samedi, octobre 02, 2004

Tom Waits

One from the heart of downbeat America

By Andrew Gumbel

02 October 2004

It's been so long since Tom Waits hopped off the established musical tracks and rode his very own train into an avant-garde world of dissonant ballads and rattling chains that he's come to seem almost ethereal, more ghostlike than real. Back in the days when he was still doing his Charles Bukowski backstreet-poetry-on-a-bar-stool act, you'd half expect to run into him in a darkened alley, as he stumbled out of some late-night sleaze joint and reached out to use the parking meters as walking sticks, as an old song of his evocatively has it. More recently - as he has departed ever more radically from conventional musical form and indulged his fascination for odd rhythms, ghoulish vocal timbres and industrial noise - you might have gone looking for him in a cemetery and expected to see him sitting in an open grave carefully banging human remains against the tombstones.

At least, that's what the music suggests. Sightings of Tom himself have been few and far between, which might explain the excitement over news of his first public outings since the release of Mule Variations in 1999. Not only does he have a new album - Real Gone, out in the UK next week - but he is also coming to the Hammersmith Apollo on 23 November to perform his first London show in 17 years. He himself has promised "an electric pill box ... a homogeneous concoction of mood elevators, mind liberators and downers, an alchemical universe of rattling chains, oscillating rhythms and nine-pound hammers".

Elusive and consciously weird he may be, but he remains an object of extraordinary respect and fervour. The London show sold out in 30 minutes, and the rest of his European tour (Antwerp, Berlin and Amsterdam) has been equally heavily subscribed. It's not just Europe that is gagging to get its first glimpse of the great man in who knows how long. Word shot out as soon as it became known that he would be playing just two concerts in North America, one in Seattle and one in Vancouver. Tickets for the Vancouver gig, which will kick off his tour in a couple of weeks, were gone in nine minutes flat.

Bizarrely, it is almost impossible to know what to expect. The last time he went out on the road, a little over five years ago, he surprised everyone by dusting off his old catalogue (one hesitates to call them hits, since he has never had a hit in the recognisable, Top 40 sense of the word) and treating an audience in Austin, Texas, to fresh, new arrangements of "The Heart of Saturday Night", "Jockey Full of Bourbon" and "Downtown Train".

At other times he has expressed nothing but disinterest for his old songs, preferring instead to share with his audiences his boundless fascination for hardware store items and their potential for exploitation as percussion instruments. For example, he once converted a four cubic yard metal box (originally meant to serve as a rubbish skip) into an instrument he called a "Strata Dumpster". He cut a 2ft hole in one side, stretched seven piano strings across it and fastened them with two welded bridges. The resulting noise (from plucking, strumming or playing the strings with a bow) he described as "trainlike and huge, like trash day with a purpose".

Waits seems to get a kick out of his own studied idiosyncrasies. Indeed, one of the rituals that has come to accompany his rare album releases (five years between Mule Variations and Real Gone, seven years between Bone Machine and Mule Variations) is a series of elusive question-and-answer sessions in which interviewers will invariably ask what he's been up to between albums and he will invariably come up with some enigmatic, crazy and inescapably funny answer.

Talking to LA Weekly in 1999, he said he'd spent the past few years stuck in traffic school. "They wanted to make an example out of me," he said. "I didn't have a good lawyer, and I just said, 'look, I'll do the time'... I feel better as a person. I graduated vaya cum laude."

The conversation, as it inevitably does around Tom Waits, just got weirder from there. "Actually, I've been breaking in other people's shoes. Just on the side. Just to stay busy. You get 'em new, you're unhappy with them - I wear 'em four or five weeks and mail 'em back to you. No obligation necessary."

LA Weekly asked him if he could be happy if he stopped playing music. His response: "I thought about that. I don't know. I'd probably end up gluing bottle caps on to a piece of plywood."

Clearly, getting a straight answer out of Waits is next to impossible. He is never - not in his music, not in real life - interested in talking straightforwardly about himself. Rather, he throws himself into the character of the moment, usually some variation on the hard-living, rambling, gravel-voiced man who haunts cheap diners and dive bars, the sorts of places where lovelorn women seek solace in the booze while semi-coherent men eye them over before sinking back into their beers. As he did on some of his early records, Waits talks and talks, delivering monologues of magnificent improvisational craziness and crackling verbal inventiveness that nevertheless succeed in telling almost nothing about himself except his prodigious capacity for poetic inspiration.

It is his great talent to be able to seek rhythm and beauty even in the seediest, most gloom-ridden underbellies of modern America. As one early reviewer of Real Gone put it, he is a man who hears symphonies in the clatter and crush of the junkyard. There are certainly more prosaic ways of describing him as a human being - we know, for example, that he lives in Santa Rosa, in northern California, with his wife and chief music collaborator, Kathleen Brennan - but ultimately the fictions are more compelling, or least more revealing.

