Published Oct 01, 2004Tom Waits has three children, and at one point when they were still quite young, they asked him why he doesn't have a straight job like everyone else. He told them the following story: "In the forest, there was a crooked tree and a straight tree. Every day, the straight tree would say to the crooked tree, "Look at me; I'm tall and I'm straight and I'm handsome. Look at you; you're all crooked and bend over. No one wants to look at you." And they grew up in that forest together. And then one day the loggers came, and they saw the crooked tree and the straight tree, and they said, "Just cut the straight trees and leave the rest." So the loggers turned all the straight trees into lumber and toothpicks and paper. And the crooked tree is still there, growing stronger and stranger every day." (Buzz Magazine, 1993)
In the 32 years since his debut album, Waits has continued to get stronger and stranger, one of those rare musicians who actually get weirder and more mysterious with age, at a time when most of his contemporaries are slathering on the string sections that Waits chucked out the window two decades ago. Yet despite commanding one of the most fiercely loyal audiences imaginable, very few people know very much about Waits, and he'd like to keep it that way. In a 1999 interview, he told Exclaim!: "Most people are more interested in something that's interesting, not the way things really are. I don't know what people know about me. Some of it's true, some of it's not. Just like everything you know about everybody else. Most of us are more interested in a good story."
Thomas Alan Waits is born on December 7 in the back of a taxi cab in Pomona, California outside of L.A. He has two sisters, and his parents are both schoolteachers of Scottish, Irish and Norwegian descent. Learns to play guitar from a 12-year old neighbourhood ruffian who lives in a trailer in the woods. Makes skateboards out of plywood and roller skate wheels and terrorizes his neighbours. His father is a Spanish teacher and the family vacations frequently in Mexico, where Waits is enthralled by carnival life. There he encounters wild accordion music and women with tails. His first instrument is trumpet. The family moved around California a lot when he was a child, settling in National City, a sailor's town south of San Diego, when his parents divorce in 1959. Fatherless, Waits spends his time hanging out at friends' houseswith his friends' fathers. At 11, he develops an obsession with everything old, wears his grandfather's hat, and can't wait to be old enough to shave.
Waits is a huge Bob Dylan fan growing up, even framing some of Dylan's lyrics on his bedroom wall. At 14, he works the overnight shift at a pizza joint, where he turns into what he calls a "private investigator of the night." This takes its toll on his formal education. Reads a lot of Bukowski and Delmore Schwartz, listens to Dizzy Gillespie and Ray Charles. A high school art teacher encourages him to play harmonica and do some soft shoe dancing in class. Continues to have misadventures in Mexico, including a few arrests and meeting a midget prostitute in Tijuana who sits in his lap and tells him about becoming a born-again Christian after murdering her pimp. In high school he plays in a soul group but drops out to play accordion in a polka band. At 19, he learns to play piano on an instrument where only the black keys work. In 1968 he doubles as performer and doorman at the Heritage Club in San Diego; on nights he performs, he and the staff wheel a borrowed piano down the street into the club. By 1970, he's taking the bus to L.A. and lining up for hours to play the open stage at the Troubadour Club, a showcase gig for local songwriters and freak shows. It's there that he meets manager Herb Cohen, who also handles Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, and Linda Ronstadt. In 1971, Waits records demos that surface 20 years later as The Early Years.
Moves to L.A. and becomes a regular at the Troubadour, where Joni Mitchell, Elton John and Bette Midler become big champions. One night, David Geffen hears Waits singing "Grapefruit Moon" and offers him a record deal on his new Asylum Records, which becomes home of the California singer/songwriter scene: Jackson Browne, The Eagles, Warren Zevon, et al.
Closing Time is produced by Jerry Yester of the Lovin' Spoonful, and it's a sweet, sentimental set of songs that is entirely out of character with the eccentric that Waits will become. Waits tours with John Hammond and Frank Zappa. Tim Buckley covers "Martha"; he and Waits are on a softball team together.
Heart of Saturday Night is the first in a long series of records with producer Bones Howe, who dresses up Waits's increasingly gravelling voice with syrupy string arrangements. The Eagles cover "Ol' 55." Because they share a manager, Waits continues to serve as Zappa's opening act, which Waits tells Exclaim! was "rough," to put it mildly. "He was using me as a rectal thermometer for the audience. After my cruel set, after the bleeding had stopped, I came back in the middle of his show and he would play "Ol' 55" and I'd tell a story. I had fun, some nights. But I had to have Frank on stage to keep them from hurting me. They thought that whoever was coming out before Frank, Frank had designed it that way and wanted them to hurt them: pelt them, throw things at them and abuse them. And the chant: 'We! Want! Frank!' Or 'You suck!' was also a big favourite."
