WAITS IN WONDERLANDby Rip Rense
(Originally published in the San Francisco Examiner, Image Magazine, 12/13/92.)
Tom Waits has come to regard the telephone a lot like he does the microphone. Both are instruments through which he can play to an audience. "I said I'd do phone interviews in lieu of touring--which, believe me, is a lot more pleasant," he says. "Just talk to the countries instead of going to them. You know, they're calling me from Israel--and Belgium! And Greece! I have been brushing up on my upcountry Swahili, because I like to be in step."
If Waits makes good on his promises, this interview might be the closest readers will get to experiencing a live Waits performance--since it is based on a phone conversation conducted from his home of four years in a small rural Northern California town (which will go unnamed, at his request). The occasional piercing cry of a local screech owl decorates this "appearance," along with Waits' periodic whispery, sardonic chuckle. Oh, and...
"Somebody gave me a ram's horn the other day," says Waits. "Listen to his baby!"
With that, the 42-year-old composer/songwriter/singer/actor/vocal contortionist--who portrays the bug-addicted Renfield in Francis Coppola's recently released "Bram Stoker's Dracula"--put down the receiver and made a sound that could only have been made by. . .a ram's horn being blown through a telephone line. He marvels at the noise. "You could really use this!" he says triumphantly.
It's been a long time since Tom Waits was a misunderstood opening act for Frank Zappa
(!) way back in the early '70s. A long time since a
"Small Change" was a breakthrough; the ensuing albums of the late '70s contained well-crafted songs--gritty, poignant, whimsical, narrative--and experiments, like his symphonic, orchestrated tale, "Potter's Field". It was not until after his work on "One From the Heart" that Waits seemed to finally take a breather, and take stock of his career of 10 years. He had been married---to writer/poet Kathleen Brennan--since 1980, had a couple of kids, and by any measure, had "made it." (Hell, he was driving the car of his choice--a '62 Cadillac.) Maybe the freedom of now-what-do-I-do seemed to bring him the realization that his art could be reconfigured. Maybe it was writing songs with Kathleen. In any case, Tom went back into the studio, and came up with what proved to be another breakthrough album, "Swordfishtrombones," in 1983. Drastic experiments in tone color, percussive texture, sonic atmospheres and subject matter ("Underground" concerned sewer-dwellers) now informed the distinctive, durable melodies and vivid imagery. Instrumentally, Waits had chucked the sax-bass-guitar-drums configuration in exchange for everything from Balinese metal aunglongs, pump organs and banjos to bass boo-bams and bagpipes. His 1985 album, "Rain Dogs", written during a two-year stay in New York City, took the new direction further. Suddenly, Waits songs were less musical tales than they were disparate worlds. Sculpted and chiseled, torn up and pasted back together asymmetrically---these were inventions distinct from one another, not merely chords illustrating verses. He called them "little movies." In 1987, Waits and Brennan wrote a somewhat surreal stage play/musical, "Frank's Wild Years", performed by the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago, with Waits in the lead role. In 1988, he released a critically acclaimed concert movie, "Big Time."
His new work, "Bone Machine", is his first album of new songs in five years, yet Waits has hardly been retired. He wrote and recorded the soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch's latest film, "Night on Earth" (including three songs co-written with Brennan), and penned the songs for a work by avant-garde opera director/producer Robert Wilson, "The Black Rider". (The opera, with a libretto by William S. Burroughs, is based on a longtime death-allegory staple of German theater.) He made a video and recorded a tune for the "Red, Hot & Blue" AIDS benefit album, guested on tenor sax great (and friend) Teddy Edwards' album, "Mississippi Lad", contributed two spoken pieces to Ken Nordine's 1992 word-riff opus, "Devout Catalyst", and just weeks ago recorded E.Y. Harburg and Jay Gorney's "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" ("one of my favorite songs") as a theme song for the Coalition for the Homeless. Last spring, he organized, hosted and performed at the first major fund-raising concert for post-riot Los Angeles (featuring Los Lobos, Fishbone and his old friend Chuck E. Weiss of "Chuck E's in Love" fame).
It is now a good decade since the press got tired of pigeonholing Waits as a guy with a werewolf of a voice, beat lyrics and a touch of jazz. His song catalog alone attests to his diversity and prowess; yet it might take one of those "songs by various artists" tribute albums to convince those who still "can't get past his voice." About that voice--Waits calls it the "right horn for my car"--it is doubtful that anyone has ever so completely altered the sound of their pipes--and style of singing--to fit the atmosphere of a song. If a roaring falsetto through a rusted exhaust pipe gets the feeling Waits is after, well, he goes looking for an old Chevy.
