Thursday, December 07, 2006

Tom Waits

Today, in honour of the man's 57th birthday and his new 3CD set Orphans, I present a 1999 conversation I had with Tom Waits.

But first, the hastily assembled review I wrote for Exclaim in this month's issue, three days after getting the album:

Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards
"Forgive me, baby, but I always take the long way home." Because this is Tom Waits, said journey through three discs of the oddest and the soddest will mean the sky is always the colour of lead, the moon is always a coffee stain, and tilapia fish cakes and fried black swan are always on the menu.

The only real surprise here is this 56-song collection's consistent excellence, considering some of the filler that's padded every album of his post-1999 comeback. Sure, he has his formulas, but underneath his signature arrangements—which continue to delight, 25 years after Swordfishtrombones and his marriage to Kathleen Brennan—are undeniably great songs that he can obviously spit out whenever he wants to.

The most startling thing here is the somewhat new song "Road to Peace," which marks the first time Waits has ever consciously written a political song set in the present, one that names names (including Ariel Sharon, which makes it at least a year old). Here, he dissects the ongoing Israeli crisis by focusing on one suicide bomber and the army's retaliation. For a story that repeats itself every week, Waits gives it the gravitas it deserves, refusing to let the horrific details become blasé. Yet as with any blatantly topical song, the writing is somewhat clunky, redeemed by the Socratic conclusion: "If God is great/ if God is good/ why can't he change the hearts of men?/ Maybe God himself is lost and needs help/ out on the road to peace."

The discs are divided in a rough thematic fashion. The Brawlers and the Bawlers are self-explanatory, but the Bastards disc is where we get the side of Waits that's usually relegated to one or two tracks per album: the spoken word pieces and other detritus that's usually too weird for fairweather fans. There we find a hilarious tale of the bizarro babe who gave him his first kiss, a reading of a poignant Bukowski anecdote, the most depressing bedtime tale ever, and a hilarious piece about the more vicious behaviour of insects.

These collected secrets confirm Waits's status as the most consistent songwriter and performer of at least the last quarter century, casting a downright towering presence over the rest of his generation. "Through the wind, through the rain of a cold dark night—that's where I'll be" We always know where he is, though how he leads us there is never a given. (Anti/Epitaph) –Michael Barclay

The following interview was also conducted for Exclaim. The year was 1999; no one had heard or seen Waits in six years. No albums, no films, nothing. He resurfaced on the Anti label (a subsidiary of punk stalwart Epitaph, and if my memory serves me correctly, the label was actually launched with Waits's comeback); the album was Mule Variations, which became the biggest selling album of his career.

Interviews were scarce; I think I only saw two or three others; the only other Cdn one was a short piece in Toronto's Now Magazine. He was playing the trickster with all of them, refusing to give a straight answer and recycling a lot of non-sequiturs instead. At the risk of looking like a completely vain asshole reliving a past glory, I'll suggest that this is the only interview at that time that got him out of that mode and captured some candid moments. (A later Magnet interview was more enlightening.)

As you can see, however, it was on a severe southbound train for the first ten minutes or so. I was shitting bricks; I've never been so nervous for an interview, before or since. Because of that, I was determined to turn the interview around. I wasn't going to hang up on Tom Waits just because he insisted on pulling my leg. I was going to play his game.

So without further ado (and a quick nod to brother TJ O'Malley for suggesting this), here's the man himself.

Tom Waits
February 24, 1999
Locale: his home in…

Where you phoning from? Are you in California?
Say what?

Are you in California?
No, I'm on the phone! (laughs)

Fair enough then.

One of the many things I was wondering was how long you've lived in your current place, out of the city.
Are you from the census bureau?

I can't reveal that information.
Is this a deposition?

Could be.
Are you a cop?

Are you in real estate?

Only occasionally.
Are you doing some kind of survey on people who live in California?

No, just Ontario.
Where do you live?

I live in Ontario, a small town just west of Toronto.

I wanted to ask you about your current rural setting, and whether it's conducive to letting your imagination run wild or wilder.
Gee, I don't know. (pause) You want my address and phone number, in other words.

