The Wisdom & Whimsy of Waits: Golden Highlights from ‘Tom Waits on Tom Waits’

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His hilariously brilliant thoughts on songwriting, record-making, and “this business we call show”

“Songs are really simple,” said Tom Waits. “You hold them in your hand. I can make one right now and finish it but because they’re so simple. It’s like bird-watching. You know, you’ve got to know something about birds or you won’t see anything, just you and your binoculars and a stupid look on your face.

Not only is he one of our greatest and most singular songwriters, Tom Waits is one of the greatest at talking about this elusive junction of art and craft known as songwriting. The man is a master of metaphor, both in his songs, of course, but also in conversation. In interviews, his answers are always vividly colorful, unexpected and very funny, as beautifully evidenced in the book Tom Waits on Tom Waits, Interviews and Encounters (Chicago Review Press), a treasure-trove of talks with Tom edited by  Paul Maher, Jr.

For example, in describing the way his father’s dysfunctions affected the family dynamic, Waits says, “He was like the bad tooth in the smile.”

When Waits applies this proclivity to the subject of songwriting, what we get is pure gold. Because, as songwriters know well, it’s a subject that isn’t easy to talk about. Much of the process, and the mission, is simply beyond words. And as he’s about as far as one can get from the “And then I wrote” kind of songwriter who loves to indulge in self-praise, he finds instead delightfully angular ways of translating his ideas into language as uniquely compelling as his song lyrics. 

As Maher, the book’s editor, writes in the introduction, “Waits is a practitioner of the fine art of conversation, spinning yarns like a carny or a Depression-era hobo ridin’ the rails toward some unforsaken promised land… Wait’s spoken rap is as compelling as his diamond-precision lyrics. He becomes at times a synthesis of inflections that reflect a who’s who of verbal influences:  Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Louis Armstrong, some anonymous vaudevillian huckster, a pool hall attendant, hobo, folkie, Mark Twain, Charles Bukowski, Dean Moriarty or the anonymous singers of the Library of Congress folk songs recorded by Alan Lomax.”

Later, he writes, “Waits is the teacher we wished we had.”

Indeed. Here then, time in the classroom with Professor Waits: 

TOM WAITS: Sometimes a song just comes out of nowhere. Other times you chase one song for a couple of days and then you wind up with nothing. Then you have to bring them back from where you found them, and sometimes they escape. Sometimes they die. Sometimes they get sick first and then die. Sometimes they kill you. 

I don’t really know where songs come from. They kinda come from all kinds of places. You build them out of things you see and remember and find and felt before.

Some songs come out of the ground like a potato. Others, it’s like paper mache. I got to get the flour out, I got to get dirty.And it makes you mad with some songs….

It’s always good to whip the songs a little bit, scare them and then make fun of them, and then they change. You come back the next day and they’re better behaved. 

You know who does this great? Keith Richards. He’s real like voodoo about it. He circles it; he’s like an animal with it,  smelling it, kicking dirt on it. He’s real ritual about it, real jungle. I had the experience of writing with him for several weeks and it was really thrilling.

Photo by Matt Mahurin.

On how to fearlessly bring a song into the world: 
My theory is the best songs have never really been recorded. So we’re all listening to used music. We’re listening to things that made it through. But there’s so many songs that have never made it because they were scared of the machine, and wouldn’t allow themselves to be recorded. The trick is to get in there. Don’t hurt the song when you record it.


About his love of richly detailed, often dark, songs: 
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. 

Every song needs to be anatomically correct. You need weather, you need the name of the town, something to eat. Every song needs certain ingredients to be balanced. You’re writing a song and you need a town and you look out the window and you see St. Louis Cardinals on some kid’s t-shirt. You said, okay, we’ll use that.

I’ve always loved songs of adventure. Murder ballads, songs about shipwrecks and terrible acts of depravity and heroism. Erotic tales of seductions. Songs of romance, wild courage and mystery. Everyone has tried at one time or another to live inside a song. Songs where people died for love, songs of people on the run, songs of ghost ships or bank robberies. I’ve always wanted to live inside songs and never come back.

Most (songs) fail miserably. I go looking in other people’s songs for their sailors and their towns. Everybody has things they gravitate toward. 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. Songs are interesting little vessels of emotional information, and you carry them in your pocket like a bagel.

On how he connects with the lyrical content of his songs: 
Anything you absorb, you will ultimately secrete. It’s inevitable. Most of us are original paintings and it’s a mystery as to what is learned and what is borrowed, what is stolen and what is born, what you came in with and what you found while you were here.

On how he writes music to fit his lyrics:
The thing is, words are music. If you have words, you have sound,  and the sounds have a shape to them. And in that sense, in the broader sense, music is organized noise. Monk said there are no wrong notes, it all has to do with how they are resolved. That’s how jump-rope songs are. 

You don’t have to wait for the words if you have music, and sometimes you don’t have to wait for the music if you have the words. I don’t know who said this, but they said all things aspire to the condition of music at its best. Everyone is looking for that in many things.

