The Variations of Tom Waits

Or: What do Liberace, Rodney Dangerfield,and a one-armed pianist have in common?

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Everything you are about to read is a lie. Well, perhaps that is an exaggeration, much like most of what comes out of Tom Waits's mouth. It's not as though he doesn't know the truth, it's just less fun to tell it.

Every interview--and he has handed out only a handful in conjunction with the release of the brand-new Mule Variations--reads as though it were granted by a stand-up trying out new material, throwing out anything with the hope that at least some of it will shtick. Ask him what took so long between the release of 1992's Bone Machine and Mule Variations, and he's likely to respond that he's been in traffic school or breaking in other people's shoes. Today's response?

"Sheet rock, plumbing, and electrical."
His publicist had warned as much, hinting that there's no need to try to, ya know, interview the man. He will do and say as he pleases--ramble at length about something he's making up on the spot, filter "the truth" through a dozen fictions, even reuse his old tried-and-true jokes when all else fails. The result is an experience that seems at first excruciating and useless; it's only when listening to the interview again on tape that it all begins to make sense. It's not what he says; it's what he almost says, what he almost discloses. It's about the pauses, the shifts in tone, the revelations that blur into one-liners--the straight man who steps aside and lets the stand-up do his talking for him.

Only a few minutes into the conversation, Waits is discussing why, during a performance in March in Austin, Texas, he decided to perform so many of his older, better-known songs along with those from Mule Variations. Myriad times before, he insisted he hated hauling out those old numbers ("The Heart of Saturday Night," "Jockey Full of Bourbon," and "Downtown Train" among them), dusting them off for the ravenous crowd. He didn't want to become a lounge act doing his best-of monkey dance for tips.

That night was different: He sat at the piano or stood behind the microphone stand (which he gripped so tightly, it looked as though he would bend the metal) and performed each song, old and new, as though he had just discovered it at his door, a bow wrapped around its tiny, pink frame. He didn't merely play the old songs; he laid into them, turned dormant memories into flesh and blood. Waits explains that there was something about staying at the historic Driskill Hotel that made him want to go bravely into the past. That, and the fact that having gone so long without playing them made the songs feel brand new in a way . . . maybe, he shrugs, because they are.

"Sometimes it seems appropriate," he says, in a voice that sounds remarkably warm and inviting, like an old friend's handshake. "I mean, that's what songs do ideally--underscore something that's happening or allow you to revisit something."

He explains that songs begin to mean something different ten or fifteen years after they're first written. "Well, sometimes they start out like prayers, you know? Your own. . . wish," he begins. "And sometimes, in a very ironic way, I guess they end up fulfilled and sometimes unfulfilled. Sometimes all you've got is the song."

He is asked if that's enough--to have only the song, nothing more or less.
"Gee, we're getting metaphysical here." He laughs, a quick and hoarse henh-henh-henh-henh. "Is that enough? That's one of those questions that doesn't have an answer. Ask Susan Hayward. She'll know the answer to that. Ask Sylvia Miles. Ask Warren Oates. He's out in the corral." He laughs again.

There are 57 minutes more like that--deep talk cushioned by throwaway one-liners and the accompanying gruff laughter of a man who cracks himself up.

Perhaps that's just as well: All you need to know about Tom Waits is right there on each of his albums, beginning with 1973's Closing Time, on which a 24-year-old kid from Southern California with a notebook full of Cole Porter melodies and Jack Kerouac lyrics introduced himself with songs about old cars and lost, long-distance loves. All you need to know is there on The Heart of Saturday Night, Small Change, Foreign Affairs, Blue Valentine, and Heartattack and Vine--the blue-note, jazzbo, boozy, bloozy records he made for Elektra/Asylum in the 1970s. All you need to know is there on Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, Frank's Wild Years, Bone Machine--the salvage-yard symphonies made by the guy who wanted to see how out out there really was and found what he was looking for when he started pounding on brake drums with Howlin' Wolf's bones.

