TOM WAITS Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards (Anti/Epitaph) Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
Way out in rural Northern California where Tom Waits and his accomplice, Kathleen Brennan, are holed up on a converted chicken ranch, counting constellations qualifies as exciting nightlife. The only roadhouse for miles stopped booking mariachi bands when it lost its licence for live entertainment. Don't even ask.
Besides, Waits hasn't seen the bottom of a bourbon bottle in 14 years. At least that's what he says. For the first time in our conversation about his amazing new three-disc Orphans set of oddities and outtakes - which frequently digresses into discussions about the reliability of the 49 Hudson's flathead six, the influence of Civil War tunes on contemporary hiphop, the favourite cartoons of 30s blues great Memphis Minnie and the stage antics of Stompin' Tom Connors - it sounds like he's on the level.
His impressive output over the past few years makes for convincing evidence that Waits has been far too busy creating the most provocative music of his career to get shitfaced with his old runaround gang of hoodoo hustlers and deli delinquents. And the massive Orphans compendium (out November 21) of just the stuff he held back - the cut-ups, collabos, covers and creative experiments in controlled chaos - should clear up any doubts.
"I'm just out here trying to build a better mousetrap," growls Waits over the phone. "If somebody doesn't like what I do, I really don't care. I'm not chained to public opinion, nor am I swayed by the waves of popular trends. I just keep on doing my own investigations.
"We started putting stuff together for this collection a while ago. Time is always a collaborator. I'd begin working on something and think, 'Oh, this one over here needs a little more pepper and that one over there could use some nitro, and I'd end up writing different parts and adding more and more pieces to it. Who knows? If I had more time I might've shot three of 'em in the head and written three new ones to take their place. I wouldn't say that this is just stuff that was lying around. Maybe only about 25 songs are from other collaborations; the rest is all fresh material."
Compiled on the beautifully packaged Orphans set are 54 rare and previously unheard tunes thematically split into three groups, separating Waits's more confrontational Brawlers from the heavy-hearted ballads of Bawlers, while his creepy revisions of Daniel Johnston's King Kong and the seven dwarves' work song Heigh Ho, recast here as a prison work song, wind up on the Bastards disc along with other intriguing one-offs.
Waits is eager to share the credit (and blame) for the ambitious project with his constant companion, Brennan, who plays a much larger role in his whole music-making process than people may realize.
"Kathleen and I collaborate on everything. We wrote the songs together, and Kathleen picked the categories, only she wanted to call the Bawlers disc Shut Up And Eat Your Ballads - you know, for people who don't get enough slow songs in their diet. Any one of my songs probably could've fit into any of the three categories. Songs are either slower than your heart rate, at around the same tempo as the beating of your heart or faster, and you act accordingly.
"I didn't want to lose these songs. I don't have a big archive, I've just got some tapes I keep in a drawer along with my hair oil, some pizza and bug spray. And like pictures in a family photo album, I'm not sure if these songs will mean anything to anybody else but me. There's one song I wrote with [Ironweed novelist] William Kennedy out in Albany. He came across this poem written on a bridge by some hobos, so he copied it down and saved it for years. He showed it to me and suggested we turn it into a song, so we did."
Another song on the Bastards disc, Home I'll Never Be, was similarly born of a fragment from the past that serendipitously came his way. Despite the song's being credited to beat poet Jack Kerouac, the forlorn hymn to the highway life turns out to be one of Waits's most personally revealing. When he poignantly sings the lines "Father, father, where you been? I've been in this world since I was only 10," it's not really Kerouac's life he's singing about. Waits is calling out to his own father, who left home never to be seen again after a divorce in 1960, when Waits would've been 10 years old.
"Kerouac's nephew had this song of Jack's, or at least some of his words he wanted me to record. I guess Jack was at a party somewhere and snuck off into a closet and started singing into a reel-to-reel tape deck, like, 'I left New York in 1949, drove across the country....' I wound up turning it into a song, and I performed it at a memorial for Allen Ginsberg.
"I found Kerouac and Ginsberg when I was a teenager, and it saved me. Growing up without a dad, I was always looking for a father figure, and those guys sorta became my father figures. Reading On The Road added some interesting mythology to the ordinary and sent me off on the road myself with an investigative curiosity about the minutiae of life."
Another important role model for Waits was Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, whose authoritative tone and cadence can be heard in Waits's meditation on Army Ants. Apparently, Waits was an avid Twilight Zone fan back in the early 60s, and Serling's prime-time morality plays about the dark side of human behaviour left a lasting impression.
"Rod Serling had these great eyebrows and that indelible voice. There was something about the humanity of his Twilight Zone stories that was very appealing. He'd never shy away from controversial subject matter - there were bombs going off all the time, right there on prime-time television for everyone to see.
