Tom Waits - Offbeat Poet And Pianist

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(This interview originally appeared in the April 1977 issue of Contemporary Keyboard magazine.)

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TOM WAITS shoves aside a box full of paperbacks to reveal a couch underneath and pulls up a green vinyl-stripped lawn chair. "Just pull up a plaster caster anywhere," he groans. "I wish I were a little more accommodating, but I know you understand."

He surveys his apartment (actually a back room of one of Hollywood's less elegant motor hotels), which is, carpeted wall-to-wall with cardboard boxes of books, LPs, 78s, skin magazines, empty beer cans, and the like. "I just moved into this place," he apologizes. "I was living out in Echo Park, but I'd be away on tour and the neighbors would start holding garage sales in my living room."

An electric coffee pot sputters next to an ancient floor-console phonograph. "You like a cup of coffee? How about a little Half & Half? Yeah, this stuff'll put hair on your eyeballs."

Tom paces self-consciously, lights up an Old Gold, and carelessly tosses the dead match over his shoulder. "I don't put myself off as any pioneer of the piano or anything," he shrugs. "I feel a little funny even talking about it. I taught myself; I'm not anything to write home about. I don't spend evenings around the piano with friends and hot toddies, you know, singing old Gershwin songs. Nobody comes over here much. Look around and figure it out."

Waits terms himself a "pedestrian piano player." As for his technique, he states, "I'm a writer, I compose melodies." He describes his role in his quartet as "fills, just fills. They don't say, `Take it, Tom.' I don't hardly take any solos; I 'solo' lyrically or with a story to introduce the song. But most of the weight of the improvising is on the tenor man."

Despite his highly individual, jazz-tinged approach to the keyboard, Waits is more honest than modest in his self-evaluation. He is first and foremost a songwriter, and piano is just one means of conveying his material, as are acoustic guitar and his trademark finger-snapping. But Waits' real forte is as a storyteller. Example: "I had a typing teacher who I really admired a lot. He told me that when he was younger he was walking down past the pawnshop one day and saw an old Smith-Corona hanging up in the window with a beat-up case. He took the typewriter, went home, and wrote, like, `Eucalyptus,' easy stuff. Then finally he sat in once in a typing pool. He said `Whaddya say? Can I sit in, blow a little bit?' And all the other typists looked over at each other, said, 'What do you think? Let's give him a chance.' So he jumped right in and started with, like, `Copenhagen.' Before you know it, he was coming around, started his own group, got strung out for a while, went underground, got in a car wreck, moved to Cincinnati. Now he's kind of cleaned up; he's got this big amazing typewriter at home—plays it with his fist. See, I saw this piano hanging up in the window of a pawnshop. It was Christmas time and everything, so I told my mother, 'If I could just get my hands on that sucker....' So she went down there in her slippers and housecoat, as the snow fell over Whittier, and she put a brick through the window and dragged the piano home. The rest is history; it's now in my kitchen."

Even if the rest of his improvisation of words has nothing to do with reality (he actually took up piano only about six years ago, just prior to his debut album), Waits' Steinway upright does indeed occupy the far corner of his kitchen.

"You'll notice what I had to go through in order to get it in," he says, leading the way. "First of all, I just could barely get it through the threshold. Then I had to saw off the draining board." He motions to the ragged edge of the sink's counter. "My next obstacle," he continues, "was a broom closet. Of course, I made short order of that son-of-a-bitch." The splintered-off corner of the room's entrance testifies to the validity of his statement.

Tom Waits has been called a "musical actor, on a level with Hal Holbrook playing Mark Twain." The only difference is that when Holbrook leaves the theater and goes home to his family, he leaves his makeup in the dressing room. Waits would more likely retire to an all-night diner, in the same clothes he wears onstage or at home—the musty tweed sportcoat, the Depression-era newsboy cap, a week's worth of stubble, and worn black leather shoes.

