I must admit, before meeting Tom, I had heard so many rumors and so much gossip that I was afraid. Frankly, his gambling debts, his animal magnetism, coupled with his disregard for the feelings of others.
His elaborate gun collection, his mad shopping sprees, the face lifts, the ski trips, the drug busts and the hundreds of rooms in his home. The tax shelters, the public urination…I was nervous to meet the real man himself. Baggage and all. But I found him to be gentle, intelligent, open, bright, helpful, humorous, brave, audacious, loquacious, clean, and reverent. A Boy Scout, really (and a giant of a man). Join me now for a rare glimpse into the heart of Tom Waits. Remove your shoes and no smoking, please.
Q: What’s the most curious record in your collection?
A: In the seventies a record company in LA issued a record called “The best of Marcel Marceau.” It had forty minutes of silence followed by applause and it sold really well. I like to put it on for company. It really bothers me, though, when people talk through it.
Q: What are some unusual things that have been left behind in a cloakroom?
A: Well, Winston Churchill was born in a ladies cloakroom and was one sixteenth Iroquois.
Q: You’ve always enjoyed the connection between fashion and history…talk to us about that.
A: Ok let’s take the two piece bathing suit, produced in 1947 by a French fashion designer. The sight of the first woman in the minimal two piece was as explosive as the detonation of the atomic bomb by the U.S. at Bikini Island in the Marshall Isles, hence the naming of the bikini.
Q: List some artists who have shaped your creative life.
A: Okay, here are a few that just come to me for now: Kerouac, Dylan, Bukowski, Rod Serling, Don Van Vliet, Cantinflas, James Brown, Harry Belafonte, Ma Rainey, Big Mama Thorton, Howlin Wolf, Lead Belly, Lord Buckley, Mabel Mercer, Lee Marvin, Thelonious Monk, John Ford, Fellini, Weegee, Jagger, Richards, Willie Dixion, John McCormick, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson, Hoagy Carmichael, Eurico Caruso.
Q: List some songs that were beacons for you.
A: Again, for now… but if you ask me tomorrow the list would change, of course.
Gershwin’s second prelude, “Pathatique Sonata”, “El Paso”, “You’ve Really Got Me” (Kinks), “Solider Boy” (Shirelles), “Lean Back” (Fat Joe), “Night train”, “Come In My Kitchen” (R.J.) “Sad Eyed Lady”, “Rite of Spring Ode to Billy Joe”, “Louie Louie”, “Just a Fool” (Ike and Tina), “Prisoner of Love” (J.B.) “Pitch a Wing Dan Doodlec (all night long)” H. Wolf, “Ringo” (Lorne Green), “Ball and Chain”, “Deportee”, “Strange Fruit”, “Sophisticated Lady”, “Georgia On My Mind”, “Can’t Stop Loving You”, “Just Like A Woman”, “So Lonesome I Could Cry”, “Who’ll Stop The Rain?”, “Moon River”, “Autumn Leaves”, “Danny Boy”, “Dirty Ol’ Town”, “Waltzing Mathilda”, “Train Keeps a Rollin”, “Boris the Spider”, “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me”, “Red Right Hand”, “All Shook Up”, “Cause Of It All”, “Shenandoah”, “China Pig”, “Summertime”, “Without a Song”, “Auld Ang Syne”, “This is a Man’s World”, “Crawlinking Snake”, “Nassun Dorma”, “Bring it on Home to Me”, “Hound Dog”, “Hello Walls”, “You Win Again”, “Sunday Morn’ Coming Down”, “Almost Blue”, “Pump It Up”, “Greensleeves”, “Just Wanna See His Face” (Stones), “Restless Farewell”, “Fairytale of NY”, “Bring Me A Little Water Sylvie”, “Raglan Road”, “96 Tears”, “In Dreams” (R. Orbison), “Substitute”, “Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues”, Theme from Rawhide, “Same Thing”, “Walk Away Rene”, “For What it’s Worth”, theme from “Once Upon A Time In America”, “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing”, “Oh Holy Night”, “Mass in E Minor”, “Harlem Shuffle”, “Trouble Man”, “Wade in The Water”, “Empty Bed Blues”, “Havanagila”
Q: What’s heaven for you?
A: Me and my wife on Rte. 66 with a pot of coffee, a cheap guitar, pawnshop tape recorder in a Motel 6, and a car that runs good parked right by the door.
