Tom Waits was born on Dec. 7, 1949, in the back of a truck (or a taxi, depending on which account, if any, is to believed) in the Los Angeles suburb of Pomona. True or not, it's an appropriate origin for a man whose music contains so much transience and questionable sanitary conditions. Waits began performing Beat-inspired songs in clubs around the time he reached legal drinking age, though his gravelly voice seemed incongruous with his youth. Experience and albums followed, as he became a sort of hipster outsider cousin to the '70s California music scene. After meeting frequent collaborator Kathleen Brennan, who eventually became his wife, Waits adopted a more experimental approach only suggested by his previous work. His cluttered, clamoring new style, first fully developed on 1983's Swordfishtrombones, led him to a new audience and a new label. Around the same time, Waits began curbing the lifestyle detailed in his gutter-trolling songs, tried his hand at acting, and found new collaborators, most notably director Jim Jarmusch and Robert Wilson, a longtime fixture of avant-garde theater. After a six-year silence following 1993's The Black Rider, Waits returned with Mule Variations, then disappeared again. From a carefully guarded location somewhere in rural California, Waits spoke to The Onion A.V. Club shortly after the simultaneous May release of Alice and Blood Money, both soundtracks to Wilson works.
The Onion: When you do theatrical projects, do you worry at all about them translating to albums?
Tom Waits: Gee, I don't know. What do you think? How did it go? I don't think it really matters much. I mean, by the time it's a record, it's just a record. It either works in that way or it doesn't. I don't think the backstory really dignifies anything, or solves any problems that you tried to solve during the recording. "Oh, this is all based on the John Wilkes Booth story, and that third song is when he was trapped in the barn." I mean, I could tell you anything. "Helen Keller made an appearance in the last tune, and it's sung by her mother." "Oh, okay." Your mind will make sense of anything. The fact that Blood Money is about Woyzeck… I didn't know anything about Woyzeck. Kathleen knew more than I, but I didn't really know the story or anything. I was just told the story in a coffee shop in Boston over eggs a few years ago. You try to create some sort of counterpoint for this story, but you're still dealing with song logic. When people listen to songs, they're not… It's like a form of hypnotism that goes on during the listening process, so you're taking it up through a straw. It's like a separate little world in the world. You go in there and then you pop back out. Those musicals always sound so corny when somebody stops and thinks of something and goes back to life.
O: You've said before that the stories behind songs are less interesting than the songs themselves. Have you ever written a song where the opposite was true?
TW: Oh, gee. I don't know. Most songs have meager beginnings. You wake up in the morning, you throw on your suspenders, and you subvocalize and just think. They seem to form like calcium. I can't think of a story right off the bat that was that interesting. I write things on the back of my hand, usually, and sing into a tape recorder. I don't know.
O: Many of your albums are filled with references to sailors and the sea. Do you think there's a reason for that, beyond growing up in San Diego?
TW: I think all songs should have weather in them. Names of towns and streets, and they should have a couple of sailors. I think those are just song prerequisites. [Laughs.]
O: For yours, or for all songs?
TW: Oh, all songs. Most of them fail miserably. I go looking in other people's songs for their sailors and their towns. I don't know, everybody has things that they gravitate towards. Some people put toy cars or clouds or cat crap. Everybody puts something different, and it's entirely up to you what belongs and what doesn't. They're interesting little vessels of emotional information, and you carry them in your pocket like a bagel.
O: When Mule Variations came out, it seemed like the first question most people had for you was, "What took you so long?" Does that annoy you?
TW: Well, I submitted myself to the questions, so it's hard to be annoyed. But, yeah, when people want to know what you've been up to, how can you possibly explain to a stranger what you've been doing for seven years? Would they truly be interested? [Laughs.]
O: It seems artists with a devoted following are under pressure to turn out albums regularly. Does that pressure ever get to you?
TW: Not really. It's not like I'm one of those expensive, high-powered pop groups on the road eight months out of the year, talking to Teen Beat. I finally discovered that my life is more important than show business. But, yeah, people are curious about all kinds of things, which takes your mind off that which is really important. They usually ask questions about things that don't matter—to them, or to me, or to anybody else. Just to take up time, I guess, and distract them from the important questions, like "Who won the World Series in 1957?" or "Who said, 'Today you will play jazz, tomorrow you will betray your country'?"
O: Is there an answer to that one?
TW: It was on a Soviet propaganda poster in the '30s. Did you know that honey is the only food that won't spoil? They found it in King Tut's tomb. Jars of honey. They said it was just as fresh as it was on the first day.
O: Did they actually try it?
TW: They tried it, yeah. Wouldn't you? If you found a jar of honey in a thousands-of-years-old tomb, would you put your finger into it and taste it?
O: So, why did it take you so long to record the songs on Alice?
TW: The songs were written around '92 or '93, 'round in there. It was done with Robert Wilson in Germany. We stuck 'em in a box and just left 'em there for a while. They were aging like the honey. And we locked in the freshness. They were hermetically sealed. You move on to other things, you know? And then you go back and say, "Well, this was okay."
