So…Tom Waits last night? Amazing. I do feel sorry for the folk who were in the area where the tent sprung a leak, but from the seats we were in, the sound was just incredible: crystal clear. Highlights for me came in the shape of Raindogs, Cemetary Polka, Tom Traubert’s Blues, Get Behind the Mule, Make it Rain and Time. But Falling Down was probably the best of the lot. Spotted Shane MacGowan ambling out into the rain at the end. I’ve a full review of the gig in the Business Post this Sunday, but for now, here’s a profile I wrote about Waits last week.
Waiting for Tom
27 July 2008
In an appearance on the David Letterman Show in the early part of this decade, Tom Waits told the story of how his children once recruited him to drive the bus on a school field-trip.
They went to a record store, he said, and – with 30 kids in tow -he posed by the guitars, the drums and the pianos in an effort to get recognised by shoppers. Nobody bothered him.
The next week, he was asked to drive on another field-trip -this time, to a dump. ‘‘Twelve guys surrounded my car,’’ Waits laughed. ‘‘Everybody knows me . . . at the dump.”
The tale was typical Tom Waits: self-deprecating, yet also feeding into the myth of the Waitsian underworld, where those in the dump are most likely to know his name. Of course, the fact that he told the story on Letterman- with an audience of more than four million – suggests that it’s not just kooky dump-dwellers who are acquainted with his strange genius.
Where most artists are content to search for three chords and the truth, Waits has long operated from a universe somewhere to their left, blending primitivist recording techniques with instruments that include gramophones, tubes, dripping taps, calliope, percussion, doors creaking and bacon in a frying pan (‘‘it sounds like the pops and cracks on an old 33rpm recording”).
After decades as a cult figure, all that hoover-playing is now reaping bigger dividends than ever. Waits’ most recent albums have met with critical praise, his concerts sell out in jig time and Hollywood starlet Scarlett Johansson recently recorded a deservedly lauded debut album of Waits covers.
Tickets for his three all-seated concerts in Dublin’s Phoenix Park this week sold out in less than three hours when they went on sale in May – with fans paying a splutter-inducing €116.25 and €131.25 for their tickets.
As it’s the first time in more than 20 years that Waits has played in Dublin, few ticket-holders are complaining about the cost. As one fan wrote on an internet message board: ‘‘I pretty much see this Tom Waits gig as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Those in search of last-minute tickets will be disappointed – in an effort to defeat the touts, tickets were limited to just two per person. Ticket-holders will be asked to produce photo identification when picking up their tickets, and tickets are non-transferable.
‘‘This is what Tom Waits wanted,” said a spokesperson for Aiken Promotions, the promoter of the concerts. ‘‘He wasn’t going to do the show unless it was put in place. And it’s worked. No ticket touts have got tickets. It’s the first concert we’ve ever done with this. If it turns out to be successful, we think more acts will do it.”
Waits, currently midway through his European tour, will perform in a specially built 4,500 capacity marquee that he has named the Ratcellar Theatre. Although it’s fair to assume that most of those at the gigs will stem from Waits’ older, wealthier fanbase who can afford such prices, the artist has no problem garnering street-cred with younger fans.
His song Way Down In The Hole is the theme tune for The Wire, the hit HBO show. Johansson’s surprisingly good album of Waits covers was aided by David Bowie, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner and Dave Sitek of TV On The Radio.
‘‘I would never have done it if Tom didn’t give his OK,’’ Johansson said at the time. ‘‘But I think he was probably interested himself to hear what could happen. I don’t feel like it’s a debut album or something. It’s more like a valentine for his work.”
Over the years, many others have offered up similar valentines to Waits, including Bette Midler, Bruce Springsteen, Marianne Faithfull, Rod Stewart, Johnny Cash and the Ramones.
‘‘No one has written with more purity and sheer gothic beauty about life’s crazy journey than Mr Waits,’’ Neil Labute, the playwright and film-maker, has said, when asked to explain Waits’ appeal.
He takes a gleeful joy in pulling the veil from your eyes, exposing the tender carcass of the song and indirectly hammering home the message that music doesn’t have to be produced according to conventional recording techniques.
Although individual tracks such as Downtown Train (covered by Rod Stewart) have become classics, think of Waits and – as with the likes of Francis Bacon or Tim Burton – you think of an entire culture filled with soothsayers, killers, creeps, crazies and kooks.
Lines like the refrain from We’re All Mad Here, from the album Alice, heighten the atmosphere: ‘‘All the worms they will climb the rugged ladder of your spine.” Waits treats the art of songwriting with great seriousness, understanding both the richness and the essential mysteriousness of his craft.
‘‘Some of[m y songs] are little paramedics,” he has said. ‘‘Maybe some will be killers. Some will die on the windshield. And some will never leave home.”
His voice – once described by a reviewer as sounding like ‘‘a drunken hobo arguing with a deli owner over the price of a bowl of soup’’ – is a fascinatingly primitive instrument, capable of belching diesel into the most delicate of lullabies.