On why he adopted a “poet of the night” persona: 
Well, as far as being the poet of the night, if you want to know about the night, go ask a cop. Or a paramedic, a fireman, a night clerk, a newsboy, a bartender, a waitress, or a club owner. They will tell you about the night. Ask the people who sweep up after you, or ask the people who sweep you up.

On whether he in control artistically, or is essentially flying blind:
You want to be able to make turns and fly upside down – but not by mistake. You want it to be a conscious decision, and to do it well. You don’t want somebody to say, Well, he went for the bank there and lost control, and he went right into the mountain, and thirty-seven people died.

You want them to say, “Well, he decided to take his hands off the controls and sacrifice the entire plane and its passengers. And I must say it was a spectacular flight. The explosion set off sparks that could be seen all the way to Oxnard. Remarkable.” 

I think you have to work on yourself more than you work on the music. Then whatever you’re aiming at you’ll be able to hit between the eyes.

It’s strange. It’s all a journey. You don’t know where it’s going to take you, the people that you meet and the changes your life will bring. I can say I wish I’d jumped off earlier, and I don’t know if I actually jumped off anything or else, you know, just redecorated. But I know that the last three records are a departure from what I was doing. I’m very aware of that. I don’t write the same way. I used to sit in a room with the piano, the Tin Pan Alley approach. I thought that’s how songs were written.

On use of piano to write songs:
I don’t play the piano much anymore. I don’t compose on it. It’s hard. Because sometimes it feels like it’s all made out of ice. It’s cold. It’s square. So much about it is square, you know, and music is round. So sometimes I think it puts corners on your stuff.  

About if songwriting sometimes requires combining parts of disparate songs into one:
Hey, you always cannibalize songs. That’s part of the process. Frankenstein that number over there, take the head off of him and put it on to that guy immediately, keep them alive until the head has been severed. That’s part of song building.

Asked to describe his wife Kathleen Brennan, his wife since 1980 and collaborator on all his songs and records ever since:
My wife’s like a cross between Eudora Welty and Joan Jett. Kathleen’s a rhododendron, an orchid, an oak. She’s got the four Bs: Beauty, brightness, bravery and brains. She rescued me. I’d be playing in a steak house right now if it weren’t for her. Actually, I wouldn’t even be playing in a steakhouse. I’d be cooking in a steakhouse

She’s a shiksa goddess and a trapeze artist, all of that. She can fix the truck.

On his process of songwriting collaboration with Kathleen:
Oh, you know, You wash, I’ll dry. It all comes down to making choices and a lot of decisions. Are we going to do a song about a 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 got to 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 going to 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, as opposed to myself.

On how he knows if a song is finished:
You don’t always know when a song is finished and I’m not sure if a song is ever finished, to be honest with you. You know, they’re constantly evolving. It’s like jump-rope songs, you know. When are they done? They are never done, you know, people are always changing them, changing the tempo, adding new verses, getting rid of old verses. 

So  when you are ready to record, there is a certain finality to it. It’s time to… cut the head off the fish. 

That’s not really the right analogy for that. It’s more like a lot of people say, You really captured something on that. There’s something alive in a song, and the trick to recording them is to capture something and have it taken alive. 

On how he knows if a song has any life in it, or is dead:
Well, some of them never come to life. Sometimes you have to be like a doctor. You have to look at them medically. What’s wrong with this one? You have to diagnose them. Some of them have maladies that are impossible to deal with. Some of them you can’t diagnose. Some songs you work on them but they’ll never make the journey,  they’ll be left behind and someone has to break the news.

We have one called “Filipino Box Spring Hog.” It was a song about this old neighborhood ritual. But the song didn’t make it on the record. It broke my heart, but it just couldn’t come. It was good. Maybe it’ll come out on something else. Songs are kind of like jambalaya. Like a jambalaya with crawfish pie, and a filet gumbo.

On the unconventional use of odd instruments and strange sonics on his albums:
I like to step on the negative, grind it into the gutter, and then put that through the projector. I always love that. It’s what Keith Richards calls `the hair in the gate at a movie.’ You know, when everybody’s watching a movie and all of a sudden a piece of hair catches in the projector and everyone’s going, `Wow. Wow! Look at that!’ And then that was the most exciting moment in the film. 

It’s like an orchestra tuning up. Sometimes those are the most interesting points in the evening’s performance, when those guys were tuning up. You really had something there and when you started to play the music, it left.

On whether songs change if they have been around too long:
Yes, it’s like giving away a box of clothes and then you get them back and think, `Hey, those pants, I liked those pants, that shirt, I always liked that shirt!.’ I never really recorded them, we just did rough demos and then you give the songs to someone else to do and then either they do them in a delightful way or they particularly butcher them. And I have to say,  I was glad to get them back. I forgot I like these tunes.  

Sometimes I’ll listen to records of my own stuff and I think, `God ,the original idea for this was so much better than the mutation that we arrived at. What I’m trying to do now is get what comes through, and keep it alive.

It’s like carrying water in your hands. I want to keep it all and sometimes, by the time you get to the studio, you have nothing.

There’s a certain kind of musical dexterity that you can arrive at that actually punishes a certain point in your development, or moves past it, It happens all the time with me, the three-chord syndrome. 

