Tom Waits

Words by Jules Moore / Photography by Anton Corbijn

Hobo #14 – Vancouver, February 2012. Few names loom larger in the history of American music than Tom Waits. He is the epitome of the eccentric mad hatter to some and for others a spiritual guide, Kerouac-esque in his jumble of theatrics, poetry and jazz. Over the past thirty years, Waits has created a body of work distinguished by its bizarre imagery, its eye for the implausible, and a growl that seems to grow mightier with age. In the winter of 2007, I proposed an interview with Tom. In the spring of five-years-later, the phone rang.

Tom Waits. — You know what they say about robots?

Juliana Moore. — What do they say about robots?
— They say in the next twenty years you will see the only difference between a robot and a human being will be like the difference between someone from Florida and someone from Wisconsin.

— Which one is the robot, Florida?
— Well, that’s the trouble. You won’t be able to tell.

— Well, I’d like to think that I’ll be surrounding by Wisconsonians for as long as…
— You prefer them over Floridians?

— I don’t think I’ve ever met a Floridian.
— Oh, they are everywhere. You know, they are all in Florida.

— Right, they don’t leave. But the Wisconsonians… I’m a Winnipegian so…
— Oh, you are a Winnipegian! You are close to the Wisconsonians. So you are more sympathetic to their needs.

— Absolutely, I am. So, Tom, where are you today?
— I am in my vehicle.

— Oh?
— I am sitting in my vehicle in front of a barbershop and waiting to get my hair cut.

— Perfect. I spent the past three days listening to Bad as Me.
— Oh, how is it?

— The first word that comes to me is “everything.” It sounds and feels like every possible thing, every feeling, every place and time. The song “Raised Right Men” is a prime example.
— I hope so. You know, I don’t know. But, I hope. I was just trying to do a… an Aretha Franklin song. We had Augie Myers on the box organ. It was… I don’t know if I’ve done anything like before in the past myself. So it is always exciting to do something that sounds, even that sounds new to you.

— When I first heard your song “Martha” I found a new way of understanding sadness. It might be one of the saddest songs in the world. Rivaled perhaps by this one off the new album called Back in the Crowd.
— Hey, it is very personal I guess, what the saddest song in the world is.

— When’s the last time a piece of music moved you to tears?
— Let’s see, ah, there was this song by this singer named Mary Gauthier. I think the song is called “Your Sister Cried All The Way Home”. And it was a good one. It’s about this gal in the car on the way home from a wedding. And, you know, it was one of those nights that are somewhat of a disaster. And the chorus was And your sister cried all the way home. It just tore me up.

— Yeah.
— Sometimes the saddest song in the world is just the saddest song in the world that night. Because that night is the saddest night and maybe you would even listen to, you know, “It’s a Man’s World” or “Abilene” or a George Jones’ song. It might just tear you up because it has to resonate with what is going on inside of you. It is not going to take you and turn you around necessarily and break you down to nothing unless you are already leaning over, you know.

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— What mood or emotion were you experiencing the most while writing the songs that are on this new album?
— Well, the truth is, most songs have very humble beginnings and you can’t really trace a song back to an emotion that feels like the parents of the song. You know? They really live in the air. You know… you sit down and you put your feet in hot water, have a coffee enema, or maybe you are floating in a vat of whale sperm, mouth full of dirt while you are eating a cannoli and that kind of thing. Or you just dropped a hundred dollar bill into the hat of a street singer and walked away.

— What does that feel like?
— However that made you feel, you may come up with something, you know. And he benefits too, so… songs are just interesting things to do.

— They certainly are.
— It’s just letting the air out of a balloon very slowly, in an artistic way, and then you are naming a song after a girl you’ve never met. You know? And if it does correspond to something real in your life, I guess it is true. It’s all about choices. Why did you select the plaid pants and the bowler hat? Why did you make her a redhead? Why didn’t you name the street Phallon Street or Phantom Street or Cannon Street. You don’t know why, but it does have some meaning. I was thinking about that line from Procol Harum, “I was feeling kind of seasick and the crowd called out for more”. You know that one?

— Yeah, it’s a great one.
— It’s a really strong image for anybody who has ever been on stage. But yet, it could have been something different. Like, “I was feeling kind of bloated and the crowd got up and left”. Then you have that memory. You know, it is just wind.

— Do you spend much time exploring current music, or is it of interest to you?
— Well, I do, because I have kids, you know. I don’t dominate the turntable or the radio.