Then there’s his appearance: with his tiny piggy eyes, surprisingly delicately etched nose, battered fedora, hair like Kramer from Seinfeld, and an air of dishevelled elegance, Waits has exactly the right vaudeville-act-by-way-of-a-tramp look to support the act.
His is the face you could imagine peering out from a hall of mirrors, looming, distorted and dangerous. Waits clearly relishes his weirdness, nourishes it and offers it up on chat shows such as Letterman with a sideways smile that suggests that he, too, is in on the joke and enjoying the spectacle.
But at times the schtick has raised questions. Are his eccentricities too contrived? Where does Tom Waits the person end and Tom Waits the persona begin? Or are they one and the same?
Although he likes playing gags on his interviewers – he has claimed for years that he was born in a moving taxi, and fans should check out his recent ‘‘press conference’’ video on YouTube – he has admitted to wondering himself if his quirks are essential to himself, or if they are just an easy way to showoff before a crowd.
When Waits quit alcohol for good 16 years ago, he was forced to take a close look at what was most fundamental to him.
‘‘I was trying to prove something to myself,” he told the Guardian in 2006. ‘‘It was like, ‘Am I genuinely eccentric? Or am I just wearing a funny hat?’ All the big questions come up when you get sober. ‘What am I made of? What’s left when you drain the pool?”‘
Waits’ character had already been tested young. Born in Pomona, California, and raised for some years in National City, near the Mexican border, he was the product of schoolteacher parents who divorced in 1960.
Their split bred a restlessness within Waits, who always felt something was lacking. ‘‘See, my dad left when I was ten, so I was always looking for a dad,” he has said. ‘‘It was like, ‘Are you my dad? Are you my dad? What about you? Are you my dad?”
Aged 15, Waits moved out of home. He eked out a living as a cook and a nightclub bouncer, all the while writing songs about drunkards, thieves, barflies and prostitutes and those who found comfort in the black of the night. Waits was close to those characters.
‘‘Bruce Springsteen likes to sing about these characters,” journalist Geoffrey Himes has said. ‘‘But Waits sings as one.”
Waits initially signed to Asylum Records where he recorded his debut, 1973’s Closing Time, and several more albums. Listening back to those early recordings is a shock for the listener grown used to Waits’ deliberately ramshackle contemporary arrangements.
While his voice is as raw as ever, the early production is stodgy, staid and conventional. When Waits met his muse and wife-to-be Kathleen Brennan in 1980, she encouraged him to change the recording techniques to suit his style.
‘‘I like my music with lumps and rind and pits and pulp,’’ Waits has said. ‘‘Until that time, I felt like I was being photographed with my head on somebody else’s body.
‘‘Kathleen said: ‘Look, we can find musicians. We’ll find the engineer. We can get money from the record company. We have 12 songs here. Let’s go, we’ll do it ourselves. You don’t have to give six [royalty] points to a producer.’ “
Waits’ next experimental album, 1983’s Swordfishtrombones, utilised percussion, low-pitched horns and odd time signatures. It ended up being voted the second most important album of all time by Spin magazine in 1989.TomWaits, the world realised, did weird very well.
Brennan has continued to be a major influence on Waits’ work; the couple work together on his albums, with Brennan occasionally taking co-writing credits. Talking to Dave Fanning in 2004, Waits still sounded in awe of his wife.
‘‘She’s the best,” he said. ‘‘I don’t know how to describe her. She’s done a million things. She kind of pushed me out onto the freeway in a baby carriage.”
Brennan’s grandfather is from Co Cork and the couple married in Tralee, Co Kerry. ‘‘We get over there every now and then,’’ Waits has said.
‘‘She comes from a big, wild, loud Irish family. There’s a lot of noise and carrying on at the dinner table. So I fell in love with the whole clan.”
Two of Waits’ favourite ‘‘beacon’’ tunes, he has said, are Fairytale Of New York and Raglan Road. The couple, who live in California with their three children, have also released a track called Widow’s Grove which contains traces of the melody of The Rose of Tralee.
Brennan once said that her husband wrote two kinds of songs, ‘‘the grim reapers and the grand weepers’’. Early reviews of Waits’ Glitter and Doom tour, which began in Phoenix, Arizona on June 16, suggest that fans will get fire-in-the-belly renditions of both.
On the US leg of the tour, the reported set highlights came from 2004’s Real Gone album and 1999’sGrammy award-winning Mule Variations. Waits played with bullhorns hanging over his head and spent a lot of time atop a wooden box that spewed clouds of dust and grit when he stamped his feet.
‘‘There is a certain grace in Tom’s weird, angular gyrations and Frankenstein’s monster posturing,” commented two reporters for Vanity Fair magazine. “ ‘I didn’t expect him to be so sexy,’ said one fan. Indeed, what could be sexier than the man standing, arms outstretched, beneath a shower of glitter?”
For his part, Waits sounds like he’s enjoying being back on the open road. ‘‘Performing live is [like joining] the circus,” he has told reporters. ‘‘Maybe it’s kind of like alligator wrestling, because you’re dealing with something that’s alive.
‘‘You might be thrown by it and you might be gored by it. But you may get to ride it.”