What's He Building?

What's he building in there?
What the hell is he building in there?
He has subscriptions to those magazines
He never waves when he goes by
He's hiding something from the rest of us
He's all to himself, I think I know why
He took down the tire-swing from the pepper tree
He has no children of his own, you see
He has no dog, he has no friends
And his lawn is dying
And what about those packages he sends?
What's he building in there?
With that hook light on the stairs
What's he building in there?
I'll tell you one thing, he's not building a playhouse for the children
What's he building in there?
Now what's that sound from underneath the door?
He's pounding nails into a hardwood floor
And I swear to God I heard someone moaning low
And I keep seeing the blue light of a TV show
He has a router(2) and a table saw
And you won't believe what Mr. Sticha(3) saw
There's poison underneath the sink of course
There's also enough formaldehyde to choke a horse
What's he building in there?
What the hell is he building in there?
I heard he has an ex-wife in some place called Mayors Income, Tennessee
And he used to have a consulting business in Indonesia
But what's he building in there?
He has no friends but he gets a lot of mail
I bet he spent a little time in jail
I heard he was up on the roof last night, signaling with a flashlight
And what's that tune he's always whistling?(4)
What's he building in there?
What's he building in there?
We have a right to know

Written by: Tom Waits
Published by: Jalma Music (ASCAP), 1999
Official release: Mule Variations, Anti Inc., 1999
Arrangements and lyrics published in "Tom Waits - Mule Variations" (Amsco Publications, 2000)

Known covers:
Hexnut. Hexnut. March 2007. Karnatic Lab Records (Netherlands)

Waits performing "What's He Building?"
Taken from "VH-1 Storytellers" (1999)
VH-1 concert documentary at Burbank Airport, Los Angeles/ USA (broadcast May 23, 1999).
With Larry Taylor and Smokey Hormel


