Published Apr 30, 1999Tom Waits thinks I'm a cop.
Less than 30 seconds into a discussion about his first album in six years, Mule Variations, I ask an ice-breaking question about Waits's current rural residence — which I later discover, through outside sources, is near Santa Rosa, California. This leads to a counter-interrogation from one of America's greatest and most evasive songwriters.
"Are you a cop? Are you from the census bureau? Is this a deposition? Are you in real estate? I'm not talkin'!" he barks over the phone from, well, from whatever space and time it is you'd expect to find Tom Waits.
After you spend some time with the storied and often freakish characters in Waits' songs, the private life of the man behind them is almost irrelevant. He'd like to keep it that way.
"I don't know who you're talking about!" he retorts, to a question about the dichotomy between his privacy and the inevitable public life of a widely-revered entertainer. "Who knows what about what? I'm still in elementary school, I'm in my late 60s, I have 12 children and I live in Tempe. Everybody knows that."
Despite a 17 album discography and 26 years of public life, no one seems to know much about Tom Waits. They don't know that he turns 50 in December, that he's been married to his collaborator Kathleen Brennan for almost 20 years, that he has a daughter and two sons. They certainly don't know where he lives.
What people do know is that Waits is an artist's artist, a songwriter and soundscaper with an uncompromising and eclectic vision. His work fits easily into the experimental theatre of Robert Wilson (The Black Rider) and the underbelly Americana of Jim Jarmusch's films (Down by Law, Night on Earth). His songs inspire cover versions from a diverse cross-section of artists: the childish naiveté of the Ramones ("I Don't Wanna Grow Up"), the interpretative folk/jazz of Holly Cole (her all-Waits tribute Temptation), the rock'n'roll escapism of Bruce Springsteen ("Jersey Girl"), or even as understated, beautiful ballads transformed into mainstream schlock by the Eagles and Rod Stewart ("Ol' 55," "Downtown Train"). He has slipped into the Hollywood machine by acting in such films such as Short Cuts and The Fisher King, and won a Grammy Award in 1992 for Best Alternative Album (Bone Machine) — perhaps the last time that musical term was used appropriately.
There are two threads that remain in all of Waits' work, through his many musical changes. One is his powerful lyrical gift, which he repeatedly uses to celebrate the dream state: the fantastical visions of our subconscious, as well as the power of dreaming to deliver us — the listener or the song's character — from reality. When Waits appeared at a Roy Orbison tribute shortly before the Big O slipped away, it made perfect sense to see the man who penned "Innocent When You Dream" beside the towering great whose timeless voice longed for absolution "in beautiful dreams."
The other thread is that voice, a gruff and howling instrument that is usually the litmus test as to whether or not a listener is capable of entering Waits' world. His fans are so devout that some use appreciation for his work as their own litmus test in determining romantic partners: if someone can get past the voice to discover the wondrous, multi-layered music beneath it, surely they can put up with a few dirty socks.
But Waits fans have been suffering from withdrawal in the time between The Black Rider and his new effort, Mule Variations. Those six years were unusually silent, in both music and film for the prolific Waits, disrupted only by contributions to two soundtracks (Dead Man Walking and The End of Violence). In that time, his mystique has only grown. Any artist looking for credibility will name-check Waits as an influence, for his artistic daring and achieving modest commercial success without succumbing to the pitfalls of the American star system.
One of those hazards would be doing extensive, explanatory press interviews. Attempting to get straight answers out of Tom Waits, a man whose first recordings are as old as I am, takes some patience. Waits doesn't suffer fools gladly, and breaking the ice with him calls to mind the old pun: Tom Waits for no one.
Michael Barclay: Many other artists cite your career as the ideal balance between creativity, success, and anonymity.
Tom Waits: Oh, I didn't know that.
I hear it come up quite a bit.
What about fashion?
Fashion somehow didn't make the list.
Gee, I didn't make the grade in the most important area. I'm insulted!
Does anonymity help you inhabit characters in your songs, or help your audience believe you when you're singing in character?
All of the above. 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.
I found a quote of yours once that said, "I always wanted to live inside songs and never come back." Is that still true?
I hate direct questions.
What do you hate about them?
They're so direct.
How can I make that one more abstract?
I'll tell you what. I'll just give you some answers that don't necessarily correspond to anything, and you can just throw them in wherever you feel like it.
Or you could give me an answer and then I'll ask you a question about it.
OK. The United States uses 70 million tons of cement every year, approximately one fifth of the cement used throughout the entire world annually. Think about it. 70 million tons of concrete.
My question is, how do you relate your own creative output to the cement output of the United States?
I just answered that!
I know, but that's how this is going to work. You give me the answer and then I'll ask you the question, alright?
