I had the pleasure of speaking to Tom Waits over the phone just prior to the release of his latest album, Bad As Me. It was an enjoyable half-hour conversation (hopefully for him as well), and he was generous with his answers. Here is the piece that came out of it, the cover story for Exclaim‘s November, 2011 issue.
“The amount of time that you spend on anything should not, and will never, directly correspond to how important or interesting it is,” Tom Waits says. “A moment of inspiration will far surpass spending six years on something.”
Most fans of Waits would surely concur with that view, and in large part prefer it that way, knowing that catching up with the fortunes of the barstool philosophers, apocalyptic street preachers, and other characters that most often appear in his songs is a reward for patience that few other artists can offer nowadays.
Waits’s new album, Bad As Me, is indeed his first collection of new music since 2004’s Real Gone, on which experiments with turntables and beatboxing accentuated a more-caustic-than-usual frame of mind. In contrast, Bad As Me finds Waits returning to his patented balance of dirt floor stomps and heart-wrenching ballads—“brawlers and bawlers” to paraphrase the title of his essential 2006 rarities collection.
Even for fans accustomed to Waits’s open challenges, Real Gone required some heavy lifting, although that was tempered by Waits eventually following it up with a live album recorded on his six-week Glitter & Doom tour in the summer of 2008. Once donning his on-stage persona, Waits offered his most recent material in a less cluttered manner, and that approach has carried over into Bad As Me.
Recorded at the start of 2011, the album is again co-produced by Waits’s chief collaborator, his wife Kathleen Brennan, and features many of his core studio players such as guitarist Marc Ribot, bassist Larry Taylor, and son Casey on drums. But with guest appearances from Keith Richards, Flea, David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, Sir Douglas Quintet organist Augie Meyers, and harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite, Bad As Me follows in the relatively accessible tradition of Waits’s most commercially successful albums, 1985’s Rain Dogs and 1999’s Mule Variations. In an eerie way, it almost seemed time for the next installment of this ongoing drama to appear, although Waits cannot say if he ever feels he’s on a timetable.
“On one hand [these records] all happen very quickly, and on the other hand they take forever,” he admits. “With every song, if you know how to crack them open, you can find hundreds of other songs within them. The first couple of songs are always the hardest and serve as icebreakers. Once the ice is broken, you go into the freezing water and float downstream. Then when you’re out of breath, you realize you’re half a mile from the hole you went in, and you drown in front of a class of elementary school kids.”
Speaking in such shocking metaphors has become a Waits trademark in this current phase of his career. His gift for crafting modern fables now attracts admirers from all musical genres, and coupled with his frequent film roles playing a wide range of shady characters—including Satan himself in Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus—Waits has emerged as a unique presence within the global arts scene, someone unafraid to shine a light on the world’s dark corners, albeit with enough wit and style to make it romantic.
When asked about playing out the roles he writes for himself in his songs, Waits in some ways speaks like an actor, distancing himself from the process. “The ingredients of songs can easily include a stain on your bedroom wall, or the flavour of a soda they’ve stopped making—a variety of recollections over one chord. And the title is a girl’s name that you made up. So songs have humble and peculiar origins, and by the time they become songs they conceal most of what really happened. They usually send you off in a direction that’s completely incorrect. It doesn’t mean they’re not interesting, it just means that the truth is overrated.”
That may be so, but many Waits fans can attest to discovering his music at the onset of adulthood, the moment when life’s artifice is exposed for the first time. Like Catcher In The Rye and On The Road, Waits’s albums in the wake of his 1983 tour de force Swordfishtrombones can offer the sorts of lessons that those leaving home for the first time will never learn in school, i.e. the grim reality that one day we’ll all be (as a track from 1992’s Bone Machine plainly states) “Dirt In The Ground,” or in the case of “Get Behind The Mule,” that the best we can do is an honest day’s work, although it still won’t be enough to get what we really want.
Tying in these sorts of ideas with an artist’s personal life is always dangerous, but in Waits’s case it’s virtually irrelevant. His appeal, in large part, seems to lie in listeners living vicariously through his image, one developed from the pre-rock musical and literary touchstones that for the first decade of his career made him an oddity among popular “confessional” singer/songwriters like Neil Young and James Taylor. That view of Waits has changed drastically, however, as recent unlikely interpreters as Robert Plant and Scarlett Johansson have proven that anyone can extract their own meaning from his songs if they are willing to get their fingernails a little dirty in order to uncover what’s buried just below the surface.
It’s not as if Waits hasn’t earned the right to hold the keys to America’s cobwebbed cultural attic. While at the outset of his career in the early 1970s, the California native was just one of countless troubadours hustling their songbooks around L.A., by the middle of the decade Waits chose to fully immerse himself in a fading world of aging Beat poets, after-hours jazz clubs and seedy motels; a world about as far removed from the general perception of California at the time as one could get.
It was a bold decision, especially with the first stirrings of punk rock underway, and peers like Bruce Springsteen embracing the stadium rock aesthetic. But Waits’s commitment to his bohemian muse—along with a knack for hiring the ideal backing musicians to realize his vision—brought him a devoted following through albums such as 1976’s Small Change, and 1980’s Heartattack And Vine.