"Bone Machine," Waits' 14th album, released by Island Records in September, is another venture into uncharted territory---certainly his most poetically and musically daring work yet. It's a bit rude in texture, occasionally downright primitive, and has an almost homemade quality. One can imagine critics writing about the "earthy" influences that life in the sticks has had on his new album, but the only difference in environment Waits will acknowledge is that "there's more road kill up here." This is, however, a heavier side of Waits. From deeply affecting tracks like "Whistle Down the Wind" to the Dali-esque grotesquerie of "The Earth Died Screaming" or the Mardi Gras-in-purgatory of "All Stripped Down", "Bone Machine" is pointedly otherwordly, yet pointedly concerned with the more durable stuff of this world, and the omnipresence of death. An excerpt from "Dirt in the Ground" reveals Waits' unsparing vision: "The quill from a buzzard/The blood writes the word/I want to know am I the sky or a bird...And we're all gonna be/Just dirt in the ground."
Asked to describe his new digs---specifically, what's outside his window, Waits gives a description not of languid pepper trues or country lanes, but of predatory bird "digestive sculptures":
"Out the window sometimes at night I see owls--screech owls," he says. "There's a tree that they live in. There are a lot of mouse skeletons around the base of a tree. I've found hundreds of regurgitated mouse skeletons beneath the base of this tree. You could say it's almost a hobby. I mean, examing them. There like reorganized mice. They've gone through the digestive process inside of an owl's stomach, and get brought back up. Some of them look better than they did before. And there's a variety of insects on the glass as well. I do see the occasional white wings of the owls."
Waits acknowledges writing "darker" material ("A great many songs live there, so that's where I've been digging lately"), yet the new work is not gloomy. The music is unfailingly whimsical, if rather ominous, and the words can be downright funny--as in songs like "Jesus Gonna Be Here" ("I'm gonna watch the horizon/for a brand new Ford") or "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" ("When I see the 5 o'clock news/I don't wanna grow up/Comb their hair and shine their shoes/I don't wanna grow up/Stay around in my home town/I don't wanna put no money down...") The album actually ends upliftingly, with "That Feel", a kind of boys-in-the-barroom anthem co-written with Keith Richards. Of Richards, who previously recorded with Waits on "Rain Dogs," Waits says:
"He writes songs in some ways similar to the way I do---you kind of circle it, and you sneak up on it; it was a real joy to write with him. You can't drink with him, but you can write with him. I felt like I have known him for a long time, and he's made out of very strong stock, you know. He's like pirate stock. He loves those shadows."
Kathleen's presence has grown with each Waits album since "Swordfishtrombones"; she co-wrote fully half the songs on "Bone Machine." "Writing with here has been great," says Waits. "It pushes me into new areas. She was raised Irish Catholic, grew up in Illinois on a farm, she's seen cats strung up by their necks swinging over the barn doors. She's got all kinds of things that she dredges up." The new songs, he says, are "movies for the ears."
"If you can make a little painting for the ears with a few words, well, I like words; I like cutting them up and finding different ways of saying the same thing. To me it's more what they sound like, because ultimately you're going to have to put them in the soup, and decide whether it's a tomato or a bone...I get into a spell, and it all comes easy. I don't labor over it. I go inside the song, I think you make yourself an antenna for songs, and songs want to be around you. And then they bring other songs along, and then they're all sitting around, and they're drinkin' your beer, and they're sleeping on the floor. And they are using the phone, they're rude, thankless little f---ers."
"Bone Machine" works as an investigation of sound. If he'd had that ram's horn a few months earlier, it probably would have wound up on one of the tracks. As it is, "Bone Machine" utilizes, among other items, clattering sticks, an ancestor of the synthesizer called a Chamberlain, violin and accordion (played by Los Lobos' David Hidalgo) and a device Waits commissioned called a "conundrum"--rusted pieces of farm equipment hung from a huge iron cross that are beat upon and otherwise "played." Waits was so finicky about the sound settings of the different pieces that midway through the project he nearly abandoned the studio and just recorded everything at home on a portable Sony (no kidding.) And, as far as exploratory noise goes, you ain't heard nuthin' yet. Moments prior to this interview, Waits was packing his suitcases with socks, underwear--and experimental musical instruments called Wind Wands, photon clarinets, PVC Membrane saxophones, a Waterphone and something called a T-Rodimba. Waits in musical Wonderland.