Q: What’s hard for you?
A: Mostly I straddle reality and the imagination. My reality needs imagination like a bulb needs a socket. My imagination needs reality like a blind man needs a cane. Math is hard. Reading a map. Following orders. Carpentry. Electronics. Plumbing. Remembering things correctly. Straight lines. Sheet rock. Finding a safety pin. Patience with others. Ordering in Chinese. Stereo instructions in German.
Q: What’s wrong with the world?
A: We are buried beneath the weight of information, which is being confused with knowledge; quantity is being confused with abundance and wealth with happiness. Leona Helmsley’s dog made 12 million last year… and Dean McLaine, a farmer in Ohio made $30,000. It’s just a gigantic version of the madness that grows in every one of our brains. We are monkeys with money and guns.
Q: Favorite scenes in movies?
A: R. De Niro in the ring in Raging Bull. Julie Christie’s face in Heaven Can Wait when she said, “Would you like to get a cup of coffee?” James Dean in East of Eden telling the nurse to get out when his dad has had a stroke and he’s sitting by his bed. Marlena Dietrich in Touch of Evil saying “He was some kind of man.” Scout saying “Hey Mr. Cunningham” in the scene in To Kill A Mockingbird. Nic Cage falling apart in the drug store in Matchstick Men…and eating a cockroach in Vampire’s Kiss. The last scene in Chinatown.
Q: Can you describe a few other scenes from movies that have always stayed with you?
A: Rod Steiger in Pawn Broker explaining to the Puerto Rican all about gold. Brando in The Godfather dying in the tomatoes with scary orange teeth. Lee Marvin in Emperor Of The North riding under the box car, Borgnine bouncing steel off his ass. Dennis Weaver at the motel saying “I am just the night man,” holding onto a small tree in, Touch of Evil. The hanging in Oxbow Incident. The speech by Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner as he’s dying. Anthony Quinn dancing on the beach in Zorba. Nicholson in Witches of Eastwick covered in feathers in the church as the ladies stick needles in the voodoo doll. When Mel Gibson’s Blue Healer gets shot with an arrow in Road Warrior. When Rachel in The Exorcist says “could you help an old alter boy father?” The blind guy in the tavern in Treasure Island. Frankenstein after he strangles the young girl by the river.
Q: Can you tell me an odd thing that happened in an odd place? Any thoughts?
A: A Japanese freighter had been torpedoed during WWII and it’s at the bottom of Tokyo Harbor with a large hole in her hull. A team of engineers was called together to solve the problem of raising the wounded vessel to the surface. One of the engineers tackling this puzzle said he remembered seeing a Donald Duck cartoon when he was a boy where there was a boat at the bottom of the ocean with a hole in its hull, and they injected it with ping-pong balls and it floated up. The skeptical group laughed but one of the experts was willing to give it a try. Of course, where in the world would you find twenty million ping-pong balls but in Tokyo? It turned out to be the perfect solution. The balls were injected into the hull and it floated to the surface, the engineer was altered. Moral- solutions to problems are always found at an entirely different level; also, believe in yourself in the face of impossible odds.
Q: Most interesting recording you own?
A: It’s a mysteriously beautiful recording from, I am told, Robbie Robertson’s label. It’s of crickets. That’s right, crickets, the first time I heard it… I swore I was listening to the Vienna Boys Choir, or the Mormon Tabernacle choir. It has a four-part harmony it is a swaying choral panorama. Then a voice comes in on the tape and says, “What you are listening to is the sound of crickets. The only thing that has been manipulated is that they slowed down the tape.” No effects have been added of any kind except that they changed the speed of the tape. The sound is so haunting. I played it for Charlie Musselwhite and he looked at me as if I pulled a Leprechaun out of my pocket.
Q: You are fascinated with irony, what is irony?
A: Chevrolet was puzzled when they discovered that their sales for the Chevy Nova were off the charts everywhere but in Latin America. They finally realized that “Nova” in Spanish translates to “no go.” Not the best name for a car… anywhere “no va”.
Q: Do you have words to live by?
A: Jim Jarmusch once told me “Fast, Cheap, and Good… pick two. If it’s fast and cheap it wont be good. If it’s cheap and good it won’t be fast. If it’s fast and good it wont be cheap.” Fast, cheap and good… pick (2) words to live by.
