Title: With Morbidity On His Mind, Tom Waits Makes A Double Play
Source: The Boston Globe (USA) by Jim Sullivan. Transcription as published on http://www.boston.com/. �2002 Globe Newspaper Company
Date: Telephone interview. Published: May 5, 2002
Keywords: Alice/ Blood Money, optimism, Kathleen


With Morbidity On His Mind, Tom Waits Makes A Double Play


Tom Waits - the raspy-voiced singer-songwriter and occasional actor and playwright - has released 14 albums in nearly 30 years. But he has a habit of taking his sweet time between efforts, to the consternation of his rather large and rabid cult audience.

Waits's last disc, ''Mule Variations,'' came out in 1999, six years after ''The Black Rider.(1)'' Now, all of a sudden, on Tuesday the 52-year-old Waits will release two albums, ''Alice'' and ''Blood Money''(2) - a veritable flood of music.

Waits, at his office near San Francisco, is asked if that isn't a lot for the faithful to swallow in one gulp. ''They complain when you don't put stuff out, and they tell you you got too much,'' Waits says. ''I don't believe any of them. All we're trying to do is to fertilize the egg of commerce. I need as many sperms with as many powerful flagellum out there as possible. We got two in there now.''

The music on the albums ranges from the clanky and cacophonous to the gentle and elegiac. Waits is at home either way. ''The beating and the apology,'' he says of the contrasting styles. ''Overall, music should reflect life at a certain level and do something to change it and comment on it.''

Waits's voice, which has gotten deeper and rougher over the years, is the gnarled thread coursing through it all. He says a 9-year-old girl recently wrote him a letter and described his voice as somewhere between ''a cherry bomb and a clown.'' He liked that.

Before they became CDs, ''Alice'' and ''Blood Money'' had incarnations as avant-garde stage productions with director Robert Wilson and were performed in Europe. ''Underwater ballets,'' Waits calls them. The former is based loosely on Lewis Carroll's obsession with the young Alice Liddell, who inspired ''Alice in Wonderland.'' The latter is based on the German play ''Woyzeck,'' inspired by the true story of a soldier driven mad by bizarre army experiments and his girlfriend's infidelity, which led him to kill her.

Not exactly cheer and bliss: ''What is the point of that?'' asks Waits.

No kind in mankind

And so, Waits and his longtime collaborator and wife of 22 years, Kathleen Brennan, veer into some seriously sad territory. Most characters are in distress; some sing their songs from beyond the grave. There is beauty and grace, but there is undeniable, abundant fatalism and pessimism.

''Am I optimistic? Or am I more like the albums?'' he says, repeating a question. ''One thing you can say about mankind is that there is nothing that is kind about man.'' (This is also a lyric in his song ''Misery is the River of the World,'' which begins ''Blood Money.'')

''I may establish those feelings, but I'm always willing to be surprised. I'm not a hard guy. I superimpose things over other things with sound and with pictures. I like to turn on three radios at the same time. I probably do the same thing with people when I look at them. I see their wings and I see their hair is on fire.''

Death and decomposition are on Waits's mind. ''The rain makes a lovely sound/To those who are six feet underground,'' he sings on ''No One Knows I'm Gone'' on ''Alice.'' On the same disc, in ''We're All Mad Here,'' Waits sings: ''And you'll die with the rose still on your lips/And in time the heart-shaped bone that was your hips/And all the worms they will climb/Through the ragged ladder of your spine.''

Waits chuckles when asked about that morbidity. ''The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on your snout,'' he says, reciting the old children's rhyme. ''It's a jump-rope song - figure that one out. There are children singing `Ring Around the Rosie' - it's about rheumatic fever. So we're all kind of living on a ball made of bone or playing on the beach on the ground-up bones of other creatures.''

Junkyard dog

Recordings of both scores were made only recently, but ''Alice'' - haunting, jazz-tinged, exotic - came first, performed in 1992. Instrumentation includes Stroh violin (a violin affixed with a brass horn), cello, viola, piano, upright bass, clarinet, marimba, saxophone, trumpet, and drums.

On ''Blood Money,'' which debuted in 2000, Waits lost the string section but added a 1929 pneumatic calliope - an old circus instrument with 57 whistles - harmonica, and a dried boomerang seed pod from a rare tree that grows only in Indonesia.

As to the odd mix of instruments and the quirky arrangements - Waits trademarks since 1983's ''Swordfishtrombones '' - he says, ''I wanted the music to feel more like I feel inside.'' It's about ''trying to find different ways of expressing yourself. I like playing instruments that aren't necessarily instruments, incidentally. It puts you in touch with a whole evolution of things in a way.

''I go to the junkyard with mallets and I start banging on stuff. I go to the dump with an empty truck and come home full. I just love it. Anything that is errant or uncalculable, I get excited. Trial and error. Hit that dumpster with a 2-by-4, stick a mike in there.''

Before 1983, Waits had established himself as a faux beatnik singer-racounteur-poet. But with ''Swordfishtrombones'' Waits junked any semblance of convention. It was, he says, his wife's idea. ''She says `Enough with these old-timers! You're not going to go into the studio with a producer, go in yourself.' You know, sharpen a stick and go out there and catch your own dinner. In a way she was right.''

Some songwriters speak of songs channeled through them, as if they are conduits. Not Waits: ''I'm just going hunting with a rifle and a scope and three days of food, shooting birds. Making sure you're not cooking up the feathers and throwing away the bird.

''I think the recording process is sort of violent to the songs,'' he adds. ''I think they'd prefer to be out there and on their own. If you're gonna catch a song you've got to start thinking like one.''

Is there a particular method to the madness?

''Now, you're asking for trade secrets,'' Waits says. ''You're asking for the recipe of Coca-Cola.''

Waits is not planning a US tour. He will likely do multiple-night gigs in New York and Los Angeles in August(3). ''Woyzeck,'' with Waits's songs from ''Blood Money'' will be staged Oct. 29-Nov. 17 at Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater in New York and Dec. 4-12 (tentative dates) at UCLA's Royce Hall in Los Angeles.

This story ran on page L10 of the Boston Globe on 5/5/2002. � Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


(1) The Black Rider: The Black Rider: The Robert Wilson/ Tom Waits play premiered March 31, 1990 at the Thalia Theater, Hamburg/ Germany. Further reading: The Black Rider.

(2) Alice and Blood Money: Alice (the play) premiered on December 19, 1992 at the Thalia Theater, Hamburg/ Germany. Further reading: Alice. Woyzeck (the play) premiered November 18, 2000 at the Betty Nansen Theatre in Copenhagen/ Denmark. Further reading: Woyzeck.

(3) Gigs in New York and Los Angeles in August: this didn't happen. There was no tour promoting the release of Alice/ Blood Money in 2002.