"I'm still not packed," he says, a trace of panic in his tone. "But I'll never be ready for this trip till I get home from it."
The trip is an eight-week stay in Hamburg, Germany. The instruments will comprise part of a fantastic orchestra for Robert Wilson's forthcoming operatic production of "Alice in Wonderland," for which Waits is serving as songsmith-in-residence. (It premieres December 20 in Hamburg with the Thalia Theater Company.)
The "Alice" instruments, Waits excitedly points out, were built by "real pioneers" of music living in the Bay Area: Richard Waters (the Waterphone, a polytonal metal instrument filled with water), Tom Nunn (the T-Rodimba, a conglomeration of plywood and hardware with a violin pick-up), Darrel DeVore (Wind Wands, "which sound like Orville and Wilbur"), Bart Hopkins (PVC Membrane saxophones, which are too complex to explain succinctly) and Reed Ghazala (photon clarinets, which are played by beams of light bouncing off light-sensitive keys). Even without the "Alice" assignment, it is likely that Waits would have found his way to these machines. This is, after all, a man who likes to sing through police bullhorns--as he did in a recent appearance before the startled members of the "Dog Pound" on the "Arsenio Hall Show".
He explains his fondness for unlikely orchestratin with characteristic irony: "I have an auditory processing problem that probably is at the center of my work."
With a mere six weeks to write songs for "Alice", it would seem that Waits likes to work a little like the White Rabbit--late for an important engagement, in strange terrain. The songs for "Small Change" were knocked out in a couple of days while, as legend has it, Waits was locked away in a London hotel room. For his Academy Award-nominated score for "One From the Heart" in 1982, he was sequestered on a studio lot, grinding things out on demand as per director Coppola's brainstorms. In other words, Tom waits (sorry) till the last minute.
"Absolutely," he says. "Which is not to say you write at the last minute. It's to say you had six months to think about it, and six hours to put it down. If the equation is turned the other way, uh, it doesn't help you."
He seems to relish working with others of similarly singular bent: Coppola (for whom he has acted in several movies), Jim Jarmusch (for whom he has acted and written music), Keith Richards, and now the avant-garde visionary Wilson. (Waits' songs from Wilson's "The Black Rider" are, incidentally, his next CD release.) But then, it's hard to imagine Waits collaborating with, say, Tommy Tune. (Or maybe not.) With "Alice," Wilson, long an appreciator of Waits' work, has offered the songwriter his most esoteric and perhaps most difficult assignment.
"Wilson's things come out of his head," says Waits, audibly scratching a stubbly cheek. "Everyone moves like Wilson moves. He really unscrews the top of his head and takes all the characters out of it, winds 'em up. Everything on stage comes out of his head. If there's a tree, he sketched at first, and then had it blown up and drawn exactly the way he sketched it. It's like you walk into a house and everything was made the guy who designed it. There's nothing in it that came from a store--nothing. The paint, lampshades, doorknobs, everything. And you go into it and feel a little strange. You know--That's a bird bone chair, Bob. I don't know if I should sit there."
"They become meditations," he continues. "Time moves much slower in his pieces. Everything appears to be moving in slow motion, bu really it's just giving you longer to register the theatrical information, so that you can really be inside the theater and experience it. If you don't change time in some way, it's not theater. It's real. So I find it riveting, really, to work with somebody with such a...spell. Hardest part is you want to introduce the right things to that spell, and that's what becomes the riddle. You don't want to be the garlic in the cinnamon cake."
Yet a little garlic in cinnamon cake might be in order here, he admits. Although Wilson's opera more concerns the relationship between Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddel (the girl who inspired Carroll's books), we're still talking Wonderland here--the place where they use flamingos for croquet mallets. "Once you go down the rabbit hole, anybody can say anything they want," Waits allows. "You could have songs about convenience stores. And you're far from home, which is a bit like falling down the rabbit hole, in a way. So it's conducive, Hamburg. But it's really Wilsonia. It doesn't matter where you are. That's what you're really entering, is the whole matrix of Wilson."
