This article originally appeared in the November 1985 issue of SPIN.
Tom Waits has a voice that could guide ships through dense fog. He sings songs that are poetic, hilarious, scary, touching, hallucinatory, and fine. Maybe he’s like John Lee Hooker, Mose Allison, Neville Brand, Francois Villon, Soren Kierkegaard, Lenny Bruce, and Wallace Beery rolled into one. Sometimes his band sounds like a Salvation Army combo covering a Stones tune. But nothing really sounds like Waits. Or writes like. Or looks like. Or talks like.
His new album, Rain Dogs (on Island Records), is his tenth. His songs have also been done by the Eagles, Bette Midler, Jerry Jeff Walker, Lee Hazelwood, Dion, Richie Havens, Manhattan Transfer, Martin Mull, and Barbi Benton. His score for Francis Ford Coppola’s One From the Heart was nominated for an Oscar. He has also acted in Coppola’s films: The Outsiders, Rumblefish (pool hall owner), and Cotton Club (club manager Herman Stark). In the next year he will star in films directed by Jim Jarmusch and Robert Frank, and, he hopes, bring the musical play he’s been working on for a couple of years now to Broadway.
What’s happening with your musical?
It’s going to be done in Chicago in the late spring by the Steppenwolf Company, which did Balm in Gilead and Orpheus. Terry Kinney is going to direct it. He’s in Orpheus. It’s called Frank’s Wild Years.
That was a song on your Swordfishtrombone album. Are you using songs from that album?
It’s going to be all new, written just for the show.
Are you in it?
Yeah, I’m Frank. I never acted on stage before. I’m studying for it.
What do you have to learn?
I just have to learn honest, truthful behavior, that’s all.
How do you learn that?
Just from practice, like anything else. It’s kind of early on in the production now. We’re going to have a reading of it in a few weeks. We’ll find out what sticks to the wall and what doesn’t. I’d like it to be as unconventional as possible and still have some focus and structure and credibility. It’s going to be stylized. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a musical that I’ve liked, really.
Did you write the book?
I wrote it with Kathleen Brennan.
How did you collaborate?
With great difficulty.
Did you work together or did you send stuff back and forth?
Well, she’s my wife. We sent stuff back and forth. Like dishes, books, frying pans, vases.
Does it start out like the song, with Frank burning his house down?
It actually starts out with Frank at the end of his rope, despondent, penniless, on a park bench in East St. Louis in a snowstorm, having a going-out-of-business sale on the whole last ten years of his life. Like the guys around here on Houston Street with a little towel on the sidewalk, some books, some silverware, a radio that doesn’t work, maybe a Julie London album. Then he falls asleep and dreams his way back home. I’ve been saying that it’s a cross between Eraserhead and It’s a Wonderful Life.
Ever work with your wife before?
No, this is a first. And a last.
Do you think it’s hard to be critical with somebody that you’re close to?
Yeah. Or it’s hard not to be critical.
So, what’s your day like?
Well, lately it’s been a little easier. I get up at about 7 o’clock with the baby and I get the Rice Krispies going and the french toast, then I put on Mr. Rogers.
How old is the baby?
Does the baby watch Mr. Rogers or do you?
I watch it and I make her watch it with me. I do subtitles. I do a Fourteenth Street version of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood where everybody’s out of work and selling drugs on the corner. When I was a kid the show was Sheriff John. He was a policeman. That’s who I was forced to get to know.
In New York we had Office Joe Bolton, an Irish cop; he was the host of the Three Stooges show, which, I guess, was supposed to keep a lid on the knucklehead behavior. What’s you baby’s name?
Well, we haven’t picked a name yet. I told her that when she’s 18 she can pick any name she wants. In the meantime, we’ll call her something different every day.
What is she today?
Max today. She’s been everything. We just can’t seem to make up our minds. When she meets somebody and likes them she takes their name. She speaks 17 languages . She’s now in military school in Connecticut. I only get to see her on weekends. At night when I get home all the kids line up in their uniforms and Joe Bob’s got my martini and Max has my slippers and Roosevel has my pipe. They all said “Hello, Daddy!”
So what happens after Mr. Rogers?
Well, I usually go to sleep under the table somewhere. Every day is different. I go over to the seminary on Tenth Avenue a lot. For a couple of hours. Just to relax. It reminds me of Illinois. I’ve been doing the record for months, so I just got a break. I was getting two or three hours of sleep every couple of months.
Did you record in the daytime?
Yeah, from about 10 in the morning. I was working in midtown. I had to fight all the traffic and all the other commuters. the hardest thing was just getting to the studio. After that I was alright.
This album has really a lot of songs on it.
Nineteen. Everybody says that’s too many.
Did you record others that didn’t make it on the record?
Yeah, I did about 25 all together. There’s a religious song that didn’t get on the album. It’s called “Bethlehem, Pa.” it’s about a guy named Bob Christ. There were a couple of others.
What happens to those?
They’re orphans. They’re on their own.