And all you need to know is right there on Mule Variations, the record made by a 49-year-old husband and father of three who ends the disc with the most beautiful, hopeful song of his entire career: "Take It With Me." For the first time in forever, Waits unabashedly sings. There is no growl to hide behind, no harsh barrier between maker and taker, only these simple, heartfelt words: "Children are playing at the end of the day/Strangers are singing on our lawn . . . All that you've loved is all you own/I'm gonna take it with me when I go."

Waits has made a career out of distancing himself from his songs, singing through a voice found at the bottom of an ashtray, but he's never been able to completely disappear. All those years spent living in his car, playing dead-end Hollywood dives even Raymond Chandler's characters would avoid, pretending he's Neal Cassady on the lam with Kerouac, turning raindrops into diamonds, giving voice to the voiceless--somewhere buried not too deep beneath all of that is the romantic, hopeful, sanguine Tom Waits of Pomona, California, the son of schoolteachers.

And he's a funny guy, that Tom. So what if he doesn't always go for deep and meaningful? Either you like the sound of a barking dog, or you buy yourself a cat.

They approached him as though he were a freak-show attraction, the Monkey Boy escaped from the circus. They were curious, amused, delighted at the sight of their hero sitting near the bar in the cozy confines of the venerable Driskill Hotel in downtown Austin. Waits could often be found downstairs in the Driskill, waiting alone or with wife, Kathleen Brennan. Hidden beneath his dusty brown hat, swathed in black denim, he looked as if he didn't want to be bothered.

But that never stopped them, the fans and the fetishists, from getting the bartender to send over their gallons of brown liquor--compliments of that young man over there, sir. They ordered up the most expensive bourbon in the joint, convinced that their hero--a man who once swam laps in the stuff--would be pleased.

Waits gracefully declined their offers, shooed away their gestures with a gruff but friendly no thanks. You see, he doesn't drink anymore, hasn't for years. He's a responsible father, a husband, a country gentleman who moved to the countryside north of San Francisco so he could piss in the great outdoors. That's about as licentious as he gets these days; Tom's wild years are well behind him, buried beneath the parking lot that used to be the Tropicana Hotel in Hollywood.

Still, to the fawning faithful, Waits exists now as he did two decades ago--as the Bowery Bum living in the dumpsters of Tin Pan Alley, as George Gershwin dolled up in Salvation Army drag. They see him now as they saw him then--in a cigarette-smoke haze with a Wild Turkey chaser, a dog-eared copy of On the Road in one hand and a still-smoldering, down-to-the-butt Viceroy in the other. They recall him as he appeared on the cover of 1976's Small Change, looking so beat that he can't even stand to gaze upon the stripper standing a few feet away. They see him as he appeared on the back of 1978's Blue Valentine: hovering over a woman (ex-girlfriend Rickie Lee Jones, actually) as she leans against the hood of his beat-ta-shit Fine American Roadster.

It's all so romantic, all so seedy, and all so tragic--the man with "a bad liver and a broken heart," as he groaned-moaned on Small Change; the man who "don't have a drinking problem 'cept when I can't get a drink." And maybe Waits is partly to blame for his fans' perception of him. No performer ever went so far out of his way to become his songs, to live in the worn-out skin of the broke-down sumbitch who has his mail forwarded to the corner of Pork and Beans.

"It's compulsive to create a mythology about others and to create a certain amount of mythology about oneself," he says. "You put a light on it, and if you take water out of the river, it's no longer a river--it's water in a can. You put a light on yourself and ya stand on stage, you're masking out a great deal. Same is true of songs that were extracted from a particular experience. There's a careful operation. It's like history. What you choose to ignore is part of the history as well."