No, not really.
I'm not talkin'.

You can keep that to yourself then.
I'll keep that to myself, yeah.

Do you...
I get a lot of weird mail. I don't want any more mail.

Who's sending you mail, Scientologists?
Yeah, they come to the door!

But you're not going to be roped in.
(long pause). So. Where do you want to start?

I was listening to your new record the other day...
Oh yeah.

And I was wondering about the track "What's He Building In There." At first I thought it might be about the Unabomber, and then I figured it was about your own neighbours. Would that be true?
Gee, I don't know.

Or is it about either of those.
You mean I only have two choices? It's either the Unabomber or my neighbours? It's like a multiple choice except I have only two choices there.

What else would you add to that list, then?
It's about the Battle of Hastings. Or it's about Jaqueline Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis. They were on a boat together, and they were wondering about somebody that was on the adjacent boat.

And there was a lot of low moaning [a line from the song].
(soft laugh) I don't know. This wondering about each other--we all do that, don't we? Don't you wonder about your neighbours?

Yeah, mostly just their dogs.
OK, well that's enough to go on. You consider the kind of car they drive, and the house they live in, and the sounds that come from it. We know very little about each other but based on what we do know, we usually build some kind of portrait of who they are. And I guess we all do feel like we have a right to know what folks are up to.

I noticed that you slipped the Mr. Stitcha character into that song.
Yeah, I did put Mr. Stitcha in there.

He's a character from your past, isn't he?
He's my old neighbour.

What was your relationship like with him?
He used to throw things at us, because we used to skateboard past his house. And then he finally had a heart attack and his wife blamed it on us. It was sad. May he rest in peace.

In terms of your own profile, many other artists cite your career as the ideal balance between creativity, anonymity, and success.
Oh, I didn't know that.

I hear it come up quite a bit.
What about fashion?

Fashion somehow didn't make the list.
(laughs) Gee, I didn't make the grade in the most important area. I'm insulted.

You've got the clothes but not the face, isn't that the line [from 'Big in Japan]?

But in terms of your celebrity profile, you're fairly anonymous in terms of your personal life, or say, where you live.
Oh, that's good.

Does that help you inhabit characters in your songs, or help your audience believe you when you're singing in character?
All of the above. I don't know. Most people are more interested in something that's interesting, not the way things really are. I don't know what people know about me. Some of it's true, some of it's not. Just like everything you know about everybody else. Most of us are more interested in a good story.

You tell enough interesting stories that maybe people don't feel they have to know about where you live, how many kids you have, how old you are, or anything. It's a public persona that exists unto itself. Are you comfortable with that?
(laughs loudly) Am I comfortable with it? I don't know who you're talking about! Who knows what about what? I don't know what you're talking about. I'm still in elementary school, I'm in my late '60s, I have twelve children and I live in Tempe. Everybody knows that.

That's all we need to know then. I found a quote of yours once that said, "I always wanted to live inside songs and never come back." Is that still true?
I hate direct questions.

What do you hate about them?
They're so direct.

OK, how can I make that one more abstract?
I'll tell you what. I'll just give you some answers that don't necessarily correspond to anything, and you can just throw them in wherever you feel like it.

Alrighty then. Or you could give me an answer and then I'll ask you a question about it.
OK. The United States uses 70 million tons of cement every year, approximately one fifth of the cement used throughout the entire world annually. Think about it. 70 million tons of concrete.

So my question is, how do you relate your own creative output to the cement output of the United States?
I just answered that!

I know, but that's how this is going to work. You give me the answer and then I'll ask you the question, alright?
OK, then let's go to the answers first. Is it my turn again?

It's your turn again, and then I'll ask you a question. But you can't say 'I just answered that,' 'coz that's the rules of the game, then, right?
OK. Each year approximately 250,000 American husbands are physcially attacked and beaten by their wives.

How do you feel about modern gender relations?
(big laugh) Please make sure that your answer is in the form of a question. (pause) Are we up again?

Or I could start asking you regular questions again.
Alright. And I'll keep giving you irregular answers. I've been doing too many of these. I'm getting silly.