I’m really interested in the songs that don’t make it onto albums.
I end up dismantling them. It’s just like having a car that doesn’t run. You just use it for parts. “The rest of the guys are gonna have to go out there now and bring Dad home some money. So all of you guys go out there and stick together. Bob, you look out for your younger brother there. And all of you go out there into the world of radio and performance value.” I feel like Fagin.
It took a long time to record this album, two and a half months. The recording process has a peak, and then it dissipates. You have to be careful that it doesn’t go on too long. Then you start to unravel everything.
Nowadays, if you want a certain sound you don’t have to get it now, you can get it later. When you’re mixing, electronically. I wanted to get it now, so I feel like I cooked it and I ate it. You can establish percussion sounds later electronically. But I ended up banging on things so I felt that it really responded. If I couldn’t get the right sound out of the drum set we’d get a chest of drawers in the bathroom and hit it real hard with a two-by-four. Things like that. That’s on “Singapore.” Those little things made me feel more involved than sampling on a synthesizer.
How did you wind up getting Keith Richards to play on this album?
I had this thing I used to say. This sound, I didn’t know how to identify it, and I used to say, “That Keith Richards—type style thing.” So instead of learning how to explain what I meant, I heard he was coming to New York, and it worked out.
Now you’re going on tour. Do you pick your tour band just on musicianship or do you try to pick people who are easy to get along with?
In a way, I pick people who are easy to get along with. I just have the road manager make announcements. “Whatever you do, don’t go to Tom with all of your problems. If you have problems with girlfriends, if you have problems with your instruments or travel plans, please see the road manager. Do not approach Tom with any personal problems! I repeat: do not approach Tom with any personal problems!” I’m best when I don’t get involved. “Do not discuss salary with Tom!” It’s going to be good.
Do you ever listen to music?
It’s hard for me to sit down and just do that. I like it best when I hear it coming through the wall in a hotel room. I like it best on a bad speaker from a block away.
I find that if I go for a long time without listening to any music, I become vulnerable to what I hear. Like, I’ll go around for a whole day whistling “This Bud’s for you…”
Yeah, you really have to watch your musical diet, especially when you’re trying to write something. A couple of years ago on my wife’s birthday we heard a song called “Jesus’ Blood Never Fails,” and it stayed in my head for so long.
Have you ever been asked to do a commercial?
A couple. They wanted me for American Airlines. But we couldn’t get the money up. A recreational vehicle company wanted me to do an ad for them. I’ve had offers for beer commercials.
I could have sworn I saw Robert Gordon in a Budweiser commercial.
Yeah, that was him.
Dr. John does that toilet paper commercial.
Yeah, “Roll all night long.” He also does a cookie commercial.
Springsteen turned down $12 million to appear in a Chrysler commercial for three seconds.
Yeah, they came to me first. The same offer, $12 million, but they wanted me to be in it for one second. I said, “Forget it! Go ask Bruce.”
Maybe they could get John Cougar. Unless his name identifies him too much with General Motors.
Honda offered me $150,000 to do that commercial. That’s twice what Lou got. They said I could write my own copy. Chevrolet! They won’t leave me alone. Then a feminine hygiene commercial wanted me.
Summer’s Eve Disposable Douche makes you feel fresh as a country lane?
Those were my lines! I just couldn’t say them. I tried so many different ways, I just couldn’t make it.
It’s hard, because we’re so product-oriented that our only real spiritual leadership comes from that angle, chasing the dollar. It’s like’s OK if you get enough money for it. Selling out is alright as long as you get enough.
I don’t hold the toilet paper commercial against Dr. John, though. There’s a guy who deserves to make some money.
But I don’t know if he’s got enough.
I’ve heard that record companies are sick of paying for videos, so they’re trying to get companies to pay to have their products displayed in them.
Yeah, you see that all over in films now. Whenever they’re in the kitchen you’re going to see Nabisco. It’s weird, though. You spend all this time on the road and then you realize that in a matter of seconds you can reach more people than you have in the last 17 years. That’s a little hard to swallow.
How do you audition a road manager?
Well, you take a couple of candidates out toe the Mojave Desert and you leave the car by the side of the road and you walk for a couple of days, and when you get to a stream, the guys that want to drink from a cup, those are the guys you don’t want. It’s the guys that throw themselves headlong into the stream and just drink, those are the best soldiers. What I’m really looking for, though, is an all-midget orchestra. They could all stay in the same room and on stage they could all share the same light.
What’s your life like on the road?
Well, you get up in the morning, along with millions of other Americans, and you go to the airport. You get to a new town. I go to the Chamber of Commerce as soon as I get in and talk to whoever is in charge. Sometimes I do. But most of the time you really don’t know where you are. It’s very possible that you may come out on stage and say, “It’s great to be here in St. Louis” and you could very well be in Denver or Settle. That’s happened.
I really hate it when bands come out and say “Hello, New York.”