(1) What's he building?
- Live intro from "Stockholm July 14, 1999": "This is a story about your neighbor And my neighbor And the neighbor you are soon to become I guess what gets me is, I know two or three things about my neighbor And that's all I wanna know And from that I can build a story First of all, he told me he was from Tampa Well, then explain the Indiana plates to me My neighbor's name is Cunningham And the thing I think about, with a name like Cunningham, is If you're a ham, then you weren't very cunning, were you? That was a very private thought And unnecessary to be sharing with Cunningham But sometimes at night, when I hear things like that I think, what the hell is he building in there?..." (Live intro from "Stockholm July 14, 1999". Submitted by Ulf Berggren. Tom Waits eGroups discussionlist, 2000)
- Tom Waits (1999): "We're all, to a degree, curious about our neighbors, and we all have four or five things that we know about them. And with those things, we usually create some kind of portrait of their life. He drives that Valiant. . . Did you notice? That dog has no hair in the back. . .His wife must be sixteen. . . Look at that garage. Looks like it caught fire and he never even repainted it. . .And then you add to it, as other things unfold: I saw him last night. You ever see him wearing those lime green pants? Where's he from, St. Louis? That's the only place I've ever seen lime green pants. But he said he's from Tampa. . .And you never, ever introduce yourself. But he continues to develop like a film for you. Then you report to your wife new things every day that you've observed. His dog gets loose and comes into your yard, and has no license. We all do that, don't we? I was thinking that he's the guy. He's talking about himself. He's delusional. We've all become overly curious about our neighbors, and we all do believe, in the end, that we have a right to know what all of us are doing." (Source: A Q&A about Mule Variations. MSO: Rip Rense, early 1999)
- Tom Waits (1999): "We seem to be compelled to perceive our neighbors through the keyhole. There's always someone in the neighborhood the Boo Radley, the village idiot and you see that he drives this yellow station wagon without a windshield, and he has chickens in the backyard, and doesn't get home 'til 3 AM, and he says he's from Florida but the license says Indiana... so, you know, 'I don't trust him.' It's really a disturbed creative process." (Source: "Mojo Interview With Tom Waits" Mojo magazine (USA), by Barney Hoskyns. Date: Santa Rosa. April, 1999)
- Tom Waits (1999): "Yeah, it's kind of tipping my hat to Ken Nordine, who was a big influence on me. And I've listened to him since I started recording. Ken lives in Chicago. He has a peculiar imagination and tells remarkable stories. This one started out as a song, and I wasn't able to get it to fly as a song, so I just took the words and started saying them. And it all just kind of came together. It's just what we all do to each other, I guess, as neighbors living in an apartment building or on a block, wherever you are. We all know two or three things about the people we live around and we put them together and create a story. He said he was from Tampa, but yet he's got Indiana plates. Gee, what's that about? He wears all his clothes inside out. He walks backwards. He shaved his head, only on one side. We all do that, I gues s; it's just wondering about those things. A song that happened pretty fast. The music in the background was spontaneous as well. We just set up a room with a lot of percussion and everyone just kind of moved around, banging on things while they talked. AC: What is he building in there? TW: He's a tweaker, I don't know. My theory is that he's talking about himself. I don't know what it is. It's just one of those strange little short stories." (Source: Mule Conversations. Austin Chronicle: Jody Denberg. April, 1999)
- Tom Waits (1999): "We try to do that as a song over and over and over. It wouldn't work as a song. I just spoke the words and the whole thing came together. Kaufman: There's one song that feels like a field recording. It's almost like there are crickets in the background. Was that done outside? Waits: No, right in here, just set up a whole bunch of instruments. I work with really great engineers. They don't make value judgments. If you bring a strange ... you can bring something from a ditch that you found on the way to the studio, they'll put it in the room and circle it like it's a moonrock. They'll tap on it with a hammer. They're like scientists that way, and I like that. Everything is a potential instrument, it depends on how you use it." (Source: Tom Waits '99, Coverstory ATN. Addicted to Noise: Gil Kaufman en Michael Goldberg. April, 1999)
- Tom Waits (1999): "It's about a tweaker. I don't know what it's about. Everybody is curious about their neighbors, right? Goldberg: You've seen "Rear Window" obviously? Waits: Right. What little they know about you, whoever your neighbors are, they have already designed a story about you. Wears those fatigue jackets, he's got the baseball cap with the wings on them but he's not in the service -- what the hell's going on? Drives that Valiant. Plays that crazy music all the time, sounds like Japanese stuff coming out of the window. We all do it, we all do it. You know three things about your neighbor, you can make a story, then you'll add to it as it develops. So. And we do feel as if we have the right to know what each of us is up to, right?" (Source: Tom Waits '99, Coverstory ATN. Addicted to Noise: Gil Kaufman en Michael Goldberg. April, 1999)
- Waits laments the fact that America has become a country where any solitary activity appears to encourage suspicions that there's a serial killer, or a Unabomber, living next door. We seem to be compelled to perceive our neighbors through the keyhole, he says, There's always someone in the neighborhood the Boo Radley, the village idiot and you see that he drives this yellow station wagon without a windshield, and he has chickens in the backyard, and doesn't get home til 3 AM, and he says he's from Florida but the license says Indiana so, you know, I don't trust him. It's really a disturbed creative process. (Source: "Mojo interview with Tom Waits". Mojo: Barney Hoskyns. April, 1999)
- Tom Waits (1999): "I got kind of a Unabomber image. We seem to be living in a time when the guy next door may be building a fertilizer bomb in his basement. Guess it's the rat theory: There's too many of us, and we're going crazy because of the proliferation of the human manifes ation. You go down the freeway, and all of a sudden there are 350,000 new homes where there used to be wilderness. They all have to go to the bathroom somewhere, they all want toys for their kids, they all want eggs and bacon and a nice little car and a place to vacation. When the rats get too plentiful, they turn on each other. Q: In the song you mention a town called Mayors Income, Tenn. TW: Came to me in a dream. Two towns. The other one, same dream, Miner's Prayer, W.V." (Source: "The Man Who Howled Wolf ". Magnet: Jonathan Valania. June/July, 1999)
- Tom Waits (1999): "It's about thinking we have a right to know. 'Y'know, he drives a blue Mazda and doesn't get home until three in the morning. He was karate-chopping his own shrubbery last night - in his underwear. So we put all those things together and we make up a story about someone that bears no resemblance to the truth, and then we make it a serial. And that's what happens with the media. We love looking at each other through keyholes. They ought to make keyhole-glasses, they'd sell a million of 'em, because that's how we prefer looking at each other, down on our knees in front of a keyhole." (Source: "Tom Waits, Hobo Sapiens" Telegraph Magazine, by Mick Brown. Date: China Lights/Santa Rosa. April 11, 1999) 