And then if you try to ask a Barney Kessel to cut a simple thing, just a big block brick of chords, just dirty, fat, loud, mean and cryptic – no, he’s a hand-writer. He’s developed to that level. 

Larry Taylor, this bass player I work with from Canned Heat, if he can’t feel it, will put down his bass and walk away, and say That’s it, man. I can’t get it. And I really respect that. I said, ‘Well,thank you for telling me.’

On reinventing himself artistically, and his determination to not repeat himself:
Well, that’s the goal, isn’t it? You have to keep yourself interested, and you have to be endlessly curious; I may be a bit more eccentric, and I don’t really care what people think, and to a large degree, I don’t care what anybody thinks. Because I have my own kind of world I’m in.

When you start worrying about intervals, that’s when you know you’re a composer. When you lay awake at night worrying about a particular section of a song. 

Like last night I was looking at the wall, and the light was really low, and one eye was kinda cockeyed. And it looked like a skull with a big cloud coming out of its head, and a hand with a white glove. And I thought, ‘Well, that’s pretty out there for this hotel, to do something like that.’ And then I looked at it again in the morning, and it was a bouquet of white roses, but it was out of focus. 

So that’s what I do when I’m making stuff up. I don’t see what’s there. I learned that when I was little. We had drapes and the drapes had all these water stains on them, but there were also patterns, like leaves and camels and all that stuff. But there were all these really dramatic water stains, and I thought the water stains were part of the design of the fabric. And there were all these shapes, so I made my own shapes out of them. And I still do that. When I’m looking at any kind of pattern, I’ll find, say, noses or something.

On how he prepares to do a new album:

Well, you do the dishes first. You want it to be fresh in some way. I don’t want to repeat myself. it’s always a little bit of something old and something new – except I don’t record with great frequency so, with the time that’s gone between records, you can’t avoid having gone through some changes. I think you get more confident with your process – even though you’re trying to change the process, you know? 

Photo by Matt Mahurin

Because I don’t cook the same way every time. Sometimes I put the turkey in one side of my mouth and the tomato in the other side and I just chew it up in the car. Other times you spend the whole evening making a meal and it’s gone in fifteen minutes. I don’t know, maybe it’s a different identity that you get? Everybody has a growing edge – you know, where the growth stops on the plant and the new branch comes out.

On the creative liberty songwriting offers: 

You can change everything if you want. If you don’t like the way something is going, you can totally change the bone structure of a song, or three or four songs in the way they all work together. The thing I hate about recording is that it’s so permanent. Ultimately you have to let it dry, and I hate that, cause I like to just keep changing the shape of them and cut them in half and use the parts that I don’t want on that one another one.

That’s the part that drives everybody crazy. I like to get in there with the songs and eat them up and push them around and explore all the variables. Sometimes it sounds Irish and then you tilt it a little bit this way and it sounds more Balinese, and over here it sounds more Romanian. I like that part of working with music;you can find yourself in a different latitude and longitude. There’s a lot of different coordinates for rhythm, and when you start exploring rhythms, you find that maybe it sounds Chinese, and then you realize it’s just kind of like banging sticks on the ground, it’s just something that comes naturally. You don’t necessarily have to put it in a particular country. Some of these things come out of your own rubber dream.

I listen to things and break a piece off of this, and a piece off of this, and I tie this to that, put these two together and then I take them off to meet the pieces coming down from the top and wrap it all in newspaper and set it on fire. 

It’s like making a record. You don’t really finish, you just stop. You just keep painting it and doing things to it and eventually you have to stop.

On the impact of computers on how we experience life:
We have a deficit of wonder. I think it’s because of computers. When I ask people questions now, they get on their computer – `Gimme a few minutes and I’ll let you know….’ And I’m, like, ‘Nooooo!’ I want them to wonder about it, man! I don’t want to know the answer. I just want them to wonder about it. 

On multitasking in modern times:
There is no such thing, really, as multitasking. You can only do one thing correctly at a time. So if you’re going to do seven things at once, each one of those things is getting one-seventh of your time, even though you’re doing them at the same time. 

That’s why my phone is a camera,  my watch is a rifle – it’s just insane. But they’re selling us on this stuff, and it’s affecting everything, even the election. Touch-screen voting? Forget about it. What’s more corruptible than computers?

On music criticism:
You know what Joseph Stalin said about jazz? He said, “You play jazz, and tomorrow you betray your country.” It was on a poster; I guess it was circulating in Russia at the time. It was in all the subways and feeders and beer halls.He wasn’t a big fan of jazz apparently.

On being an artist in an industry:

It’s hard sometimes If you are faced with having to deal with the traditional world of commerce. We  seem to salute anything that you can make ten million of and sell to everybody; the fact that everybody’s got one is a triumph, not the fact that you made ten great ones. I don’t use that as a gauge.

On his chosen profession:
I’m in the circus business, I guess. The business we call show.


All quotes are from Tom Waits on Tom Waits: Interviews and Encounters, edited by Paul Maher, Jr. Published by Chicago Review Press.

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