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The lowdown on Tom Waits

Similes, conspiracies, the creative process and ‘Bad as Me’


PETALUMA, California ― Over the course of three hours of conversation at a roadside diner here called Pete’s Henny Penny, Tom Waits, the singer, songwriter, pianist, arranger, actor and note taker, will offer the following similes and metaphors, seemingly at random though just as likely cataloged in his memory for future use: an aging musician as “a Popsicle in the sun on a bus bench in Florida”; the process of creation as “like making Chinese food ― it’s very exotic and it takes a lot of time”; the Henny Penny as “privately owned, like I am”; and a woman losing her wedding ring near a lake, biting into it later when eating fish, and how such magical irony may or may not have something to do with the way Waits and his longtime collaborator and wife, Kathleen Brennan, create songs.

Tom Waits. (Jesse Dylan)
Tom Waits. (Jesse Dylan)
Waits, 61, had walked into the diner just off Highway 101 around lunchtime last week wearing blue jeans and a jean jacket and carrying a black leather bag the size of a briefcase fastened shut with buckles and packed with whatever it was that I’ll always regret not asking about. (Notebooks? Change of clothes? Horse manure?)

He sat down in a booth, dropped a few pocket-sized notebooks on the table ― messages and reminders regarding his new album, “Bad as Me” ― and ordered a cup of decaf. He lives somewhere around here in Sonoma County with his wife ― his three children are all in their 20s now ― and will swing by the diner from time to time when he’s “washing the dishes,” his term for the requisite media rounds that accompany the release of new music after the feast that is creating it.

The singer with the lowdown Howlin’ Wolf yowl, which is richer and more elastic than ever on “Bad as Me,” still has a mound of dark brown hair, same style, though thinner, that he’s worn since his first album in 1973. Waits, who grew up in Whittier but is a longtime Northern Californian, swung by the 24-hour restaurant to talk about studio album No. 20 (give or take), being released this week on Los Angeles-based Anti- Records, his first new studio album in seven years, and one of the best of his wildly fruitful creative life.

As they have done since his transformative “Swordfishtrombones” in 1983, Waits and Brennan, listed as co-writer on all songs, have created tunes that draw from all corners of folk and popular music. Few if any artists working today contain these foundational multitudes that make Waits a composer who’s absorbed the breadth of 20th century musical instrumentation so completely that it’s melted into one beautifully chaotic thing.

He’s done this gradually, over time. His work in the 1970s relied on standard instrumentation ― mostly Waits on the piano with smoky-jazz accompaniment. But as he moved into the ’80s and married Brennan, herself a screenwriter and playwright, the musical palate expanded greatly. Where once he banged on pianos, he now bangs on everything, and he weaves layers of sound, dust and melody throughout.

You’re just as likely to hear hints of rockabilly as Brechtian song cycles; blues and show-tune sounds blend together with gospel hand claps and baritone sax runs that sound ripped from classic doo-wop; avant rock mergers with soul and R&B; his big-tent music includes nods to Gypsy ballads, Mexican rancheras, foot-stomping Sousa marches, sad, violin-scratched laments and sweet, Sinatra-esque love songs. Vocally, he channels Elvis Presley, Don Van Vliet, Louis Armstrong, Blind Willie Johnson and Billie Holiday.

Waits says there’s no real reason why it took seven years between “Bad as Me” and 2004’s “Real Gone,” which has sold 202,000 copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan. In the interim, he did some acting gigs (“The Book of Eli,” “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”) and released a triple-disc collection of outtakes and unreleased songs called “Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards.” As well, he undertook an acclaimed Glitter and Doom tour and issued a live document of it.

By Randall Roberts

(Los Angeles Times)

(MCT Information Services)
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