In the midst of a national hangover mired in war and division, Tom Waits offers stories of happier hours and sobering realities. By Jonathan Valania. Photos By Christian Lantry.
When Batman takes someone other than Robin back to the Batcave, usually to extract some crucial information via one of his super-scientific mind-reading devices, he knocks them out with Batgas so as to keep the exact location of his lair a secret.
Something similar happens when you go to interview Tom Waits. You find yourself in some sleepy town north of San Francisco. He pulls up in his hearse-black, old-model Chevy Suburban, then takes you to some Waits-appropriate location—a greasy spoon, a truck-stop cafeteria—for a Q&A session that ends promptly when the check arrives. He is, without fail, charming, witty, odd, poetic and often profound. Then he drives you back to your hotel, tips his porkpie hat and asks you to turn around. Before you can look back, he’s gone, back to that someplace in the rolling pastures and pines of Sonoma County, where he lives with Kathleen Brennan, his wife, collaborator, muse and mother of his three teenage children.
I first interviewed Waits for MAGNET in 1999 in Santa Rosa. I had a room at the Astro, a broken-down welfare motel straight out of one of the bourbon-fed boarding-house madrigals Waits used to pound the horse teeth to in the ’70s. This time it’s the Metro Hotel & Café, a quaint bed and breakfast in Petaluma recommended by Waits. With its beguilingly appointed rooms—a blend of vintage-store Victoriana, bohemian bric-a-brac and faintly Wiccan aura (if Stevie Nicks were a hotel, it would be the Metro)—it seems fitting of Tom Waits circa now. He’s gone from the flophouse to the big house in the woods with the mysterious wife, three kids, the dogs, the garden and a lot of funny ideas about what sounds good.
Upon arriving at the Metro, I check in with the MAGNET office back in Philadelphia. It’s a sunny, immaculate Northern California day, but the news on the line is cloudy at best. I’m warned that Waits is in a “weird” mood today. Not to worry, his publicist assures me, Waits is just a little nervous because this is the first interview he’s doing for his new album, Real Gone (Anti-).
The man has nothing to be nervous about. Real Gone is Waits at the top of his game, another brilliant late-period canvas from an American master. It picks up where 1999’s Mule Variations—with its perfect blend of what Waits calls “creepers and weepers”—left off, reflecting the midnight mood of the times. In 2002, Waits released Blood Money and Alice, two separate scores for theatrical productions by frequent collaborator and acclaimed avant-garde dramatist Robert Wilson. While those albums are prime examples of Waits’ ma tery of Brechtian burlesque and carny surrealism, they’re more akin to 1993’s The Black Rider, another Wilson theatrical score. As good as they are, you come away from Blood Money and Alice with the distinct feeling you kind of had to be there, with “there” being the Thalia Theater in Hamburg, Germany, where the pieces were staged. Unlike those scores, Real Gone isn’t the soundtrack to some faraway show; it is the show, with all the drama and pageantry unfolding right between your ears. As ever, the music is otherworldly and full of dustbowl sadness, somehow managing to sound both as old as an Alan Lomax field recording and as modern as tailfins on a ’59 Caddy.
But where most Waits records seem hermetically sealed off from the world that does backflips over American Idol, Real Gone ripples in the same troubled waters we all find ourselves bobbing in these days. Waits directs a fair share of his hobo magic-realism at current affairs: rigged politics, imperial blood sport, humanity tattered under the grinding wheels of war and the greed and hate that keeps them spinning without mercy. All of this is reflected in the sometimes somber and wistful conversation I have with Waits, a stark contrast to the left-field whimsy of the talk I had with him five years ago. But, as a wise man once said, those were different times.
Which isn’t to suggest anyone will confuse Real Gone with Sandinista!. The socio-political commentary is tinted with Waits’ patented sepia tones, lending it both a currency and timelessness that manage to blend seamlessly with the standard Waitsian themes of love, dreams, circus freaks and murder in the red barn. Nor is this Mule Variations part two. Piano, long a fixture of most Waits recordings, is nowhere to be heard. While there is, as per usual, plenty of bloozy abstraction, sad-eyed balladry and organ-grinder-monkey dance music punctuated with odd conks of percussion, most of the songs are built around “mouth rhythms” Waits created by huffing and puffing into a tape recorder in his bathroom.