OK. You've always had bluesy elements in your songs, but this album strikes me as your bluesiest since Heartattack and Vine. Judging by other aging, prolific songwriters like Dylan and Van Morrison for example, do you think it's natural for people to turn to the blues later in their career?
Particularly if they're aging and prolific? (laughs) Or balding and short.

No, I didn't say balding and short. But with great fashion.
Or bulging and acne-ridden. Particularly if they're obscure and extremely tall.

And live in the country. Is that just the songs you had this time around, or did something else draw you to bluesier material?
At some point in your life you're going to listen to Skip James, Leadbelly, Mississipi Sam Chapman, Tom Shaw. You're going to come across these folks and they're going to change how you hear things, because they're seminal. They are the river that runs through it. That's what happens, I guess. It's our true indigenous music that evolved here.

Is there something about the directness of it as well? As opposed to, say, Kurt Weill, which you explored in the last couple of decades?
Well, the weird thing about Kurt Weill is that after I made a few records in the '80s, people started to tell me that I was sounding like this guy, or that I must be listening to this guy. So I figured I should probably go out and listen to him, because I'd never heard of him before. So I did listen, and then I though, 'Oh, I hear that.' For me, I have a lot of diverse influences. Most of us do. I like everything from Elmer Bernstein to seven inch singles of Throbbing Pink Jesus. How do you put that all together? Who's this new guy I found; he did a version of 'Sitting On Top of the World,' that just killed me. But it was a Japanese import, and the liner notes were all in Japanese. I know nothing about it. Maybe you do (pause)--Cryin' Sam Collins. It's a killer version; I'll play a little bit of this for you.
[He goes to his record player and plays two verses of the song over the receiever, during which I wonder if he'll come back to the phone]
He's got that high voice, it sounds like he's crying. It's easy to understand how he got his name. But like I said, I don't know anything about him. Isn't that nice?

That's gorgeous.
Maybe you can ask some of your readership if they have any information on Cryin' Sam Collins, because I certainly don't. Sounds to me like he's from Mississippi, that's what I would determine from his accent.

What year do you figure it is?
Probably the early '30s.

I wanted to ask you if sounds are as important as songs for you.

I read that for one of your records that part of your writing process was just going somewhere with a tape recorder and writing songs that way, and then coming back and constructing sounds around them.
The surface of a song is important to me, but you can't get away from the fact that you still have to write a song. You can't just rely on the texture or the technique you use to record it. I do like to experiment with all that. What's interesting about recording, particularly if you're working with great engineers--we worked with (??), who's a Canadian, I'm not sure whether he's from Ottawa or Montreal, and Jaquire King was the other fellow that worked on the record. If you stop by the side of the road and drag something out of the ditch, throw it in the truck and bring it down to the studio, these guys will circle it like it's a moon rock. They'll mic it, hit it with a hammer, and find out the most expeditious way to approach it. Move it around to different parts of the room. They don't make value judgements. They're more like scientists. That's what I like about engineers is they get very subjective about the whole issue of sound. I like the whole process. But you don't really know when you're going in what you're looking for. Sometimes you find it while you're there.

"Filipino Box Spring Hog" in particular seems to be this mettalic, swampy blues jam with a turntable thrown in there.
Oh yeah, there's some scratching on there.

I don't know who plays what. I just have an advance tape without any notes.
Oh, even better, so you don't know anything! So when I tell you it's all based on the Battle of Hastings, you'll just have to take that down.

I'll have to take your word for it.
That's probably good. Maybe we shouldn't have put any credits on the record at all. Or any lyrics.

You produced a record for your friend Chuck E. Weiss recently. Is that the first time you've sat in the producer's chair?
To be honest with you, I didn't really produce that in the traditional sense.

You were just there.
I was there for some of it, and some of it I wasn't there for. My wife and I financed the record, put up the initial investment so he could go into the studio.

So you executive produced it.
Yeah. I guess that is what you would call us. We were the executive branch of the recording process.

Would you ever consider producing anyone else?
Gee, I don't know.

