I’m sitting on a bar stool, ale in hand, listening to this grizzly stubble faced grey-haired regular of the last surviving Skid Row bar, the King Edward Saloon, in downtown Los Angeles telling me about drinking with Tom Waits, the multiple Grammy winning highly iconoclastic raspy voiced 62 year-old singer songwriter/actor, as I wait for the arrival of an Esotouric tour bus that will take me and 30 other Tom Waits enthusiasts on a journey around L.A. as Waits experienced it during his formative years.
“And what do you remember of ol’ Tom?” I ask, curious if this man has any memory left.
“I remember he tol’ me he was born in the backseat of a taxi cab outside a hospital.”
“He was pulling your leg,” I said. “That’s just Tom Waits being Tom Waits.
“Whaddya mean by that?”
“He made it up. He made up a lot of his history. You know what he said was the most overrated virtue? ‘Honesty.’ And you know what he answered when he was asked on what occasion would he lie? ‘Who needs an occasion?’ That’s your Tom Waits for you.”
“He didn’t lie about his drinking,” the old guy says. “He liked his drinking here on the nickel.”
On the nickel is what the down-and-out, which included Tom Waits in the seventies, called the Skid Row section of Los Angeles Street, down around 5th Street, where the King Edward is located. Today Skid Row is a few blocks over, although the down-and-outers still can get rooms at the King Edward Hotel for $120 a week. I ask my new drinking buddy if he ever listened to Tom Waits’ songs.
“I heard him in person,” he says. “Right here. On this stool. He sang about losing someone he loved.”
“He sang a lot about that,” I say. “Was he singing to music?”
“No, he was singing to me and the regulars. He was one of us, you know.”
Not quite. He was one of a kind, you know. But I don’t say this to Mr. Beer Breath. He’s too close to being an embodiment of a Tom Waits song to try and make a distinction between him and one of the world’s most original song writers and singers.
Tom Waits’ lyrics sometimes enter the realm of abstract art, where yesterdays become tomorrow’s dreams, pianos are drinking, jukeboxes have to urinate and barstools are on fire. At other times, he’s right there in line with the Beat Generation—the bebopping road hopping of Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs. He even recorded an album (The Black Rider) with Burroughs. If he had to point a finger at just one personal favorite, it would be Charles Bukowski, who wrote about the downtrodden because he was one himself. Much like Waits once was.
Waits’ 21 albums are much like Woody Allen’s movies: works by artists who won’t compromise, who would rather their work be put out in less commercial venues. His first nine albums were for the mainstream Asylum Elektra; then he switched to Island Records when Chris Blackwell was in charge, and U2 was with them. He made six albums with Island, but when Blackwell left, so did Waits. Unhappy with the way he saw the record business, with executives “like bankers. They understand the demographics, and they feel the country like a giant grid, or a video game. Same way politicians do. Turning wine into water: it’s the old shell game.” He made a surprising move to Epitaph in Los Angeles, an independent and almost underground label. “Epitaph is rare for being owned and operated by musicians,” he said. His first album for them, Mule Variations in 1999, was his biggest selling to that time and garnered his second Grammy (the first was for 1992’s Bone Machine). It sold over a million copies and debuted at number 30 on the Billboard 200. Five others have followed (Alice, Blood Money, Real Gone, the 3 disc Orphans, and the live Glitter and Doom). It seemed the older he got, and the more experimental, the bigger his following got. When Waits once toured with singer Bonnie Raitt, she saw him as “a real original. He’s a window on a scene we never got close to.”
That’s never changed.
“I’m a very bizarre cultural phenomenon,” Waits has noted. “Am I too hip for the room? Or am I not hip enough? Or am I just a garage sale? It’s an ongoing dilemma. I’ve always been afraid I was going to tap the world on the shoulder for 20 years and when it finally turned around, I was going to forget what I had to say.”
Thankfully, Waits has had a lot to say, though he takes his time saying it. After the rush of albums in the seventies, and a healthy output in the eighties, he has taken years between albums since Franks Wild Years in 1987. It took five years for his next album in 1992 (Bone Machine). Six years between The Black Rider (1993) and Mule Variations (1999); another three years for Alice and Blood Money (2002); then two more years for Real Gone (2004); two more for Orphans (2006), and three more for Glitter and Doom (2009). But it’s not like Waits has slowed down. Between Franks Wild Year and Bone Machine, Waits wrote the soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch’s film Night on Earth, sang the cover of a Fats Waller song for another film, appeared in a play called Demon Wine, acted in the films At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Queen’s Logic, Dracula, Mystery Train, The Fisher King and Short Cuts, worked with musicians John Hammond, Teddy Edwards, and Keith Richards and collaborated with Robert Wilson and William Burroughs on the theatrical production of The Black Rider, and Wilson’s Alice in Wonderland. (He would later work with Wilson again on Woyzeck, which would become the album Blood Money.)
Waits once described Rolling Stone’s Keith Richards, who came in to play with him on Rain Dogs (1985), as “an animal. He’s part of the Earth. He comes in laughing, shoes all tore up. He stands at ten after seven if you can imagine that. Arms at five o’clock, legs at two o’clock, with no apparatus, nothing suspended. He’s all below the waist. When he plays he looks like he’s been dangled from a wire that comes up through the back of his neck, and he can lean at a 45 degree angle and not fall over. Maybe it’s the music that’s keeping him up.”
When electric bass guitarist Les Claypool joined him for one song on Bone Machine, Waits described his playing this way: “He’s got such an elastic approach to the instrument: a fretless, spastic, elastic, rubberized, plasticine approach.”
When it comes to describing one’s playing, Waits is most perceptive about himself. “I like music best when I hear it coming through the wall in a hotel room. I like it best on a bad speaker from a block away. I like hearing things incorrectly. I get a lot of ideas by mishearing something. I try to make an antenna out of myself, a lightning rod, so whatever is out there can come in. I bang on things, slap the wall, break things. When I’m writing, all these things turn into something else, and I see them differently. Somebody once said I’m not a musician but a tonal engineer. I like that.”
What he also likes is “picking up instruments I don’t understand. And doing things that may sound foolish at first. It’s like giving a blowtorch to a monkey. That’s what I’m trying to do. My wife Kathleen [who worked as a script editor for Francis Coppola when Waits was hired to write the soundtrack for One From the Heart in 1980] was really the one that encouraged me to start producing my own records. She was the one that started playing bizarre music. We came up with the idea of doing music that’s surreal. She’ll start talking in tongues, and I take it all down. She goes places…I can’t go to those places. She’s the egret of the family, I’m the mule. I write mostly from the world, the news, and what I really see from the counter, or hear. We read the paper and we clip hundreds of articles, like the story about the one-eyed fish they found in Lake Michigan with three tails. But Kathleen’s more impressionistic. She dreams like Hieronymus Bosch. I work with instruments that can be found in any pawn shop. I want to take the Leslie bass pedals and raise them up to a kitchen table so you can play them with your fists….I’m trying to put together the right way of seeing the music.”