It’s not for everyone. In fact, you can tell a lot about people from what they make of Tom Waits. His career is a musical Rorschach test: Some just see spilled ink, others see fantastic chimeras. He’s one of those love-’em-or-hate-’em artists, and the great divide between us and them is invariably Waits’ worn-out shoe of a voice.
If you like your singers to sound like a shiny new sneaker, well, there’s always American Idol. Waits’ frogman croak is a far more versatile instrument than he’s given credit for, capable of morphing from lupine howl to grainy, heart-warming purr, from a devil-horned carnival barker to a three-pack-a-day Romeo wheezing sweet nothings that are, upon closer inspection, about everything. Everything that matters, anyway: life and death, love and hope, sex and dreams. And the infinite spaces in between that God fills.
It’s hard to say where the public Tom Waits begins and the private one ends, and vice versa. Which is just how he wants it. It’s how he maintains his aura. When Waits finally pulls up to the Metro in his Suburban, he’s dressed exactly as he was for his last conversation with MAGNET—rumpled porkpie hat, head to toe in ranch-hand denim—but he seems a little on edge. Chalk it up to opening-night jitters for a veteran performer pulling his public persona out of mothballs for the first time in a couple years. The suit still fits, but it’s a little stiff from the hanger.
Yet the same old tics—the “walking Spanish down the hall” body language, the pretzeling of the arms— don’t seem like affectations. There’s something Lenny Bruce-raised-by-wolves about the way Waits carries himself: part wolfman, part Wolfman Jack. It’s really not difficult to imagine Waits out in the backyard around midnight, howling at a full moon. At one point, he’s talking on his cell phone to Brennan, leaning with one arm against the trunk of his publicist’s rental car like an old man urinating or a chain-gang member getting patted down before being shipped back to the prison farm. Like the man’s art, this moment seems at once highly theatrical and utterly natural.
Waits wants to go to his favorite Chinese restaurant in Petaluma, but he has some difficulty finding it. We pull up one street, and Waits looks around dumbfounded, like they’d moved the joint. Then he remembers that it is, in fact, located in a nearby strip mall. Charmless and antiseptic under a drop ceiling and fluorescent lights—not to mention completely devoid of other customers—the place has none of the Oriental opium-den vibe you can’t help but imagine when Waits says, “We’re goin’ for Chinese.” But he has a way of lending color and character to any room he walks into. Studying the menu, Waits makes a point of ordering some steamed vegetables. “If I don’t eat something green, my wife will be very upset with me.” When the food arrives, Waits seems more comfortable in his own skin. Full of green tea and sympathy, he shares jokes and fears, dreams and memories, does some sound effects, even sings a little Ray Charles.
And then he’s gone again. Like, real gone.
I’m noticing you have the words “diapers” and “fireworks” written on the back of your hand in magic marker. Would it be impolite to ask you why?
Shopping list. Fireworks and diapers is all anyone ever needs. Life is what happens between fireworks and diapers.
With age supposedly comes wisdom. What do you know at 54 that you didn’t when you were younger?
I’ve learned a lot. Most of the big things I’ve learned in the last 10 years. Of course, I’ve been sober for 12 years. Let’s see, what have I learned? As a nation, we are addicted to cigarettes and underwear. And it’s getting harder and harder to find a bad cup of coffee.
Let’s go back to ancient history for a second.
OK, don’t go back too far. I get lost back there.
When you were a teenager, you worked as a doorman at a nightclub in San Diego. What do you remember about that time?
I don’t know. I got paid $8 a night, and I got to hear a lot of great music.
I’ve read that when you were young, you heard sounds the way Van Gogh saw colors. Even everyday sounds took on these hyper-iridescent tone colors.
I went through a period like being colorblind with regard to your hearing. Or astigmatism of the ears.
Then you would recite these little incantations that made it go away?
[Goes into chant, which sounds like “gila-monster-killa-monster-chilla-monster-boom,” while tapping on a water glass with a spoon]
Do you still do that?
I just did it.
No, I mean do you still have those kind of experiences with sound?
I write music that way. It’s sort of like automatic writing. Wouldn’t you love to go into a darkened room with a piece of paper and a pen and just start drawing circles and wind up writing the great American novel? Recording for me is like photographing ghosts.
How did you first encounter Captain Beefheart?
