“Vocabulary is my main instrument.” —Tom Waits
This is the first pull-quote from the back cover of Tom Waits on Tom Waits: Interviews and Encounters, a collection of rock journalism about the master of macabre and melodrama that follows his career from 1973’s Closing Time, his first album, to 2006’s Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards. The self-assessment is not only correct, but also characteristically simple and honest: the key to Tom Waits’ music, his appeal, and the even-/high-quality of his output over the past 40 years is language. He is a bleeding-heart lyricist, first and foremost.
Second and secondmost are the perennial obsessions within those lyrics: age, decrepitude, and loss. Or precisely the things that will creep up on a person over the course of their adult life. If read quickly and carefully, an idea of the course of Waits’ adult life is exactly what this book offers. What better way to get to know an inherently wordy musician than through reading a glut of conversations he’s had about his work? The only better way would be listening to his music, one would assume. And odds are, if you’re thinking of picking up Tom Waits on Tom Waits, you’ve done plenty of that already, and it’s left you wanting more.
Like his music, Tom Waits on Tom Waits is primarily for hardcore Waits fans. He’s a legend, without doubt, and his status more than merits a collection of rock journalism centering around him. But he’s never had the broad appeal of his most obvious American parallel, Bob Dylan. Unlike any book on Dylan, you won’t find this collection tucked into its own Waits section at the bookstore.
“[It’s] nice to know that a man with as much of a predilection towards evasion can come across this sincere.”
The idiosyncratic nature of a book on a cult legend should ideally give it more leeway to print the odder aspects of its subject, the logic being that if it’s for the audience of a unique cult figure, it can be a unique cult book. Unfortunately, the counter-logic — that a book about a man without huge mainstream recognition needs to be more palatable if it wants to sell — runs through Tom Waits on Tom Waits as well.
It’s not a groundbreaking rock ‘n’ roll book. But, being (in part) a collection of fringe rock journalism from a specific period, it had the opportunity to. Had it organized all of its Waits-talks thematically, around the most interesting insights and personal revelations that reporters have been able to extract over the years, it might not suffer as much as it does from repetition. But it organizes the talks chronologically and, by the editor’s own admission, based on which reprinting rights were affordable. So it’s at best a sideways glance into lesser-known rock journalism: 1973-2006. In a way, this kind of book is always invaluable — where else will you find interviews from such a wide array of small publications like LA Free Press in 1975, Magnet in 1999, Stop Smiling in 2006? And simply talking to Waits is never less than entertaining. Who else refers to litigation as “like picking up a glass of water with a prosthetic hand” or to recording music as “like photographing ghosts”? Who else will gleefully admit, “I haven’t had fun since (a James Brown concert in 1962.) It’s just not a word I like. It’s like Volkswagens or bellbottoms or patchouli oil or bean sprouts. It rubs me up the wrong way. I might go out and have an educational evening, but I don’t have fun.”? Or speak fondly of his father, an alcoholic schoolteacher, before admitting, “I looked up to older musicians as father figures.”? Still, despite Waits’ constant witticisms, the book is on the whole a grab-bag, only intermittently incisive.
Little wonder that his lyrics have always touched on age. Waits seemed old at 23, when, eight years after dropping out of high school, he released his first album. Closing Time (1973) was filled with songs about cars that came off the factory floor when Waits was a toddler (“‘Ol ‘55”) and love affairs that would have taken place long before he was born (“Martha”). His music was old 20 years before he was, and the journey he’s been taking since 1973 has been a process of growing into the age and the hard-won wisdom his art has always tried to capture. Like a few other American artists of the 20th century, Waits was forced to realize his raw talent through a succession of public personas that would inevitably turn from an act he had adopted to protect himself from the limelight into his actual personality. When asked about his maturation by LA’s FolkScene KPFK in 1974, Waits poured out his exhausted heart: “I’m getting better I guess…You just have to go out there with the intention of trying to entertain when people don’t want to be entertained by you.” A year later, he told the LA Free Press, “I like to call what I’m doing an improvisational adventure.” Twenty years after that, he’d clearly paid the price of maturing in the limelight. “Whatever I tell you right now would probably be a lie,” he grumbles to the Observer’s Pete Silverton in 1992 while doing press for Bone Machine.
“Comedian Martin Mull interviewed Waits as a character he’d created, talk-show host Barth Gimble, and thus connected with Waits on a level that both understood: that of the created persona.”
This is probably true, save for all of the occasions Waits speaks of his wife, Kathleen Brennan. The book is literally divided by album, with a chapter culling together the press Waits did for 19 of his major releases. If read between the lines, though, the book is actually divided between the man Waits was before marrying Brennan, and the one after.
The first is the mischievous, sad sack poet you can listen to on the albums made between 1973 and 1980, the period of time when he was still young and struggling to build a persona while dealing with fame (albeit cult fame). The interviews he gave during these years were a greater or lesser mixture of cranky outpourings of frustration (Bart Bull’s 1977 piece “After a One-Night Stand” for the Phoenix Sun-Times) and evasive/sardonic stream of consciousness-speak (Jim Gerard’s 1976 “Tom Waits for No One?” for the Northeastern Ohio Scene). A typical yin/yang effusion from 1970s-era Waits goes, “I try to make myself up on stage… I try to avoid the unnaturalness of performing.”
