Waiting For Real Rain: A Classic Interview With Tom Waits

Our latest feature from Rock's Backpages sees Tom Waits - whose wife is about to go into labour - share a cab ride with Chris Roberts to discuss his 1985 classic album Rain Dogs


THE COOLEST PERSON I ever met was definitely Shaw. It was a bleak autumn afternoon when Shaw thumped me in the 12-years-old ribcage and said, ‘Let’s go and throw these stupid javelins at some sheep.’ I said, ‘OK, Shaw’.

We walked across some fields and located the admittedly docile lumps of grey wool. We threw the javelins. I missed, Shaw didn’t. When Shaw got expelled two days later I heard him phone his dad, "Yeah that’s right, a sheep. Oh, I javelined it. Can you sort out a new school for me?" Tom Waits, to his eternal credit, comes a close second to Shaw. The sheep died.

"We’re having a boy, a new boy. His name’s Senator: Senator Waits. Yeah, I’ve decided it’s a boy and his name is Senator. Senator Waits."

Will you be bringing him up in the conventional fashion? "Military school. It’s the only way." Tom Waits’ wife Kathleen was due to go into labour "any minute" as we sat and watched the rain fall on taxis the colour of canaries in New York’s Greenwich Village. So, it seems likely that the second Waits child was born while Hurricane Gloria chuckled herself around some.

"When it rains in New York it’s like that line from Taxi Driver – ‘some day a real rain’s gonna come along an’ wash all the scum off the streets’. It never happens, though, it just rains. Everything looks shiny, like it’s been painted, but it don’t make you feel any cleaner."

"Yeah I like the rain. I use it as an image a lot ‘cos it just seems appropriate here… I like what it does to people, it’s ‘Emergency!’ They can’t control it, and that’s reassuring. I can’t carry an umbrella though. I just feel silly with one, I can’t do it."

Tom Waits’ intriguing and panoramic tenth album Rain Dogs is out now and he is touring Europe with a band "that’s versatile and eccentric. I’ll give you the names later – it’s good for morale". The guitarist "can sound like a mental institution and a car accident too", and the bass player is Tom’s brother-in-law. "We’ll be putting a new slant on old stuff. Some James Brown arrangements."

Are you going to dance?

"Yeah, I think I will, y’know? Even though I have a wooden leg I can still move the other one. And when I disconnect the prosthetic device I don’t move so fast but I actually have more control."

We’ve been waiting for Waits for 20 minutes when he – surprisingly nimbly – saunters in, takes one look at the waitress and says, "She’s like something out of a Polanski film, ain’t she? I like the… uh… apron," and sits down to dry his goatee with the lapel of his black raincoat.

He’s between rehearsals for band, play, film, and more fatherhood but, being a master of interview patois and parlance, is deliciously generous with mock surrealist poses and a wit as dry as that authentic parched voice. He doesn’t smoke anymore; not even Lucky Strikes, which I’d bought especially.

Since 1973’s Closing Time, Tom Waits has been seen as the archetypal chronicler of American subterranean lowlife blues, but perhaps the diversity and experimentation of ’83’s Swordfishtrombones and the new opus suggest a one-legged shift away from the cool-eyed scratching and scraping?

"Oh no, not really – I’m still drawn to the ugly, I don’t know if it’s a flaw in my personality or something that happened when I was a child. It’s like when you look out of the window what’s the first thing you notice? My wife says I look down, that’s what’s wrong with me. That’s why I see the spit. I don’t know – it’s what you choose to take from your vision."

So you’re a pessimist? "No, I was raised a methodist actually. But that’ll change."

You constantly draw on the potent and jarring imagery of ‘handicaps’ – deaf, dumb, blind, lame – bandages – and the photo on the cover of Rain Dogs isn’t exactly a Dagwood and Blondie cartoon…

"Ah yeah, it does kinda have that Diane Arbus feel to it. His name is Andrews Peterson – it’s a drunk sailor being held by a mad prostitute, I guess. She’s cackling and he’s sombre. It did capture my mood for a moment. It’s just like – uh – isolated. Maybe this comes from living in New York a little bit – you kinda have to invent an invisible elevator for yourself just to live in: A guy goes to the bathroom on the tyre of a car, then a $70,000 car pulls up alongside an’ a woman with $350 stockings pokes her foot out into a puddle of blood and sputum, an’ the rain comes down, an’ a plane falls off the sky… it just gets a little… you start to just kinda focus on what you have to do an’ where you have to go. I always gravitate towards abnormal behaviour when I’m out on the street, so I have to be careful, cos it’s everywhere! I might never get to where I’m going!"