I was wondering what it sound like if you produced a record for Prince, for example.
Sure, I'd love to get in there with Prince. (laughs)

What would you do with him?
Make him sound just like me! That's what most producers do. (seriously) I had an offer to produce The Neville Brothers, but the timing was off. I would have loved to have done that.

Wow. That probably would have sounded better than their new record.
I haven't heard their new record.

I heard it the other day.
Keith Richards gave me a recording of Aaron Neville singing "Jesus Loves Me," recorded on a crummy little tape recorder in an alley, and it just broke my heart. A lot of it is context, and concept. A lot of people need a director--it's like a documentary. You wait for events to take place, and then you shape them and then relate them to the world around you. You can't do that yourself sometimes, because you're too close to your music. Morphine wanted me to produce some songs for them. But it takes a lot of time. It's a really delicate thing, because you don't want to end up with them hatin' you. It's like you're taking pictures of them and they don't like the pictures.

You're bossing them around and you're in charge of the whole thing.
Yeah, and they're talkin' back and you're yellin' at them. I don't know how that would work. It's different when you're arguing with yourself.

Who usually wins?
I do, always. My better half.

I wanted to ask you about the "Chocolate Jesus" song. What are some of the other advantages that edible religious icons have over traditional ones?
My father-in-law has been trying to get me interested in Testamints, they're these Christian lozenges. They're little cough drops that have a cross on one side and on the other side there's some scripture from the Bible. If you can't make it to church, you're supposed to take one of these lozenges. They're almost like an hour in church.

Are they like communion, blessed by a priest?
Yeah, they are. A Judas priest. They come in different flavours. Wintergreen. Fruit flavours. All that.

Oh, of course. They're just like Reids. They're individually wrapped for freshness. And they've all been passed with flying colours by flavour management.

Are they working for you?
Oh yeah. I'm workin' on one right now. But the Jesus thing was just taking it to the next logical level. Who knows, you know? It's a much more direct form of worship.

More internal. You've often talked about sin in various capacities...
About what?

Sin, in general. Would you agree?
That I've discussed the topic of sin in the past? Yeah, OK.

Considering recent political events in your country [this was in the middle of the Monica Lewinsky scandal], do you think the public are more comfortable with their sinful side now? Is there more honest discourse?
I don't know, that whole tabloid thing. We've got a president that's more human, and we're ready for that, we're mature enough. We've all been teenagers for the last year and a half, watching our parents sprout horns and become real people. I don't know, it's a tough one. No question there was some form of abuse of power. I don't think anything's happened in terms of legislation in the last year, at all. Everyone's just been glued to the TV. Which I guess is a new thing now, these massive, documented, spontaneous, media events that we all get tied into. They're like dramas that we can't ignore, and they almost seem like they can be created, because they've got an audience for them. Somebody said, 'What's going to happen next?' And somebody else said, 'Well, whatever's good for TV. That's what's going to happen next.' They could start a war and start covering it...

During ratings week.
Yeah, because you can get a lot of people watching. And they have all the things that great stories have. And if they don't, we can supply them. It is pretty bizarre. I don't have a TV, so that doesn't change anything! (laughs) It just makes me less aware, I guess. I know what's going on anyway, I read the newspaper.

The character of the Eyeball Kid on the record--not having a TV, I'm not sure if you've seen the Jerry Springer show or not, but I'm wondering if the Eyeball Kid's parents--if they were alive today--would put him on a show like that?
(laughs) Jerry Springer show, that's pretty good.

Everyone seems to be fascinated with freaks these days--emotional, physical or otherwise. A friend of mine was watching The World's Most Disturbing Medical Videos the other day on television.
It was on TV?

Yeah, a big special. They showed human ears growing out of rats and stuff.
Human ears? I've never seen those.

You've sung quite a bit about people who are considered freaks, either physical freaks or societal freaks, or emotional freaks.
Most of us, in some form or another, are fascinated with anything that makes us different. Most of us from time to time have felt that way and can relate on a certain level, whether it's internal or external. At one point Barnum and Bailey were displaying Sarah Bernhardt's leg, it was touring the U.S.

