Thursday, September 20, 2007

Tom Waits — After A One Night Stand

"Tom may be a bit. . . ." and there were many long moments before he finished the sentence. The road manager — his name was John — had a molded golden eighth-note on a chain around his neck.

".... A bit cranky...." he said at last.

Out of the elevator, take a left, first door on the right. John held the door open. Tom Waits was piled up on the chair next to the bathroom door and a couple of the guys in the band were on the couch. It was sometime after one in the morning. Waits had just played two shows in front of two half-empty houses, and he had to pull his fingers out of the ropy lengths of his hair to shake hands. Then he headed for the bathroom.

While Waits was out of the room, I took inventory of the pile of stuff dumped in front of his chair. There were matchbooks and a couple of packs of cigarettes, an obscure brand, smaller than most, called Delicados. Phone numbers with and without names scrawled on scraps of paper. A torn-off piece of the Greater New Orleans Yellow Pages. Half-buried beneath was a silver-scaled hip-flask, the kind with curved sides to hide the bulge. It was all great material to toss in to a story about Tom Waits, and listing it helped keep me from dozing off to the lull of the musicians' voices from the couch. I hadn't been getting all that much sleep lately myself, and it was beginning to tell. I felt slow.

Earlier that day, I'd gotten a message from a woman, a photographer who wanted to do some photos of Tom Waits.. "I'm not into taking pictures of rock stars or anything," she told me. "it's just that Tom Waits . . . he seems different." So okay, I can understand that, but I had a photographer already. I told her I'd see how Waits was, and if he really wanted his picture taken, I'd give her a call back.

Waits came back into the room, sat down and pulled off his shirt. His face was younger than any of his photos seemed to reveal; he was obviously tired and restless and none too thrilled with the prospect of answering some guy's questions while another guy stared at him through a camera lens. You could feel it — anybody could have.

My first thought was to call it, call a halt to the whole thing right there, get the hell out, get gone, go home. Can't do that, though. You've hung on this long, gone this far, so you might as well try to get him to open up, give you enough quotes to throw a story together, and get out of here. Try and start a conversation with him.

Except the answers came back in words of one syllable or less. I was trying to draw him out somehow, trying to get him to say things I could quote him on but no dice. Time to try a new tack. "I'd like to talk about Kerouac," I told him. Obviously Waits had been influenced by Jack Kerouac, and one of the songs on his latest album, "Jack & Neal" was loosely biographical. Besides, Kerouac is about as close as I come to having a hero.

"Okay, so you wanna talk about Kerouac." He'd pulled a deeply worn brown leather jacket from the floor onto his lap and was lost in contemplation of its every wrinkle.

Dead end. Things were beginning to look a little grim. "Anything at all you want to talk about?"

Waits jumped all over that one. "No. No! That's your job. You're the journalist. I've just gotta stay here and answer the questions but you're the one that's gotta ask the questions."

I was tired. My feelings were hurt and I had no more use for this guy, no desire whatsoever to pull an interview out of the shambles. "Look, if you don't wanna do it, let's not do it." I slapped my notebook shut and stood up.

"Well, I don't want you to ask me what I want to be asked — I can do that all by myself." He pointed to my notebook. "You obviously came prepared with some questions but . . ."

"I came prepared with some questions but man, you know -- I'm not gonna. . . I don't want to sit here and beat my head against the wall." I don't know which one of us was glaring harder.

"Well, I'll . . . y'know, I'll answer your questions."

It got no better. I asked a long and vague and rambling question about his stage persona as opposed to her personal identity, the image of Tom Waits as a late night bar-crawler, and how it related to his actual life — something like that, probably even less coherent -— and now he thought I was calling him a drunk.

"I'm not a drunk," he said, sucking hard on his Delicado, then shooting smoke out the corner of his mouth. "I'm not a lush. I work real hard all year. If I was a drunk I don't think I'd have five albums out, I don't think I'd be able to stay on the road eight months out of the year." He was pissed.

"No, what I mean is—" I was trying to get things back on track. " .—do people expect you to be Tom Waits the hard-living bar room character, do they meet you and immediately try and drink you under the table?"

He waved his cigarette in the air, a little streak of smoke in the room. "That's a line in a song. What does—"

"And it's an old phrase. What I'm saying is do people expect you to be just like the characters you write about, do they react to you or do they react to your image?"

"I don't know. Are you reacting to me or are you reacting to my image?"

"Hey, I don't know — that's why I'm asking?"

"Do I look like a drunk?""

I nearly hesitated too long. It would have been so easy to say yes, to say yes and piss him off good and well and just get the hell out of there. With his hanked-off hair, his pale drawn face, his ragged black slacks and his battered black shoes, he could have blended right into the scenery on the corner of any metropolitan Tailspin Alley . . . but the clothes and the hair were matters of choice and the paleness of the face was plainly exhaustion, not alcohol. I hedged. "How should I know? What's a drunk look like?"

Waits dumped back in his chair." Look, why don't you ask me something about what I do, about writing songs or traveling on the road eight months out of the year. I've written a lot of songs." His voice was tight and pinched now, the coarse threads of his usual growl stretched taut. "Do you know anything about the tunes I've written, the . . ."

Up yours, Jack. "Yeah.. . ."

"They're not just about drunks. They're about murder and car wrecks and love and. . . and. . ." He sucked at his cigarette. "I write about a lotta different things."

Okay, all right, let's talk about the songs. That's only fair. "Okay, it seems as though your songs are all very American, very American subjects . . ."
"Which one?" he snarled. "Which song?"

