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FILTER 46: Print the Myth: Under The Hat With Tom Waits, Part 2

By Pat McGuire on January 12, 2012


FILTER 46: Print the Myth: Under The Hat With Tom Waits, Part 2

Story continued from Part 1.

Are you always working or writing? Can you turn it off if you need to?

Sure I can. I have to. I do have a state that I live in. Which is why no one ever hears from me. [Laughs.] But this business we call show, it’s rather absurd sometimes when you really think about it, because you think you’re making stuff that’s gonna be around but you’re making popsicles that will sit on bus benches in Florida in the summer and melt. That’s what we’re making, this kind of music, this sound. And then they tell you that you’re the king of something—you’re the king of the schoolyard, king of the front seat, you’re the king of the weeds—just because you can draw really cool pictures on a dirty car with your finger, just ’cause you draw in the dirt with a stick and everyone likes what you do. None of this stuff is designed to stay. Except that you will retain some of it. The first time you heard “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” Ah, man. They do stay with you, these musical things that you squirt into your ear. Some stay, some don’t. They either grow or they don’t.

How bout these band names now, huh? The Slacks? As soon as I hear a band that’s called The Slacks, I think they’ll probably be on the bill with The Bras, The Slippers, The Buttons, The Underwear and The Collars. Maybe it’ll be a festival. Band names.

You didn’t mess around with one of those.

I didn’t have to. I really wish I changed my name when I got started in show business though. It makes you cleaner. That’s the “me”—that’s the ventriloquist and this is the dummy. I wish I’d called myself something else. Bill Brassiere and the Sleepwalking Assassins. Beaumont Zipperhorn and the Canadian Ankle Fans. Jihad Gingerpoodle and the Shoehorn Orchestra. Just so you know the difference between you—the real you—the show, and the reality. Alvin Trickleshirt and the Belvedere Shinolas. One night only. I’m on a roll.

People talk about your benchmark albums, changes in sound: when you jump labels the sound changes, when you met Kathleen the sound changed… What got you from Real Gone to Bad As Me?

I’ll never say. I don’t know. There’s 100 things. Who knows what the ingredients for tunes are when that whole thing starts feeling like a record? Again, you want to know but you really don’t want to know, because if I told you and it wasn’t interesting, you’d go, “Ah, Jesus.” In other words, when you have the truth and you have the myth, print the myth. “Chicago” had just the right number of syllables for that song. Try Reno. Try Miami. Bern, Switzerland. Didn’t work. There’s too many or there’s not enough. This was just right, like the Three Bears. Chicago, Chicago. When you say it, it stops being a town and just sounds like a conjuring word, like abracadabra.

It was the magical solution.

It was for that moment. It’s just travelling music for immigrants. Here’s the truth: We definitely wanted to do three-minute songs, 12 of ’em. No fucking around. I tried to sustain that, to honor that. I thought it was a good idea. Now that you got CDs, you can put 19 of ’em on there, I love that. That’s not always the right idea. So, 13, that’s not bad. I lobbied for one more. Some of those songs are really long and had to be cut down. That “New Year’s Eve” song was really long. It’s about a night that went badly. So you think, “OK, how much do we tell?” Had a little to eat, Marge got food poisoning, Stan lit the sofa on fire, the dog ran away, the car got towed, our neighbors called the cops…there’s a song in there somewhere. You have to pull weeds and you have to do the dishes.

Do you know those people in the songs?

No, it’s code, remember? Protect the innocent. I’ll leave it up to you as to whether there’s a real Sergio or not because it doesn’t really matter. It’s just a song, it’s song logic. That always rules.

Less specifically, can you tell me what a “raised right man” is?

You’ll know when you get married. You’ll know that you aren’t one and you need to be, and you’re not ready. And you’ll know why there’s a sofa in the living room. You’ve not stood before God and had to explain yourself.

Do you see yourself as more of a conductor or as more of a facilitator when it comes to working with other musicians in your studio?

Maybe a little bit of a conjurer. Some of them already dance, but nobody really knows the answer to why a song’s not working. It’s like taking your pet snake to the vet. “I don’t know, Doc, he’s just been laying here for weeks. I can’t even get him to bite me. What do you think it is?” [Laughs.] And everyone is entitled to offer their opinion about what is wrong: “I don’t know, Tom, too much bass.” “Not enough bass.” Well, which is it? “Let’s start over.” “The song is shit.” “No it’s not.” You have great performances on really mediocre songs. Hey, the radio’s full of them. And vice versa. The poor performances of really great songs no one will ever hear. It has to all come together. 