It’s an arrogant remark, isn’t it? Assuming that everyone of value connected with New York is there. I think it should be against the law for anyone to name a band after a city. Boston, Chicago, any of those.
I was so surprised when I found out that Oregon was a jazz band.
Yeah, that’s not right.
When I met you about two years ago you were just sort of visiting New York, and you’ve been here ever since. Was that a radical change. Being a New Yorker by accident?
We’ve moved eight times since we’ve been here. New York is like a ship. It’s like a ship full of rats, and the water’s on fire. People move to Brooklyn and say, “I feel isolated.” That’s insane.
This morning I was driving on the Long Island Expressway and I realized that if I was in L.A. that kind of thing would never happen, because there’s no rivers to be on the wrong side of.
Yeah, people won’t drop you as a friend if you live in Van Nuys or Santa Monica. You can’t relate New York and when it requires of you as a citizen to remain civilized and cognizant and liquid…it doesn’t relate to anyplace else in the United States. For what you’re paying here to live, if you were in Iowa you could have an estate.
Have you heard any interesting bands lately?
Have you heard of the Pogues? They’re like a drunk Clancy Brothers. They, like, drink during the sessions as opposed to after the session. They’re like Dead End Kids on a leaky boat. That Treasure Island kind of decadence. There’s something really nice about them.
I heard another record called Robespierre’s Velvet Basement by Nikki Sudden. That’s something to listen to. There’s Agnes Bernell. She’s a German singer from the ’40s who just made a record of a lot of her old songs. Elvis Costello was the executive producer. Her lyrics are great. “Father’s lying dead on the ironing board, smelling of Lux and Drambuie.” That’s one of her first lines.
A Rat Pack movie.
It’s John Lurie and myself and this guy named Benini who’s a really famous comedian in Italy. It’s called Down by Law and it’s about three guys in prison breaking out, through the swamps, through the bloodhounds. They’re all innocent victims of blind justice.
Then I’m doing a film with Robert Frank, who took the picture on the cover of this record. It’s called There Ain’t No Candy Mountain. It’s going to be written by Rudi Wurlitzer and directed by Robert Frank. We’re going to do it in the spring. It’s about a guy like Les Paul who becomes really famous as a guitar designer and manufacturer. Then he completely abandons everything and disappears. And this young guy goes looking for him.
Are you going to be the young guy?
If it gets done according to schedule. Otherwise, I’ll play the old-timer.
How do you write a song?
New York is really stimulating. You can get in a taxi and just have him drive and start writing down words you see, information that is in your normal view: dry cleaners, custom tailors, alterations, electrical installations, Dunlop safety center, lease, broker, sale…just start making a list of words that you see. And then you just kind of give yourself an assignment. You say, “I’m going to write a song and I’m going to use all these words in that song.” That’s one way. Or you can get in character, like in acting, and let the character speak. The song “9th and Hennepin” came out like that.
Minneapolis. But most of the imagery is from New York. It’s just that I was on 9th and Hennepin years ago in the middle of a pimp war, and 9th and Hennepin always stuck in my mind. “There’s trouble at 9th and Hennepin.”
To this day I’m sure there continues to be trouble at 9th and Hennepin. At this donut shop. They were playing “Our Day Will Come” by Dinah Washington when these three 12-year-old pumps came in chinchilla coats armed with knives and, uh, forks and spoons and ladies and they started throwing them out in the street. Which was answered by live ammunition over their heads into our booth. And I knew “Our Day Was Here.” I remember the names of all the donuts: cherry twist, lime rickey. But mostly I was thinking of the guy going back to Philadelphia from Manhattan on the Metroliner with The New York Times, looking out the window in New York as he pulls out of the station, imagining all the terrible things he doesn’t have to be a part of.
While other people are looking at New York imagine all the terrible things they can be part of.
When you see a leg come out of a cab with a $150 stocking and a $700 shoe and step in a pool of blood, piss, and beer left by a guy who died a half hour before and is now lying cold somewhere on a slab, you just take it all in. But it doesn’t really apply anywhere else.
I don’t know how you go from New York to anywhere else. It’s like believing in a very bizarre branch of the service. “I was in for four years.” I read that there’s a barge that goes out into the Atlantic with all the limbs from all the hospitals, and it got into a storm and capsized, and all the limbs washed up on Jones Beach. People were swimming and all of a sudden things got a little odd, a little dark. You’ve got to love it here, though.
Is there anything you want to say to our readers?
Maybe I should say something about the title of the album, Rain Dogs. You know dogs in the rain lose their way back home. They even seem to look up at you and ask if you can help them get back home. ‘Cause after it rains every place they peed on has been washed out. It’s like Mission Impossible. They go to sleep thinking the world is one way and they wake up and somebody moved the furniture.
You’ve got a song called “Bride of Rain Dog.” Is that the dog that’s following the dog that’s supposed to know the way back?
Yeah. That’s the one with the hair that goes straight up, with the big bug eyes and the spiked collar and the little short skirt and no underwear.