— Have they introduced you to anything that surprised you?
— Yeah, lots of stuff. But, I guess most of the enduring music for me is things that I have been listening to over time. Something new, I don’t know… I wait for it to get old. [laughs]

— That reminds me of something Bob Dylan said about his album Shot of Love. He said at the time it was his favorite and he couldn’t understand why it was so unloved by others. I wonder if there’s an album of yours that fits into that sort of paradox?
— Oh gee, I don’t know. I like Real Gone. People didn’t seem to like Real Gone. That had a lot of good songs on it. But, you don’t know, you can’t ever predict. When you go into a men’s clothing store and you see he has these ties that look like they haven’t sold in twenty years. Sometimes I’ll buy one just to make him feel better. You know?

— The tie or the man?
— The tie! Or a pair of shoes! God, it looks like no one has even been in this store in the longest time! Who knows?

— You just don’t know.
— Are they better when they are old or are they better when they are new? Songs aren’t like bakery goods, that unless they are fresh no one wants them. You know? They are a different kind of commodity.

— Something very unique about you is that your music has never sounded like the time it grew out of. Without knowing the history, it’s hard to determine which of your songs belong to the 70s, 80s, 90s, etc. It sort of all is just is. It is like Winnie the Pooh, you know.
— Like Winnie the Pooh, I don’t know about that! Well, songs come from the past and the future. You put the word ‘past’ together with the word ‘future’ you get the word ‘pasture’. Which is the origin of most songs. You know? They all come out of that meadow.

— Do you ever write from your dreams?
— If I remember a dream I am a very lucky person. Most of the time I don’t. But in a way, writing songs is kind of like daydreaming because at its best you are trying to contact the unconscious. I remember that song “Cold Water” that was on Mule Variations. I woke up and just remember splashing cold water on my face. “I woke up this morning with cold water, cold water”. A lot of songs start with Woke up this morning, because that it’s the first thing most of us do. I bet you could make a huge list of songs that start with I woke this morning…

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— I can think of a few.
— You know what line is used more in film than any other line?

— No, what is it?
— It’s “Let’s get out of here.”

— Really? Have you ever delivered that line?
— I don’t know, I don’t think so.

— Recently I was watching Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid. There is a great moment when Garrett says, “It feels like times have changed.” And Billy replies, “Times maybe, but not me.” I wonder if you identify more with a Pat Garrett or a Billy the Kid?
— The one who has changed or the one who has stayed the same and times have changed. Boy, that’s a tough one. I don’t know. I remember my daughter was reading a book about, what was his name… There was the Sundance Kid and who was the other guy with him?

— Oh, ah, it was…
— Help me.

— Butch Cassidy!
— Butch Cassidy. He was alive in the ’60s. People say that he went back to Missouri and he opened up a shoe store and then he eventually moved to New York and he was alive there in the early ’60s. He lived in an old residential hotel. I was rather intrigued with that. He is walking around New York in a cowboy hat, you know. Butch Cassidy, walking around New York with a cowboy hat and tennis shoes. And he’s having coffee in a donut shop with a Greek waiter who yells at him and tells him to keep his feet off the booth. [laughs]

— Speaking of New York, do you go there much now?
— Oh, I do go back. I have family there. Last time I went back was this Hall of Fame deal. It’s a heavy place to live. You know you have to be on your toes all the time. You need to have a baseball bat with you. And binoculars.

— Jewels and binoculars.
— [laughs] I don’t know. It’s a tough place to live. We lived there for a while. Back in ’84, ’85, something like that; for about three years. It’s an interesting place. But to be a real New Yorker I think it takes a real tough skin. Especially if you are going to raise kids there. You got to really know what you are doing, you know. You really are on a boat and the water is on fire. If you don’t really know what you are doing, it can be tragic.

— Well, let’s move on to another big part of your life and that is the stuff of love. You once said of a loving relationship, and I am paraphrasing a little bit, that when both people know too much of the same thing, or they become too similar, then one or the other becomes useless or they both become useless. Now this seems to be the exact opposite of what happens with time as you work creatively with your wife Kathleen [Brennan]. How does this collaboration work so well?
— Well, it’s like the recipe for Coca-Cola.

— The recipe for Coca-Cola?
— I should bottle it.

— It’s a secret.
— It only works for me.

 — Hmmm.
— It won’t work for you. Ah, it is like a map to star’s homes. [laughs] I don’t know if they live here or not, but we are going to take a picture of it and say this is where Harrison Ford lives. But I will say that when you collaborate, you compromise. And you have to believe that compromise is better for the song.

— You seem to enjoy collaborating with Keith Richards. He played guitar on your albums Rain Dogs and Bone Machine. And here he is again on Bad as Me.
— Yes.