OK, then let's go to the answers first. Is it my turn again?
It's your turn again, and then I'll ask you a question. But you can't say "I just answered that." That's the rules of the game, then, right?
OK. Each year approximately 250,000 American husbands are physically attacked and beaten by their wives.
How do you feel about modern gender relations?
[Big laugh.] Please make sure that your answer is in the form of a question. Are we up again?
Or I could start asking you regular questions again.
Alright. And I'll keep giving you irregular answers. I've been doing too many of these. I'm getting silly.
You've always had bluesy elements in your songs, but this album strikes me as your bluesiest since Heartattack and Vine. Judging by other aging, prolific songwriters like Dylan and Van Morrison for example, do you think it's natural for people to turn to the blues later in their career?
Particularly if they're aging and prolific? Or balding and short?
No, I didn't say balding and short. But with great fashion.
Or bulging and acne-ridden. Particularly if they're obscure and extremely tall.
And live in the country. Is that just the songs you had this time around, or did something else draw you to bluesier material?
At some point in your life you're going to listen to Skip James, Leadbelly, Mississipi Sam Chapman, Tom Shaw. You're going to come across these folks and they're going to change how you hear things, because they're seminal. They are the river that runs through it. It's our true indigenous music that evolved here.
Is there something about the directness of it as well? As opposed to, say, Kurt Weill, which you explored in the '80s?
Well, the weird thing about Kurt Weill is that after I made a few records in the '80s, people started to tell me that I was sounding like this guy, or that I must be listening to this guy. So I figured I should probably go out and listen to him, because I'd never heard of him before. I did listen, and then I thought, "Oh, I hear that." I have a lot of diverse influences. Most of us do. I like everything from Elmer Bernstein to seven-inch singles of Throbbing Pink Jesus. How do you put that all together?
Old stuff, new stuff, you know. That's the amazing thing about recording, you can listen to everything. You can listen to stuff that's 100 years old. Then you play something from two days ago, feel the same thing. Have a battle with the past. The past can have a dialogue with you. It's pretty amazing. Mule Variations is kind of our take on the Goldberg Variations.
Oh, like Glenn Gould.
Yeah! Just like Glenn Gould. We're shaking hands with Glenn Gould here.
Are sounds as important as songs for you?
Always. The surface of a song is important to me, but you can't get away from the fact that you still have to write a song. You can't just rely on the texture or the technique you use to record it. I do like to experiment with all that.
What's interesting about working with great engineers is that if you stop by the side of the road and drag something out of the ditch, throw it in the truck and bring it down to the studio, these guys will circle it like it's a moon rock. They'll mic it, hit it with a hammer, and find out the most expeditious way to approach it. Move it around to different parts of the room. They don't make value judgements. They're more like scientists. They get very subjective about the whole issue of sound. But you don't really know when you're going in what you're looking for. Sometimes you find it while you're there.
The new song "Filipino Box Spring Hog" is the first time you've used your wife's name Kathleen in one of your songs, isn't it? ["Kathleen was sitting in the little red recovery room/ in her underwear and bra/ I was naked to the waist with my fierce black hound/ cooking up a Filipino box spring hog"]
Yeah. She said, "Gee, thanks a lot! You finally stick me in a song, and I'm sitting in a bar in my bra. And you're there with the dog tied to the stool." It's a nice family portrait. I had to do some explaining, but she got a kick out of it.
Do you still learn things from each other, after 20 years of marriage?
We co-wrote most of the songs together. We like writing together. It's a family thing. We have more fun with the record before it comes out. Then everybody hears it. Until then, it's like a family record that only we've heard.
Then it's like publishing your family photos.
On some level it is. But then again it's not really. It's like if you're grabbing a bite to eat for yourself versus inviting seven people over for dinner.
But do you cook any better or worse?
I burn it for large groups.
There's a song on your new album about a freak show attraction called "Eyeball Kid," a character who also appeared on Bone Machine. Many of your songs involve people who are considered freaks: either physical or social freaks, or just hopelessly romantic emotional freaks.
Most of us, in some form or another, are fascinated with anything that makes us different. Most of us from time to time have felt that way and can relate on a certain level, whether it's internal or external. At one point Barnum and Bailey were displaying Sarah Bernhardt's leg, it was touring the U.S. And at the time, I guess Sarah Bernhardt was doing Shakespeare in a saloon. At one point, someone remarked that her leg was making more money than she was. That really depressed her.
That's gotta suck.
That's gotta hurt! (laughs) I don't know. Obviously I'm making light of something [on "Eyeball Kid"] — and I hope it's not at anybody's expense, because there are people with physical deformities and I'm not poking fun at that at all. I'm just taking the idea of show business to a ridiculous place. It's really more autobiographical than anything else.
