Perfect Sound Forever

Tom Waits

His 80's Renaissance
by Barney Hoskyns
(June 2009)

ED NOTE: This is an exclusive excerpt from Hoskyns new Waits biography Lowside of the Road

Waits has a musical identity crisis; sloughs off his ‘70s boho-beat act; reinvents himself as the eclectic lo-fi maverick of Swordfishtrombones

IT CAME TO Tom Waits in a terrible dream. In amongst the old clothes and shoes in the Salvation Army store was a stack of old vinyl albums, and as he flipped through them he chanced upon one of his own efforts. The sleeve stared at him almost reproachfully, and he knew something had to change. He didn't want to be a has-been, a '70s bargain-bin relic. He had to create something unique, "something you'd want to keep."

Like the most uncompromising singer-songwriters of the decade just past – Dylan, Young, Bowie, and others – Waits decided it was time to reinvent himself, to shake off everything he'd stood for. It was make or break, a bloodless coup that would dispense with all and any safety nets: manager Herb Cohen, producer Bones Howe, best friend Chuck E. Weiss and the gang of friends who’d frequented the Tropicana motel and Troubadour club; maybe even his label, Elektra-Asylum. The baby might get thrown out with the bathwater, but it was that or rest on what scant laurels he could claim.

Having Kathleen Brennan – the young Irish-American girl he’d married in 1980 – at his side was the only green light Waits needed. Thinking back to his first albums, he realized he'd lived his life in reverse, starting out as a cautious old man before entering a radical middle age. By the time he was physically old, he figured, he might regain the innocence and intuitiveness of childhood. "I hatched out of the egg I was living in," he said, looking back on this time. "I'd nailed one foot to the floor and kept going in circles, making the same record."

Those who love Waits' '70s albums will take issue with this statement, yet the fact remains that up to this point Waits had borrowed a bunch of styles and mannerisms – from music, movies, books – and jumbled together his voice and style. However great the songs were, to his ears they were derivative, unoriginal. He hadn't staked out a musical terrain he could sincerely call his own. "For a long time I heard everything with an upright bass and a tenor saxophone," he said. "I was very prejudiced and republican in terms of my opinions. Now I'm starting to hear more. It's very hard to stop doing things you're used to doing. You almost have to dismantle yourself and scatter it all around and then put a blindfold on and put it back together so that you avoid old habits."

Waits has given a lot of credit to Kathleen Brennan for exposing him to sounds that lay outside the commercial pop-rock spectrum. "She was the one that started playing bizarre music," he claimed. "She said, 'You can take this and this and put all this together. There's a place where all these things overlap. Field recordings and Caruso and tribal music and Lithuanian language records and Leadbelly. You can put that in a pot.'" The process that had tentatively begun with the harder-edged R&B of Blue Valentine (1978) and Heartattack and Vine (1979), then taken a twist with the aberrations on the soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola’s One From the Heart ("Circus Girl" and "You Can't Unring a Bell"), now paved the way for a music that fell completely outside Waits' old vocabulary. Most importantly, Kathleen urged her husband to push his polarities – to widen the gap between Beautiful and Ugly, Tender and Abrasive, Melodic and Dissonant. Music, she said, should reflect the fact that life can be strange and grotesque.

Waits has even claimed he'd never really listened to Captain Beefheart before meeting Kathleen – that, despite being signed by Beefheart's manager Herb Cohen and supporting the Captain’s mentor Frank Zappa on tour, he was oblivious to the gruff-voiced Dadaist genius born Don Van Vliet. "I was such a one-man show," he has said; "very isolated in what I allowed myself to be exposed to." Where the bruising "Heartattack and Vine" hinted at Beefheart's influence – or at least the influence of Howlin' Wolf via Beefheart – Waits' new songs ("16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six," "Gin-Soaked Boy") made the debt clearer still. "Once you've heard Beefheart it's hard to wash him out of your clothes," he would later state. "It stains, like coffee or blood."

Whether or not it was Kathleen who turned her husband on to Beefheart matters less than the fact that she was the catalyst for change. "It was certainly not the first time that a relationship with a strong and well-organized woman has had that kind of effect on an artist's life," says Mike Melvoin, keyboard player on The Heart of Saturday Night (1974) and Nighthawks at the Diner (1975). "Over the long haul I think it's been constructive, in that it's spread Tom into a variety of different media." But Melvoin also believes Brennan "put a stake through the heart of various things" in order to free Waits from his past. "It's very easy for a woman to say, 'I love you so much, it's hard for me to see you put up with that,'" he says. "Then you begin to look at what that is in a different way. You didn't even realize you were putting up with it, but now you feel it must diminish you in the eyes of others."

"I don't blame Tom for it, I blame Kathleen," adds Bones Howe, whom Waits had discarded as his producer. "She really separated him from everybody. I don't know if it was her personal jealousy or what. I don't harbor any bad feelings towards her, because I really believe she saved his life. She came along at a time when his relationship with Herbie Cohen was getting strained. She's a very strong woman and she found Tom's soft points. She provided him with strength when he needed strength. I have no idea what would have happened to him without somebody to really kind of take charge of his life."

For the few who saw Brennan as a Yoko Ono implanting herself in Waits' career, many more saw the galvanizing effect she had on his work. "You can't really overestimate how much she brought positively to the table in a creative sense," says Michael Hacker, who’d worked with Brennan at Coppola’s Zoetrope studios. "As great as his early stuff is, his new music was so revolutionary."

