Monday, December 12, 2011

Tom Waits

Can't really take credit for this interview as the heavy lifting was done by Stuart Matranga, writing here as "Kid Millions" in this October 1983 issue of RockBill. But I was in the room and did ask questions. Stu and I turned Tom on to Gurdjieff (as if we knew what we were talking about) and Waits said he'd check him out. "I'll do my homework," he said, "if you do yours," alluding to the jazz and blues players he'd mentioned that afternoon.  Waits referred to his midwest roots ("everything's flat, so you dream everything up") and wondered aloud if the tape recorder would be able to catch his voice which "tends to roll under the couch." The interview, conducted at Island Records offices in New York, begins with Tom talking about the cuts on his newest LP at the time, Swordfishtrombones . . .

"Underground" is the score for a mutant dwarf community. "Shore Leave" is a chief botswain's mate's nightmare with a bottle of 10 High and a black eye. "Dave the Butcher" is becoming one of my favorite selections. It has a demented calliope flavor to it that I find particularly moving. It's like a feeling of a retarded monkey on Benzedrine. "Johnsburg, Illinois" is an abbreviated ballad. "16 Shells from a Thirty Ought Six" is a field holler done with a hammer on an anvil. It's about this guy who captures this black crow and puts it in his guitar and then bangs on the strings and drives the bird mad on the side of his mule as he goes off. Originally, I was going to put 16 shells in the belly of a scarecrow and blame it all on him. It was about a farmer in Kansas and it wouldn't rain, so he got despondent and shot his scarecrow. "In the Neighborhood" is a kind of a Salvation Army thing. "Just Another Sucker on the Vine" I see as an accordion player and a trumpet player on the deck of a ship that's slowly sinking. The alternative title for that was "It's More Than Rain That Falls on Our Parade Tonight." "Frank's Wild Years" . . . he was a real estate agent that I met. It's a salute to the kind of guy I want to grow up to be some day. "Frank hung his wild years on a nail he drove through his wife's forehead." It's a cathartic dream.

There's alot of percussion on Swordfishtrombones.
I've always been afraid of percussion for some reason. I was afraid of things sounding like a train wreck, like Buddy Rich having a seizure. I've made some strides: the bass marimbas, the boobams, metal long longs, African talking drums and so on . . . I listened to some Mongolian stuff when I was getting ready to do this record. It sounded like Tibetan voodoo. It caught my ear and helped me some.

Do you plan to tour? You haven't for two years.
I'm going to try to do a dark follies Kubuki burlesque revue in a small downtown theater in LA. I'll bring it to New York in the fall. Touring has a point of diminishing returns, especially in terms of your family life. Also, some things do not travel well. More than likely, you have to abbreviate your ideas to pare it for traveling.

What was the One from the Heart experience like?
It was an unusual project in that the film was going to be like a play where you get everything together in the same room and then you get it on its feet. I started writing songs in a little room with wood paneling, but a film is so huge it's like a small town digging a ditch. It's like sewing a button on a great big sports coat and you can't contact the guy who's working on the sleeves. The guy who's doing the lining hasn't been hired yet. Or he just quit. It takes from the lives of the people who work on it. It's like throwing a rock and waiting two years for it to go through the window.

Are you married? Where do you live?
Been married twelve years. The last time I gave out my address, I lived to regret it. I live in a Filipino neighborhood in East Los Angeles. It's Korean, Filipino, Cuban, Latin. We live right next door to a church, so Sunday morning, it's real nice. Filipino food is unusual, too. It's right in the middle of what you'd think it would be. It's Latin-flavored Chinese food. There's only one Cuban-Chinese restaurant in LA. I love those kind of hybrid places, especially in music. The tango is really Argentinian, though most people connect it with Spain or France. It's Argentina's whorehouse music.

Where were your parents from? How were you raised?
My father is from Texas, Sulphur Springs. His name was Jesse Frank. My mother is from Grant's Pass, Oregon. I don't think I'm raised yet. I always found that curious. "You're raised." What do you do then? You go back down. There's no place to go.

What do you listen to?
For a while, certain music affects you and appeals to you and you identify with it. It's like you want your head on his body. For a long time, I heard everything with an upright bass and a tenor saxophone on. I was very prejudiced and republican in terms of my opinions. Now, I'm starting to hear more. I'm trying to form a band that is a beast you can ride. It's very hard to stop doing things you're used to doing. You almost have to dismantle yourself and scatter it all around and then put a blindfold on and put it back together so that you avoid old habits. I'd like to have a band that could sound like an automobile accident and also rhumba in an appealing way.

What kind of kid were you?
I was real repressed. I had what I thought was a really adult attitude when I was young. When I was a kid, I wanted to skip growing up and rush all the way to 40. I wanted to go from 10 to 40. When it comes to your musical ideas that are formulated based on the information you receive, it takes a long time for the input to be shoved through your own apparatus and come out as something that is purely of your own device. That whole process is like when a painter can go like this on a page and make a little slop and you go "Jesus." Man, just the way it comes out! After years and years and years, just to make this movement. It takes a long time for things to germinate and come out the way you want them. The bass marimba is an instrument I've grown very fond of lately.

How do you like bagpipes?
It's hard to play with a bagpipe player. I had an opportunity to play with my first bagpipe player on this record. You can't play with them. It's like an exotic bird. I love the sound; it's like strangling a goose. I played the trumpet when I was a kid, but I gave it up. I like it because it was easy to carry. It was like carrying your lunch. A piano, you have to go to it. You never hear anybody say "pass me that piano, buddy." Composing on different instruments will give you different songs. So, I'm trying to get away from the piano as a compositional device and find something else to write on.

How do you write? 
The problem is that all these things pass through you all the time, and when you sit down to write, it's really just like purchasing a butterly net. It's going on all the time, it's just that you're going to draw a frame aound it now. You're going to reach up and grab some and swallow it. There are times when you're more receptive to it than others. There are times when I feel more musical than others. I used to write a lot on the road, in hotels and stuff, that whole transient quality of my life. I'm not really what you'd call anal retentive. I found that the traveling brought me to a certain place as a writer. Now, I'm working on something that requires myself to stay put. I find it difficult to write on the road now. I'd like to go to Rangoon or Hong Kong. Be there, come home and write. Get something on you and come home. I wanted to join the Navy when I was a kid. But, you know the expression, the Navy's not just a job, it's $39 a month. When I turned 18, I got tattoos and thought that was it. I think the Navy is no long a career opportunity for me, but it's nice to know it's there. 

Any immediate plans? 
I may try to write some songs for Southside Johnny. I'd sure love to learn how to tap dance. Martin Mull's wife is a great tap dancer. I think I'm going to do that. I got a small part in Coppola's next movie Rumblefish. I play a guy that runs a pool hall. Have you heard of Tozzio Navarali? He's a famous Italian race car driver, before Granatelli, before Dan Gurney and all those guys. Jonathan Winters was talking about it. He's certified. That must be a good way to be; to live in your head like that. He's a painter, too. When I'm away from home, I find I have the luxury to allow those things to happen. Just the normal business of living can be annoying, but you find a balance. 

Could you be happy alone in a room?  
As long as I had a wet bar, some clam dip, a black and white TV, and the yellow pages, I think I'd be all right.

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