Waits has been offering up fictional variations on himself ever since he first emerged as a night-time troubadour of the damned in the early 1970s. On early albums such as Small Change or Heartattack and Vine, and especially on the achingly funny and affecting live album Nighthawks at the Diner, he emerged as a compelling and atmospheric storyteller, capable of passing himself off as a burned-synapse salesman, or a disappointed lover, or a man out to enjoy a late-night drunken date with himself.

The Waits of that period - hard-drinking, chain-smoking, with that ever roughening sandpapered voice - seemed almost inseparable from his stage persona. Asked what his goals were, he said he wanted to go pick up a pizza and get out of the Seventies. One time, when he was a guest on The Mike Douglas Show on US television, he was so convincing in character, with a three-day growth of beard and an inch of ash on his cigarette, that the security guards refused to let him in.

He has, of course, dabbled extensively in real acting, becoming a firm favourite of Jim Jarmusch, who first cast him as Roberto Benigni's cellmate in Down By Law (1986), and also a confidant of the Coppola family. Francis had him score his tender if commercially ill-fated reinvention of the musical One from the Heart (1982), and then cast him in Rumble Fish, The Outsiders and The Cotton Club. He also did a terrific turn as a character out of Raymond Carver for Robert Altman's Short Cuts (1993). Asked how he liked being in films, he once told an interviewer: "Well, acting is pretty much like trying to catch a bullet with your teeth."

Waits was born in the working-class Los Angeles suburb of Pomona exactly eight years after the Japanese raids on Pearl Harbor. His parents, both schoolteachers, moved from city to city when he was little, eventually divorcing when he was 10. Music was an early draw - he taught himself both the piano and the guitar - and by high school he was developing his stage act and entertaining his teachers and his classmates.

His coming of age was in Los Angeles in the early 1970s, when he lived at a cheap motel near the evocative intersection of Hollywood and Vine, not far from the iconic Capitol Records needle and a clutch of seedy bars and burlesque shows. To fit his piano in his room, he had to saw off a section of kitchen counter.

Pegged somewhere between jazz and pop, he found himself opening for the likes of Billy Preston, John Hammond and Frank Zappa. Soon, though, his performances attracted a following in their own right. He sang about men with "a broken liver and a broken heart", about late-night hallucinations of a veal cutlet sidling down the counter of the diner and beating the hell out of his coffee cup, about a world where doughnuts are named for prostitutes and motels are all called Rooms ("there's a whole chain of 'em").

In the early Eighties, Waits took an abrupt change of direction. Musically, he decided to throw over his stock barfly persona for something more starkly experimental. And, in his personal life, he hooked up with a script doctor for Coppola's Zoetrope Studio who would turn out to be his greatest inspiration. As he later said about first meeting Kathleen: "She can lie down on nails, stick a knitting needle through her lip and still drink coffee, so I knew she was the girl for me."

It was Kathleen who spurred him to seek percussive inspiration in hardware stores, and also to hold his natural inclination to lyrical tenderness in check with distortions and rhythmic anomalies - the musical equivalent of taking a perfectly good plumbing pipe and letting hard water fur it up. The song "Johnsburg, Illinois", off Swordfishtrombones, is about Kathleen's home town.

Tom Waits' musical idiosyncrasy has put him in his own utterly undefinable category, but it has also earned him the enduring admiration of his peers. Nick Cave described his work, admiringly, as "music made by eccentrics", and Elvis Costello once said he felt envious at the courage Waits had displayed in radically changing directions.

Not that you'll ever catch Waits himself dwelling on the course of his career or where he thinks it might go next. In the Eighties, he was asked by one interviewer how he would like to be remembered, and this is how he answered: "Achievement is for senators and scholars. At one time I had ambitions but I had them removed by a doctor in Buffalo. It started as a cyst, it grew under my arm and I had to have new shirts made, it was awful. But I have them in a jar at home now." In other words: don't ask, just revel in the manic poetry.



Thomas Alan Waits on 7 December 1949 in Pomona, California.


Married Kathleen Brennan (1980). Children: Kellesimone, Casey Xavier, Sullivan.


Taught himself to play guitar on a Gibson, and piano at a neighbour's house


Began performing in the late 1960s. Secured recording deal with Asylum Records in 1972. Albums:Closing Time (1973), The Heart of Saturday Night (1974), Nighthawks at the Diner (1975), Small Change (1976), Heartattack and Vine (1980), Swordfishtrombones (1983), Bone Machine (1992), Mule Variations (1999), Real Gone (2004). Films include One from the Heart (1982), The Cotton Club (1984), Down By Law (1986), The Two Jakes (1990), The Fisher King (1991), Short Cuts (1993), Mystery Men (1999), Coffee and Cigarettes (2003).

He says...

"Everybody loves music, but it's important that music likes you. I guess now I'd say I'm more in the salvage business."

They say...

"I think that anyone who can't recognise the quality of that music really doesn't have their ears on the right way round!" - Elvis Costello

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