(2) The Router (A Tool That Does Woodworking Magic): Less well known than other portable tools, the router is a handful of high power that does an amazing amount of work. No other tool fully duplicates its feats, for it does a number of things no other could. The router is deceptively simple in principal -- a heavy-duty motor with a chuck in which cuttings bits can be mounted, adjustable in a flat-bottomed base so that more or less of the bit protrudes, and with two handles for guiding it over the work. The jobs it can do include putting fancy molding on edges, grooving, fluting, beading, bas relief carving, tapering furniture legs, cutting rabbets for screening glass, inlay work, making professional joints (including dovetails), and sharpening its own cutting bits! (Source: "Black & Decker Handbook: How To Choose And Use Power Tools", by Harry Walton Popular Library Edition. November, 1961. Submitted by Dorene LaLonde, as sent to Tom Waits Library. April 5, 2002)

(3) Mr. Sticha
- Tom Waits
(1993): "I used to make skateboards out of plywood and go down to a roller rink called Skate Ranch and buy just the wheels. We used to skate down this hill called Robert Avenue and it was a great curve and you dug up a lot of speed. It went by our neighbor Mr. Stitcha. He lived in the beauty of the curve, where all the momentum culminated in a beautiful slough of cement. It took you right past his house but as close as you could get to his porch. Mr. Stitcha drank to excess. This was common knowledge in the neighborhood. He had the thick glasses and the red face and the red wine stains down the front of his t-shirt. That' s like I look now. Anyway it was the only place to get that kind of speed and thrill, so the front of his house became sort of a festival for all the skateboarders in the whole area. On Halloween he had a heart attack and died on his front porch and we were all told he died because we skated by his house and that each and everyone of us killed him in our own way. And we were all left with the memory that we all had a hand in his murder. It was like a Shakespeare thing, everybody had their hand on the knife. So I carry this with me, but I just want to say here and now, in Thrasher Magazine, that I did not kill Mr. Stitcha. It took a lot of therapy and it took a lot of liquor. Mr. Stitcha rest in peace." (Source: "Tom Waits". Thrasher Magazine: Brian Brannon. February, 1993)
- Tom Waits (1999): "Mr. Sticcha was my neighbor when I was a kid. He didn't like kids and he didn't like noise. All the kids would go past his house yellin' and making noise, and you would see his fist out the window and he'd threaten to call the cops. His wife used to say, "You're gonna give him a heart attack if you keep this up." And he finally had a heart attack and he died, and his wife told us that it was our fault, that we had killed him as a group. We all had to distribute that guilt and live with it, and it was upsetting: "Sticcha died and we killed him." We might just as well have plotted his murder." (Source: "The Man Who Howled Wolf ". Magnet: Jonathan Valania. June/July, 1999)

(4) And what's that tune he's always whistling?: The tune Waits is whistling seems to be very similar to the one Quint (Robert Shaw) whistles in the movie Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975). This happens just after the shark attack on the Orca when he is standing out on the pulpit as the shark disappears. The dusk is coming and he is holding a harpoon gun. (Submitted by "Marky" as sent to the Tom Waits Fan forum, August 2, 2007)