Blood on the looking glass

An interview with famed musical raconteur Tom Waits

Photo by James Michin III

I first encountered Tom Waits on the Small Change (1979) tour in a small theater on Vine Street in Los Angeles. He proffered theatrical monologues, sets (giant gas pumps, a console TV, glitter rain) and expressionist lighting.

Four albums later came Frank’s Wild Years, based on a play he and his wife Kathleen Brennan wrote for Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. Next came The Black Rider, music from the Robert Wilson/William Burroughs stage adaptation of a German folktale for the Thalia Theatre of Hamburg. My brother Greg, Waits’ longtime bass player, was the musical director/ co-arranger. In 1992 Tom and Kathleen, who also writes lyrics, wrote the score to Alice for the Wilson/Thalia company.

It was finally recorded last summer, along with the score to Wilson’s current award-winning play Woyzeck (the CD of which is titled Blood Money), and they’re both to be released May 9 on Waits’ label Anti.

Nineteenth-century German poet Georg Buchner’s story “Woyzeck,” about a soldier driven mad by bizarre army experiments and infidelity, incurs music Waits calls “flesh and blood, earthbound; carnal … Tin Pan Alley meets the Weimar Republic.”

Like all Waits’ efforts since Swordfish Trombones (‘83), it’s stylistically varied, with an overall production “patina"—in this case a dry, raspy shibui (the Japanese word for dilapidation) sound personified by the pod (a 4-foot-long Indonesian bean shaker), marimbas and a 57-whistle pneumatic calliope that reverberated for five miles in the Sonoma shack where the CDs were recorded.

This skeletal army of instruments tends to overshadow the vocals on the edgy tracks (more restrained than on Bone Machine), but the potent “Knife Chase” (a Peter Gunnish instrumental featuring Waits’ son Casey on drums) is a standout. The bluesy “Another Man’s Vine,” the ballad “Lullaby” and the extraordinary “The Part You Throw Away” that’s like the pizzacato string backing in James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World” set in the Ukriane, are my other picks.

Alice is laced with compositional intrigues, like soaring Broadway melodies that jump from bridges without warning ("Flower’s Grave,” “No One Knows I’m Gone") and obtuse codas that perambulate back to the verse ("Lost in the Harbor,” “Barcarole"). The more melancholic (and melodic) offerings harkened back to “Ruby’s Arms” and “Tom Traubert’s Blues.”

I hear vague shades of the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” in “I’m Still Here,” an echo of “A Place for Us” in “The Fish and the Whale” and “Sayonara” in the gorgeous closing Sino-Irish lament “Fawn.”

The title cut evokes the soundtracks to Twin Peaks, Chinatown and Waits’ own “Strange Weather.” With my own penchant for Eastern European melodies, I adore “Poor Edward” (a true story about Edward Mordechi—"An actual face on the back of his head,” Tom said), with its Bride of Frankenstein violin, and “Reeperbahn"; Kathleen Brennan’s lyrics are wonderfully wry and evocative here.

Alice is the quintessence of Tom Waits. These “anthems from beyond the grave” are no longer the lost masterpiece, as some critics have called it. It’s his best work in 15 years. The “patina” on this one’s akin to a dying Keir Dullea in the chamber at the end of 2001 as seen through a Viewmaster, and it all goes down like Courvasier.

After my interview, Waits called back to interview me with a roster of questions like “what was your first guitar?” We spoke of rattlesnakes, 7-Elevens that play classical music to scare away hoods, Elvis having a Samoan sound. He reminded me that “masses push the innovators through the door” like an angry mob.

Here’s the first interview:

I wanted to ask about the premise of Alice.

It’s basically a hypothetical romance between Lewis Carroll and Alice [chuckles], as sick as that might sound for an Oxford professor in his mid-50s to be obsessed with a little girl.

All the songs are based around that?

Yeah, they loosely go around that. They all sprout out of that root. They’re all different ways of saying the same thing. I guess the deal was that when he was writing [Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass], photography was reasonably new, and it was just the phenomenon of the chemical reaction to the images on the film. People were seeing photographs for the first time. I think they were mystifying, almost ghostly—to be able to capture emotions or moments between moments or …

Do you believe in ghosts?

