By Pat McGuire on January 10, 2012
“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
—from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
What if it was all true? What if all the stories about the one-armed ship-captain dwarves, incarcerated Minnesotan hookers, dog-hating wild arsonists, bunker-buddies named Sergio with bad coughs, suicidal tramps and string-bean gypsies and out-of-work dancers and transgendered uncles and omniscient ringmasters and orphans and butchers and bricklayers and thieves, what if they were all real? What about the guy sitting on the barstool next to you, the chiseled one with the sandpaper voice and the bowler on backwards, sipping his secret elixir from a brown paper bag, spinning these yarns… Do you think he really knows karate, voodoo too? What if it was all true?
But, though, what if it wasn’t?
According to Tom Waits, it doesn’t matter one way or the other. Print the myth, respect the mystery, protect the innocent—these are the truths he lives by. As he’ll say more than once on this day, the ingredients of songs are code. Besides, according to him, songs are all just tributes anyway—they’re borrowed, stolen, cannibalized, forgotten, made-up, left out, mis-recollected, daydreamt and shape-shifted. So what? It doesn’t seem to get in the way of our enjoyment.
The Waits Legend is well known by now: the early years in Southern California, perfecting his imperfect barroom crooner act with the drunken pianos and unsavory characters of 1970s Los Angeles; meeting his future wife and writing-and-producing partner, Kathleen Brennan, while working on songs for Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart in 1980; their imminent union and how it changed the course of his artistry from lounge act to sonic conquistador; the births of their three children and his retreat into family life; his infrequent but illuminating forays into acting, stage musical composition and performances of his own songs around the world; his insistent compulsion to do things his own way. As an artist, but also as a businessman, performer and—to the best of his ability—as a citizen, Waits maintains complete control of his image and output, whether leaving a major label for an independent or deciding when, where and even if he plays live concerts. It’s not often these days that he chooses to step out of the shadows, down from the metaphorical mountain on his small patch of Northern California land in Sonoma County, to head back into the light. But when he does, he certainly makes his presence known, leaving a dizzying trail of creativity in his wake.
For Waits, even a place as seemingly soul-baring and spotlit as a stage can still be a stronghold. In Waits’ world, a translucent shield extends downward from every proscenium. A phone line contains a filter, his studio players sign non-disclosure agreements, magicians stay mute. To him, we live in a time—sadly—when spy cameras buzz around us always, when information leaks are trophies to be won. To announce his new album, Bad As Me, his first original material in seven years, Waits hosted an online “private” listening party, scripted to be thwarted by a call from the record company: “We have a situation here,” he tells the camera, turning down the music. “Apparently there’s no such thing as ‘private’ anymore. It’s an Internet thing.” It’s a plea to the rest of us to not spoil the surprise, to not betray the wonders of wondering; the irony that the video was itself a leak of information on the Internet was deliciously intended. Is he paranoid, or simply prudent?
In the clip, the solution Waits comes up with, naturally, is a shakedown, one-on-one playback session in a dilapidated old car, with “BAD AS ME OCT. 25 ’11” scribbled on the rear windshield, the singer himself behind the wheel as watchdog. The satisfied smirk and wink he gives the camera says it all: His way, or the highway—though, of course, they’re often one and the same. As he sings on Bad As Me’s “Pay Me”: “The next stage that I am on / It will have wheels.”
The songwriter’s quest to be remembered in this fleeting life never ends, but to Waits, it’s all just finger drawings on a dirty car. “Don’t you feel like that sometimes?” he asks. “You ever think you’re writing about stuff that is kind of like weather…drawing in the dirt with a stick?” On one hand, here’s a man at the age of 61 who’s been singing, writing, performing, making a go of it for over 40 years—and he’s still putting out the best music of his career, his way. On the other, here’s a man at the age of 61 trying to come to terms with the idea that everything he’s done thus far may hang under the branches of impermanence. On the subject of age, he drops this dime, with a new stress for each decade: “29 was rough. 39 was rough. 49 was rough. 59 was rough! Those border towns, those are tough.” It’s reflective, sure, but also sort of triumphant; he’s still here, bad as ever. There are songs about mortality on Bad As Me—“I’m the last leaf on the tree,” he declares on “Last Leaf”—he knows he’s going, someday, but has no plans to go quietly.
If Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs signaled a magnificent new direction for Waits in the ’80s, and 1999’s Mule Variations and 2004’s Real Gone proved that not only had he not hung up his apron but instead was just beginning to really cook, Bad As Me is the supreme work of an artist wise enough to pinpoint exactly what he does best, pair it with the brilliance of those talented friends and family members he’s collected over the years, and scale it all down into concise three-minute bursts of beauty and delirium. They elicit the appeal of a Corvette with the efficiency of a Corolla. The opening horn and banjo peel out of “Chicago” sets a frenetic pace that returns a few times throughout the album, including the blues stomps of “Satisfied” and “Raised Right Men” and the screamin’ voodoo crunch of the title track; other numbers, like “Pay Me,” “Back in the Crowd” and “New Year’s Eve,” ring with sweet, sad, slow sincerity and gorgeous guitar work. But the true star of the show, as always, remains Waits’ voice; among his incomparable talents, his mastery of that interior instrument remains his greatest. There’s simply nothing on Earth like it; the metaphors one could use to describe its variant incarnations on Bad As Me alone could outnumber those written by an entire semester’s worth of university poetry students.
When, at the album’s apex on the furious, cacophonic war-lament of “Hell Broke Luce,” Waits—amidst napalm blasts of guitar riffs, “Taps” trumpets and honest-to-god machine gun fire—barks, “Listen to the general, every goddamn word,” it’s a snide attack on those who give political orders, sure, but it also mirrors the way he makes his songs. “A record’s not a democracy,” he says. “Not in my book.” Still, he lightens up when on the subject of working with Brennan, and with those trustworthy few they invited into the holy studio to record: Keith Richards; Flea; Waits’ longtime bandleader Marc Ribot; David Hidalgo of Los Lobos; Les Claypool; the harmonica master Charlie Musselwhite; Waits and Brennan’s own son, Casey, on drums; and a select few others. “You put yourself in the room with known healers,” he says. “I work with great people, I know I do.”
Referring to himself as a conjurer, he rockets off on tangents about the origin of why we use the word “man” to refer to one another and his own “false” family history, gives pop-quizzes about movie trivia and invents outrageous band names at the drop of a hat. Tom Waits exists to entertain. Throughout our phone interview he shifts into characters effortlessly and without warning, holding communion with himself, laughing loudly and often, daring me to give chase. The lights may go down, but he’s always onstage.
When he assures me early in our conversation that “the truth is overrated,” he means it almost as a word of warning, as if to say, I’m going to tolerate your inquiries, but I’m not gonna play you straight. Trust me, it’s better for us both this way. When at one point Waits qualifies what’s about to follow with, “Here’s the truth,” are we fools to believe him? And does it really matter anyway? Sometimes, to understand an artist who says he feels most like himself when at a matinee, the only thing you can do is step right up and get your ticket.
Did you have time for any excitement this morning before you got tethered to the phone line?
I bathed in whale sperm and camel piss. It’s how I relax.
So, just the usual.
The usual, yeah!
I’m sitting here in your old stomping ground of Los Angeles thinking about your record and I’m wondering, what does “bad” mean to you, conceptually?
Ah, geez, I haven’t really thought about that.
Are you still attracted to bad characters?
Bad food, bad road, yeah. Bad characters, I don’t bring those home anymore. I’m not 23. That’s not allowed. We were just using it like “badass” I guess. But in any case, bad is good, you know. Today, the slang changes constantly, but bad still stays pretty constant. Songs just happen quickly in some cases; they aren’t necessarily labored over, especially a song such as that.
Well, you did name your whole album after it, so I wondered if there might be a deeper seed there.
Originally we were gonna call it Satisfied but it sounded too soft. “Satisfied? What do you mean he’s satisfied? I don’t wanna hear that. Does that mean you’re all done?” If you’re bad, you’re bad. I don’t think people want me to be satisfied. To catch a song, you have to start thinking like one. They want to believe that you’re still a little hung over, a little disgruntled, a little unsatisfied, you got skinned knuckles, hat on backwards, looking for something to box and handing it to everyone around you. The same way you want a doctor’s office to look like a doctor’s office, you want your artist to look, sound, feel and live certain ways, ’cause the truth is always a whole ’nother matter. We say we want the backstory for things, but we really don’t. It’s like asking a magician, “How’d you do that trick?” And then he shows you how he did it, and you just wish you hadn’t asked. I really wish I could go back to just wondering about it. Once you’ve been told the truth about something, you can’t continue to wonder about it.
Considering that, you’re someone who famously guards his privacy fiercely, though fans still clamor for information because you’re someone they want to know. You’re a music fan, you presumably have had favorite musicians, still do. Did you ever want that personal information about your heroes or have you always respected that element of mystery?
I guess I’ve always respected the mystery. People try to tell you stuff about certain people, and you go, “Oh, don’t tell me!” There was a book called When I Was Cool about all the Beats; my wife got a kick out of it, hearing about the kid who hung out in Naropa with Ginsberg and Corso and all those guys, and he disclosed—leaked—all these things about them. She used to read them out loud to me in the car—“Don’t, don’t!”—Ginsberg used to mail his laundry home to his mother 2,000 miles away and she would do his laundry and mail it back. Don’t tell me that! I want to hear that he wore the same clothes for three months. Like I do. No, just kidding. No, I’m not kidding.