Just the leg?
Just the leg!

What was the attraction?
I don't know, I guess it was about six bucks. And at the time, I guess Sarah Bernhardt was doing Shakespeare in a saloon. At one point, someone remarked that her leg was making more money than she was. That really depressed her.

That's gotta suck.
That's gotta hurt! (laughs) I don't know. Obviously I'm making light of something--and I hope it's not at anybody's expense, because there are people with physical deformities and I'm not poking fun at that at all. I'm just taking the idea of show business to a ridiculous place. It's really more autobiographical than anything else.

I noticed you narrated a documentary on Guy Maddin recently, and I was wondering what initially attracted you to his work. Actually, I'd also like to know how you saw his work, because as someone who lives in Canada, I can't find his films anywhere [this has since become easier since The Saddest Music in the World; in 1999 he was still very much underground].
Someone sent me Tales From Gimli Hospital, which they thought I would enjoy, and I did. Then I saw Careful, and I also loved that. There's something ambiguous about the time they're being shot. It's kind of half carnival, half fairy tale, like Grimms, and then there's a '20s thing going on--is it an old movie? New movie? I can relate to the fact that he's trying to find a place that is of no time. He's scavenging from time, Frankensteining these different things. I can relate to that. He wanted me to be in one of those pictures, but it didn't work out. He ended up with Shelley Duvall and Frank Gorshin. What was the name of that?

Twilight of the Ice Nymphs.
Right. I think most of us when we watch films, we know so much about the lives of the actors, and we're sitting with so much information that it's difficult to vanish into a story. That's why it's always nice to watch a film from the '20s, where you don't know who these people are, who they're married to, somebody got caught with someone else's wife...

The setting is removed from your reality. Or even modern independent films, like a Jim Jarmusch movie, you don't know who most of the people in Mystery Train are, so you can attach your own interpretation to them.
Exactly. I like that. They seem to allow me to do that when I watch those pictures, so I find myself able to drift. They seem more whimsical that way, and I feel less obligated to watch them with some kind of--it divorces me from all that.

That's something that you do in your music as well; it is rather timeless. I have a tape version of your new album, and a pretty crappy tape player. I'm guessing that it sounds better now than it will when I get the actual CD.
Oh, you think it sounds better now? (laughs) You're probably right!

It sounds like a pretty anti-digital record.
I don't know. It's going to be on CD, and they're doing vinyl as well. A lot of the stuff is really lo-fi. Overall, it's an overall sound because there was a continuity to how it was recorded. Some of the stuff was recorded outside, like "Chocolate Jesus." And another one called "Buzz Flutterjohn" that didn't make it on the record. We did 25 songs, and only 16 are on the record.

Are you going to do anything with the other ones?
The orphanage.

Marianne Faithfull or someone else will adopt them, no doubt [she recorded an unreleased song of his called "Strange Weather"].
Who knows?

I really like the 'Papa's Got a Brand New Bag' groove on 'Big in Japan.' You’d probably have a big dance hit on your hands there, if somebody remixes that.
What, you think somebody needs to remix it?

Maybe, someone throws an 808 underneath it.
808, yeah right. The radio stations condense everything anyway, everything's so compressed. I don't know, what's a dance hit? I'm out of it.

You're on a new label now. Were there issues before with what you were allowed to put out and what you wanted to put out? Do you have more freedom now?
My contract ran out with Island, and I was in between trains, and they needed a parental figure over there at Epitaph. It's a good place to be for me. I could do anything over there, really, and they would celebrate it and get behind it. That's rare. Those kind of situations are rare. I could do can-can's and torch songs and Indian ragas and Cuban stuff and midget wrestling, and they'd say, 'Great!' I'd say, 'And I only one to play one gig, in Buenos Aires in a place that holds four people.' They'd say, 'We love it! When do you want to start?'
Kathleen and I felt more at home there. Plus, they're musicians there. Brett Gurewitz is a musician, he started in a band called Bad Religion, and he's a real classy guy. Great engineer, good musician. Andy Caulkins is also a great piano player, he's about 6'9, hands like baseball gloves, and he's still gigging, playing in blues clubs. When I'm in the studio and they come over to visit, it's feels a little more disarming. They're really savvy business-wise. They're forward-thinking; they're not part of the plantation system. They respect artists, and they pay them. I really think they are the way things should be.