— Is there a good friendship here?
— Oh yeah, he is a good egg. I don’t know what it is. More body language than anything. He’s wry and sly and difficult to reach. It’s kind of like he has a guard at the gate of himself. And, a lot of times you are just talking to the guard, you know. But he is musically very adventurous and also very innocent and vulnerable. Singing is a very vulnerable thing to do. You would get killed if you were in the jungle and you stopped to sing, you know.

— [Laughs]

— There is no real purpose for it. If you were an animal you’d have to… it is like when an animal is drinking water from a stream, they are also looking behind their head. So I don’t know, singing is vulnerable and making music is as well, at its best. Here’s the deal, some songs are best created when you are very safe and you can write about when you weren’t safe. Other times you would be in a very untenable situation and you would write about when you were safe. I don’t know. Songs are just what they are and a great deal more. But Keith is a great guy.

— His autobiography was an astonishingly massive hit last year.
— Oh yeah, it was everywhere.

— What are you thinking about that? About penning your own?
— Oh, I don’t think about that.

— You don’t?
— No.

— But everybody is waiting…
— Oh, no they are not.

— Oh, yes they are.
— I would make it all up. The truth is overrated. Why wouldn’t you take the opportunity to make stuff up in a book. It is always more interesting that what really happened. So, all you are really doing is further concealing yourself from the public, but you are selling it as fresh water.

— I guess that is where it gets political.
— Everything is. Everyone wants the real story. What’s the real story? Well, there’s no such thing as a real story. A story itself is not real. It is like reality shows, reality shows… those are two opposite things: reality and a show. They are opposite to each other. So, if you are… as soon as something happens it is fiction. Because you tell your mom and you leave shit out. The word “truth” should always have an ‘s’ at the end of it.

— Were you always sure of your talent? Cause it really seems like you’ve always known which direction to move in.
— You want the world to collaborate with you, you know. Whatever you do, if you are a plumber or you work at a car wash, you want something to come back at you that says you are in the right place. And that can’t happen in a vacuum. That’s why people like audiences. But in front of my first audiences, I was booed. I opened the show for Frank Zappa, and I was terrible, man. It’s like when they tell you, “You have to pay your dues.” I hung on to that. Like old show-biz things that you hear from vaudevillians.

— You have to pay to play.
— Pay to play. Pay your dues. I don’t know. What was the question?

— Were you always sure of your talent?
— Oh, no. I was not always sure. You ever go into a store and they have a dollar bill on the wall, the first dollar bill they ever made and it is framed?

— Yeah…
— Just like that. It could have been the only dollar, but they believed that at the beginning of it, the first day they opened, a Grand Opening, you know, that it was going to go places. You have to have a certain amount of belief. But also you need to have a lot of wisdom and depth and luck and grace and timing.

— So would you say you are a naturally self-confident man?
— In certain areas, yeah. In other areas, no. Nobody really wants someone who does two things well. They want the guy who does what he does best, like your heart surgeon. “I do heart surgery, but I also write songs. Would you like to hear one of my songs?” Actually, no I would like you to do the surgery on my heart.

— Sure, but I guess it’s not so bad to have a plan B.
— An exit strategy.

— Exit strategy, just in case.
— I didn’t really have one. I was told that I should develop one.

— Well you did, a little. You’ve acted in film quite a lot.
— Oh, I couldn’t support myself doing that.

— No?
— No. No. No. I’d be waiting all day for the phone to ring, hoping someone will stick you in a movie that you’ll like, that doesn’t embarrass you. That’ll drive you crazy, man. It’s no fun. This way, I’m the director, I am the writer, and I am performing. I don’t have to wait for a script to show up that moves me. I move myself.

— Are you happy nowadays? Do you feel like it is a happy times?
— Happy times. Everything is coming up roses…I’m in like a Judy Garland moment now.

— Oh yeah, rainbows.
— Yeah. I love my audience, boo, boo, boo. They love me.

— When I say perfect happiness, what comes to mind?
— Well, happiness is never perfect is it?

— No, it is not.
— So you just said ‘perfect happiness’. There’s your answer. Happiness is not perfect.

— Ha!
— You know Steven Wright, the comedian? He said when he was in court once they put his hand on the Bible and said, “You swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth?” and he said, “Yeah, you’re ugly!”

— [laughs]
— Then he said, “See that girl in the front row in the jury box? I’d like to sleep with her.” And he went on, you know. He is a funny guy.

— Then what happened?
— I don’t know, they probably threw him in jail or cut off his hands and then threw him in jail.

— The truth is not looking so good right now.
— Well, like I said it really is highly overrated.

— Thank you for giving us so much great music.
— Sure. You know music is free, you charge for the travel.