Los Angeles-based bluesman Chuck E. Weiss left the production of Red Beans and Weiss, his first album since 2006, in very capable hands: Tom Waits and Johnny Depp teamed up to serve as the album’s executive producers, and both say it’s Weiss’ best work yet. Red Beans and Weiss drops April 15, but you can check out a stream of the album below, as well as journalist Rip Rense’s Q&A with Weiss about the stories behind the tracks, his band the Goddamn Liars, and his relationship with cats.
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What kind of car are you driving these days?
It’s a Dodge Royale. In its day, for some strange reason they called it a Dodge Chrysler. A lot of old timers call it that. I guess because it kind of looks like a Chrysler. Everything’s original except the radiator, which is about 20 years old, fairly new. A friend found it in a heated barn along with a ’42 Ford in a place that he bought. He took the Ford and sold me the ‘55. This was in ‘88. At that time it had 25,000 original miles, and now it has 82. So it’s not real used. An old lady only drove it to the market, and I’m doing the same thing the old lady did, drive it to the store. That’s all I do. Before this I had an old Dart. ’69. When I first met you (1978), I had a ’57 Lincoln Premiere. My first car was a Plymouth, ’38 Plymouth with three on the floor, not four on the floor. Used to drive to the gigs, but spaces across the street aren’t big enough.
How long have you been performing? First time on a stage was where, when, with whom, and do you remember what you did? You’re from Denver?
From Denver. Oh, I’ve performed off and on since I was a kid, man. Yeah, I used to embarrass my folks. We’d go out to dinner, and if there was a stage there, I’d get up and sing “Jack the Shoeshine Boy” or something. Wolhurst Country Club. A sit-down dinner place that had a little stage. Little restaurant. Supper club is what it was.
Why did you do this?
I don’t know, man. I have no idea.
It must have surprised your parents.
What I used to do is just roll around on the ground when I heard something on radio that I liked, just didn’t have any control over myself. I seemed to know where the bridge was. Had an intuitive understanding of the song. And my mom and dad bought me a used drum kit with I was 8 or 9 years old. So I turned up the volume and played along with all the songs on the radio. Got into bands when I was a teenager and from there it led into. . .uh. . .Well, I started to read the labels of the records, memorize who wrote the songs, who produced the records, you know. My father was in the salvage business, and found a crate full of records one time that fell off a truck. And it was full of goodies—had all the great stuff. One thing led to another and I was just hooked. Nothing I could do about it. Later on, my parents bought a record store, not because of me. My dad was sort of an inventor. He once developed a little game with glitter art, glue and picture—and Disney bought the product from him. So the box of records got him thinking, and my dad became partners with this guy who owned the record store. They guy bailed out, and my parents wound up owning the place. Before you knew it I had a real cool place to go. I was about 16 or 17 years old. The Record Center. 16th St. in downtown Denver. 434 16th Street.
How often were you there?
(laughing) Well, I should‘ve been there more often. In those days, my work ethic wasn’t real good. I’d come in for a little while then leave. I developed a particular hatred for Allen Ginsburg (the poet) because he used to come in and I’d have to wait on him, and he’d mispronounce names of artists I liked, and I started to resent him. Once he came in and asked, “Do you have any Shen-yah? I said, “Oh, ah, Clifton Chenier, you mean, man.” Then he pulled out a Ma Rainey album and said, “You know, she was a lesbian.” I didn’t care. So the great Allen Ginsberg, I hated to wait on. A lot of those icons were living in Denver. The other I hated was Timothy Leary. Same type of thing. I had no real reason. One time I had a cat chain on my belt that went down to my knee and back up into the pocket. And he asked me, what is that? And you’d figure that a guy like that would know what a cat chain was—like he’d never seen any pachucos. I saw him many years later at the Viper Room, where Johnny Cash was playing. He walked out on Cash because Cash was singing about a woman being beaten.
I remember from an interview we did years ago, the name, Pappy Frye, as having introduced you to a lot of music.
That was sort of a pseudonym I used for my dad and this trash collector who got records out of the trash. Kind of a mythical thing, but all in all it was really my father who encouraged me and inspired me with the music, and the same with my mom. My mom took me to all those big rock and roll shows. When I was 12 or 13 years old, she took me to a Little Richard concert. These were real conservative people so God bless ‘em what they did for me. I mean, look, my mom was first generation off the boat. I mean born in this country, but still had the old European attitude. For her to take me to these shows was something. There was a stadium show at Denver U. where I saw Carl Perkins and Gogi Grant —I still have the little booklet. And the Penguins, Jerry Lee Lewis. She took me to three or four rock and roll shows.
What were their names?
Jeannette and Leo. P.G. was my dad’s nickname, and every time I asked him what it meant, I got a different story. I’m very much like my dad. I could make up a different story every time I see you.