What does the term punk rock mean to you, if anything? Does it relate to your contrarian nature, or is it just a style of music?
Eventually, all these things become ingredients. Everyone can't wait to take something and bury it so they can dig it up later. Everything seems to go through that process. It's all a big Salvation Army of style. And it's all still available at all times for everyone to enjoy on whatever level as a main course or as an appetizer. Punk rock is more about the posture and the politics and the attitude, and being as iconoclastic as you possibly can. There's a band on the label, NOFX, who were getting played on the radio, and they were livid.

They said, 'We'll get our lawyers down here. Get that record off the radio!' And they did, they got it off the air.

Would you do the same thing?
I don't know, it's not my thing. I kinda like hearing myself on the radio. It's happened once or twice, and I liked it. I've been trying for 25 years to get on the radio in some form or another, so I'm a bit of a different challenge. But I salute it. I salute diversity and standing up for what you believe in, living your life the way you want to live it. It's a good place for me to be. I don't know what it means, except that they're trying to branch out a little bit. If you're only selling napkins and tablewear, you're going to have to diversify at a certain point.

An interesting thing about this album is that there's the noisy stuff like 'Filipino Box Spring Hog,' and then right after that there's a song that could be off of Closing Time, a beautiful piano ballad. Even with your most beautiful songs, there's an edge to them. Do you have a natural inclination to subvert the naturally beautiful, perhaps to make something better?
You mean, drop something or break something in the middle of a quiet song? I don't do that! You know? Or rip the tape out of the machine. When I was going to dances, when I was a teenager, the band would play an uptempo thing and then after that you get all sweaty and then they play a nice ballad and you go over and ask that pretty little gal to dance.

While you're looking all sweaty.
Yeah, right. Songs are usually faster than your heart rate or they're slower than your heart rate.

In terms of writing love songs, is it still a challenge to write something new after a long career or 20 years of marriage? How do you find new ways to write?
There's some love songs on the record. It's still something I like writing about. I collaborated with my wife; most of the songs we wrote together.

It's also the first time you used the name Kathleen in one of your songs, isn't it? [on "Filipino Box Spring Hog"]
Yeah. She said, 'Gee, thanks a lot! You finally stick me in a song, and I'm sitting in a bar in my bra. And you're there with the dog tied to the stool.' It's a nice family portrait. I had to do some explaining, but she got a kick out of it. She used to be an anchorwoman at a TV station in Florida. She's an opera buff. You can see that influence on the record, opera.

Do you still learn things from each other, then?
(stutters, finding words) She's an excellent pianist, and she was a hairdresser for Yma Sumac for a while. Got fired. Really broke her heart.

I hear Yma's a bit tough.
Yma's really rough. She used to fly her in when she was on the road. But this is all very confidential. She was an elevator operator at the Taft Hotel, that's where we met.

You wouldn't want that to get out.
Well, I couldn't get out, that's how we met. The door wouldn't open. I said, 'What do we need an elevator operator for, if we can't get the G-damn door open here!' So we had time to get acquainted. She played organ on a cruise ship from L.A. to Ensenada, had a little night club act for a while. She's done a lot of things. Chimney sweep, bug collector, she's done it all.

Big resume.
Big resume, yep. She could either have been a nun, or marry me. And I won!

Yeah. So we like writing together. It's a family thing. We have more fun with the record before it comes out. Then everybody hears it. Until then, it's like a family record that only we've heard.

Then it's like publishing your family photos.
On some level it is. But then again it's not really. It's like if you're grabbing a bite to eat for yourself versus inviting seven people over for dinner.

But do you cook any better or worse?
I burn it for large groups.

I understand you plan to do some shows, or a small eight-city tour. Do you know what's going to happen?
I don't know where we're going. We're trying to figure it out. There are a lot of headaches on the road. You have to travel with your own coffee, a hot plate.