With his friend Chuck E. Weiss, Waits moves into the Tropicana Motel on Santa Monica Blvd. in L.A., a legendary scuzz haven for underground rock royalty: Janis Joplin died there, and everyone from Fleetwood Mac to the Ramones to Bob Marley stayed there. Waits saws off part of his kitchen counter to fit a piano, while the rest of the room is overflowing with vinyl, books, empties and porn. He racks up a few DUI convictions, and is "nabbed while pinching cigarettes from parked cars," according to Rolling Stone. He also tells the magazine, "I'm the type of guy who'd sell you a rat's asshole for a wedding ring." Times are tight, and he sacks his band because he can't afford to pay them $150 a week. In July, he hires studio musicians and invites a private audience inside the Record Plant studio to record Nighthawks at the Diner live, four shows over two nights. The audience is provided with booze and potato chips, and a burlesque stripper opens each show. The album has more beatnik barfly monologues than it does tunes, and the result is critically pannedthough it later provides inspiration for generations of pretentiously inebriated college students.
At an artistic low, Waits gets fed up with writer's block and relocates to London for a few months. He comes back with 20 songs, 11 of which appear on Small Change. The album, his defining work of the 70s, is a huge critical success and even cracks the Top 100, something he won't do again for 23 years. Waits forms a new band, the Nocturnal Emissions, and tours extensively, including Europe and Japan. Meanwhile, his voice is sinking to further depths of dereliction, erasing any serious bid for the mainstream that Closing Time may have once promised. In addition to a hard drinking, heavy smoking lifestyle, Waits says he was trying to imitate his Uncle Vernon, because "everything he said sounded important, and you always got it the first time because you wouldn't dare ask him to repeat it," he tells Buzz magazine. "Eventually, I learned that Uncle Vernon had had a throat operation as a kid and the doctors had left behind a small pair of scissors and gauze when they closed him up. Years later at Christmas dinner, Uncle Vernon started to choke while trying to dislodge an errant string bean, and he coughed up the gauze and the scissors. That's how Uncle Vernon got his voice, and that's how I got mine- from trying to sound just like him."
Bette Midler covers "Shiver Me Timbers," and appears on Waits's new album Foreign Affairs, duetting on "I Never Talk to Strangers." Rolling Stone reports, "To open his shows on the current tour, he has been hiring local strippers at each of his stops. They are a perfect prelude for the act that follows. When Waits finally takes the stage, an air of crushed cigarettes and damp napkins clings to him like lint." A deluded fan believes that Waits proposed marriage to her while on tour in Japan. When Waits and band return to the U.S., the Japanese fan crashes a car outside one of his gigs mid-set at the Roxy in L.A., which causes a block-wide blackout. In the street, Waits tries to explain to her the miscommunication while the audience looks on. Starts dating songwriter Rickie Lee Jones, who also moves into the Tropicana. At the adjacent coffee shop, Waits and Weiss intervene in an altercation between three plainclothes policeman and a table of customers. Waits and Weiss are thrown in the back of a cruiser, threatened with pistols, and are arrested for homosexual soliciting and being drunk and disorderly. Eight eyewitnesses convince the jury that Waits and Weiss are not guilty. Waits and Weiss file a civil suit against the three cops for false arrest, false imprisonment, assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, malicious prosecution and defamation of character, and ask for $100,000 each. Five years later they win $7500.
Waits makes his movie debut in Sylvester Stallone's directorial debut, Paradise Alley, typecast in the role of a bartender called Mumbles. Blue Valentine marks the close of his piano ballad period with Bones Howe. In 1999 he tells Mojo: "I was not really able to articulate what I wanted to do. We ended up putting strings on everything. It was kind of like taking a painting that's made out of mud and putting a real expensive frame around it. It was about as deep as that."
Waits tells the NME: "You know people always expect me to be a drunk, but I ain't no drunk. If I was a drunk I couldn't be an entertainer, 'cos being a drunk is a full time occupation." Tired of his Tropicana lifestyle, Waits moves to New York for a change of scenery. Fresh of the success of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola soon enlists Waits to return to California to compose the score and songs for his next movie, a fantastical pseudo-musical called One From The Heart. He sets up Waits with an office at his Zoetrope Studios and puts him to work 9-5. Waits is excited by the professional process and learning curve, although he's a bit frustrated that Coppola has demanded a "lounge operetta" at a time when Waits feels he's spinning his wheels in balladry.