Song ideas have humble beginnings. Stood up on a date, my dog died, my dad was killed in the war… You put yourself in the room with people who are known healers, known entities. Sometimes if you go in there with somebody you’ve never worked with before, something surprising happens. If everybody has already worked together before, many times you’re just gonna chase a chicken around on the beach all day, you’re tired and go hungry. Sometimes you need someone to think outside the boxes. And you gotta trust the people you go in with, just like a cast on a play or a movie. “Let’s get him, man, Harry Dean Stanton, he should be the king! Let’s get Louise Brooks, have her be the queen. Let’s start there.” I work with great people, I know I do because I have an instinct about ’em. Les Claypool, great. Ribot, great. Flea, great. Dave, great. Keith, great. Casey Waits, great. Charlie Musselwhite, indispensable. Charlie brings about 600 harmonicas to a gig. “Jesus, Charlie, we can’t use all of those!” But he knows: If you don’t bring it, you’ll definitely need it. That’s true of every session.

I don’t know how much people want to know about what goes on inside the studio. I don’t even know how much these guys want to be known. Some of ’em, they’ll love to tell you, make shit up. Or tell you what really happened. Fact is I make ’em sign a…whaddya call it?

Non-disclosure agreement?

Yeah, right! They’ll start calling their high school history teacher, sendin’ pictures all over the place… It’s like, this was a private affair here; what happens in here stays in here. ’Course it’s never true, but we’ll all pretend.

That’s the fun part with music, if you really do let yourself go, you do find something. “The bass player had to leave by 9, so there’s no bass on this song.” Well, hey, it was better! Again, I still think we’re drawing in the dirt with a stick. Which is part of the excitement of it, too; there’s a certain energy in the room when you’re doing that. We’re not inventing the wheel here; there’s plenty of wheels, we’re getting the benefit of them. But you have to feel that what you’re doing is somewhat unique, even though there’s really nothing new under the sun. Read Ecclesiastes and you’ll learn all about that. Everything’s being borrowed, forgotten, made-up, left out, cannibalized; everybody does that, it’s that kind of work. In that “Bad As Me” song, when I stop and do that spoken-word thing… “Oh man, that’s Screamin’ Jay Hawkins all day, man!” So what? It’s a tribute to Screamin’ Jay. He’s gone, tip your hat to him. 50 children. So sometimes it’s just that.

Code or not, there seem to be a few hints toward recognizing some sort of mortality here. Or even immortality, like “Last Leaf.” Is that a theme you find creeping in more and more?

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes the last leaf is just the last leaf. It’s fall. And there’s one more leaf on that tree and he’s not going.

Can you envision reaching a point where you won’t want to do this anymore?

Oh, well, I don’t know, yeah, sure, probably. I need to move on to different things. Who knows where it’s taking you? If you knew exactly what you were doing, it wouldn’t be any fun, would it? You wind up drawing giraffes using Tabasco sauce on the back of coasters with a nail. I could sell those for big money.

I’m sure you could, Tom. Here’s my last question: What does it sound like in your house when you’re the only one awake?

It’s very rare that this place is empty, or quiet, and I’m up. But I do find it fascinating, the things that you notice when you’re trying to be so quiet—if you’re trying to make some eggs at three in the morning, and you get in that drawer with all the pots and pans, what it sounds like. I try to think of that when I’m in the studio, because it is like that, you’re isolating sounds, you’re taking them and putting them in the place where there’s just sound, and then they’re somewhat disembodied, and it’s an interesting thing, what the microphones do—things that happen only because it’s so quiet that you notice and then you want to keep. When the orchestra is tuning up, many times it’s the most interesting moment in the show. They had no idea it was gonna be that exciting, they didn’t even know they were making music. So if you bring in musicians and they’re goofing around getting ready to play, many times you have to pay attention to what they’re doing before they start playing with a capital “P.” They have no idea how interesting what they were doing before they knew they were doing anything was. Acting is the same, you’re kind of catching wildlife.

You gotta get one of those little military-engineered flies to really capture it.

They’re getting smaller and smaller, those things. I have relatives in the C.I.A., that’s how I know all that. Uncle Bill. He risks his life every time he calls me.

And you told it to a man with a tape recorder.

Oh my god. Now I’m gonna have to make you promise that you’ll never print any of this. Alright, this is the last question I’ve got for you: There’s one line that is said more than any other line in the entire history of cinema. Do you know what that line is?

I’m gonna go with… “What’ll it be?”

“What’ll it be?” No, no. That’s pretty good, though. You mean, guy’s walking into a bar and the bartender says, “What’ll it be?” That’s pretty good! It’s probably in the running, but it’s not the one. I can’t give you the prize.

So, what is the number one most-spoken line in cinema?

Here it comes, you ready? “Let’s get outta here.” That’s it. Let’s get out of here.     F

This article is from FILTER Issue 46