Sleeping bag.
Yeah, it gets complicated (laughs). Pup tent. Fishing poles. There's a lot of things to think about when you're touring.

So you'd want to do it in the summer, probably.
We are going out in the summer, yeah. With that in mind. Insect repellent.

There's only one other thing I wanted to ask you about, as someone who's played accordion for the last ten years.
Oh you have?

I heard that as a teenager you left a soul band to play accordion in a polka band. Was that the beginning of the path of your career? Did the accordion lead you wayward? Or upward, as the case may be?
(big laugh) Well, you know what they say: Use an accordion, go to jail. That's what they say down here, anyway. This is where the accordion festival is every year.

Really? Where is that?
I'm not tellin'! You're the accordion player, you should know. Where the accordion festival?

I figured it would be near New Orleans for some strange reason.
Well, you're wrong.

There was one in Toronto a couple of years ago, called The Big Squeeze.
OK, yeah. We have our own Big Squeeze down here. And then, of course, there's the Banana Slug Festival every year as well.

I don't think I want to know what that involves.
Banana slugs. They're these large--they're slugs, they're 12 inches long and they come out after a rain and you can cook with them.

Yeah. It's hard to imagine.

Does that coincide with the Big Squeeze? Accordions and slugs?
No, they're in different seasons. So you play accordion?

I do.
That's great. It's an internationl instrument, what's your style?

I play in an eclectic rock band, so I'm not playing strictly zydeco or Celtic or Mexican.
But you play the left hand and all that?

My left hand isn't that strong, actually.
You don't use the buttons?

Well, there's a bass player in the band. Whenever I want to threaten him I tell him that I'll start working on my left hand.
If you want to threaten your bass player, tell him you're going to get rid of him and hire an accordion player.

But I am the accordion player. [I’m completely oblivious to the fact that he’s roasting me.]
Oh, I see. Then tell him you're going to get rid of the accordion player and hire a bass player. Get rid of both of you.

The gentleman who played with you in Big Time, what's he doing? William Schimell?
No, William Schimmel played on the Frank's Wild Years record. The guy in the Big Time picture was Willy Schwartz. He's married for the third time, and I think he went into motel management. That's where all accordion players wind up.

Well, I thank you for your time [it's been almost an hour, much to my shock]. I've exhausted everything I wanted to ask you about.
Really? I hope you had a chance to ask some direct questions and get some direct answers.

I got a few.
What about 'Where you been for the last six years?' That's what everybody wants to know.

OK, where you been for the last six years?
Breaking in other people's shoes.

The shoes things again! Do you have new shoes, or are you just breaking in other people's?
I don't wear my own anymore.

Whose are you breaking in? Pennywise's?
They send them in, I wear them for six weeks and I send them back.

So they avoid the blisters. So you're the blister guy, are you?
Yeah. That's what we're called.

Blister guys.

That sounds like a band name: Tom Waits and the Blister Guys.
(laughs). But that's, uh, anyway, what was the question?

The question you asked me to ask you was, 'Where you been for the last six years?'
Traffic school. The other popular answer is, 'working on my ice sculptures.'

That's a little difficult in California. You should come to the Quebec City Carnival.
Oh I see, you've got the weather up there. Who's good up there? Who you been listening to? Who should I listen to? I don't get out much. Give me some groups.

[This was the last question I’d ever expect him to ask me—not that I even expected him to ask me any questions. I quickly scanned my desk.] I was just listening to a songwriter named Kyp Harness, who's awesome. No one knows who he is, but he writes great songs.
Toronto guy.

Uh, what else… There's so much, really.
What about that group, The Mean Old Man Next Door? They have a new record called Tijuana Moon.

Missed that one.
It's a good one. (starts singing title track)

Must've been a big hit.
(laughs) Yeah, big hit! Huuuge!

But we've never heard of them in Canada? Weird. I wasn't ready for that question--there's so many great artists up here that I don't even think of as Canadian. Like if I asked you who was the best American artist today is.
Do you like Sparklehorse?