We had the same manager back in 1975-76.
You weren’t acquainted with his music in the ’60s?
Nope. I became more acquainted with him when I got married. My wife had all his records.
It’s interesting you came to Beefheart so late considering how often critics compare you to him.
Anything you absorb you will ultimately secrete. It’s inevitable. Most of us are original paintings, and it’s a mystery as to what is learned and what is borrowed, what is stolen and what is born, what you came in with and what you found while you were here.
What do you know about this Waitstock thing in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., each year? What do they do
Incantations, speak in tongues, wake up at six in the morning and have whiskey and eggs, walk around in their undershirts. I don’t know; it’s just what I imagine. It’s just some attempt at a worshipful homage.
Do you still spend time scavenging in junkyards?
I practically live at Costco. I am still a bit of a scavenger. I bring home useless things.
Are you one of those guys who has a front yard full of car parts, old birdbaths and lawn jockeys?
If I could find a lawn jockey, I would pay good money for it. As for my yard, I will leave that up to you to imagine because if I told you, you wouldn’t believe me. Mostly medical supplies and Venus flytraps.
I was surprised to learn Mule Variations sold a million copies worldwide. How does that feel?
I guess it feels good. Isn’t that supposed to feel good?
But what does that mean when an artist like Tom Waits can sell a million copies of an album at a time when the music business is basically saying nothing but easy-sell artists are worth bothering with?
I don’t know what it means. If they were lawn chairs, what would it mean? If they were potted plants, what would it mean? If they were little poodles, what would it mean? It’s America: free enterprise.
There’s no piano on Real Gone. Was that intentional?
No. I moved the piano into the studio, and we never touched it. We put drinks on it. I put my coat on it. Before you know it, I couldn’t even see it. It just became an end table. Most of it was written a cappella. I started with these mouth rhythms, making my own cycles and playing along with them. That’s fairly new. Sometimes when you just do sounds into the tape recorder, you don’t realize it, but you’re channeling something, like incantations or talking in tongues.
Was this a real old, vintage tape recorder?
No, a Fostex four-track with a Shure SM-58 (microphone) in a really small bathroom with about a four-second delay and overload the hell out of it … I’ll tell you what else is new. There’s an instructional dance number on there. When was the last time you heard an instructional dance number on a record?
Which one is that?
“Metropolitan Glide.” It has instructions (in the lyrics) on how to do the dance. And it also has lots of other dances on there that the gentleman is able to do. It’s a real dance. They used to do it in the ’20s. It’s kind of a revival.
You sometimes use an instrument called the “bastarda.” What the hell is that?
That’s something Les (Claypool) played. It’s like an electric stick with four strings, like a bass without a body. Real Gone is definitely not a record filled with bizarre, left-wing sound sources. The idea was to go in and do something that was going to be bread and water, skin and bones, three-legged tables, rudimentary three-minute songs. That was the idea.
When did you start working on the album?
Gee, I don’t know. A few months ago.
Is that a new thing for you, writing and recording so quickly?
We wanted to get it done before the summer began. When the kids are out of school, it’s a whole new paradigm shift at home. They’re everywhere.
Where did you record it?
It got misconstrued. It was recorded in the Delta, and everybody thought we were working in Mississippi. It was the Sacramento Delta.
A lot of great bluesmen came out of the tarpaper shacks of Sacramento.
I’m not pulling your leg. There really is a Sacramento Delta. We recorded in an abandoned schoolhouse. I don’t like the politics of a studio. It’s used as a studio all year long, and then you come in. I was looking for a place that might have an unusual sound.
Let’s talk about some of these obscure references in the lyrics on Real Gone. On “Sins Of My Father,” you mention a “Tyburn Jig.”
When someone was being hung, the dance they would do at the end of the rope was called the Tyburn Jig. It was also called “the dance upon nothing”; that kind of explains itself. The reason theaters traditionally have no performances on Monday night is because Monday night was Hanging Night, and nobody could compete with Hanging Night. To this day, theaters are dark on Mondays.
I think most people would be surprised how recently there were public hangings in this country.
Well, we still do it today. It’s just a little more civilized: lethal injection. How long after the discovery of electricity do you think somebody invented the electric chair? Probably the next day. How long do you think after they invented these picture phones that somebody put it in their pants? Less than a day. Crime is always way ahead of technology, waiting for it to catch up.