When Tom began playing the concert circuit as an opening act a few years ago, audiences and critics alike were usually caught off guard when he staggered onstage looking more like some wino who'd taken a wrong turn out of the men's room than what Downbeat called "the most gifted and genuine folk musician-poet around today." Those waiting impatiently for Judy Collins or Jesse Colin Young have been understandably at odds with Waits' whiskey-soaked rasp, which Rolling Stone accurately described as "nothing more than a low growl, like Satchmo but without the joy."

Almost as a reflection of his increasing maturity as an artist, Waits' voice has become grittier with each of his four albums to date, so that now, even though the singer is only 27, some of his lyrics are merely hinted at in live performances.

Tom's musical bias, combined with his phraseology, accouterments, and 80-year-old rasp, might lead one to believe he's been displaced by time. "Most of the people I admire," he says, "they usually smell funny and don't get out much. It's true. Most of them are either dead or not feeling well. I like Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hammerstein—did I say Johnny Mercer? Did you know that Paul Simon owns George Gershwin's old piano that he used to write on? Yeah. I don't think Paul Simon should have it; Ira Gershwin should have it. Keep it in the family, for chrissakes."

In the same way that he has patterned his songwriting after the popular composers of three and four decades ago rather than the Jackson Brownes, James Taylors, and Paul Simons who belong to his own generation, Waits seems to get little inspiration from pianists like Leon Russell, Elton John, and Barry Manilow.

"Keyboard players that I was listening to, and continue to listen to," he states, "are Bill Evans, Mose Allison, [Thelonious] Monk, Art Tatum, Huey Piano Smith, Professor Longhair, Doctor John. But of the cats I admire, there's no trace of my admiration for them in my own style, you know what I mean? If I said I listen to Thelonious Monk, you wouldn't be able to go and find out where that comes into my playing.

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"I think Mose Allison has been a strong influence on more artists than you can name," he declares. "The Beatles, The Stones, Dylan. When Mose played Ronnie Scott's club in London in the mid-Sixties, it was a real event." Tom, too, played Ronnie Scott's, last summer. And his appearance was also somewhat of an event—though for entirely different reasons.

"The first night I was there," he recounts, "the club closed up, it was about two in the morning, and I was having a couple of drinks with the waitresses sitting around in their prison uniforms having a cigarette. Two old spade cats walked in off the street in trench coats and caps like mine. They spotted me immediately, came over, and sat down. We had a drink and were bullshitting. One guy was talking about Louis Armstrong, said, 'When Satchmo used to come over, we used to hang, we were thick as thieves.' I said, 'Yeah, right. I've got Charlie Parker's saxophone right out in the car. Give me ten bucks, I'll be right back.' Then his partner got up and went over to the piano—it was closed down and the lights were up. He started playing `Muskrat Ramble.' Then the trumpet player, out of an old brown paper sack, pulled the bell of this old, bent, silver horn and put his hat on the end of it for a mute. You could close your eyes and swear to God it was Satchmo.

"Then the bouncer came over and started to try to physically remove these cats from the club. He'd seen them in there before, and they were 'unwanted guests.' I said, 'Wait a minute, man. Forty years of playing, and you with your gut, and your ink pens, and your cash register are going to tell these guys they can't play? These aren't a bunch of drunk hippies with backpacks trying to play Neil Young songs and get to Big Sur. This is a magic moment!' So I defended these guys like this: [makes a fist]. We got into a big scuffle and all got thrown out. The things that bug me about the music business came to a head right there."

Waits has never been much of a fan of what was considered "commercially acceptable," by AM or FM standards. As a teenager growing up in the Los Angeles of the mid-Sixties, Tom showed little interest in the Haight-Ashbury, acid-rock sounds, or the black-light posters and incense that went with them. Instead, he began discovering gems from his parents' dusty collection of 78s. "Wasn't any-thing real eclectic," he concedes, "Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller —nothing real 'inside.' But as an alternative to Blue Cheer, it was a welcome relief. I saw The Mothers once when I was about- fifteen or sixteen; I hated it. They were on a bill with Country Joe And The Fish, and I walked out. I wasn't a snob or anything —I just thought it was a waste of time."