What does it really matter except that you like imagining things and then you weave or bake that in when you’re listening? Sometimes the experience is much more satisfying when you don’t know. I prefer to wonder. ’Cause once you know, you can’t un-know it. That’s why I think it’s really important to make stuff up. Most of the ingredients of songs are code. You’re protecting the innocent, really. A lot of songs can’t even be sung yet without wrapping them in some kind of mystery or changing the names. Families are very protective about information within the family. You can’t tell that about Uncle Bill. For one thing, he’s not Uncle Bill anymore, he’s Aunt Sheila! And it’s not Miami; it’s Bangor, Maine! And he didn’t fall off the back of a truck; he was shot in the head during the war while trying to wrestle a gun out of the arms of a German soldier. We’re always trying to mask things, don’t you agree?
Having said that, do you find that sharing—which is an essential part of the way you ultimately make your living—is a part of the process you enjoy?
Sharing what? Sharing needles?
Sharing needles, sharing spoons. If there was a way to survive in a world without that shared public interaction—anything from talking to people like me on the phone, or touring, or even releasing the music you make—would you do it that way? Or do you like that your songs are out in the world?
Well, that’s more like my wife, she likes the cloak of mystery. She likes it backstage, she doesn’t like the light. I’m different. I’m perverted in the sense that I do like burlesque, and I do like all those things—the stage. The stage is filled with wonder as well, because everything is really going on backstage. It’s just another way of building a higher wall around you. The audience thinks that you’re really exploring something, really explaining and emoting, but you may in fact just be hiding deeper. A lot of songs are inspired by other songs, but songs are still the shit that’s left out, made-up, borrowed, stole, cannibalized, mis-recollected, daydreamed, shape-shifted.
Do you find that you trust people?
No. Yes. Always. [Laughs.] Trust who?
People in the room with you when you’re making music, people you meet on the street, Uncle Bill…
As far as you can throw ’em. Because I’m untrustworthy as well. So I just assume everyone’s like me. When you’re making your record, you gotta be careful. Nowadays, everybody’s got a spy camera, they’re easily concealed, pictures are taken without you knowing… What was the word, “trust”? Do I trust people? No. There’s an aviary in Arizona where they keep these tiny, bug-sized robot killers, some of ’em take pictures, some emit poison gas, and they control them with a remote and can send one of these things that’s no bigger than a fly into a room, like Goldfinger, and everyone thinks it’s a fly while they talk about the war. So, all the technology that we think is here for us, so you can talk to your girlfriend and show her your wiener on the computer, you think that’s there for you? No! That’s so they can watch you, find out what you’re up to.
Whose opinions matter to you when you’re working?
Because she’s your wife or because she’s your writing partner?
[Laughs.] You’re good. Are you married?
No, I’m not.
Well, see, that’s why you don’t know. Hey, look, if you both know the same thing, one of you is unnecessary, right? But you have to have somebody whose opinion you trust; otherwise it’s The Emperor’s New Clothesevery fucking day. My wife’s more like a vapors person, or an opium writer; she has books and books filled with dreams. I’m more wood-and-string, I guess. She’s gotta wait for a dream to come up on the escalator. I’m one that goes out and starts digging. You have to trust who you’re writing with; otherwise, you can’t write with them. That’s why it’s really hard to find someone to write with.
How do you and Kathleen share opinions while you’re working? Is it candid, like a conversation over dinner, or do you brace yourselves, especially if you’re communicating something that might be construed as negative?
I think that’s a lot of horseshit…everybody’s family, you know? “Oh no, not one of those again!” Everybody has different influences and therefore different perspectives. “I think you’ve been listening to too much Peggy Lee. You haven’t been listening to enough Mancini, you need to sit down and listen to more Morricone, or some Miriam Makeba—in fact, how ’bout picking 10 people whose names start with “M” and listening to those, then you come back and talk to me.” That kind of shit.
Does Kathleen come to your shows when you play them?
Oh yeah, if we do go on the road, we go on the road together, the whole gang. It’s not like she can’t wait to see another show. She’s a critic of things, she’s very opinionated, and she’s brilliant—I trust her, you know.
How do you think you learned to work with other people?
You haven’t. So if I ask Flea and Marc and David and all those guys, they would say the same?
[Laughs.] That’s really not entirely true, I have learned how to work with people. That was fun, working with those guys. You have a rapport with certain people, it happens in every business. In construction, with chimney sweeps, people who lay tile, people who fix clocks: there’s people you can work with and there’s people you can’t. “I can’t work with him again, he never changes his shorts, he argues about everything I ask him to do, he has no idea how to take orders.” A record’s not a democracy, not in my book.
“Listen to the general, every goddamn word,” right?
There you go. That’s right. F
To continue the legend, check out the second part of our FILTER 46 cover story: Print The Myth: Under The Hat With Tom Waits.