What about some of these characters on the new album? There’s the line “Jesus of Nazareth told Mike of the weeds.”
Well, if there is a Jesus of Nazareth, there had to be a Mike of the weeds and a Bob of the parking lot, Jim of the river, Steve of the backyard.
Was Weeds the next town over from Nazareth?
No, Mike lived in the weeds. Jesus lived in Nazareth. They corresponded.
There was a guy back in Jesus’ time named Mike?
I don’t know if they pronounced it like that.
Who is Knocky Parker?
Old Delta-blues guy.
Singer, I think from St. Louis. Sorry, Bo. [Laughs]
Who’s Joel Tornabene?
He’s in the concrete business. [Laughs] Mob guy. He was the grandson of Sam Giancana from Chicago. He did some yard work for me, and I hung out with him most of the time. He died in Mexico about five years ago. He was a good friend of (producer/composer) Hal Wilner’s, and he was a good guy. He had an errant—I don’t know how to put this—he used to go around, and when he saw something he liked in somebody’s yard, he would go back that night with a shovel, dig it up and plant it in your yard. We used to get a kick out of that. So I stopped saying, “I really like that rosebush, I really like that banana tree, I really like that palm.” Because I knew what it meant. He came over once with 12 chickens as a gift. My wife said, “Joel, don’t even turn the car off. Turn that car around and take those chickens back where you found them.” He was a good friend, one of the wildest guys I’ve ever known.
I love the line “I want to know the same thing everyone wants to know: how’s it going to end.”
What’s it gonna be? A heart attack at a dance? An egg that went down the wrong pipe? Wild bullet from a conflict two miles away that ricochets off the lamppost and goes through the windshield and pierces your forehead like a diamond? Who knows? Look at Robert Mitchum. He died in his sleep. That’s pretty good for a guy like Robert Mitchum.
How about “My baby’s so fine, even her car looks good from behind”?
[Laughs] I was following my wife home once, and I said, “I don’t know where I am, baby.” She said, “Follow me.” And I remarked to myself, “My baby’s so fine, even the back of her car looks fine.” How about Ray Charles? What a shame.
Did you ever meet him?
I met Ray in an airport, and he had all his handlers around him like he was Muhammad Ali. And I knew I could never get through unless I looked really stupid, like I didn’t know any better.
It blows my mind what he overcame to get to where he was. To be a black man in America at that time, blind and a junkie—
Well, Brother Ray is an excellent autobiography if you want to get all the dirt on Ray. The most commonly told story about Ray was about (his back-up singers) the Raylettes. If you wanted to be a Raylette, you had to let Ray … [Laughs] My favorite image of Ray is this wonderful story of him touring North Carolina in the ’50s as a rhythm ‘n’ blues act, playing empty tobacco warehouses. They would just call a dance and put out notices, and the place would fill up. People were dancing so hard that the dust from the floorboards made it so smoky in there that after a while you couldn’t even see who you were dancing with, and Ray would just be howling … You know, showbiz is the only place where you can actually make money after you’re dead. And he’ll also live on. You put those records on and he’s here; it’s really like a hologram of your spirit.
If you go back through history, the rich and powerful would strive for immortality by building monuments so they would always be remembered. To a certain extent, there was some permanence, but only in that one place. You would have to travel to see it. A Ray Charles record is everywhere.
And it’s just as fresh as the day it was recorded. When I listen to old field recordings, maybe you’ll hear a dog barking way off in the background. You realize the house it was recorded in is torn down, the dog is dead, the tape recorder is broken, the guy who made the recording died in Texas, the car out front has four flat tires, even the dirt that the house sat on is gone—probably a parking lot—but we still have this song. Takes me out when I listen to those old recordings. I put on my stuff in the house, which is always those old Alan Lomax recordings. My son Casey started doing his turntable stuff; he’s upstairs listening to Aesop Rock, El-P, Sage Francis and all those kind of guys. So I get exposed to a lot at home, and then, you know, I weave it all together.
Have you ever thought about messing around with electronics more, maybe deconstructing some of your old stuff?
I don’t know if that’s my culture. Maybe it’s more of your culture. You’re younger than me. I don’t want to get a weird haircut just because I saw it at the mall.
Does Kathleen do the woman’s voice on “Trampled Rose”?