Around this same time Waits formed his first group, soulfully named The Systems. "I played rhythm guitar and sang," he comments. "Rhythm and blues—a lot of black Hit Parade stuff, white kids trying to get that Motown sound. I went to an all-black junior high and was under certain social pressure. So I listened to what was around me."

Tom dropped out of high school during his junior year, because he was already working by that time—not as a musician, but as a cook. Several years on the graveyard shift at an all-night diner in San Diego, besides providing him with what would become fuel for subsequent songs and stories, convinced him that there had to be a better medium through which to channel his energies and words. As he told the Los Angeles Times, "I knew when I was working there I was going to do something with it. I didn't know how, but I felt it every night."

On a more pragmatic level, Waits determined that a career in music would "beat the hell out of putting aluminum siding on recreational vehicles, or fixing radios—or writing for a magazine, you know. I used to drive a cab, I worked in a liquor store, I was a delivery boy, a dishwasher, I was an amateur gynecologist, played pool. I was a labor organizer at a maternity ward for a while."

Another job he landed was as doorman in a small L.A. nightclub called The Heritage. There Tom did a lot of listening and finally auditioned at The Troubadour where he was spotted by Herb Cohen, manager of such off-the-wall acts as The Mothers and Captain Beefheart. For the next year or so, Waits woodshedded, subsidized by Cohen. He eventually went on the road, playing small, inconsequential clubs. "You get into the club," he recalls, "go over to this little Wurlitzer with one leg shorter than the other, say, 'Hey, what about the piano?' And the owner comes over and says, 'What are you complaining about? I just had it painted!'"

Waits' first album, released in 1972 [Closing Time, Asylum, SD 5061], did little to distinguish him from the multitude of introspective L.A. singer-songwriters. But not so with his follow-up release. Whereas any jazz influence was barely hinted at on Closing Time (because, according to Waits, it was made up mostly of "old songs"), The Heart of Saturday Night [Asylum, 7E-1015], recorded two years later, coupled Tom's cold-as-neon street images with swinging backup from such notable studio players as saxophonist Tom Scott, trumpeter Oscar Brashear, and drummer Jim Gordon.

A double live package, Nighthawks At The Diner [Asylum, 7E-2008], clearly demonstrated Waits' debt to such late Fifties "jazz orators" as Ken Nordine and Oscar Brown Jr., coming prophets of the beat era like Lord Buckley and Harry The Hipster Gibson, smut comics such as Redd Foxx and Rudy Ray Moore, poets and authors out of the mold of Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and even Americana storytellers like Mark Twain and Will Rogers.

Though Waits supplied all the piano parts on his debut LP (as well as celeste, harpsichord, and harmonium), he chose to share the chores with Michael Melvoin on the following two albums. "Melvoin's a hell of a lot better piano player than I am," he admits, "that goes without saying. If I wanted to get some kind of an Oscar Peterson flavor I would ask Mike to play. If I thought I could eke out a pedestrian part, I'd do it myself."

On Tom's latest release, Small Change [Asylum, 7E-1078], all the pianistics come straight from his own fingers, because "I wanted to do all the piano myself, so that what I lay down on the record I could recreate on the road." On this date Waits was able to secure a backing trio consisting of jazz giant Shelly Manne on drums, saxophonist Lew Tabackin (co-leader, with his wife, of the Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabackin Big Band), and bassist Jim Hughart, a Waits sideman on three of his four LPs.

"I called up Shelly to do the session," he relates. "He'd heard of me, figured a session's a session, right? Till he got there. Then, hey! We ended up gettin' pretty tight; he gave me an 8x10 glossy of himself and his old old band tie. He dug the shit out of it; he said, 'Man, you're eighty years old!' See, I could bullshit with him about those old days. I mean, I was never on 52nd Street at Birdland, but I kind of recreated the whole thing in my imagination."