Well,you know, I think the fact that you can go into a room with a machine and have a musical experience and 90 years later, or whatever, what happened in that room long after the room has been demolitioned and the people that were in it are dead, that you can sit down and listen to a recording that happened—it’s kind of ghostlike.

Ghosts, I don’t know what they are. I mean, why do we use the word capture when we’re talking about getting something on tape—because it’s something living. It’s not wanted dead or alive—you want to capture the music on tape. That means something has to be living and taken alive—I think that’s the hardest part about recording is, you know, if you’re not careful you’ll be listening to the feathers instead of the bird.

Is making an album like making a pizza?

When I used to move a lot, I remember unpacking all my albums, and I always ended up with a pizza box in there ‘cause it was about the same size. I guess in the sense of the creative process, it could be compared to recipes. That’s what they are. You’re just combining elements together in a satisfying way, and then you brown and serve, right?

Do you know much about Butte County?

Well now, is Gridley in Butte? I’ve spent time in Biggs, Oroville, Marysville, Gridley, Live Oak, Chico. Yeah.

Mule Variations has a Gridley feel.

Yeah that’s good. I actually thought a lot about Gridley during that record.

Which would you rather do, watch I Dream of Jeanie or listen to Jimi Hendrix?

Well, you’re really putting me on the spot now, Danny. You’re going to make me reveal myself. I guess I’d have to say the politically correct answer would be Hendrix, but sometimes I Dream of Jeanie really hits the spot [wheeze-laugh], you know? Sometimes Hendrix is too dense, too deep, too heavy. Sometimes you don’t want Kafka, you want Archie.

How do you feel these records fare in the MTV, Rolling Stone realm of things, or what the masses expect?

I don’t know if the masses are paying attention to what I’m doing, necessarily. But if you mean where does this fit in … I think it’s probably a niche thing. I think the thing about music is that the best remark about a piece of music is made through another piece of music. I think most of us are in some way remarking, or answering questions, or responding or reacting to something else that we heard. Most of us are in some way or another emulating or imitating badly artists that we’ve admired or have been moved by over the years.

The beautiful thing, and maybe the mystifying thing, is that we’re incapable of really sounding like anybody other than ourselves. Even if you think, “Oh God, someone is gonna hear this, and they’re gonna think I’m ripping off Eric Burdon.” You know they’ll never get it …

But you know so many different variables have to come together to make their own sound and equally as many to make your own.

Is the garage sound out of the question for you?

Oh, I don’t know. I love it. I’d say these records are not necessarily that at all really. We were in the studio the whole time. Being in a studio is kinda like being in a submarine—after awhile I think you go through a certain amount of sensory deprivation. … You’re looking for something you can’t see, can’t smell, can’t taste, you can’t touch—so it’s kinda like going in there with Jacques Cousteau gear looking for a paperless piano at the bottom of the lake.

What do you think about Ozzy Osbourne being the new Ozzie Nelson?

I don’t know. I don’t think that any of us are sick, but I think the culture is sick, and it gives us [pause] the flu. But I don’t know, to be honest I haven’t seen the show.

A musical icon for the last 25 years, Grammy-winning songwriter Tom Waits is an international celebrity, revered by musical legends as diverse as Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen (who covered his classic “Heart of Saturday Night"). He is also a highly respected actor in Hollywood, having starred alongside Jack Nicholson in <i>Ironweed</i>, as well as in several Jim Jarmusch films and Robert Altman’s <i>Short Cuts</i>. He currently resides with his wife and collaborator, screenwriter Kathleen Brennan, and their children in Northern California.

Photo by Matt Mahurin

But is culture devolving in general?

Yeah, I think it’s always doing a little bit of both. It’s like metaphysical inchworms.

That’s why there are so many more telemarketers.

Well, I think we overanalyze things. … Telemarketers are all part of one organism, just like the ants.