On New Year's Eve, Waits meets Kathleen Brennan, a script editor at Zoetrope born in Johnsburg, Illinois. She plays him all kinds of new records and gets him lost on aimless adventures driving around L.A. Waits is getting a bit squirrelly with the Coppola gig, and takes a couple of months off to write and record Heartattack And Vine, his swan song with Howe and his rawest recording to date, featuring plenty of electric guitar. He quits smoking and hard liquor, and even joins a fitness club. "I tried to arrive at some level of personal hygiene," he says in a record company bio. "I thought the [next] record deserved that." Marries Brennan at 1 a.m. one August night at the Always Forever Yours Wedding chapel in Watts, which he claims to have found in the Yellow Pages next to "massage." The couple honeymoon in Ireland.
Bruce Springsteen starts covering "Jersey Girl" in concert. Waits joins him onstage at the L.A. Sports Arena. Finally records One From the Heart, enlisting the considerably smoother vocal talents of country singer Crystal Gayle as his duet partner; Bette Midler had turned down the gig. Waits parts ways with longtime manager Herb Cohen.
One From the Heart is released, and lasts one week in the theatres before Coppola pulls it, shamed by the critical lambasting and the barren box office. This puts Coppola $30 million in debt and closes Zoetrope Studios. As a consolation for 18 months of hard work, Waits is nominated for Oscar for best score (he loses to Henry Mancini for Victor/Victoria) and Coppola gives him small roles in his next three films: The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, and The Cotton Club.
Waits tells Bones Howe that he wants to break the mold; the two part amicably. A four-song demo is rejected by Asylum. Flat broke and with nothing to lose, Waits enters a studio for the first time without a producer, a record company, or management. Egged on by his wife, Waits tentatively takes the reins himself, abandoning his jazz combo schtick and embracing ancient keyboards, found sounds and junkyard percussion. It's the difference between a man whose songs are laced with syrupy strings, and a man who admits he prefers the sound of an orchestra tuning up. Swordfishtrombones marks an entirely new beginning for Waits, alienating most old fans but gaining him new credibility and fanatical reviews. He moves to New York City again, across the street from the Salvation Army, and he meets future collaborators filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, guitarist Marc Ribot and Lounge Lizard John Lurie. Daughter Kellesimone is born.
In a decade of career highs, Rain Dogs is his crowning achievement, an incredibly diverse record of rhumbas, country ballads, polkas, tarantellas, boozy and bluesy blusters, and tender folk songs, including some of his most often-covered material. On tour, he showed up more than an hour late for a New York concert and offered as an apology, "I was shampooing my dog...and he likes to have a moisturizer too. Once you start with the toiletries, there's no end in sight." Films the Jim Jarmusch classic Down By Law, co-starring John Lurie and Roberto Benigni. Waits plays a down-and-out DJ whose on-air name is "Lee Baby Sims," a name he borrows from his favourite childhood DJ. He doesn't realise that the real-life Sims is still alive and working in Hawaii, and threatens to sue Waits. Makes tentative plans to produce The The, the Neville Brothers and Marianne Faithfull, which never materialise. He does, however, give Faithfull the song "Strange Weather." Son Casey is born.
Waits and Brennan give a character from Swordfishtrombones his own "operachi romantico in two acts" by writing the musical play Frank's Wild Years, which debuts at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago and runs for three months. It's directed by Gary Sinise, with Waits in the title role, who learns magic tricks from Teller (of Penn And ) for the role. He describes it to the NME "as a cross between Eraserhead and It's A Wonderful Life." Springsteen's version of "Jersey Girl" appears on his live box set. Waits plays piano on the Rolling Stones' Dirty Work album, a returned favour for Keith Richards' work on Rain Dogs.
The Frank's Wild Years album is released, with most of Waits's vocals recorded through a bullhorn. Moves back to L.A. with his family. Waits gets his first major Hollywood role starring alongside Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep in Ironweed. He also appears in Candy Mountain, set in Nova Scotia with Mary Margaret O'Hara and Rita O'Neill, and directed by Robert Frank of the Rolling Stones' Cocksucker Blues fame.