Then, it's easy to forget that all myths were once children, that they had parents who loved them, that there are pictures somewhere of a baby-faced Tom Waits, who spoke in a high voice and hadn't yet lit up his first cigarette. Waits was born into the middle class on December 7, 1949, the son of schoolteachers, Frank Waits (who taught Spanish) and Alma McMurray, who divorced when he was ten. He lived for a while in Whittier, California, then moved with his mom to National City, near the Mexican border; he would spend much time in Mexico, especially with his father.

He says now that it was during those trips to Mexico that he realized music was the job for him. Songs spoke to him, embraced him like an old friend. The child who had taped Bob Dylan lyrics to his walls, who taught himself how to play piano using the neighbor's instrument, found all he was looking for in a Mexican ballad. He can't remember the exact name--and if he could, he'd just make it up anyway--only that it was "probably a ranchera, you know, on the car radio with my dad." He sings a snippet of one in rasping, perfect Spanish. "Probably one of those."

But what was it about that song that made him realize he wasn't simply a fan, but someone who could write his own songs?

"That's when it's more important that music likes you," he explains. "Everybody loves music, but it's important that music likes you. Some people work good with animals--they really love animals--but what if the animals don't like them? A lot of it is in the hand. It's like medicine. Every procedure in medicine requires two hands. The same is true in music, for the most part. I mean, there are a lot of pieces written for one-armed piano players.

"In fact, I met a one-armed piano player in Chicago when I was on the road doin' clubs all the time. His name was Eddie Balchovsky. He was also a painter who had fought in the Spanish Civil War. He was excellent. And the song he played over and over again was called 'Without a Song.' You know that song? Bob Dylan quoted it one night at an awards ceremony: 'Without a song, the road will never bend/Without a song.' He would slam that hand down on the piano, and he'd do the low chords, and then he'd slam over and hit the octaves, then he'd get it in the middle there. It sounded huge. He sounded like Horowitz. He actually did have a nub on the end of his stump. It was like a little finger, so he could pick up a little bit with that. But it's. . . hmmmm. Where were we?"

No one could ever blame the audience for thinking that the man on stage was The Real Thing--the tramp who wandered in through the back door with a bottle of whiskey in his tattered coat pocket, his lyrics written in the mud beneath his fingernails. He inhabited the role too well for a while, drank too much and smoked too much and kept telling the same stories over and over. Waits, for a while, was the corner drunk trying to getcha t'c'merebuddy so he could exaggerate yesterday's lies.

But in the end, he is no less than a poet pounding out his tales on the keys of a piano. At his best, on songs such as "On the Nickel" (originally written for a documentary about homeless children) or "Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis" or "Small Change" or the brand new "Georgia Lee," he allows you inside a world you tried to escape from or never wanted to visit. He noticed things others weren't even keen enough to ignore. The man was, and remains, all about the details--the little boys "who never comb their hair," the kid who "got rained on with his own .38," the man whose only dance partner is the broom he uses to clean up the pizza parlor, or twelve-year-old Georgia Lee Moses, murdered and forgotten till Waits came to tend to her grave. Waits knew about all those things, had worked the shitty job at Napoleone's Pizza House and read the tiny newspaper item about Georgia Lee, but it hardly matters where the stories came from. After all, no one ever asks a fiction writer if he's telling the truth.

"You use the word 'I' or 'me' in a song, and you're telling about some disparate tale, and [people go], 'My God, is that autobiographical?' Novelists aren't performers. Novelists are chicken." He busts up. "No, no, I don't know what it is. It's solo work. People only got to go on what you give them. It's all show business.

"We have this thing about onstage and backstage. It's that keyhole mentality." His voice lowers. "'What's goin' on back there? Is he putting on stockings and a garter belt? What's going on back there? Who ordered the Yukon Jack?' Not me. I don't know. Uh, most of us have a limited perspective on the rest of us. You know three or four things about somebody, and ya put it together and make a story. I don't know.