No, that’s me. That’s my female voice. I got a big girl in me. Don’t you?
Probably. Don’t take this the wrong way, but on “Misery Is The River Of The World” (from Blood Money), you sound like one of those Swiss Alps rescue dogs that got into the brandy.
[Laughs] Sometimes my kids will listen to something I did and say, “Were you going for a Cookie Monster-in-love thing on that, dad?”
You have a daughter who’s in college—
It was inevitable. I have a son who’s 18, played turntables [on Real Gone]. As far as my kids go, it’s the family business. If I was a farmer, I would have them out there on a tractor. If I was a ballet dancer, I would have them in tutus.
What do they make of what you do?
I’m their dad, that’s really the extent of it. They are not fans of mine. Your kids are not your fans, they’re your kids. The trick is to have a career and have a family. It’s like having two dogs that hate each other and you have to take them for a walk every night.
There’s a line on Real Gone about “She was a middle-class girl … Thought she could stand up in the deep end,” which struck me as something a father would come up with. Am I off base?
No, but not consciously. It’s one of those things when you’re a dad. When I see these pictures of these kids coming home from Iraq, they’re my son’s age: 18, 19 years old. That’s who’s over there.
Let’s get to that. I’m hearing a lot of echoes of life post-9/11 on Real Gone.
Well, “Sins Of My Father” is political. “Hoist That Rag” is. There’s a bunch of soldier songs.
“Sins Of My Father”: Are you talking about George W. Bush?
I’m talking about my father, I’m talking about your father, I’m talking about his father. The sins of the father will be visited upon the son. Everybody knows that.
On “Day After Tomorrow,” which sounds like a soldier’s letter home to his family, you mention Rockford (Ill.), near the Wisconsin border.
I read an article about a soldier who died and was from Rockford. A lot of these soldiers come from the South and the Midwest. And these ads for the Army? They’re ridiculous. They all play rock ’n’ roll, and it’s turned up full-blast; they all look so cool in their equipment.
On that song, there’s a line that goes, “I’m not fighting for justice, I’m not fighting for freedom, I’m fighting for my life.”
All the guys who come home on leave say that. That’s why when you ask them why they just don’t stay home now that they’re safe, they say, “Because I’ve got buddies over there, and they need me. I’m not going over there for the government.” Because in the end, it’s just you and your rifle and your friends. They really are just gravel on the road. Do you think that a senator sleeping in a nice warm bed looks at a soldier as anything more than a spent shell casing? Nothing more. That’s why we need more ammo, and the ammo is these children.
How do you think the election is going to go?
I don’t know. I hope he gets voted out. I pray that we will be mobilized and it will be a landslide and everybody who’s ever believed in these ideals that we’re talking about will vote the bastard out. But now it’s all done on computer, and there’s probably somebody who’s rigging the whole thing. It’s such a huge thing. We’re the United States of the World. It’s not just a country; we’re talking about world domination. Most of us aren’t ready to absorb the truth about what’s really going on.
I don’t know if you know about this, but there’s a company called Diebold that makes the electronic voting machines used in Florida. One of these machines in Volusia County registered 16,000 negative votes for Gore in 2000. Here’s the kicker: The CEO of Diebold (Walden O’Dell) is a major fund-raiser for the Bush-Cheney campaign.
[Sarcastically] No connection.
These machines can be hacked into and manipulated very easily; this is all well-documented. Each vote is just a digital blip, really. There’s this movement to make these machines print out a receipt of your vote, so if you wanted to have a re-count, everybody could turn in their slip of paper. And Diebold goes, “That’s just not possible.” Well, you know what other machines Diebold makes? ATMs.
Please. I’m thinking that this is the last of our civilization. I think we are all going into the crapper, waiting to be flushed. It just feels like the whole world’s on fire right now.
You could last a long time out here in the woods when it goes police state.
It will get to the point where the only food you can trust is what’s grown in your backyard.
Are you against irradiated food?
Oh, god yeah. I got a big garden in my backyard.
What do you grow?
Tomatoes, corn, eggplant, squash, beans, pumpkins.
So how does it work with you and Kathleen writing songs together?
We just throw out lines. It’s like dreaming out loud. When we’re writing, we kinda go into a trance.
Kathleen goes into the studio with you, right?