Perhaps inspired by Led Zeppelin and Prince, the 1988 concert film Big Time features great live footage but is hampered by a lame surreal storyline and slapdash editing. Waits tells Rolling Stone, "If we had more money, we would have done the Rangoon gladiator sequences. We could have gotten the underwater ballet sequences, but it really would have been a different film, I think." By 2004, there will be only one theatrical print of the film in existence, and still has yet to arrive on DVD. Waits is invited to play guitar and organ at a Roy Orbison tribute concert alongside Springsteen, Elvis Costello, and Bonnie Raitt. After years of turning down commercials and endorsementsand publicly denouncing those who doWaits hears a radio ad for Doritos imitating his 1976 song "Step Right Up"even more ironic considering that the song is a parody of sales pitches. Frito Lay's ad agency had deliberate hired a singer known for his Tom Waits imitations for the job; in fact, the executive who put the ad together had previously offered Waits a soda commercial, and was quoted as saying of Waits: "You never heard anybody say no' so fast in your life." Waits sues Frito Lay and the ad agency for "voice misappropriation" and "false endorsement." In 1990, he wins $2.6 million in damages. When asked by National Public Radio host Terry Gross how he developed the vocal style in question, he deadpans, "Terry, I drink my own urine."
Rod Stewart has a #1 hit with his schmaltzy cover of "Downtown Train"; he will later tackles "Tom Traubert's Blues" and "Hang On St. Christopher." Waits appears on-stage in L.A. in a play called Demon Wine, alongside Bill Pullman, Bud Cort and Phillip Baker Hall. His disembodied voice stars as a radio DJ in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train. Waits covers "Heigh Ho" from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves for Hal Wilner's Disney tribute album, Stay Awake.
Waits works on a musical called The Black Rider with avant-garde director Robert Wilson and William S. Burroughs, who writes the libretto. The play debuts in Hamburg. Somewhere around this time Waits moves back to California, settling in a rural community somewhere between Santa Rosa and San Francisco, the identity of which he protects fiercely.
A year at the movies: Waits has small parts in At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Queen's Logic, The Fisher King, and scores Night on Earth for Jarmusch. Provides the voice of "Tommy the Cat" in the Primus song of the same name; members of Primus will become frequent collaborators. Appears in a suitably surreal episode of Fishing With John, where his old friend John Lurie takes him Jamaica and Waits ends up putting a red snapper down his pants.
Bone Machine is recorded mostly in a shed with a concrete floor, during a particularly rainy season. The album is marvellously morbid, mired in sludge and his most abrasive sonic textures to date. Waits takes time off from recording it to star as the cockroach-eating character Renfield in Coppola's Dracula. More than ever, Waits gets into developing his own percussion, including something he calls the "Conundrum," a large iron crucifix with crowbars and metal objects hanging off it, which he plays with a hammer. Bone Machine will win a Grammy for Best Alternative Recording. Working again with director Robert Wilson, Waits and Brennan score the play Alice, based loosely on Lewis Carroll's obsession with the girl who inspired Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass. The play debuts in Hamburg. Organizes a benefit concert for the victims of the L.A. riots, starring Fishbone, Los Lobos, Chuck E. Weiss and himself.
In his finest screen performance, Waits co-stars with Lily Tomlin in Robert Altman's Short Cuts. He also appears in the short film Coffee and Cigarettes with Iggy Pop, filmed the morning after Jim Jarmusch makes the video for "I Don't Wanna Grow Up." The segment is filmed early in the morning, and Waits is upset with the script, telling Jarmusch: "Well, you know, you said this was going to be funny, Jim. Maybe you better just circle the jokes 'cause I don't see them." Even though Pop and Waits had both quit smoking years ago, Jarmusch insists they smoke during their scene. A studio version of The Black Rider is released, which is even darker and stranger than Bone Machine. Waits collaborates with composer Gavin Bryars on a version of the traditional song "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet." Once again, Waits goes to court to protest the use of his songs in advertising, this time with less due cause because there is no imitation involved and he doesn't own the publishing, which belongs to his ex-manager Herb Cohen. Cohen licenses a version of "Heartattack and Vine" by Screamin' Jay Hawkinsrecorded for an album produced by Cohento Levi's for a European ad. Waits sues Levi's and wins a minor financial compensation, along with a full-page apology in Billboard. Son Sullivan is born. Waits embarks on a six-year retreat and gives up drinking entirely.
