Piss & vinegar

Posted on February 26, 2006


By Susan Tomaselli

“I see the way a lot of people talk to the press. To me it’s a bit like talking to a cop.”

Starting out Innocent When You Dream, you should know that Tom Waits is the Great Deceiver, and that most of what you’re about to read is a lie. But as Frank Black writes in his foreward: “Tom Waits may lie about his past, but he does tell you all his secrets.” Robert Sabbag echoes this sentiment, saying “his press kit reads like a rap sheet on a guy with nothing but aliases.” How then do you write about a man who plays fast and loose with his biography? You don’t. Despite his notorious privacy, Waits has sat down with a fair few number of journalists over the years; usually over a cup of coffee and sometimes over a greasy plate of nosh, often stumbling in late and disappearing when the bill arrives. Mac Montandon has scrounged together thirty years worth of newspaper, magazine and broadcast interviews and two Charles Bukowski poems and hammered them out into a seamless and fascinating read on the bard of the bizarre.

“It’s compulsive to create a mythology about others and to create a certain amount of mythology about oneself. You put a light on it, and if you take water out of the river, it’s no longer a river – it’s water in a can. You put a light on yourself and ya stand on stage, you’re masking out a great deal.”

They say you should never let the truth stand in the way of a good story, and Waits is certainly creative. Born in the back of a taxi cab (“Times Square, and step on it”) with a cigarette in his mouth, as a youngster Waits could hardly wait to be an old man, adopting a cane and hat and hanging out with his friends’ fathers, listening to Harry Belafonte records.

Arranged chronologically, Waits’ entire life unfolds before your eyes, tall tales and all and detailed by Montandon here in three distinct parts: the first stage of his career as a Bowery bum, huckster and Saturday night-ist; the Eighties which saw the release of the holy trinity of Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs and Frank’s Wild years; finally the more challenging albums of recent years.

Much is made of his appearance. As Kinky Friedman said. Waits “looks like he was put together by committee.” The seven-dollar suits, looking like “something even the cat would refuse to drag in,” “stubble-chinned stumble bum” and an urban scarecrow. And there is countless descriptions of his voice, a music journalists dream, surely: a “scabrous rasp”, a “gin-soaked croak”, a “cross between mellifluous baritone and heavy-equipment breakdown”, a voice “that could guide ships through dense fog.”

“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy. People who can’t face drugs turn to reality.”

Waits’ early work ranged from word-clogged monologues to beautiful melodies telling you terrible things, drawing a direct line from Damon Runyon and Raymond Carver, and huffing the last remaining fumes of the Beats and Charles Bukowski. Full of a anti-heroes and casual philosophers, and reflecting an Americana landscape that is bleak, lonely and contemporary Waits has, as Mac Montandon writes in his introduction, a song for every L.A. occasion: the drunks, the hookers, the petty thieves, the dives. Of the scavenger school of songwritinng, salvageable material is found on every street corner, and as one journalist points out, walking round L.A. with Waits is like taking a walk with Samuel Pepys through seventeenth-century London: nothing escapes his attention.

Filed under Literature, Waits is a reluctant poet though:

“Poetry is a very dangerous word. It’s very misused…When somebody says that they’re going to read me a poem, I can think of any number of things that I’d rather be doing. I don’t like the stigma that comes with being called a poet – so I call what I’m doing an improvisational adventure or an inebriational travelogue, and all of a sudden it takes on a whole new form and meaning. If I’m tied down and have to call myself something, I prefer ‘storyteller’. Everybody has their own definition of what poetry is, and of who’s a poet. I think Charles Bukowski is a poet – and I think most will agree to that.”

After spending the Seventies spinning yarns from L.A.’s underworld, Waits, with help from his wife Kathleen Brennan, reinvented himself as a junkyard sound sculptor, changing gears with Swordfishtrombones, and shifting from Beat troubadour to art-house provocateur. “People always like to have continuity in their products and services. But music isn’t breakfast cereal, or at least it shouldn’t be.”

“It’s always the mistakes. Most things begin as a mistake. Most breakthroughs in music come out of a revoultion of the reform. Someone revolted, and was probably not well liked. But he ultimately started his own country.”

Bob Dylan‘s ‘mistakes’ set off a revolution, that hasn’t really happened with Waits. Though not cult, he’s kept (un)fairly obscure, getting little airplay and gaining hits by being covered by other less interesting artists (The Eagles, Rod Stewart). Instead he has planted the seeds for future subversions and some of those weeds are sprouting: Nick Cave, Beck, Sparklehorse, Bonnie Prince Billy.

All you need to know about Tom Waits is right there on his albums, but everything Waits says in these interviews is memorable, even his most throwaway asides. In a 1999 interview with LA Weekly he explains his absence on the music scene by saying he was “breaking in other people’s shoes..I wear ’em out four or five weeks and mail ’em back to you. But just ’cause you’re not fishin’ doesn’t mean there aren’t fish out there.” And, to field questions (or amuse himself) he’s brought notes, ranging from helpful advice on how to run away from a crocodile (zig-zag, if you’re interested) to information on the jumping range of crickets, a trick he also deploys on Rolling Stone magazine. Filled with hilarious anecdotes and half-truths – Waits forewarns interviewers about pulling their strings – it’s the bits Waits leaves out of his conversations and the diversions that are as just as fascinating: the pauses worthy of Beckett, the scatological raps.

Throughout the decades Waits has railed against artists taking the advertising dollar:

“It’s amazing, when I look at these artists. I find it unbelievable that they finally broke into the fascinating and lucrative world of advertising after years on the road, making albums and living in crummy apartments; finally adertising opened up and gave them a chance for what they really wanted to do, which was salute and support a major American product, and they have that name blinking over their head as they sing.”

As the Dallas Observer‘s Robert Wilonsky tells it, in 1990 Waits filed a federal suit against Frito-Lay, for the mimicking of his voice for a radio commercial ‘claiming voice misappropriation and false endorsement’.

“Most people, when they start out, are much more adventurous. As they get older, they get more complacent. I started out complacent and got more adventurous.”

One of the best pieces here is the transcript of a dialogue with Jim Jarmusch who directed Waits in films Down By Law and Coffee and Cigarettes, an interview that ends when his car catches fire. Like Jarmusch, Waits embraces a punk ethos saying at its birth: “It may be revolting to a lot of people, but at least it’s an alternative to the garbage that’s been around for ten years.” No surprise when Waits left Island Records for punk label Epitaph. The rough-neck rock’n’roller mutates into an organised noise-nik, still full of piss and vinegar, pulp and skin and seeds, and a Waitsian perfect willingness to ‘destroy the lab for the sake of the experiment’.

A timeless survivor – as Robert Sabbag says he’s is always one step ahead, or one step behind – Waits to this day still has the chops, and remains a glorious sonic fuck-you to the jingle writers. He may have gone surrural (his word) – happily married with kids and living in the sticks – but he continues to walk an unstraight line.

Innocent When You Dream: Tom Waits, the Collected Interviews edited by Mac Montandon
440 Pages

Posted in: Reading