Oh, yeah. She and I produced the record. It’s like she’s tying a rope around my waist and lowering me down into the well, hollering, “A little more to the left, a little more to the left.”
“Circus” is the kind of William S. Burroughs hurdy-gurdy narrative you’ve been honing to perfection your entire career. A lot of your albums have some great spoken-word piece—“Shore Leave,” “Ninth And Hennepin,” “What’s He Building?”—but I think “Circus” is the best. You’ve got Horse Face Ethel. You’ve got one-eyed Myra in her Roy Orbison T-shirt bottle-feeding an orangutan named Tripod. Is that because he’s three-limbed?
[Laughs] Naw, naw. I think he got his name because he always had an erection.
You’ve got Yodeling Elaine, the Queen of the Air with the tiny bubble of spittle around her nostril and a little rusty tear. And then over by the frozen tractor—I really love this phrase—“the music was like electric sugar.”
It’s a daydream. We were just sort of dreaming of the place I’d like to work. If I was a kid and wanted to run away to the circus, this is the circus I would want to run away to.
What about Poodle Murphy?
She’s a girl from Funeral Wells’ knife act who was strapped to the spinning board. I don’t know if I would want to work for a guy named Funeral Wells, especially if he threw knives.
Another great line: “Damn good address for a rat.”
[Laughs] Well, that’s any ship, you know. They grab each other’s tails when they cross the river, hundreds and hundreds of them. They’re omnivorous. They’ll eat anything. You put them in a room with an empty can, and they will eat the can, the label, the top and they’ll digest and shit it out. The myth about rats is that they have to eat constantly or their teeth would grow too long and the bottoms would come out of the top of their heads like horns.
That’s not true?
I don’t know. I haven’t spent that much time with rats.
Let’s talk about your scene with Iggy Pop in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee And Cigarettes. It was filmed a while ago.
Ten years ago.
I thought you were a natural. I love Iggy, but I think he made the right career choice going into rock ’n’ roll instead of acting.
Well, you know, they were vignettes. It wasn’t an actors’ thing; it was more like situation comedy. Jarmusch has been doing those a long time. When he’s working on a project, he’ll try and get people to go into the alley or the Italian restaurant and try and do something spontaneous. He really wants it to be like Beckett plays.
Have you talked with him about doing another full-length feature along the lines of Down By Law?
Acting is not something that I really pursue. I like to say that I’m not really an actor, but I do a little acting. I’m not really looking for something, but if something came along that I really loved, I would do it.
Why don’t you tour anymore? Is it just the stress and drudgery and ‘who needs it’?
Exactly. Just the physics alone of going into a new hall every night. I’m a grumpy old guy. It doesn’t take much to tick me off. I’m like an old hooker, you know.
Why did you title the album Real Gone?
That’s Kathleen’s title. I was going to call it Clang, Boom And Steam. She said everyone’s going or really gone, and there’s a lot of leaving on the record. It’s almost hard to get laughs these days; we are living in such a dark place.
I don’t want to sound like one of those people who whines about 9/11, but up until then, I was generally an optimistic person. There was that bubble of peace, hope and endless possibility after the Cold War ended, that all of our energies as a civilization could be directed toward making the world a better place instead of just shooting at each other. But after 9/11, it occurred to me that I’ll probably never see a time like that again, that there’ll just be endless war.
That’s all you read about in the paper anymore.
Well, that’s why I think if you had to distill the essence of Real Gone down to one line, it’s where you say, “I want to believe in the mercy of the world again.” I think so many people feel that way right now.
Do you know who said that? Bob Dylan. He didn’t say it in a song; he said it in an interview. He was just talking about the state of the world, so I threw that in there.
I was reading an interview you did with (director) Terry Gilliam, and at one point you said to him, “I feel like there is a battle going on all the time between light and dark, and I wonder sometimes if the dark has one more spear.”
Do you know who said that to me? Fred Gwynne.
Yeah. A good friend of mine. We worked together on The Cotton Club. We used to talk all the time, very deep guy. We rode to work every day in a van; we’d hang out for hours and hours. Sweet guy. Head bigger than a horse. I don’t think they added any plaster when they made him up as Herman. But getting back to that bit about light and dark: I do believe that. But I also believe that when you do something really good, it goes into an account and other folks can write checks against it. I really believe that.