And here’s a question I’m sure you’ve never been asked before. What does the “E” stand for?
I used to tell people it meant educated or existential. But it means Edward.
Are you comfortable with the fact that you kind of started out as a pop culture legend, courtesy of Tom Waits and Rickie Lee Jones songs? To many, you probably still quasi-legendary, although you’ve been playing in Hollywood now for decades. . .
I guess so. I’m pretty comfortable and don’t want to change my life too much at this juncture. Pretty comfortable. I find myself as an upstanding member of the community, if that’s what you mean. I’ve been in Hollywood since ’75. I came out here because, well, I had been out here before, and I liked it. I first came out when I was in school to live with my dad’s aunt, who immediately threw me out, and then I came back later. Some friends from high school had moved out here.
How did you meet Tom Waits?
I became friends with Tom in Denver in about ’72, and we started writing songs together. Those things that friends do, screwing around with words, and joking, and then he decided to record one or two of the songs we had messed around with. It was going to be recorded live. And so I came out to see the live album recorded, and this time I stayed.
What were the songs you co-wrote?
“Spare Parts 1&2.”
Oh, from the “Nighthawks at the Diner” album.
Right. Anyhow, I was house drummer for this nightclub in Denver called Ebbetts Fields, and I was trying to get a bunch of different artists to play with me on tape. If I liked the way somebody played, I’d ask them to come into the studio and record some stuff with me. And I think what happened was I saw Waits do some finger poppin’ stuff at Ebbetts Fields one night, and I went up to him after the show. I was wearing some platform shoes and a chinchilla coat, and I was slipping on the ice on the street outside because I was so high, and asked if he wanted to do some recording with me. He looked at me like I was from outer space, man. Next night I saw him at the coffee shop next door. We started hanging out together. We’ve been friends ever since.
The Goddamn Liars have been together how long? Same personnel? How did you get together with these players? Who named the band?
The Goddamn Liars have been together off and on since the inception in ’82. Everyone since then is either a sub or a regular. Longevity. Nick, the drummer now, is the only newcomer and he’s only been with me for the last 25 years. They are Michael Murphy (piano), Will McGregor (bass), Tony Gilkyson (guitar), CC Worall Rubin (sax), J.J. Holiday (guitar), Jimmy Roberts (sax), Nick Vincent (drums), Don Heffington (drums.) The only personnel changes are because someone passed away like a guy named Spyder Mittelman who came out at the same time I did from Denver. He was co-front man and sax player for the band. The alternate piano player was a guy from Oklahoma named John Heron who had been with the band since 1982 but he passed away in 2005.
Who named the band?
I guess I named it. I named it because I’d heard Larry Beezer tell me a story that he went to an automat in NYC on 52nd Street at about three in the morning, and sat down at a table, and a lady across from him put her food down, looked at him, and said, “Goddamn liars” over and over again. He told me the story, and I got such a kick out of it that I wrote a song called ‘Goddamn Liars,” an instrumental, and then called the band that. It’s kind of like “Tequila,” you know, an instrumental with a phrase or word. (Sings “goddamn liars” in falsetto.
The music is the most honest, earnest, straight-ahead, unaffected, good R&B/blues-derived stuff I’ve heard. As I said, good enough for big halls. But you seem to like to stake out turf in a small club and stay there. How long have you been at the Piano Bar, and where before that (and for how long?)
Three years at the Piano Bar. If I would categorize the music, I would say it’s just rock and roll. And what’s weird is I feel very protective of not, this is where I become a nut, of not exposing it to too many people. That borders on me being a nut. Doesn’t make any sense. But I feel so protective of it sometimes. It borders on self-destruction almost. I don’t want to play in bigger venues, be a ham, jump on stage with other people and all that other bullshit. Do you remember Vitamin Flintheart. From Dick Tracy? He was a ham, always wanted to be in the limelight, always got Tracy into trouble. A lot of rock stars are big hams. I talked to Waits for New Year’s. He said, “Chuck, if life was a meal, where are you in the meal right now?” I told him I was eating dessert. And that I may have some coffee afterward, and they do give you refills.
The music is tight, straight ahead stuff. Could have stood up fine in one of those great rock and roll shows your mom too you to. . .
I don’t feel it’s in any way nostalgia. If you’re listening to Beethoven, you’re not listening to nostalgia, but if you’re listening to Gatemouth Brown, all of a sudden it’s oldies, and that’s ridiculous. Maybe I’m glad it’s not considered an art form. I don’t know if you’ve seen this TV show, Tremaine. About New Orleans. Tried to make all the inside stuff real commercial, like the Indian chiefs.
What part of Hollywood are you in? And please tell me about your professional and personal association with cats.