Right after that, director Francis Ford Coppola hired Waits to score the film One From The Heart, and everything changed. Kathleen Brennan was working as a script consultant for Coppola, and she and Waits married not long after the film was completed. Although she had never sought the spotlight, Brennan’s fertile creative mind had an immediate impact on Waits. She also knew the reclusive Captain Beefheart, aka Don Van Vliet, who passed away late in 2010. It was his dada-ist approach to blues that soon became an integral component of Waits’s musical evolution.
“[Don] was angry when Swordfishtrombones came out,” Waits says while reminiscing about Beefheart. “He thought I’d appropriated elements of it from him, particularly the image of a fish, which he’d used on [his 1969 masterpiece] Trout Mask Replica. For me it was more of a tribute in a way. Somebody said that Trout Mask is the only pop/rock record that can be considered a work of art by the standards imposed by other disciplines, like painting. [Don] was a comet; he was not like anything else, and that’s about all you can say.”
A similar notion of Waits’s own work breaking free of artistic conventions took hold by the mid-‘80s. He and Brennan produced the play Frank’s Wild Years, based on many of the first songs they wrote together. It was followed up with an equally theatrical tour, captured for posterity on the 1988 live album and concert film Big Time. Since then, Waits and Brennan have written songs for playwright Robert Wilson’s productions The Black Rider, Blood Money and Alice, the last two featuring Canadian avant garde saxophonist Colin Stetson as a member of the band.
But while there are clear distinctions among all of these phases and facets of Waits’s career to date, the fact that he treats them all as a single body of work has made it nearly impossible for critics to pin him down. Not surprisingly, he views his career arc in much simpler terms today. “Songs with wisdom in them or cautionary tales, or songs that pretend to teach, are not new and never will be new,” Waits says. “They’re as old music itself. At some point someone figured out that the best way to remember something was to sing it, just like if you want to remember a poem, you write it down, or if you’re rehearsing a play, you walk through it while saying the lines—when I get to the chair, I know I’m supposed to say, ‘kill Dad.’”
For many casual listeners, though, it’s Waits as the gravelly-voiced hobo bluesman that they want, and Bad As Me will not disappoint them. From the churning opening track, “Chicago,” which explores with modern clarity the great migration of African-Americans from southern plantations to northern industrial cities, the album is another stage in the great blues reinvention project that Waits in large part instigated, with his early experiments at adapting raw sounds from long-forgotten performers of the 1920s and ‘30s now having led to Black Keys songs being used in TV commercials.
Someone who can testify to Waits’s importance in that regard is the Ontario-born spoken word/beatbox artist and harmonica player C.R. Avery whom Waits encountered in Berlin during the 2004 Real Gone tour and invited on stage for two of the concerts in that city. “Tom’s a living, breathing example of that mystical world of troubadours, so it was great to experience that firsthand,” Avery says. “It actually did confirm for me that that mystical world does indeed exist and I should keep striving to become a part of it. Even though I grew up loving hip-hop, and still do, the appeal of the blues will never be denied.”
Waits explains further that he often writes with a specific artist in mind, as evidenced by how some of his most affecting songs have been for others, such as Johnny Cash’s “Down There By The Train,” and Solomon Burke’s “Diamond In Your Mind.” On Bad As Me he says the song “Raised Right Men” was an attempt at a song for Aretha Franklin, a la “Respect,” but some of the album’s other lyrics were spurred by a fascination with reading west coast newspapers from the dawn of the 20th century. “Sometimes you’d turn the page and it would disintegrate, like it was made out of butterfly wings,” Waits says. “But what you realize immediately is that nothing is new under the sun, to quote Ecclesiastes, and at the same time there are fascinating insights into life before cell phones.”
That can also be said of the album’s closer, “New Year’s Eve,” which reads like the outline of a lost Charles Bukowski manuscript, as the plights of the song’s characters are illuminated in the harsh light of what is supposedly our most celebratory communal holiday. Yet, it’s a prime example of why Waits can never be accused of being a sentimentalist; an unceasing desire to keep living in the face of life’s misery is what matters, not looking back with regret.
“One of the first songs I remember was ‘Abilene’ [by George Hamilton IV],” Waits says before breaking into an impromptu rendition. “The line in that song that always stuck with me was about the guy sitting alone, wherever he was, watching the freight trains go by, wishing to God one of them could take him back to Abilene. It’s about missing your home after leaving behind things that you know, and trading them in on something you’ve never seen before. It’s a simple song, but profound at the same time.”
Nowhere is that idea better expressed on Bad As Me than “Last Leaf,” a duet between Waits and Keith Richards that finds them toasting their shared resilience with a noticeable glint in their eyes. If there’s any song that men will want played at their funerals from now on, it’s this one.
Yet, at 61, Waits still has a lot to accomplish. Earlier this year he contributed a series of poems to photographer Michael O’Brien’s book of portraits of homeless people, which raised close to $100,000 for a California food bank. There is also said to be a new musical with Robert Wilson in the work. What Waits says he won’t be spending his time doing is writing an autobiography as Richards did to great acclaim, even though a Waits book has to be one of the Holy Grails in publishing today.
However, just as his characters must continually look ahead with hope in order to find a reason to go on, so too does Tom Waits. “It takes a certain kind of hubris to do [an autobiography], and a big advance,” he says. “I see it as you’ve put your pack down and you’re sitting on a stump, looking back instead of forward, which is really not the best angle. Maybe I’ll be able to do it when I’m senile. That will make it more interesting.”