O: It was kind of developing a reputation as the great lost Tom Waits album.
TW: I bought a copy of the bootleg on eBay. 'Cause I didn't know where those tapes were.
O: How does the bootleg hold up?
TW: Okay. There was stuff that didn't make it on to the record.
O: How many songs are usually left over on any given record?
TW: Oh, there's always a bunch of them that don't make the boat. That's normal. You just stick 'em all together later and put 'em out by themselves. Those Alice songs were all in a briefcase that got stolen out of the back of my car, and they were ransomed by these radicals who thought they really had something. We had to pay a couple grand to get the briefcase back, but I think they copied the tapes.
O: What was the exchange like? Did you get to meet them somewhere?
TW: Yeah, some dark café, you know, everybody was wearing sunglasses, it was really cold. They said, "We're gonna leave the briefcase by the trash can. Put the money in a bag…" It added a little intrigue to the whole project.
O: What's your collaborative process like with Kathleen Brennan?
TW: [Chuckles.] Oh! Well, you know, "You wash, I'll dry." It all comes down to making choices and a lot of decisions. You know, are we gonna do a song about our cruise ship, or a meadow, or a brothel, or… just a rhapsody, or is it a parlor song or a work song or a field holler? What is it? The form itself is like a Jell-O mold. It's like doing anything that you would do with someone. "You hold it right there while I hit it," or the other way around. You find a rhythm in the way of working. I trust her opinion above all else. You've gotta have somebody to trust, that knows a lot. She's done a lot of things. I'm Ingrid Bergman and she's Bogart. She's got a pilot's license, and she was gonna be a nun before we got married. I put an end to that. She knows about everything from motorcycle repair to high finance, and she's an excellent pianist. One of the leading authorities on the African violet. She's a lot of strong material. She's like Superwoman, standing there with her cape flapping. It works. We've been at this for some time now. Sometimes you quarrel, and it's the result of irritation, and sometimes it comes out of the ground like a potato and we marvel at it. She doesn't like the spotlight. She's a very private person, as opposed to myself. [Laughs.]
O: You have kind of developed a reputation as a recluse. Does that bother you?
TW: Hell, no. I think that's a good one. It wards off strangers. It's like being a beekeeper. No, if people are a little nervous about approaching you at the market, it's good. I'm not Chuckles The Clown. Or Bozo. I don't cut the ribbon at the opening of markets. I don't stand next to the mayor. Hit your baseball into my yard, and you'll never see it again. I just have a close circle of friends and loved ones—the circle of trust, as they say.
O: There's actually a section on your web site about fans who have spotted or encountered you in public. Do you have a problem going out?
TW: I go where I feel like. Funny little story… I drove on a field trip once, to a guitar factory, to show all these little kids how to make guitars. So we're standing there, and I'm looking around, and folks are looking over at me, and I'm just waiting for someone to recognize me—you know, "Hey, aren't you that music guy? That singer guy?" Nobody. Nothing. We're there for, like, two hours, watching them put the frets on and all that, and I'm waiting and waiting… A week later, I took the same group of kids on a field trip to the dump, and as I pulled up, don't ask me how, but my truck was surrounded by people that wanted an autograph. It was a dump, for Christ's sake. I guess everybody knows me at the dump.
O: It kind of proves that you never know who your audience is.
TW: You don't really know. I guess one should not even assume that one has an audience, and allow it to go to your head.
O: Your early stuff is influenced by the Beats, and your later stuff seems equally influenced by older, harder-to-define influences. Do you think you're slipping further back into the past as you get older?
TW: I don't know. I hope I'm not slipping at all.
O: I don't mean that in a negative sense. I mean, do you think you're drawing on older influences as you get older?
TW: I really don't know. What you rely on… I think you kind of take the world apart and put it back together. The further you get from something, the better your memory is of it, sometimes. Who knows how that works? Those are big questions about the nature of memory and its influence on your present life. I don't know. Consider this: The number of cars on the planet is increasing three times faster than the population growth. Three times faster. I mean, there's eleven and a half million cars in Los Angeles alone.
O: What are you driving these days?
TW: Oh, I got a beautiful 1959 Cadillac Coupe DeVille four-door. No one will ride in it with me.
O: Why's that?
TW: It's unsafe. But it looks good. I take it to the dump. We spend a lot of time in our cars. You know what I really love? The CD players in a car. How when you put the CD right up by the slot, it actually takes it out of your hand, like it's hungry. It pulls it in, and you feel like it wants more silver discs. "More silver discs. Please." I enjoy that.
O: Do you have one in the Cadillac?
TW: No, I have a little band in there. It's an old car, so I have a little old string band in the glove compartment. It's grumpy.
O: You used a lot of unusual instruments on these albums. Can you tell me about any of them? I was intrigued by the stroh violin [a violin with a trumpet-like bell attached to it].
TW: Well, you know, there were stroh basses, and there were stroh violas, stroh cellos. Have you ever seen one?
O: No, I don't think so.
