Spotlight: Tom Waits – Watch Him Disappear

Innocent When You Dream: The Tom Waits Reader brings together a set of interviews and profiles from across three decades in an attempt to bring us closer to their elusive subject

Tom Waits

Tom Waits

He’s made a journey from self-styled stumblebum singer-songwriter to celebrated, if reluctant, cross-media star. California-born Tom Waits has reversed the slow crawl towards conservatism that afflicts most ageing performers as those perishable and pensionable years edge ever closer.

Similarly contradictory, the more Waits embraces a dissonant kitchen sink approach to composition, the more readily the paying public take him to their collective hearts. In lieu of an unlikely autobiography, American music journalist Mac Montandon has compiled Innocent When You Dream, a 30-year-plus set of variously-sourced interviews and profiles of Waits, into one volume.

The question is, do these photo book snapshots bring us closer to an understanding of the man? musicOMH sneaked a peek at an advance copy to find out…


In 1999, after two long associations with Major labels (Asylum and Island respectively) Waits leased his first album in six years (Mule Variations) to US punk Indie imprint Epitaph and ushered in an unprecedented one million worldwide sales. Though he’s long since given up the travails of the road, Waits decided to perform his first UK gig in 17 years. 3,000 tickets sold out in a reported 20 minutes.

With most artists, a similar project to Montandon’s would be mired in repetition, a numbing set of jobbing promo pieces rehashing the same career flash-points regurgitated for a fresh or previously ignorant readership. Thankfully, Waits’ propensity for on-the-spot improvisation and myth-building (or what others might term bullshit) nullifies such concerns.

“It was a choice between entertainment or a career in air-conditioning and refrigeration” – Tom at the crossroads…

And though its tempting to play Tom Waits Bingo (you cry ‘flophouse!’ once you’ve struck off ‘stubble’, ‘motel’, ‘gravelly-voiced’, ‘hobo’, ‘whisky/gin-soaked’), tempting cliches are kept to a minimum, perhaps as a result of editorial pruning.

Crucially, the lion’s share of the book concerns itself not with the artist’s early years, usually when the fiery flames of a ‘pop’ musician burn most incandescently, but with the score of decades just past. In the early ’80’s, Waits released Swordfishtrombones, a clanging set of dump truck laments, sargasso-steeped in seaweed romanticism and landlocked melancholy.

For the first time Waits’ backstreet narratives, as transparently informed by Edward Hopper as they were by William S. Burroughs and Charles Bukowski, shared equal billing with an ironmonger’s worth of scrapes and metallic percussion, generating a poetic of sound imitated from the urban hinterlands of rundown carneys, careworn diners and wheezing factory towns. Waits’ long rambling travelogues were transformed with the new-found brevity enabled by this breakers yard well of discord.

Before this, the Waits persona had become synonymous with the ‘seamier’ side of life. From 1973 debut Closing Time until Asylum swan song Heartattack And Vine in 1980, Waits mined the barrooms, cheap hotels and bordellos of backroads America for inspiration, the distance between himself and the hard luck chancers that peopled his songs of minimal proportions.

Though he later told Mark Rowland Of Musician that he disliked ‘..songs that are like some kind of psychiatry…’ it’s hard not to read the artist himself into the last-chance saloons of The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me), Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis and Bad Liver And A Broken Heart. On meeting Waits in 1976, The New Yorker’s James Stevenson remarks that ‘he appears to have slept in a barrel”.

Something of an oddity amongst the glam gods of Sunset Strip and Big Sur bleeding hearts that typified his generation, Waits croaking crooner recalled an earlier time. Though the influence of the incomparable Captain Beefheart was present even in Waits’ Asylum recordings (Waits was ‘discovered’ by Beefheart’s manager, Herb Cohen in 1970), the true lineage of Waits would be found in the silk-toned glory days of Sinatra and Crosby as much as the splutter and mutter of a wide-eyed blues madman like Howlin’ Wolf.

“Its just a big clearance sale for useless items” – Tom on Disneyland

Going against received wisdom of rock-biz machismo, Waits’ creative volte-face revolved around the fulcrum of his 1980 marriage to one Kathleen Brennan, a script analyst at Twentieth Century Fox. They met when Waits worked on the score to Francis Ford Coppola’s One From The Heart. ‘She’s got a whole dark forest inside her’, Waits told Playboy in 1987. But Brennan became more than just a muse, though the tender Johnsburgh, Illinois was directly inspired by her.