To prepare for Coppolla's "Dracula", Waits entered the whole matrix of Bram Stoker's spellbinding epic, disregarding film versions of the story. He actually sought out the role, telling Coppola, "Think of me as Renfield"--the tormented half-vampire slave of Dracula with a hankering for spiders and flies. Although not influenced by Dwight Frye's indelible portrayal of Renfield in the 1931 version, Waits was certainly aware of it---plus the fact that the great character actor Frye never again played a role outside of bit parts in horror movies.
"Somebody told me 'He never worked again after Dracula, and neither will
you.'" Waits laughs. "Or if you do, it will be another Dracula film.
Perhaps the most crucial question to be posed about Waits' portrayal in what he termed Coppola's "torrid, painterly nightmare"--the one sure to figure most prominently in the minds of those who might consider him for an Academy Award nomination--is this one: Didja really eat the bugs, Tom?
"I did not actually eat the bugs," he reveals exclusively here for the first time. "And I'll say that becaused I've lied to other people and told them I did eat the bugs. I didn't want anybody to think I didn't have the courage to eat insects. What I really did was put 'em in my mouth and give them kind of a funhouse ride. Uhhh--move them around, let them walk along the jagged cliff of my teeth. And then I brought them back out again. A lot of them wanted to buy a ticket and go right back in for another ride. It was only mealworms--but there were a lot of spiders. I was working with insects. I've been in show business for 25 years, and I'm working with insects."
As Groucho might have said, it probably wasn't the first time.
"Yes, well, eventually, we'll all be working with insects," he says,
measuring his words. "That's why I thought I should treat them right.
Playing Renfield would have been a masochist's fever-dream. Waits wore a straitjacket for much of it, as well as manacles that imprisoned each finger individually (based on an actual apparatus used in Italy two centuries ago to teach young pianists to keep the proper position at the keyboard, he explains), Coke-bottle glasses, and one of those Supercuts-from-Bedlam hairstyles. Also, for a good deal of the movie, he was wet.
"I was hosed down," he says. "And they seemed to want me that way. . .I got to have a really meaningful scene with Winona Ryder. Not how I imagined it would be, though. Bug juice dripping from the corners of my mouth. Unshaven. Totally gray. Screaming behind bars. Not how I saw our scene together. But I tried to rise above it."
One more "Dracula" item, heretofore unreported, bears mentioning: Waits' voice was employed for the "primitive" vocal utterances of the Count. Gary Oldman was unable to get the desired horrific element into the lusty animalistic grunts and snarls of the character, so Tom's larynx of sound-effects was enlisted:
"There's the lady in the back of the room with the bifocals on the chain, and the sweater, and the hair up, coffee and a cigarette, looking at the script," says Waits with bemusement, "and they're telling me, 'Tom, it's deep growl--you're killing her, and yet you're drinking of her'. And she looks up from her coffee and says, 'Tom--savor it!' And then looks back at her script. 'Oh, OK, savor it.' It was like porno radio. It was actually demeaning. But I think it will be good."
And, oddly---if that word isn't rendered weightless in this whole context---Waits recently acted in a short Jarmusch film entitled "Coffee and Cigarettes"--costarring Iggy Pop. As a result of the association, he has taken to using Iggy's term for Southern California--"Butt Town." While U.S. citizens do seem increasingly preoccupied with their posteriors--particularly in Los Angeles, where superficiality is substance---a comment seemed in order. Tom?
"Iggy Pop and I play two characters in the short film. It was actually rather funny," he says. "It's just a little bit that Jarmusch does called 'Coffee and Cigarettes'. Using different people that you cast in it, you talk about coffee and you talk about cigarettes, and then it's over. Iggy and I did one, and it was really great. But we didn't really discuss Butt Town. I grew up in Butt Town. Last time I went back there, I noted an increased obsession with underwear. And it wasn't just my imagination. It was in the billboards, and there are more lingerie stores than I remember. Even in the newspaper, when they advertise, like Sears ads for bras and underwear, the ads are getting more seductive. And you can really...look at 'em. I don't remember them being that good when I was a kid. Or I would have noticed! But I think it's good that kids now can get the benefit of that."
Waits scratches that stubble again. In the telephonic background, a screech owl screeches.
"Cigarettes and underwear," he adds. "That's what makes the world go 'round, I guess."
With that, Tom Waits ended his tour-by-telephone-interview to resume packing those Wind Wands for his trip to Wonderland. There was no encore.
© 2002 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.