TW: It's a horn attached to the bridge, and it has a hinge on it. It's like a brass flower designed in the same configuration or shape as the old 78 players. You could aim it at the balcony. The string players were disgruntled. They felt they were constantly competing with the brass. It gave 'em a little edge. I don't know, you don't hear it anymore. I guess because before the advent of amplification, you were dealing purely with physics all the time. It's an interesting solution to that problem.
O: Are there any instruments that you've wanted to use that you haven't had a chance to yet?
TW: Well, we tried to find a theremin for Alice, but we were unable to find anyone locally that was really accomplished. The woman that played in the original Alice orchestra we found was the granddaughter of Leon Theremin. She was really amazing. You would imagine someone like that would have some really sophisticated instrument, but she brought this thing that looked like a hotplate with a car aerial coming out of it. She opened it up, and inside, all the connections between the circuits were established with cut-up little pieces of beer can wrapped around the wires. All the paint was worn off, but when she played it, it was like Jascha Heifetz. They're doing experiments with the theremin now. The sound waves you experience when you play it have therapeutic value.
O: How so?
TW: I don't know, just the fact that you don't touch it—that you play the air and you're in contact with the waves—somehow does something to you on a more genetic level, and can heal the sick. Raise the dead. Apparently. You know the average person spends two weeks over their lifetime waiting for the traffic light to change?
O: Really? I would actually guess a little more.
TW: I would guess more, too. I'm thinking, two weeks, you know…
O: That sounds like a bargain.
TW: During your whole lifetime, though. You know mosquito repellents don't actually repel anything? They actually hide you because they block the mosquito's sensors. They don't know that you're there. It's like blinding them.
O: It used to be that, like you, a lot of musicians took a hard-line stance against having their music used in advertising. That seems to have shifted. Why do you think that is?
TW: I don't know. They're all high on crack. Let's just say it's a sore subject with me. I went to court over it, you know… You know, you see a bathroom-tissue commercial, and you start hearing "Let The Good Times Roll," and the paper thing's rolling down the stairs. Why would anybody want to mortify and humiliate themselves? Well, it's just business, you know? The memory that you have and the association you have with that song can be co-opted. And a lot of people are really in it for the money. Period. A lot of people don't have any control over it. I don't own the copyrights to my early tunes. So it is unfortunate, but there are a lot of people that consciously want their songs exploited in that way, which I think is demeaning. I hate it when I hear songs that I already have a connection with, used in a way that's humiliating. I mean, in the old days, if somebody was doing a commercial, you used to say, "Oh, gee, too bad, he probably needs the money." But now, it's like hocking cigarettes and underwear with rock 'n' roll. I guess that's our big export. It's like how a good butcher uses every part of the cow. I don't like hearing those Beatles songs in the commercials. It almost renders them useless. Maybe not for everyone else, but when I hear it I just think, "Oh, God, another one bites the dust."
O: I still can't hear "Good Vibrations" without thinking of Sunkist.
TW: Oh, wow, yeah. That's exactly what they want. They want to plug your head into that and change the circuitry. While you're dreaming about your connection with that song, why don't you think about soda or candy or something? It's too bad, but it's the way of the world. They love to get their meat-hooks in you.
O: Your kids are old enough to have their own musical tastes now. Do you approve of what they listen to?
TW: Oh, sure, yeah. As long as they're listening. You know, what happens is that as you start getting older, you get out of touch. I'm like a turtleneck sweater. And then your kids kind of enlighten you: "Dad, have you heard Blackalicious?" I take 'em to the show, but I drop them off. I'm not allowed to go in. It'd be too embarrassing.
O: Do you have a favorite cover version of one of your songs?
TW: Johnny Cash did a song called "Down There By The Train," Solomon Burke did one. But, you know, cover versions are good. I used to bark about it, and then I said, "Oh, it's good." If you write songs, you really do kind of want someone to hear it and say, "Hey, man, I could do that." So if they're not doing your songs, you wonder, "Why aren't they doing my songs?" If it's too individual, too personal, then it can't be re-imagined.
O: What's the most outrageous lie you've ever told a reporter?
TW: That I'm a medical doctor.
O: Did the reporter buy it?
TW: I started talking anatomy with the guy, and I think I strung him along pretty good for a while. But then I realized… He told me his dad was a doctor, and he tripped me up on something. I mispronounced "femur" or something. I do like books on anatomy. I have to say I'm an amateur physician, I guess.
O: You've never practiced?
TW: I practice at home, on the kids. Interestingly enough, there are a lot of musicians who are also doctors, or a lot of doctors who are also musicians. There is a connection. Surgeons work in a theatre, and they call it a theatre. All medical procedures require two hands, so in a sense it's like when you play an instrument. That's what they call things that they use in their work: They call them instruments. I've played with a lot of musicians who are also doctors. I worked with a bass player who was a doctor. You know, I suppose there is a connection. A lot of people start out majoring in medicine and drop it and change their major to music. I don't know, it's just one of those things.
O: Any last words for our readers?
TW: Famous last words? Lemme think here. All right, here we go. Umm… I'm looking down my list. Never have I waltzed to "My Country 'Tis Of Thee," nor met anyone who did. Still, it's a waltz, for it's written in waltz time.