Like the dating shows—people get struck out.

We don’t know what to do with technology. We do stupid things with it. You know how sophisticated technology is, [but] we’re using it for a hammer. It’s just kind of depressing. But everyone is really afraid of intimacy, and most of our fear really involves fear of each other. Then you have these rabid, cartel venomous companies that are as big as countries. Sometimes I feel like we’re all just getting in line …

We’re set up in this administration for that sort of thing.

Yeah, we all feel like we’re at war, we have to be good—follow our leader. It feels like the whole world is on fire now.

Did I tell you I got accused of being a terrorist at the Chico State library?

What did you do?

I was trying to stash my backpack in about six different places. They wouldn’t let me, and I said, “Look, if there’s a bomb in here, what difference does it make where I put it?”

Wrong thing to say, right?

What was that Waitstock thing in the press?

Oh geez, I don’t know. Somewhere on the Eastern Seaboard people get together and have these kind of trivia gatherings where they overanalyze the songs and emulate me in some way—I don’t know. It’s a peculiar form of worship [laughs].

Kind of like Burning Man?

Exactly—Burning Tom. I only hear little rumors about it, you know, where they have a schedule for the day’s events like a convention. From 7:30-9:30 breakfast, they listen to a record—then they drink [chuckles].

So, did that calliope have a volume control?

No it does not. It’s pneumatic, it’s ear-bleeding loud. Greg found it. … He gave me the number and told me to buy it. It took six guys to pick it up put it in the back of an El Camino. Don’t ask why, but for some reason all these calliope people live in Iowa—there’s a whole coven of calliope people. They congregate like circus people who have settled in Tampa, Fla. … But [the calliope] is very loud, it’s designed to be heard from five miles away. So if you can imagine that, but you’re sitting next to it.

How do you feel about releasing two records at a time?

I don’t know. I used to have an answer to that. Well, thing is, people get upset when you haven’t had a record out in seven years—then they get upset when you put out two at the same time. It’s like, “Where are my eggs?” then “I didn’t order this!” [Cackles.] My feeling is that if it turns out to be a success, then it was my idea, and if it’s not, then I blame it on someone else.

So on Blood Money is that the same music as Woyzeck? Same score?

Yeah, I just changed the title. I didn’t think anybody would know who Woyzeck is.

Is it part of a trilogy with The Black Rider?

I don’t know, I guess maybe it could be seen that way, in the sense that all three of those projects originated with Robert Wilson. But I haven’t really thought of it that way.

What do you think of spring break? Have you ever played at a frat house?

Spring break, I guess it’s a mating ceremony—some kind of mass ritual. I’ve seen it; I drove through one. I’ve never played a frat house, but of course I’ve got that to look forward to [half-laughs]. When I was 17 I used to play what we called dirt parties, which I guess would be a kegger, where we would take wine way out into the canyon and someone would bring a guitar and that would be an unofficial kegger. I would sing, climb trees, throw dirt clods, raise hell, sub-vocalize, scare each other.

How do you feel about acting? Are you gonna do it anymore?

I don’t know [sighs]. It’s OK, but you gotta wait for the right thing to come along. You spend so much time sitting in a trailer [pauses] with an ill-fitting jacket. It’s like, when you think about it, in terms of your time, it’s like making 50 pounds of dough in order to make one biscuit. Then you throw the dough away.

It pays well.

That’s why it pays well. It’s kind of like paying a slave or a prisoner or a prisoner who’s a slave. It can be excellent or terrible, just like anything else. I liked Renfield [his character in Bram Stoker’s Dracula]. People told me if you do it, you’ll never recover, look what happened to Dwight Frye. … You know there’s this Web site where all these people who have Tourettes get together—they’re kinda like these punk Tourettes guys where they get together and emote or have Tourettes moments, and they grade each other on how cool their moments were.

The longer I stay in Chico, The more I get into Tourettes on stage.

Oh really, it must be in the water. All it is is the formation of sounds and shapes that have yet to find articulated meaning, but they have meaning for you.