I live in Hollywood over there by Beechwood Canyon, Capitol Records, the 101. So when I’m healthy and able to, I walk in those hills all the time. I’ve got three cats, but. . .I happen to feed a few ferals in the neighborhood that I’d love to take home but my guys would beat them up. I’ve had ‘em all fixed. Took me forever. I feed ‘em at night. They’re really not feral anymore because after four or five years they got up on my lap.
Explain the album cover of “Red Beans and Weiss,” please, with all the faces. . .I could only name about seven, I guess.
Nate Merritt did it. The concept was mine. It took a couple months to go over the whole thing with him. Wanted to do a mock Sgt. Pepper but with my own guys. There are almost sixty. Rimsky-Korsakov: cause I love everything he’s ever done. He’s one of my heroes, man. Scheherazade, It’s like Don Ray. Don Ray. He wrote “This is My Country,” but he also wrote “Down the Road Apiece” and “Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar,” and the “Icabod Crane Song,” and the Jabberwock song for the Cheshire Cat. I loved all these songs as a kid, and then found out he wrote them all. Lord Buckley. Harry the Hipster Gibson. Lester Young. Jimmy Durante Sandy Koufax, Slim Gaillard, Slam Stewart, Lee Allen (lot of the solos in the Fats Domino and Little Richard songs and Dr. John—tenor sax.) Marshall McLuhan’s on there, of course. Just somebody that has been overlooked. Every time somebody says “fifteen minutes of fame,” they attribute to Andy Warhol, but that was McLuhan’s quote, and it was five minutes. Hank Williams, Anita O’ Day, Bessie Smith.
Can you give me a line or two about some of the songs on the album? What they are about, why you wrote them, etc. Metaphorical or literal, either way. Especialmente “Hey, Pendejo.”
Pendejo was probably the first swear word I ever learned. It came from nanny I had as a kid. Her boyfriend. They used to cuss all the time. I loved the words they said. Mimi was her name. She stayed with us for about a year. Lived in the basement. From Veracruz. Photo album she showed me looked like most beautiful place in the world to me.
“Bomb the Tracks:”
Well, I’ve always wondered. . .I’m the first generation born after the war, and one of the first things I ever learned in life was that Hitler had killed members of my family. And then of course they never discussed it in school, I don’t even know if they do now! It was never in history books—the extermination thing just wasn’t in there. So I was freaked out about it ever since I was a little kid. I’ve always been afraid to die. When I was about 17 or 18 it occurred to me that, okay, these trains are going down the tracks to the death camps, and Russia and the US and England have planes, so why didn’t we bomb those tracks? So trains couldn’t get to death camps. A mystery to me why it never happened. Then I started to read about it later on, and a lot of excuses that were made. You know, it’s not strategic. What really started to bother me as a much older person was to make a god out of Roosevelt. To the Jews, Roosevelt was God, bigger than Al Jolson, man. Know what I’m saying? I didn’t understand that, and it still is mystery. I’ll never know exactly why. I just wanted to get it out. I’ve never written a protest song in my life.
She’s one of those ferals I’m taking care of.
What it really is, is a real love of funk music, but could be interpreted as anything.
The TV Show. I remember as a little kid, watching, and at the opening of the show, they said “Boston Blackie, friend of those who have no friends.” I just loved that! He was a friend of those who had no friends! So right away I loved this guy, right. I guess it’s always stuck with me.
That’s an odd story. I don’t know whether I should disclose or not. Really weird, man. I saw this guy play 25 or 30 years ago: Tupelo Joe and the Texas Chain Sex Band. Sugar Cane Harris. An upright bass sax player—the thing was like 7 feet tall. He was doing this experimental stuff and it blew me away. 30 years ago. I didn’t know him very well but suddenly I was in the studio and Tony said “Tupelo Joe went to the show” and I wrote it on the spot.
That’s about Spyder Mittleman.
“Oop-oop-a-doo in the Reebop.”
I don’t know what to say about that.
“Dead Man’s Shoes.”
One of the neighborhood winos up here, Paps, he perished. Two days later I saw his shoes in the shoe repair shop for sale. Of course I bought them and I gave them to Tony (Gilkyson.) And Tony knew Paps, too, and he lived in the neighborhood. I think it spooked him. That’s exactly what I wanted to do.
There was a radio ad a long time ago for “Exile on Main Street,” the Stones album, with a different version of this song. I heard the radio ad, and I taped it, always wanted to do it. The one they did in the radio ad was real raw, great. “Exile on Main Street Blues.”
It’s five or six years since your last album. Why did you do a new one? You seem to mostly live to perform.
I think I have to. Listen, I enjoy the process, man. The process of writing new songs and getting in the studio. There’s nothing like it. Especially since this time around I didn’t have somebody staring over me saying time’s up, come back tomorrow. No time constraints. I made it on spec. Didn’t feel like I had to rush through things. First part of it was done at The Village, and the second part at Studio 80, over the last year and a half. No time constraint is so important. I just love that process.