With various co-credits to her name (the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s Night On Earth listed ‘songs by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan) Brennan became an integral part of the Waits story. Rolling Stone’s David Fricke reports that ‘she encouraged him to take more risks with his writing’ and as Waits himself added ‘to distort the world’. However, as with his earlier relationship with singer Rickie Lee Jones (of Chuck E’s In Love fame), Brennan and their three children are strictly off-limits to all interviewers and profilers.

“People who can’t face drugs turn to reality” – Tom’s philosophical conundrum

Sobriety and domesticity actually released the reins on Waits imagination. Though his “Frank” trilogy of Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs and Frank’s Wild Years had little resemblance to the homogenous sheen common to many ’80’s major label efforts, they were actually ahead of the curve in serendipitous effects, extraneous found sound, and the almost studious exploitation of exotic instrumentation. As Waits himself explained to Musician magazine, “basically I work with instruments that can be found in any pawn shop”.

By the time of 1992’s Bone Machine, Waits’ asphyxiated growl had become as non-musical as the random objects he pummelled in order to find that perfect drum sound. The Nation’s Gene Santoro notes that Waits ‘amassed an eighteen-wheeler’s worth of weird instruments’ when ditching ‘hi-fi recording and noir song-writing for impressionistic soundscapes dreamed in rude facilities’.

“The problem is that most instruments are square and music is round” – Tom on the balance between thought and expression

Yet Waits’ immersion in lo-fi paraphernalia ran in tandem with an ever-growing comfort with technology. When his next fully-fledged album appeared in 1999 (Mule Variations) a new crop of American artists (Bonnie Prince Billy, Smog, Lambchop among them) had flourished whose denial of hi-tech, though enthralling, seemed light years from the innovations of a modern Tom Waits record. If anything, Waits’ junkyard percussion finds greater echo in the Tex Avery drum-riff crazy fractures of Timbaland and The Neptunes. As he told David Fricke ‘when he says, ‘Don’t forget to bring the Fender’, I mean the fender from the Dodge’.

Perhaps the money helps. Waits surrounds himself with well-travelled players, like-minded individuals tuned antenna-like to his restless quest for salvaged sounds. A casual glance at a Waits credit list might reveal the ubiquitous Marc Ribot, David Hidalgo (Los Lobos), Ralph Carney (B52’s), Les Claypool (Primus), Larry Taylor (Canned Heat) and some guitarist bloke called Keith Richards moonlighting from the day job.

In truth though, Waits’ integrity would attract a duet with Mother Teresa were she still alive. With Island-founder Chris Blackwell no longer involved in the company, Waits avoided ‘the plantation system of the music industry’ (and no doubt lucrative advances from competing labels) and hooked up with the aforementioned Epitaph label for the million-selling Mule Variations.

“Jazz developed nylon socks, it was out by the pool eventually” Tom on evolution

Waits rails against artists taking the advertising dollar, even those for he respects like Dr John and Lou Reed. And he’s prepared to back it up with action. As the Dallas Observer’s Robert Wilonsky tells it, in 1990 Waits’ filed ‘a federal suit against Frito-Lay’ the company behind Doritos, for the mimicking of his voice for a radio commercial ‘claiming voice misappropriation and false endorsement’.

Waits claimed he had friends calling him, believing he had foregone his principles and, as Waits put it, sold out for a ‘corn-chip sermon’. Waits walked away with over two million dollars in damages. To underline Waits’ obsessive image control, a similar suit is now pending against General Motors.

Though certain writers make much of Waits’ habit of wrapping up the truth in layers of subterfuge and elision, Waits is, and clearly never was, a fool. Though avowedly disinterested in the machinations of the industry, Waits’ tall tales and antic storytelling have the craft of a seasoned pro, one with an understanding of the razzle-dazzle. Also, the myth-laden smokescreen provides a bulwark, preserving enough space for family, imagination and an ever-inquistive public to coexist.

“When you have a certain geography that becomes associated with you, people dream you into it” Tom gets metaphysical

Now a million miles away from the crazies that Waits personifies in song, his ability to project onto subjective situations has served him well on film. Montandon’s collected portraits are mainly the result of press-calls of new Waits waxings, and there is relatively little of Waits the actor, although Down By Law director Jim Jarmusch’s Straight No Chaser interview with Waits is reproduced here.

As an unabashed fan and a personal friend, Jarmusch’s description of Waits’ domestic life in an affectionate introduction to his piece locates an eye of self-sufficiency in the hurricane of an unusual fame: ‘The guy is a wild man. Tom lives with his family in a big, strange house hidden away somewhere in California. I think of it as the Tom Waits version of a gangster hideout; a world in and of itself”.

• Innocent When You Dream: The Tom Waits Reader is out now through Carroll & Graf.

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