Tom Waits Talks

by Dmitry Kiper

Tom Waits on Tom Waits: Interviews and Encounters
Edited by Paul Maher, Jr.
Chicago Review Press
2011

 

Over Tom Waits’ long musical career, one thing has remained constant: “Vocabulary,” Waits once said, “is my main instrument.” That sentiment is just as true when Waits is off-stage giving an interview in a cheap diner, an old Chinese restaurant, or backstage somewhere. Tom Waits on Tom Waits—more than three decades worth of interviews, profiles, and the occasional excerpt and press release—makes that very clear. Although it’s not a biography, it does provide a kind of biographical portrait—a document of Waits’ evolution as a musician and performer, on the one hand, and as a person, on the other.

Talking about his voice at a time when he was promoting his industrial, gritty-gospel-blues album Bone Machine (1992), Waits said, “What I like to try and do with my voice is get kind of schizophrenic with it and see if I can scare myself…”

Keith Richards, starting with Rain Dogs (1985), has appeared on several Tom Waits albums, and the two share a certain aesthetic, which includes an aversion to over-relying on studio effects. “If I want a sound,” Waits said, “I usually feel better if I’ve chased it and killed it, skinned it and cooked it.”

On quitting smoking:

I’m like everybody else, quit a hundred times. It’s a companion and a friend … I would take a pack of cigarettes and dig a hole in the backyard and piss on them and bury ’em. Dig ’em up and an hour later, dry them in the oven and smoke. That’s how bad I had it.

But Tom Waits on Tom Waits is more than just a collection of gold nuggets embedded in long interviews. It’s a record of a man’s life.

I wanted to be an old man when I was a kid. Wore my granddaddy’s hat, used his cane, and lowered my voice. … My father left when I was about eleven—I think I looked up to older musicians like father figures. Louis Armstrong or Bing Crosby…

While touring for his second album, The Heart of a Saturday Night (1974), Waits was already aware—and perhaps somewhat weary—of the theatricality involved in a musical performance. He said that onstage he tries to “reach some level of spontaneity and just be as colorful and entertaining as I can … I want to avoid the unnaturalness of performing.”

Yet there were always questions about the difference between the person and the persona. “Sometimes it’s hard to separate the two identities,” he said at the time. “I may exaggerate a little onstage, but I’m not trying to be anyone else but me. I try not to be compromising or condescending. I talk about things I know about.” Exhausted from excessive touring, drinking, and lack of sleep, Waits sometimes reacted aggressively to such questions, emphatically telling one interviewer, “I’m not a drunk, I’m a regular guy.”  But that, of course, was hard to accept from a man who lived at the Tropicana, a notoriously seedy Los Angeles motel Waits described as being full of “four-speed automatic transvestites, unemployed firemen, dikes, hoods, hookers, sadists … reprieved murderers, ex-bebop singers and one-armed piano players.”

In 1980 Waits married Kathleen Brennan, who became, beginning with the critically acclaimed album Swordfishtrombones (1983), Waits’ song-writing partner and co-producer. “My wife’s like a cross between Eudora Welty and Joan Jett,” Waits said in 1999. “She’s got the four Bs: beauty, brightness, bravery, and brains. She rescued me.” And the strange thing is, even though Waits cleaned up his act—quit smoking, cut down on drinking, had three children, and eventually moved his family out to California’s Sonoma County—his music has remained wonderfully surprising and weird. And so have his interviews.

 

Dmitry Kiper is a New York City writer working on short stories, poems, songs, and other curiosities. He is currently a fellow at the Writers’ Institute at the City University of New York.