In some ways, Brennan was more like Neil Young's wife, Pegi, following in wild Rickie Lee Jones' footsteps as Pegi had followed in those of emotionally unstable actress Carrie Snodgress. "Kathleen was very concerned and very motherly and very protective of Tom," says Joe Smith, then head of Elektra-Asylum. "To get to Tom now you had to go through her. And even when you got to him, what did you get? He was non-communicative, which was odd considering the roster I had at Elektra-Asylum, where they were all big talkers. Tom always had his head down mumbling."

The new Waits music, which began taking shape in 1982, was fashioned out of diverse and disparate ingredients. Written substantially in a feverish two-week spurt on a second visit to Ireland, the tracks that came to make up Swordfishtrombones followed a rough narrative trajectory. "The songs have a relationship," Waits explained. "I tried to get them to knit. It's not entirely successful as far as a libretto goes, it's just one guy who leaves the old neighborhood and joins the Merchant Marines, gets in a little trouble in Hong Kong, comes home, marries the girl, burns his house down, and takes off on an adventure, that kind of a story."

For his new work Waits used images rather than moods or characters as starting points for songs. The almost cinematic approach to writing seemed to crank open a place in his creative brain that he hadn't previously accessed. "I think the whole experience of working with images and music works a muscle somewhere in you," he said. "With this stuff I tried to run little things in my head, feed them first." He was, he said, "trying to arrive at some type of cathartic epiphany in terms of my bifocals."

Along with Beefheart, a major influence on Waits' new sound was the eccentric Harry Partch, hobo composer, homosexual, and inventor not only of a 43-tone scale but of such bizarre instruments as the Gourd Tree and the Cloud Chamber Bowls. Though Partch had spent his final years in San Diego – with Francis Thumm playing the so-called "Chromelodeon" in his ensemble – Waits had only recently begun to understand how much there was to learn from such ambitious works as Revelation in the Courthouse Park (1960) and Delusion of the Fury (1969). "Like most innovators he became gravel on the road that most people drive on," Waits said of Partch. "The idea of designing your own instruments, playing them and then designing your own scale, your own system of music... that's dramatic, and particularly for the time that he was doing it." Waits was enthralled by a remark of Partch's that he often quoted: "Once upon a time there was a little boy who went outside, and that boy was me – I went outside in music."

Two of the musicians who'd played on One From the Heart, Emil Richards and Victor Feldman, had introduced Waits to a range of percussive instruments that he now wanted to incorporate into his sound. Along with Francis Thumm, Feldman became a crucial participant in Waits' new experiments, "suggesting instruments I wouldn't have considered – squeeze drums, Balinese percussion, calliopes, glass harmonica, marimba." Marimbas – the standard and the bass kind – were the prevailing musical texture on "Shore Leave," a song demo'd to illustrate Waits' new sound. But the track also featured the obscure metal aunglongs, which blended with the marimbas to provide a murky undertow that offset the jagged interjections of Fred Tackett's guitar and banjo – not to mention the high-pitched sound of a chair being dragged across the floor.

Along with "Frank's Wild Years," whipped up with the aid of organist Ronnie Barron and bass player Larry Taylor, and the mighty "16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six" – dominated by the pounding thwack of Victor Feldman's brake drum and bell plate – "Shore Leave" was what Waits played for Elektra-Asylum's Joe Smith one afternoon in April 1982, only to watch the blood drain from the veteran music man's face as he listened.

Smith, who in the late '60s had signed the Grateful Dead and Van Morrison to Warner Brothers, was now running a company whose flagship artists were the Eagles, Queen, and Carly Simon. Where the pre-merged Elektra and Asylum labels had focused on prestige acts from Judy Collins to Jackson Browne, Smith's brief now was to expand and build the brand within the Warner Music Group. Waits felt ever more out of place in this corporate environment. "I think they thought I was a drunk," he said. "And I was really non-communicative. I scratched the back of my neck... and I looked down at my shoes a lot, you know, and I wore old suits. They were nervous about me. But it's understandable."

"You have to understand that my eye wasn't on Tom," Smith says in his defense. "I was trying to keep Freddie Mercury from falling apart. I was trying to get Don Henley and Glenn Frey into a studio together. Or I was trying to sign new acts like the Cars. My promotion and marketing staff would roll their eyes when I announced we had a new Tom Waits record. I'm playing Queen and Jackson Browne, and we have a meeting and we play Waits and that's when everybody goes to the bathroom. There were a couple of aficionados at the company but they were swamped with the more commercial artists."

With the three sample tracks sounding like some willfully primitivist experiment, Smith balked. Though he doesn't recall his exact wording, he admits he "would have said something like, 'Your audience expects something from you, so if you're going to go away from that, then wean yourself off of it.'" When Joni Mitchell had informed Smith of her plan to record a jazz album about Charles Mingus, he figured she would do something more commercial next time around. But Waits "didn't have any audience... whatever audience he had, there was no point in trying to alienate them."

After some discussion, Smith decided to let Waits finish the album, hoping there might be friendlier music on it. "Tom and Kathleen decided they could make it better themselves," he says. "There was no point in battling that out because I didn't think another producer was going to up him to 300,000 sales. I thought he'd made a mistake in leaving Bones anyway."

"It wasn't like I was at a crossroads and asked myself, 'Am I going to go down AM Boulevard or Eccentric Avenue?'" Waits later reflected. "It wasn't that simple." With hindsight it probably was that simple: either Waits went out on a limb now or he would stay in his '70s rut forever.

Lowside of the Road is available from Broadway Books

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