Q: What is on Hemmingway’s gravestone?
A: “Pardon me for not getting up.”
Q: How would you compare guitarists Marc Ribot and Smokey Hormel?
A: Octopus have eight and squid have ten tentacles, each with hundreds of suction cups and each have the power to burst a man’s artery. They have small birdlike beaks used to inject venom into a victim. Some gigantic squid and octopus with one hundred foot tentacles have been reported. Squids have been known to pull down entire boats to feed on the disoriented sailors in the water. Many believe unexplained, sunken deep-sea vessels, and entire boat disappearances are the handiwork of giant squid.
Q: What have you learned from parenthood?
A: “Never loan your car to anyone to whom you’ve given birth.” – Erma Bombeck
Q: Now Tom, for the grand prize… who said, “He’s the kind of man a woman would have to marry to get rid of”?
A: Mae West
Q: Who said, “Half the people in America are just faking it”?
A: Robert Mitchem (who actually died in his sleep). I think he was being generous and kind when he said that.
Q: What remarkable things have you found in unexpected places?
A: 1. Real beauty: oil stains left by cars in a parking lot.
2. Shoe shine stand that looked like thrones in Brazil made of scrap wood.
3. False teeth in pawnshop windows- Reno, NV
4. Great acoustics: in jail.
5. Best food: Airport in Tulsa Oklahoma.
6. Most gift shops: Fatima, Portugal.
8. Most unlikely location for a Chicano crowd: A Morrissey concert.
9. Most poverty: Washington D.C.
10 A homeless man with a beautiful operatic voice singing the word “Bacteria” in an empty dumpster in Chinatown.
11. A Chinese man with a Texan accent in Scotland.
12. Best nights sleep-in a dry riverbed in Arizona.
13. Most people who wear red pants- St. Louis.
14. Most beautiful horses, N.Y.C.
15. A judge in Baltimore MD1890 presided over a trial where a man who was accused of murder and was guilty, and convicted by a jury of his peers… and was let go- when the judge said to him at the end of the trial “You are guilty sir… but I cannot put in jail an innocent man.” You see – the murderer was a Siamese twin.
16. Largest penis (in proportion to its body)- The Barnacle
Q: Tom, you love words and their origins. For $2,000…what is the origin of the word bedlam?
A: It’s a contraction of the word Bethlehem. It comes from the hospital of Saint Mary of Bethlehem outside London. The hospital began admitting mental patients in the late fourteenth century. In the sixteenth century it became a lunatic asylum. The word bedlam came to be used for any madhouse- and by extension, for any scene of noisy confusion.
Q: What is up with your ears?
A: I have an audio stigmatism where by I hear things wrong- I have audio illusions. I guess now they say ADD. I have a scrambler in my brain and it takes what is said and turns it into pig Latin and feeds it back to me.
Q: Most thrilling musical experience?
A: My most thrilling musical experience was in Time Square, over thirty years ago. There was a rehearsal hall around the Brill Building where all the rooms were divided into tiny spaces with just enough room to open the door. Inside was a spinet piano- cigarette burns, missing keys, old paint and no pedals. You go in and close the door and it’s so loud from other rehearsals you can’t really work- so you stop and listen and the goulash of music was thrilling. Scales on a clarinet, tango, light opera, sour string quartet, voice lessons, someone belting out “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, garage bands, and piano lessons. The floor was pulsing, the walls were thin. As if ten radios were on at the same time, in the same room. It was a train station of music with all the sounds milling around… for me it was heavenly.
Q: What would you have liked to see but were born too late for?
A: Vaudeville. So much mashing of cultures and bizarre hybrids. Delta Blues guitarists and Hawaiian artists thrown together resulting in the adoption of the slide guitar as a language we all take for granted as African American. But it was a cross pollination, like most culture. Like all cultures. George Burns was a vaudeville performer I particularly loved. Dry and unflappable, curious, and funny — no matter what he said. He could dance too. He said, “Too bad the only people that know how to run the country are busy driving cabs and cutting hair.”
Q: What is a gentleman?
A: A man who can play the accordion, but doesn’t.
Q: Favorite Bucky Fuller quote?
A: “Fire is the sun unwinding itself from the wood”.
Q: What do you wonder about?
A: 1. Do bullets know whom they are intended for?