"Your songs in general, your songwriting . . ."

"Which one?" We were glaring again. "Do you know 'em?"

"Yeah, I know 'em. It doesn't matter whether it's 'The Heart of Saturday Night' or 'Ol' '55' or . . ."

"That's two . . ."

". . . or 'Pasties And A G-String. -- look," I yelled. "What do you want? You want me to list all the titles."

He was memorizing the ceiling. "Yeah."

I shut the notebook again and reached down to pick up my tape recorder.

"I can do it." he said in a low voice, just less than a whisper.

"Yeah, well, you know, that's great. . . that's swell. . ."

"And if you can do it, we all have to do it." It was John, the road manager. He'd come back into the room without me noticing it, and now he was making a valiant effort to josh Tom along, to lighten things up. "We will all write the Tom Waits songbook on the blackboard." Then he left us.

"Listen," I said, "let's just call it."

Waits pushed his hand through his hair. "Look, I don't know what you want from me. I'm not a geek, I'm not a drunk, I'm a regular guy —"

"Hey, wait a minute, wait a—"

".—I take shits, I've got a girlfriend, I live in a hotel—"

" —minute, wait a minute. You know, I don't . . . Either I . . . Either I did a really poor job of explaining myself or you took it the wrong way. I don't know which but I wasn't saying any of that shit. I was just trying to find out if the whole thing about Tom Waits being certain things, being a person who spends all his time in bars and stuff, if that really fits."

"I go to bars, I do all kinds of things. I do everything that you do. Except maybe a little more. And a little more often." He rubbed at his nose. "I travel a great deal, all over the United States and, uh, I'm in a nightclub every night. I play bars, mainly, still play bars. And it's got its moments, you know, and then again, you know . . . some nights, it's a pain in the ass. I get pissed off, I get tired, I get . . . y'know. . ." His voice dropped off, still high-pitched and tight, just above a whisper. "Just a regular guy. . . Right now I'm pissed-off, I'm tired. . . We had two half-houses out there, with a lame promoter who's obviously—" here he pointed to his forehead "—operating with an unfurnished apartment. I mean, the guy seems like he must be about a quart low to me," he said bitterly. "He had a very lame sound department and a real antiseptic little environment here . . .

"You know, I'm tired. I been on the bus. I don't sleep. I just got up. I haven't had a night off in three weeks. I've been entertaining and talking to journalists and getting my picture taken and playing in nightclubs and it gets to be a little too much." His voice was beginning to sound like a record being played while someone slowed it down with their thumb.

"I'm on my way home. I can't wait to get home and just get twelve hours of sleep . . . some twelve-year-old scotch and a twelve-year-old girl. That's what I want."

I wasn't so pissed off any more. He was so obviously exhausted,. "Well, let's do one of two things then: Let's either start all over again and if I've been antagonistic, I'll cool out, or else let's just, you know, maybe we're better off just letting you get your sleep, whatever you prefer — but be honest."

"Alright . . . why'ntchya go out and come back in, and we'll start all over again. We'll shake hands, you can introduce yourself, tell me who you write for and all that." He looked over at the photographer. "You can just turn your back."

So I went out the door, shut it. There was reason to listen for the sound of the lock clicking but I opened the door again. Waits had his head turned away. "For Christssake what a fuckin' damn — " [big jolly fake voice] "— Oh, hel-lo....."

Things loosened considerably. Tom started unreeling tales about buying hundred-dollar cars and testing them out by driving them to Arizona. "I've broke down in Gila Bend, Buckeye, Tucson . . . uh. . . Camp Verde -- know that joint? Spent a night in Stanfield. On New Year's Eve. New Year's Eve. I went to a church, Pentecostal church, you know, holy rollers? And this old lady, Mrs. Anderson, put me up. I was in the back of this church -- it was real cold and, uh, my car was busted and I had it at the gas station and she had me come to this four-hour marathon New Year's Eve church service, so I could stay inside. And afterwards they took up a collection -- the whole church took up a collection and gave me all the money to get my car fixed so I could get out of town. About fifty bucks -- I got a new water pump."

"Yeah, I used to come here a lot -- but I haven't been here for a while. I think the last time I was here was two albums ago. That's why I was really disappointed that nobody showed up." He was scratching under his chin with a matchbook.

It wasn't twenty minutes later that we wrapped it up. We made our goodbyes, apologized back and forth for our initial fracas and then the phnotographer and I headed for the door. "Okay, you take it easy now," said Tom.

But as it turned out Waits and John the road manager came around the corner while Tim and I were still waiting for the elevator. "Looks like we're all going up together," said John nervously. I think he was concerned that Waits and I might start screaming at each other again.

No one said much as the elevator went down. No one says much in elevators anyway. I took one last look at Waits as he slumped back in the corner. He had his leather jacket on now and he'd acquired a matchstick between his teeth. It took us a moment to re-establish where we were when we got to the ground level but then we were all walking the same direction — me and the photographer to my car and Tom and John to the highway cruiser bus that was dieseling at the curb.

It was cold. I stuffed my hand into my pocket for my keys and pulled them out with a piece of paper that fell to the ground. As I bent to get it, I knew what it was, it was the phone number of the photographer who'd wanted me to ask permission so she could take pictures of Tom Waits too. I'd forgotten all about that.

"Later," called Waits, and the bus door closed.


TK Kerouac said...

I'll talk Jack Kerouac with you
My grandfather was his uncle

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