Contributes a previously unrecorded song to Johnny Cash's American Recordings, "Down There by the Train." New songs also surface on the soundtracks to Dead Man Walking (1996) and The End of Violence (1996). In 1995, he's covered by the Ramones ("I Don't Wanna Grow Up"), Sarah McLachlan ("Ol' 55"), Meat Loaf ("Martha"), Bob Seger ("16 Shells From a 30-Ought Six"), Jonathan Richman ("Heart of Saturday Night"), and on the full-length tribute Temptation by Holly Cole, as well as the tribute compilation Step Right Up, featuring the Tindersticks and Violent Femmes. Alice has its US premiere. In 1996, he records with childhood idol Ramblin' Jack Elliot. Waits is offered a role in Twilight of the Ice Nymphs by Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Maddin, but declines due to scheduling. Instead, he agrees to narrate a documentary about Maddin by Noam Gonik. In 1998, he compiles the Island compilation Beautiful Maladies, ending his contract with them. and immediately announces his signing to Epitaph Records, who form a new imprint, Anti, especially for him. Waits and Brennan compose the score for the animated short Bunny, which wins an Oscar.
Waits announces his signing to Epitaph Records, who form a new imprint, Anti, especially for him. He tells Exclaim!: "I could do anything over there, really, and they would celebrate it and get behind it. That's rare. I could do can-can's and torch songs and Indian ragas and Cuban stuff and midget wrestling, and they'd say, 'Great!' I'd say, 'And I only one to play one gig, in Buenos Aires in a place that holds four people.' They'd say, 'We love it! When do you want to start?'" The mostly acoustic, blues-based Mule Variations debuts in Billboard's Top 30 and goes on to be his biggest seller to date, winning a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Recording. He produces the album Extremely Cool for his buddy Chuck E. Weiss, which Waits admits just meant writing him a cheque for studio time. He also gives Weiss the song "Rain on Me," which he sings himself on the Free the West Memphis 3 compilation. Waits stars in the everyday superhero comedy Mystery Men, with Ben Stiller and Janeane Garofalo.
Working again with Robert Wilson, Waits and Brennan write the music for the play Woyzeck, which premieres in Copenhagen. Waits sues an advertiser yet again. This time, a bastardized version of "Innocent When You Dream," featuring Waits-like vocals, appeared in a Spanish car ad; once again, the agency had actually approached Waits about using that very song and were refused. Four years later, Waits wins his case. He and Brennan celebrate their 20th anniversary. Interviewer Elizabeth Gilbert notes that "she has expanded his vision so enormously as an artist that he can hardly bear to listen to any of the music he wrote before they met." Describing their working relationship to Gilbert, Waits says, "I wash, she dries. I bring home the flamingo, she beheads it."
Former Waits tourmate John Hammond Jr. records an all-Waits tribute album, Wicked Grin, produced by Waits himself and featuring previously unreleased songs. Waits shows up on It's A Wonderful Life by Sparklehorse, one of the few contemporary bands he's truly excited by.
Two albums from his work with Wilson are released simultaneously, Alice and Woyzcek; the latter is retitled Blood Money because Waits realises that no one will ever buy an album called Woyzcek. His 17-year old son Casey plays drums on one track. Waits contributes a leftover Woyzcek song to Solomon Burke's comeback album. He covers "The Return of Jackie and Judy" for a Ramones tribute album and is actually nominated for a Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance; this is even stranger because it's the only time the Ramones and the Grammies have ever collided. Appears on the Blind Boys of Alabama's Christmas album; they had previously covered Waits's "Jesus Gonna Be Here" and "Way Down in the Hole."
In perhaps his strangest mainstream run-in, "Little Drop of Poison" appears on the Shrek 2 soundtrack. Waits returns a favour to occasional collaborator David Hidalgo by appearing on Los Lobos's 30th anniversary album, The Ride. He also covers "King Kong" for a Daniel Johnston tribute album. Waits's scene with Iggy Pop is included in Jim Jarmusch's full-length version of Coffee and Cigarettes. Plans to star in new Robert Altman movie, The Prairie Companion, based on Garrison Keillor's radio plays. Real Gone is his first album of new material in five years and is a logical sequel to Bone Machine without the death wish. Several songs are what Waits calls "cubist funk," featuring rhythm tracks constructed entirely from Waits's mouth sounds, recorded on a four-track in his bathroom; he used this technique on 1999's "Big in Japan." Marc Ribot returns on guitar for the first time since 1988, Les Claypool contributes some bass, and Casey Waits plays percussion and turntables. For the first time ever, there is no piano on the entire album. At age 55, Waits hasn't finished reinventing himself yet.
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