"I do the same thing myself. I want to know more about Liberace, okay? I heard this story that he was bringing the dry-cleaning up to his room, and he fell asleep on his bed, and the fumes got to him, and he passed out and went to the hospital and eventually recovered. But is that what really happened? Or was he doin' crack out on Euclid Avenue? It's just our innate celebrity curiosity, I guess. It goes with the territory. The mind is only able to wrap itself around three or four little rough sketches of folks, and then . . . But, hey, that's the public."

He is referring now to those folks at the Driskill who kept sending him whiskey.

"That's not my family. Those aren't my friends. My friends and family don't relate to me like that. That's the ventriloquist act. I went to see Rodney Dangerfield, and imagine what happens to him. 'I get no respect . . . please.' I mean, you know by now he gets an inordinate amount of respect as a humorist, right, so how does he deal with the fact that he has to go out every night and say, 'I get no respect, no respect at all'? I asked him how he feels when people start doin' his act, and he says, 'It's like hittin' my kid.'" Waits laughs hysterically. "People are possessive about their act, because you're kinda like hangin' out there in the wind like you're Marcel Marceau or whoever you are."

He then pauses, long enough to allow for the comedian's beat.
"Marcel Marceau's got a new album out, by the way." He cackles. "They say you should listen to it very loud."

Waits once made records that were opulent, sentimental, loaded with more strings than a week at Wimbledon. He says now he will never go there again--it's too sweet for him, too manipulative. He prefers the clang and twang of his post-Swordfishtrombones albums--the abstract dissonance obscuring pretty pop songs, the furor that gives way to the occasional meditative respite.

"I guess now I'd say I'm more in the salvage business," he explains. "I'm more eccentric, I guess, in that sense."

He says that were it not for Kathleen, his wife and collaborator since 1980, Mule Variations would undoubtedly feature fewer ballads and more uptempo pieces--songs that "are a beat quicker than the heart," he explains. Nine such songs were discarded from the new record, and they may yet resurface.

After a while, Waits begins to talk about the fact that every single one of his records is schizophrenic in a way, torn between chaos and solace--between the kerrang-and-bang dissonance of "Big in Japan," which kicks off Mule Variations, and the mournful farewell of "Georgia Lee," a song that could well have been on his 1970s albums. He coughs slightly, then begins to explain the unexplainable.

"I have unreconcilable influences, I think, and I think that's what shows up on the record for me sometimes," Waits says. "You know, I end up with the Cuban and the Chinese, but it never really becomes Cuban-Chinese. Henh. I just kind of like accepted that, that I have the different sides to me--that I like Rachmaninoff and I also like the Contortions. So be it. Shoot me. Otherwise you feel at a certain point like you're wearing Bermuda shorts and a bathing cap and fishing boots and a necktie."

Is that a bad thing?
"I didn't say it was a bad thing, but at a certain point, when you're in your twenties, I think maybe you equate music . . . music is. . . um . . . some people are afraid . . . Uh, gee, I don't know how to put that. It's like Bob Dylan said: Some people are afraid of the bomb, and some people are afraid of being seen with a Modern Screen magazine under their arm." He chuckles. "Right?"

After a moment, Waits is asked when he realized it was okay to have those irreconcilable influences. Perhaps it was Heartattack and Vine in 1980, or maybe it was 1983's Swordfishtrombones, the beginning of his "Frank's Wild Years" trilogy that sounded as though it were recorded at Fred Sanford's house. Waits is having none of it.

"There's a lot of intelligence in the hands," he explains. "When you pick up a shovel, the hands know what to do. The same thing's true of sitting at the piano--your hands just, after a while, kind of wrap themselves around certain structures and voicings. I think it's good to kind of surprise yourself sometimes. It's like, I've got a friend who's a painter who wears glasses. He goes out in the woods, takes off his glasses, and draws, you know, 'cause everything looks different. "It's like, when I went down to Mexico, and I went into a sushi bar, and the guy asked me if I want that with or without cheese," he says, cracking himself up. "I said, 'Awright, this is a good thing.'"

And Waits keeps right on laughing.

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