2. Is there a plug in the bottom of the ocean?
3. What do jockeys say to their horses?
4. How does a newspaper feel about winding up papier-mÃ¢chÃ©?
5. How does it feel to be a tree by a freeway?
6. Sometimes a violin sounds like a Siamese cat; the first violin strings were made from cat gut- any connection?
7. When is the world going to rear up and scrape us off its back?
8. Will we humans eventually intermarry with robots?
9. Is a diamond just a piece of coal with patience?
10. Did Ella Fitzgerald really break that wine glass with her voice?
Q: What are some sounds you like?
A: 1. An asymmetrical airline carousel created a high pitched haunted voice brought on by the friction of rubbing and it sounded like a big wet finger circling the rim of a gigantic wine glass.
2. Street corner evangelists
3. Pile drivers in Manhattan
4. My wife’s singing voice
5. Horses coming/trains coming
6. Children when school’s out
7. Hungry crows
8. Orchestra tuning up
9. Saloon pianos in old westerns
11. Headlights hit by a shotgun
12. Ice melting
13. Printing presses
14. Ball game on a transistor radio
15. Piano lessons coming from an apartment window
16. Old cash registers/Ca Ching
17. Muscle cars
18. Tap dancers
19. Soccer crowds in Argentina
21. Fog horns
22. A busy restaurant kitchen
23. Newsrooms in old movies
24. Elephants stampeding
25. Bacon frying
26. Marching bands
27. Clarinet lessons
29. A fight bell
30. Chinese arguments
31. Pinball machines
32. Children’s orchestras
33. Trolley bell
35. A Zippo lighter
37. Bass steel drums
39. Stroh Violin
40. Muted trumpet
41. Tobacco Auctioneers
42. Musical saw
The world’s making music all the time.
Q: What’s scary to you?
A: 1. A dead man in the backseat of a car with a fly crawling on his eyeball.
2. Turbulence on any airline.
3. Sirens and search lights combined.
4. Gunfire at night in bad neighborhoods.
5. Car motor turning over but not starting, its getting dark and starting to rain.
6. Jail door closing.
7. Going around a sharp curve on the Pacific Coast Highway and the driver of your car has had a heart attack and died, and you’re in the back seat.
8. You are delivering mail and you are confronted with a Doberman with rabies growling low and showing teeth…you have no dog bones and he wants to bite your ass off.
9. In a movie…which wire do you cut to stop the time bomb, the green or the blue.
10. Mc Cain will win.
11. Germans with submachine guns.
12. Officers, in offices, being official.
13. You fell through the ice in the creek and it carried you down stream, and now as you surface you realize there’s a roof of ice.
Q: Tell me about working with Terry Gilliam.
A: I am the Devil in the Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus–not a devil…The Devil. I don’t know why he thought of me. I was raised in the church. Gilliam and I met on Fisher King. He is a giant among men and I am in awe of his films. Munchausen I’ve seen a hundred times. Brazil is a crowning achievement. Brothers Grimm was my favorite film last year. I had most of my scenes with Christopher Plummer (He’s Dr. Parnassus). Plummer is one of the greatest actors on earth! Mostly I watch and learn. He’s a real movie star and a gentleman. Gilliam is an impresario, captain, magician, a dictator (a nice one), a genius, and a man you’d want in the boat with you at the end of the world.
Q: Give me some fresh song titles you two are working on?
A: “Ghetto Buddha”, “Waiting For My Good Luck To Come”, “I’ll Be an Oak Tree Some Day”, “In the Cage”, “Hell Broke Loose”, “Spin The Bottle”, “High and Lonesome”.
Q: You’re going on the road soon, right?
A: We’re going to PEHDTSCKJMBA (Phoenix, El Paso, Houston, Dallas, Tulsa, St. Louis, Columbus, Knoxville, Jacksonville, Mobile, Birmingham, Atlanta). I have a stellar band: Larry Taylor (upright bass), Patrick Warren (keyboards), Omar Torrez (guitars), Vincent Henry (woodwinds) and Casey Waits (drums and percussion). They play with racecar precision and they are all true conjurers. I’m doing songs with them I’ve never attempted outside the studio. They are all multi-instrumentalists and they polka like real men. We are the Borman Six and as Putney says, “The Borman Six have got to have soul.”
Courtesy: Tresa Redburn
Photo Credit: Michael O’Brien.