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"I was built. From scratch, from things they found around the house." — Tom Waits



Waits may look demonic, but he's actually a family man who brings "home the groceries." Cover art from Blood Money.


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by Michael Goldberg

Monday, May 13, 2002

Tom Waits: Who Is That Man Behind The Curtain?

You'll find everything you need to know in his endlessly fascinating art

Tom Waits is gone. He has cloaked himself in a "Tom Waits" persona for so long now — over 30 years — that almost no trace is left of the young man that once was, before he first wowed us with Closing Time in 1973.

"I wish I'd been born," Waits said during a 1999 interview. "I was built. From scratch, from things they found around the house."

Do the images of Waits on his recent album covers — a scary figure dressed in graveyard black — defy penetration? Or do they reflect an aspect of Waits' real personality? Will we ever know? Does it matter? Like a crafty carny, Waits understands the age-old unwritten rules of old-school show biz. It's just that he's applied them to a career in rock, where fans often confuse a carefully crafted image for heart-on-the-sleeve sincerity.

"At a certain point in my life, I realized I needed to get into show business immediately — that was the only hope for me," Waits told Gil Kaufman and I when we interviewed him in 1999. "And my stepfather gave me this shirt. It was just amazing. It was about 20 shades of lime. There were sequined parts of it, then there would be this whole papier-mâché area, then strange sleeves, like seven buttons around, different shapes and colors, and big wide collar, like wings, a flap in the back and six pockets....

"You need a shirt like that if you're going to go into show business," he continued. "You've got to have an outfit. I didn't have the heart to tell him it wasn't the way I was going. I was going a different way. But I hung onto the shirt for a long time. I might break it out, maybe it's time."

Who Is Tom Waits?

Who is Tom Waits? Is he the "Grim Reaper or the grand weeper" (as Waits himself has put it several times)? Is he the nosy neighbor gossiping in "What's He Building?" Or the drunken sailor who sings, in "Everything Goes to Hell," "I don't believe you go to heaven when you're good/ Everything goes to hell anyway..."? Or is Mr. Waits a kind of reporter, turning his observations on the human condition into tall tales of woe and despair, redemption and hope? And, on occasion, love?

By creating a surreal persona, a larger-than-life "Tom Waits" character that is clearly a role, Waits underlines what we should already understand. That "art" is something apart from the one who makes it.

Where once (during the '70s) Waits seemed to be documenting life on the street in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner, since the early '80s he's been making deeper, more mythic statements. Songs such as 1999's "Lowside of the Road" or 2000's "God's Away on Business" speak to the traps that life lays for us. "It's all about the Black Plague," Waits said of "Lowside of the Road," somewhat facetiously.

"Everybody knows where the low side of the road is," he continued. "You make that U-turn and you come back and your tires get stuck, and you keep spinning and spinning and spinning, and you wish you'd just kept going instead of stopping and trying to turn around.... It can be about anything you want it to be about. Wherever the low side of the road is for you, whatever road you're on, whatever the low side of that road there is for you, that's what it's about."

Touch Of Evil

His two new albums, Blood Money and Alice, which I like a lot after some initial listens, are filled with evocative music and world-weary lyrics. Blood Money is the darker album, beginning with what may be one of Waits' best songs ever, "Misery Is the River of the World." Things just go downhill from there, but Alice isn't exactly a day at the beach either.

Both of these albums continue Waits' pursuit of a new sound, one that he's been developing for nearly 20 years, since 1983's Swordfishtrombones, with the help of his wife, writing partner and co-producer, Kathleen Brennan. "She's the one that gave me a good swift kick in the pants," Waits said. "I'd say up to that point, I was looking to see my head on somebody else's body. She said, let's check this out. She has a lot of diverse influences. You try to reconcile the fact that you like Collapsing New Buildings and Skip James and Elmer Bernstein and Nick Cave and Beefheart and Eric Satie and all this stuff that you don't know what to do with. I guess it was her that gave me the notion that you can find some reconciliation between these things that you like. That was the beginning, and we've been working together since then."

Waits' sound — which strikes me as a kind of audio counterpart to Orson Welles' film noir "Touch of Evil" — draws from Louis Armstrong and mariachi bands, from Brecht and Beefheart, from bluesmen such as Howlin' Wolf and beat and post-beat poets such as Kerouac and Bukowski. His voice — deep, gruff and scratchy like an old 78 — can be tender and sentimental, like a drunk remembering his first love as he downs one shot glass of whiskey after another, or cold and devilish, as when he rants, "All the good in the world/ You can put inside a thimble/ And still have room for you and me."

Waits and Brennan wrote the songs that appear on each album for a Robert Wilson theatrical production. Alice, loosely based on "Alice in Wonderland," seems more hopeful, and there is real romance. With Blood Money the worldview is possibly even darker than that usually found on a Waits album; there's certainly little hope to be found in its songs, where, for instance, one man's "Coney Island Baby" only shows up in his dreams. Or in "All the World Is Green," where the narrator longs to "bring back the old days again."

That album's final song is "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," with the lines "A long-dead soldier looks out from the frame/ No one remembers his war; no one remembers his name," and ending with, "My favorite words are good-bye/ And my favorite color is red."

The Artist As Family Man

So who is Tom Waits? Is he the sum of his work? When I asked him, back in 1999, what was the toughest thing he'd dealt with in his life, he seemed to drop the persona as he said, "Raising kids, being a grown-up, living in the real world, paying the bills, bringing home the groceries, having responsibilities."

He added, "It's very satisfying actually, very satisfying. There's a notion that artists are kind of impetuous and eccentric and irresponsible and unreliable. We have this kind of codependent relationship with artists and we allow them to be nuts and knocked out and coming home late and all that. I guess for a long time I've subscribed to all that. You're going to have to go to hell in a handbag. But I don't believe it. I think you can be creative and all that, but I think you can still be reliable. Those are big things for me. I've been married almost 19 years now and it's been the best thing I ever did."

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