So does Rain Dogs (swimming, as it is, alongside your current thespian activities) signal a new era for Tom Waits?

"I hope so – just in terms of discovery and ideas. I’m trynna get away from that jazz thing. I live where the Nigerian overlaps Louisiana now. I’m trynna listen more to the noise in my head. My writing process has changed. Like when it’s rainin’ – again! – you have to make sure you have enough things to catch it in. I’m realisin’ the possibilities in arranging, exploring."

While Rain Dogs features some unearthly meddlings with the bizarre, there’s also a clutch of more conformist AOR songs like ‘Downtown Train’, ‘Hang Down Your Head’ and ‘Blind Love’. Which is not to detract from the poignant poetry of ‘9th And Hennepin’, ‘Gunstreet Girl’, the resigned ‘Tango Till They’re Sore’ and the shimmering ‘Time’. There are 19 titles in all.

"I never owned my songs, and now I do. It’s like – I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more. So now I send my songs out there, tell them to stick together an’ look out for their brothers. Aw… I usually just try to design something that has purity of purpose. Some are just sketches, some are more developed."

So what’s Keith Richards like?

"A wild animal. A real gentleman."

As a family man, are you thinking more in terms of career these days?

"You can’t, without driving yourself crazy. You can’t perceive it correctly. You just have to stay interested, keep a sense of humour, stay civilised and curious, an’ y’know, enjoy life’s rich pageant. Some are more afraid of success than of failure. It’s hard to get on the radio, an’ without that you can’t affect things an’ ‘catch the young’. It’s all business y’know? I don’t know – maybe I have been a cult for too long, but you do what you do. So many come along as a big sensation an’ then tomorrow nobody gives a shit about them – keep it movin’ pal! I stay a little… outside the glass.

"I think I’d like to take a crack at a wider audience, but with that comes responsibility. If you’re too big you get self conscious, if you’re too obscure you feel nervous. So it’s hard. The main thing is songs. You take off your hat an’ the birds fly out of your head – some homing pigeons, some crows, some never get off the ground, some never even hatch. I don’t wanna sound too sentimental, cos I’m really not. Make some money here, fine…"

Another of your favourite words seems to be ‘demented’….

"Aw… I’m not as demented as I’d like to be. We all have to prescribe to certain conventions and it’s difficult to dismantle this world and rebuild it the way you’d like. Some are completely unselfconscious and gone; I admire that. When I’m an old guy I’ll sit on the porch with a shotgun, and a skirt, and an umbrella, an’ if you hit your baseball in my yard you’ll never see it again."

The Times once described you as ‘the greatest living beat poet’, and you’re still alive. Is there a place for poetry in today’s civilised world or is it an outmoded medium?

"Everybody’s in a hurry. They even rush you in the barber’s. You have to get the most expensive coffin, not just a pine box, so it must be better on the other side. I’m gonna stick around though; you gotta police your area, you have to be in charge.

"I don’t know – all that stuff is vicariously important to me. See, Ginsberg is still alive, Burroughs, Robert Frank… it’s like a party. The ’50s was Chuck Berry, the Korean War, McCarthy… I love the idea of Kerouac. I love the sound of his name, the way it throws a rock through the window and lets you out."

Is cool important to Tom Waits?

"Well, I lose it all the time, so…"

I cannot vouch for this.

Music remains his first love. "I guess it’s where I feel most comfortable." The developing involvement with film and theatre doesn’t occupy as large a part of his daily thoughts as some gratuitous written attempts to justify Tom Waits as an ‘artist’ may have led you to believe. His roles to date have been small if successful – "I study acting a little. I’m trynna learn" – and he says of Coppola: "It’s hard to break new ground when people are watching your every move".

He’s far from feverishly excited by discussion of his credits – "I’ve never had a real role" – and the much-mooted projects underway seem vague and ambiguous. Or perhaps it’s just that I don’t look like Pauline Kael. There’s There Ain’t No Candy Mountain, written by Rudy Wurlitzer (Pat Garrett) and directed by Robert Frank – "a visionary, a giant".