The second man, the one in every interview and album since 1980, is the Waits who developed after meeting Brennan during pre-production on Francis Ford Coppola’s One From the Heart, which Waits scored. After a brief courtship, Waits became a married man in 1981 and thereafter started putting out what is inarguably his best work. The post-Brennan interviews are on the whole no less sardonic than the earlier ones, but they’re also almost universally more peaceful. Of his wife, Waits has had nothing but the highest praise for 31 years. “She’s the brains behind pa,” he tells reporters over and again, quoting a lyric from an influence to describe a muse.
Waits can still be found grumbling and willfully evading silly questions after marriage; it’s just that it all seems to come from a complacent sense that doing press is necessary, and not all that painful. After the 1987 release of Frank’s Wild Years, Waits told Bill Forman of Music and Sound Output, “I’m beginning to create a world for myself that I can live in…I’m not happy or anything like that. I mean, I’m happy for a minute and then most of us are manic-depressive.”
“The post-Brennan interviews are on the whole no less sardonic than the earlier ones, but they’re also almost universally more peaceful.”
If you’re going to read Tom Waits on Tom Waits to find out something about the life of the artist, which is why most of us read this stuff, I think, then the fact that Waits mellowed out and produced better music post-marriage is heartening information. The music Waits released after he met Brennan is almost universally better — more distinctive from other artists and more memorable — than any of his 1970s stuff. So Waits is simultaneously, in the second part of his career, nicer and more artistically interesting. In other words, it’s nice to know that after a man finds himself and settles down, he can still change himself and produce more challenging work, rather than become complacent. And it’s nice to know that a man with as much of a predilection towards evasion can come across this sincere.
Going up against the evasions is the battalion of journalists who’ve dealt with Waits over the years. Of the interviewers, three distinct types emerge; or, more accurately, the interviewers as a whole develop three distinct strategies for dealing with Waits.
Some simply stick to the same questions others have asked Waits time and again throughout his career. The best Elissa van Poznak, writing for Face magazine in 1985, could come up with was, “Why do you always write about life’s suckers?” Likewise, Amanda Petrusich on Pitchfork in 2006 had questions ranging from, “What moment in your career are you most proud of?” to “Are you excited to hear [the album of Waits covers that Scarlett Johansson released]?” To be fair, Petrusich did extract from Waits a few hefty musical endorsements of Missy Elliott and Chamillionaire. Which is helpful: interviewers of this first, unimaginative type did manage to stumble into a few such fascinating tidbits over the years.
Because the second type, the interviewers who resorted to flattery, who simply brought up song after song from the album of the day, noting their lyrical content, lauding their musical range, most often enticed Waits to shy away from answering at all (usually into a notebook he’d filled with obscure facts). Bret Martin’s not-particularly-illuminating 1999 piece in Time Out New York challenges Waits with questions like, “That record was a pretty revolutionary stylistic break for you? What happened?” and “Your lyrics always have the best place names… Do you just sit around and study atlases all day?” before nailing him with the final question, “What’s a question you never get asked but wish you would?” To which Waits responded that the oldest rocks in the world went back four billion years.
“His music was old 20 years before he was, and the journey he’s been taking since 1973 has been a process of growing into the age and the hard-won wisdom his art has always tried to capture.”
Interviewers of the third kind tried to reach Waits on his own evasive, tangential, wordplay-heavy wavelength. These rise to the top of the bunch. Comedian Martin Mull interviewed Waits as a character he’d created, talk-show host Barth Gimble, and thus connected with Waits on a level that both understood: that of the created persona. Gimble put it to Waits: “Tom, where do you hail from professionally? Is it the Big Apple, as they call New York I think? Or is it Hollywood?” To which Waits gamely responded, “I live at Bedlam and Squalor. It’s thataway.”
Ironically, for a book that leans overwhelmingly towards smaller-press rock journalism, the most intriguing character in the book aside from Waits is Bart Bull, veteran journalist extraordinaire, a large-publication writer and the former West Coast editor of SPIN. Two of Bull’s Waits pieces are included — the first, the aforementioned “After a One-Night Stand” article from 1977, is the account of a fight between interviewer and interviewee that arose when a mid-tour Waits was particularly exhausted and cranky. The second, “Boho Blues,” written for Spin in 1987, is an ambitious, successful attempt to write a piece of Waits journalism in the style of Waits himself and the most insightful piece in the book.
At its absolute best, as with the Bart Bull articles, Tom Waits on Tom Waits illuminates its subject and allows a peek into the history of lesser-known late-20th century rock journalism, sometimes from now-defunct publications. Perhaps there was no way to arrange these articles and interviews in a more creative way, in a way that would have mirrored the protean form of the career the book set out to map. But maybe the arrangement of the interviews is necessarily filled with elisions and more or less random. Maybe that’s just what happens when you try to make sense of Tom Waits. If so, then the best quote in the book, wherein the artist gives a hint of his own creative philosophy, may also be the best summation of the book itself: “If you’re stuck in a song and you can’t move, take out the best lines. Get rid of them. Now finish it. That’s good advice.”