I'm just starting to discover them.
I like some of that Tricky. Old stuff, new stuff, you know. That's the amazing thing about recording, you can listen to everything. You can listen to stuff that's 100 years old.

And still learn stuff from it.
Yeah. Then you play something from two days ago, feel the same thing. Have a battle with the past. The past can have a dialogue with you. It's pretty amazing. Mule Variations is kind of our take on the Goldberg Variations.

Oh, like Glenn Gould.
Yeah! (laughs) Just like Glenn Gould. We're shaking hands with Glenn Gould here.

32 Short Films About Tom Waits. Have you seen that movie?
No, I haven't. Heard about it. Someone told me I should see it. Anyway, so how did this go?

Well, I was pretty nervous before, but I think all is well.

This is one of the few Canadian interviews you're doing, I understand.
I think so.

So you don't know if you'll make it up here for your pup tent tour, eh? Because it is warm here in the summer, you know.
Primus, those guys travel with fishing poles.

I don't doubt that.
They fish everywhere they go. They tour the best fishing spots, and subsequently, as a byproduct, they also do gigs in the area.

See, I don't remember the Primus northern Ontario tour. If that was true, they would have toured in northern Ontario, would they not?
Yeah, I guess they have been. Have they?

I don't know, I don't think they've played Sudbury yet.
I used to play in those places with Zappa, years ago. He played all over Canada, and I was the opening act.

Was that in '75, '76?
'74, '75, yeah. He was using me as a rectal thermometer for the audience.

How did that feel?
Well, gee, it was a little rough.

I can't picture your material from that time going over that well.
Oh, it didn't go over.

Maybe Beefheart might have been a better combination.
Of course. It was a complete mismatch. We had the same manager, and he said, "Aaaargh! Go out with Frank!"

"To Canada!"
"Frank will treat you right! Go to Canada with Frank! In fact, go meet Frank in Canada! At a hockey arena!" You know? Oh, man.

Can I tell you my favourite Frank Zappa story?
Go ahead.

He was playing this theme park north of Toronto, Canada's Wonderland. I forget who opened for him, no doubt another rectal thermometer...
They were abused.

So he comes out with his band to cheers, and they proceed to play Nerf football on stage for over half an hour. Everybody starts booing, people getting really upset, and all these people started to leave--about half the audience. Frank stops, looks around, goes up to the mic, and says, 'Now that all the assholes have left, let's rock and roll.' And apparently he played the best show Toronto had ever seen him play.
(big laugh) Oh, that's wild!

Did he ever do that with you? A bit of pick-up on stage?
Let's see, who was in the band in those days. Ruth Underwood, Chester Thompson, Bruce Fowler, those guys. Napoleon, George Duke. Diverse group. Strange. After my cruel set, after the bleeding had stopped, I came back in the middle of his show and he would play "Ol' 55" and I'd tell a story. I had fun, some nights. But I had to have Frank on stage to keep them from hurting me.

Where were the roughest crowds on that tour?
Detroit. But everywhere was rough. They were Frank's people, you know? They didn't want to hear anybody. And they thought that whoever was coming out before Frank, Frank had designed it that way and wanted them to hurt them: pelt them, throw things at them and abuse them. And the chant: 'We! Want! Frank!' Or 'You suck!' was also a big favourite.

I understand you played Waterloo, Ontario once, that's right near where I am.
Oh yeah. I remember that. I don't remember everything about that night. But I've had some good gigs in Canada. We'll come back there sometime.

The last time you were here you played three nights at Massey Hall in Toronto, for Frank's Wild Years.
Oh yeah, that was a long time ago.

Well, thanks very much again for your time.
OK, good talking to you!



tjo' said...

My favourite part is where you can visually see the interviewer go from zero to hero.

That doesn't happen very often.

Anonymous said...

ooh what a treat- I remember the day this interview aired on cfru! I was off to my hideosity of a job and so I popped a cassette in and hit record. When I came home, I rewound and got...nothing!
My husband, who had just come home from night shift had heard this "droning' coming from the radio after I left for work and had switched it off!

Thanks, buddy, for transcribing this for the world!