Of this we learn "it’ll probably happen late spring. They’re still looking for financing". Then there’s a Jim Jarmusch film, tentatively titled Down By Law. "That’s a prison movie. Three cons who subsequently escape. I’m the smart one. The leader of The Lounge Lizards is in it, too."

And if Waits’ own musical-drama Frank’s Wild Years is to come off/ impress, it’ll require a degree more commitment and enthusiasm from his laconic self. The plan is for Terry Kinney and the Chicago-based theatre group Steppenwolf to direct and premiere the work next summer, with Tom starring.

"These are all things that are lined up – I hope they come true; it’s like three wishes, y’know?" He has factually, recorded a song for a forthcoming Kurt Weill tribute album. "It’s called ‘What Keeps Mankind Alive?’" The answer being? "Bestial acts! It’s an angry song."

The rain is coming down "like a round of applause", so it seems logical to step out and take some photos. But not before we have furthered mankind’s quest for enlightenment by asking Tom Waits to the most important thing he’s learned in the last 15 years.

"Champagne for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends. The sky is falling, the sky is falling. Jackie Gleason says, ‘Just play the melody pal’. Book early."

Yum. And if you could leave only one thing as a legacy. What’d it be? "I made a little ashtray when I was in high school… aw… I don’t know."

If you were really a careerist, this is where you’d say Rain Dogs. "Oh! Rain Dogs; that’s it! Yes sir!"

We fiddle about for a bit. "One thing… uh… it’s usually something you do when nobody’s around. Everythin’ feels just… the wind blows your hat off an’ you spin around an’ catch it behind your back. yeah. You just have to kinda wink at yourself. It’s normally not somethin’ you can hang onto. It’s all brief, it’s all very brief…" What’s this? Is Romeo bleating?? "F**k ’em if they can’t take a joke, that’s what I say."

"That’s the most highly implausible thing I ever saw in my life."

– Harry Dean Stanton in One From The Heart; soundtrack by Tom Waits.

Now we are standing in the New York rain, as you know, but it is crucial and Tom Waits jumps into the middle of the street to wrestle a taxi, but a cobalt-blue limo pulls up and two men pounce out yelling "Dom! Dommy boy!" and hug him and slap him and are friends he hasn’t seen in three years so they offer him a lift amid much laughter and say the British guys can come too as long as they don’t have AIDS.

"Dommy! Yuh whole personallidy huz changed! Jee-zuz Christ yuh’ve changed! Noo Yokk does that to yuh! Yoo wuz in The Cotton Club? That’s great. How’s Francis? Yeah?"

There are six people in the car. Dom shows us all a photograph of his two-year-old daughter and I don’t normally go for baby pics but she’s beautiful.

"Dom yuh wearin’ the same clothes yuh wuz wearing 10 years ago!"

"I wanted to be sure you’d recognise me."

"Oh shit dommass, yuh too much!"

Dommass’s friends tell him Paul Newman is interested in one of their new plays. "Got a chance of bein’ put on. It’s normal."

"Sounds commercial to me," says Dom. "I bin workin’ on a story for a while, it’s called They Wept Their Faces Off For Him. It’s about three nuns."

"Yeah?" says our driver "No, true or what?"

"They have no idea the commitment was going to be so deep," continues deadpan Dom. "They were told – do you wanna accept the Lord Jesus Christ or what? Two of ’em started crying and it was all over, so… uh… um.. ah.. no, I… ah man!! Oh Jesus this is crazy, I’m makin’ you late. We can get a cab or the subway or a… where we going anyway?"

"So yuh married now, Dommy? You must be happy just a liddle bit. So how yuh meet her?"

"Oh, she’s great. She was my parole officer, we fell in love instantly. No, that’s not the truth. The truth is we met in the movies. She started eatin’ my popcorn an’ I thought what is this?! She thought I was somebody else."

"Watcha gonna call the noo baby?"

"Ajax. Ajax Waits."

Out of the car, up to our ankles in the rainfall, Tom Waits says, "Did you record that?"

"Yes" I cannot tell a lie. "You were working pretty hard."

"Good. It was good for the story."

Soon he has to rush off. Ajax, or Senator, or even Casey Xavier (true), wants to join in.

© Chris Roberts, 1985

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