You narrated a documentary on surrealist Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Maddin recently. What initially attracted you to his work, and how did you first see it? It's hard to find even in Canada.
Someone sent me Tales From Gimli Hospital, which they thought I would enjoy, and I did. Then I saw Careful, and I also loved that. There's something ambiguous about the time they're being shot. It's kind of half carnival, half fairy tale, like Grimms, and then there's a 1920s thing going on — is it an old movie? New movie?
I can relate to the fact that he's trying to find a place that is of no time. He's scavenging from time, Frankensteining these different things. I can relate to that. He wanted me to be in [Twilight of the Ice Nymphs], but it didn't work out.
I think most of us when we watch films, we know so much about the lives of the actors, and we're sitting with so much information that it's difficult to vanish into a story. That's why it's always nice to watch a film from the '20s, where you don't know who these people are, who they're married to, who got caught with someone else's wife.
You're on a new label now. Were there issues before with what you were allowed to put out and what you wanted to put out? Do you have more freedom now?
My contract ran out with Island, and I was in between trains, and they needed a parental figure over there at Epitaph. It's a good place to be for me. I could do anything over there, and they would celebrate it and get behind it. Those kind of situations are 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 want 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?"
Kathleen and I felt more at home there. Plus, they're musicians. They're forward-thinking; they're not part of the plantation system. They respect artists, and they pay them. I really think they are the way things should be.
What does the term punk rock mean to you, if anything? Does it relate to your contrarian nature, or is it just a style of music?
Eventually, all these things become ingredients. Everyone can't wait to take something and bury it so they can dig it up later. Everything seems to go through that process. It's all a big Salvation Army of style. And it's all still available at all times for everyone to enjoy on whatever level as a main course or as an appetizer.
Punk rock is more about the posture and the politics and the attitude, and being as iconoclastic as you possibly can. There's a band on the label, NOFX, who were getting played on the radio, and they were livid. They said, "We'll get our lawyers down here. Get that record off the radio!" And they did, they got it off the air.
Would you do the same?
I don't know, it's not my thing. I kinda like hearing myself on the radio. It's happened once or twice, and I liked it. I've been trying for 25 years to get on the radio in some form or another, so I'm a bit of a different challenge.
But I salute it. I salute diversity and standing up for what you believe in, living your life the way you want to live it. It's a good place for me to be. I don't know what it means, except that [Epitaph is] trying to branch out a little bit. If you're only selling napkins and tableware, you're going to have to diversify at a certain point.
I understand you plan to do a small tour for this album.
I don't know where we're going. There are a lot of headaches on the road. You have to travel with your own coffee, a hot plate - it gets complicated. Pup tent. Fishing poles. There's a lot of things to think about when you're touring.
You'd want to do it in the summer, then.
We are going out in the summer, yeah. With that in mind. Insect repellent.
Do you know if you'll make it to Canada on your pup tent tour?
Primus, those guys travel with fishing poles. They fish everywhere they go. They tour the best fishing spots, and subsequently, as a byproduct, they also do gigs in the area.
If that was true, they would have toured in northern Ontario, would they not?
I used to play in those places with Zappa, years ago. He played all over Canada, and I was the opening act, in '74, '75. He was using me as a rectal thermometer for the audience.
How did that feel?
Well, gee, it was a little rough.
I can't picture your material from that time going over that well.
"I had to have Frank Zappa on stage to keep the audience from hurting me."
Oh, it didn't go over. It was a complete mismatch. We had the same manager, and he said, "Aaaargh! Go to Canada with Frank! Frank will treat you right! In fact, go meet Frank in Canada! At a hockey arena!" 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 were Frank's people, you know? They didn't want to hear anybody. And they thought that whoever was coming out before Frank, Frank had designed it that way and wanted them to hurt me: pelt me, throw things at me and abuse me. And the chant: "We! Want! Frank!" Or "You suck!" was also a big favourite.
Well, thanks for your time.
I hope you had a chance to ask some direct questions and get some direct answers.
I got a few.
What about "Where you been for the last six years?" That's what everybody wants to know.
OK, where you been for the last six years?
Breaking in other people's shoes.
Do you have new shoes, or are you just breaking in other people's?
I don't wear my own anymore.
Whose are you breaking in? Pennywise's?
They send them in, I wear them for six weeks and I send them back.
So they avoid the blisters. You're the blister guy, are you?
Yeah. That's what we're called.
That sounds like a band name: Tom Waits and the Blister Guys.
[Laughs] But that's, uh, anyway, what was the question?
The question you asked me to ask you was, "Where you been for the last six years?"
Traffic school. The other popular answer is, "Working on my ice sculptures."