985

(5) 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)

(6) "Ode to Bill Joe," "Strange Fruit" by Billie Holiday, "In the Hall of the Mountain King.":
Ode to Billy Joe: Written by Bobbie Gentry (� Northridge Music Company/ Universal MCA Publishing.) From "Ode To Billy Joe", � 1967, Capitol. "It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day. I was out chopping cotton and my brother was baling hay. And at dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat. And Mama hollered out the back door "y'all remember to wipe your feet," And then she said "I got some news this morning from Choctaw Ridge," "Today, Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge." And Papa said to Mama as he passed around the black-eyed peas: "Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense; pass the biscuits, please." "There's five more acres in the lower forty I've got to plow." And Mama said it was a shame about Billy Joe, anyhow. Seems like nothing ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge. And now Billy Joe MacAllister's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge. And brother said he recollected when he and Tom and Billie Joe, Had put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show. And wasn't I talking to him after church last Sunday night? "I'll have another piece of apple pie; you know it don't seem right. "I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge, "And now you tell me Billie Joe's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge." And Mama said to me: "Child, what's happened to your appetite? "I've been cooking all morning and you haven't touched a single bite. "That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today. "Said he'd be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh, by the way. "He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge. "And she and Billy Joe was throwing something off the Tallahatchie Bridge." A year has come and gone since we heard the news 'bout Billy Joe, And brother married Becky Thompson, they bought a store in Tupelo. There was a virus going 'round, Papa caught it and he died last Spring. And now Mama doesn't seem to wanna do much of anything. And me, I spend a lot of time picking flowers up on Choctaw Ridge. And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge."
Strange Fruit: Music and lyrics by Lewis Allan (Abel Meeropol), copyright 1940: "Southern trees bear a strange fruit Blood on the leaves and blood at the root Black body swinging in the southern breeze Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees Pastoral scene of the gallant south The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh And the sudden smell of burning flesh! Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop Here is a strange and bitter crop."

(7) Was that man Les Claypool?: Waits and Claypool have collaborated several times from 1991 and on: - The Primus album: "Sailing The Seas Of Cheese" (Interscope, 1991). With Waits guesting on: "Tommy The Cat". Singer, bass; - The album 'Bone Machine'. Album released: August, 1992. Electric bass ("Earth Died Screaming"); - The album 'Mule Variations'. Album released: April, 1999. Bass ("Big In Japan"); - The album 'Real Gone". Album released: October 3, 2004. Bass (Hoist That Rag, Shake It, Baby Gonna Leave Me). Further reading: Who's Who?