"One of my favourites was this one called In Praise Of Pip, where Jack Klugman - who looked exactly like my father - plays an alcoholic bookie who gets shot in the gut during a holdup. As he's dying, he has a vision of his son Pip as a child asking him for help, cuz he's now a soldier bleeding to death in a Vietnam field hospital. So he tries to make a deal with God to take him and let his son Pip live. That's a good one."
Apart from what Waits's off-the-cuff choice might suggest about his own troubled relationship with his father, the Twilight Zone fifth season opener from 1963 is also significant for another reason. When Klugman as Max Phillips says, "My kid is dying. In a place called South Vietnam. There isn't supposed to be a war going on there, but my son is dying," it was one of the very first instances in popular culture to call into question the U.S. military presence in Vietnam.
In a similar way, Waits uses a factual account of a recent suicide bombing in the song the Road To Peace to raise his own questions about the U.S. government's role in the current Middle East crisis.
Although Waits maintains an even hand in dealing with the emotionally charged issues throughout his uncharacteristically political throwdown, the lines where he sings, "The fundamentalist killing on both sides is standing in the path of peace, but tell me why are we arming the Israeli army with guns and tanks and bullets?" could prove very controversial. But typical of Waits, he doesn't seem overly concerned about the potential fallout.
"I read an article in the New York Times about a young Palestinian suicide bomber who got on a bus in Jerusalem disguised as an Orthodox Jew. The story seemed to humanize what was going on in a significant way. It haunted me, and that's why I write many of my songs, because something's haunting me and I need to get it outta my head. What else could I do? Nobody in Washington is calling me up to discuss our foreign policy."
No less surprising than Waits recording such an overtly political song is hearing him getting busy with some nasty beatboxing on the Bastards' track Spidey's Wild Ride. Waits has tried a bit of beatboxing before during the Real Gone sessions, but the beats he busts on Spidey's Wild Ride suggest he's been checking out some old school Biz Markie joints. Who knew Waits was a hiphop fan?
"I had fun doing that song - just some singing and some beatboxing. It's very rudimentary yet, at the same time, very complete. "What's interesting to me about hiphop is that it doesn't have any conventional wisdom -- the form is still being defined. You can put some hot sauce in the milkshake because it's still largely a lawless territory. If you want, you could record a mariachi calypso foxtrot with a Samoan singer in a bull ring.
"The production can also be very cheap -- all you need is three fingers, a drum machine and a sampler and you can record a hit song in your closet. I've done some recording in the closet myself and the washroom, in the garage and in the car too, whatever."
Although Waits assures me that he's about to start recording again right away, he's reluctant to discuss which direction he may head next, joking, "Who knows, maybe I'll do a Mexican rockabilly record." It's unlikely that Waits will be setting aside any writing time to compose new songs for the forthcoming Scarlett Johansson album which is reportedly slated to be a Waits covers project.
"I read something about that in the newspaper," says Waits. "I guess that's cool, I dunno. I wasn't aware that she sang. "Over the years a number of different people have done versions of my songs that I've enjoyed. I thought what Jeffrey Lee Pierce did with Pasties and a G-String was pretty cool and so was Johnny Cash's recording of Down There By The Train. I saw Solomon Burke open for the Rolling Stones in Los Angeles not too long ago. He came out with his cape and scepter and sat on this big thrown and did my song Always Keep A Diamond in Your Mind -- that was pretty exciting.
"When you write songs you do it with the idea that other people might want to sing them. That's the part of the Tin Pan Alley tradition. What I do comes out of my fascination with that whole thing. You know, you sit at a piano with the window open and something blows in that goes through you and turns into a song.
"The problem with hiphop is that artists aren't covering each other's songs. I mean there are some songs which influence other songs but they're not being reinterpreted in a variety of styles. So in a way, what you have are sorta like tomatoes without seeds."
It's through covers that the work of singer/songwriters is kept alive and relevant long after their gone and Waits appears to be writing songs to last.
"Some songs you write and once they're recorded you never sing them again while others are like riddles -- you keep going back to them to try figuring out what they mean because you don't always know when you write them. And you never can tell what's gonna stick and what's gonna fade. You know that Chain Hang Low tune by Jibbs? It goes (mumbling), "Do your chain hang low, do it wobble to the flo' do it shine in the light? Is it platinum, is it gold?" That melody dates back to the Civil War!
"Some people talk and talk their whole lives and no one remembers one thing they've said. Other people say one thing and it gets repeated 100 years later which just shows you it's all about quality not quantity."
Not-yet-released tracks from Tom Waits?s new record Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards
Bottom Of The World
Road To Peace
You Can Never Hold Back Spring