One of the reasons Waits is able to pull off such an anachronous deception is that he spends a lot of time blending in at such haunts as pool halls, all-night diners, movie houses, and places where he is usually surrounded by men two or three decades his senior. One such hangout is the local Musicians' Union hall: "You go down there on Thursday afternoon," he details, "walk into the rec room downstairs. All these old cats smoking cheap cigars, checkin' out the billboard, playing snooker, and telling stories about the one that got away. `Oh, yeah, I used to play with Benny Goodman. Yeah ... with Glenn Miller ... Hey, what ... You on the ... Wasn't you on that session? Aw, hell. Who'd you sit next to on the bus? What? Nah, nah, nah. Ferguson, Ferguson! No, Fergie wasn't on that session. Let's see, who was that? We had tenor, uh, who was first tenor? Aw, I don't know.'

"I go down there to listen to the stories. The Union is still in 1947—there haven't been any real major changes."

A principal benefit Waits has been able to reap from all his "research" and his four LPs is that he now employs a regular jazz trio on the road. Known as The Nocturnal Emissions, the group consists of Frank Vicari on tenor, drummer Chip White, and Dr. Fitz Jenkins on upright bass. Waits prefers this situation infinitely to his years of performing as a solo. "It's like you catch me with my drawers down," he says of the latter. "There I am, bare-assed with hemorrhoids. It's those fast numbers where I really start to drag a bit. The fingers don't go very fast. They work, but they don't go too fast."

A bit of a purist in terms of instrumentation, Waits shuns "Rhodes piano or any of that shit. I don't like the action, I don't like the sound, the flavor—and I don't like lugging them around. I just don't like them. When I was opening for The Mothers, I used to play on George Dukes' setup—all that stuff he's got. But with what I do, I'm better off with an acoustic anyhow. I won't use an electric bass either. I don't like the sound. I love the sound of an upright bass—which means we've got to buy a seat for it on the plane, and cart it around. I usually try to find a drummer who can play with brushes and wasn't weaned on Ginger Baker, you know.

Somebody who knows who Chick Webb was, who Gene Krupa was, Art Blakey. Not so much that period as that technique.

"I'm not nostalgic, though, at all," he states with resolve. "I'm a little sentimental, but I ain't nostalgic. I don't even want to go back ten minutes ago. It's usually journalists, in the first place, who create a period of music, and eventually destroy it as well. Most people would say, 'Oh, you use an upright bass, and an acoustic piano, a guy on brushes, and a tenor sax; you must play old-school jazz.' There ain't no old music. There's good music and bad music, but there ain't no old music. A lot of people when they talk to me, they talk about Kerouac, and get this impression that I'm trying to recreate the beat scene or some bullshit. Pure folly. I think it's redundant, and I think it just shows their own stupidity. It demonstrates a limited experience."

When Waits sits down at a keyboard it's virtually never to practice or to refine his chops, but only to write more tunes. "The approach to the keyboard is so much different as a writer—it's one of investigation, rather than learning technique. My technique is just I compose everything on the piano even if I'm going to play it on guitar. I used to have a little trumpet around here for when I was writing, like, a single-note melody line. I can construct melody; that's where I'm most comfortable."

Of his approach to composing, Tom comments, "I start with a couple of changes, you know. Maybe a single-note melody sometimes. I usually have the lyrics all written; I just have to find something to hang them on. On `Jitterbug Boy' [from Small Change], I was thinking about George Gershwin's `I Got Plenty O' Nuthin', Nuthin's Plenty For Me.'

"My main forte," he concludes, "is just as a performer, a songwriter, an entertainer, I guess. I think of myself more as a curator, an imagist, an unemployed service station attendant. A frustrated mechanic."

Tom Waits playing live in 1977 on Rockpalast