Waits: Would You Say This Man Was Attempting To Convey An Impression Of
Source: New Musical Express (UK), by Fred Dellar. Transcription as published on http://www.rocksbackpages.com
Date: June 5, 1976
Key words: Ronnie Scott's, Eric Andersen, Musical influences, Tom Scott, Al Cohn, Slang terminology, Country rock
Magazine front cover: New Musical Express. June 1976
|Article from New Musical Express. June 5, 1976|
I dig Kerouac drones TOM WAITS. Ah, but FRED DELLAR knew that already
I came in on the southbound flyer, then hoofed it halfway across town to see Tom. From a nearby window drifted the sound of Billie aqua-freshing 'The Man I Love', Prez(10) singing long, thoughtful phrases and making it, really making it. Was it really like that? Hell, no. But when you're booked to interview Tom Waits, the Brian Case(1) of singer-songwriters, then it's best to get in the mood.
Waits is in the town for a gaggle of nights at Ronnie's(2). That his gig seems a well-kept secret I'll agree - just another chapter in Waits' as-yet-unwritten biography, The Last Of The Big Time Losers. The guy's had three albums released so far. The first was deleted after just a fly's life, while the second never received a British pressing order. And the third, a live-in-the-studio double, got slammed by reviewers who never had a chance to ease on into Waits via the more accessible preceding duo. Three strikes in a row then.
Writing-wise he's been luckier. It's become fashionable to include at least one Waits song on an album. However, our hero claims this trend doesn't exactly keep him in Saville Row suits - not as though sartorial elegance has ever been a strong line with the Californian, whose bum-of-the-year appearance has brought forth strong accusations of gimmickry from non-believers.
"I'm not a household word - I'm just a legend in my own mind." Croaks Waits in a voice that's broken out of Alcatraz and got shot up in the process. "Still, I've come a long way since I was a dishwasher and had a good job sweeping up. "I once worked in a jewellery store and when I quit I took a gold watch. I figured they weren't gonna give me one 'cause I'd only been with them six months anyway."
Back to those cover versions though.
"I don't like any of 'em."
Not even the Eagles' version of 'Ol' 55'?(3)
"Naw - I don't like the Eagles. They're about as exciting as watching paint dry. Their albums are good for keeping the dust off your turntable and that's about all."
Eric Andersen then?(4) After all, Andersen's included Waits' songs on his last two albums.
"Naw - I don't like Eric Andersen either."
He takes the copy of Andersen's latest Arista project, which I proffer, and reads the sleeve notes, punctuating the singer's own poetic album jottings with the words "Rod McKuen"(9) every few seconds. I remark that even if Waits has a low opinion of Andersen's output, the reverse would not appear to be true.
"Yeah, right. But I still don't like him. I wish he didn't like me. We had a fight once because he was messing about with my girl. Y'know something?... it's really difficult to hit a guy who likes you, so I wish he didn't. "I guess I shouldn't badmouth anybody though. I mean, who the hell am I? Still I've got my own tastes and I have to say that most of the performers currently on the circuit don't, with the exception of a few, fall into that category."
Many of the people Waits actually admires are long gone... Kerouac, Lenny Bruce, Lester Young, Tim Buckley. While others like Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Charlie Mingus and Thelonius Monk, remain as living reminders of the time when New York's 52nd Street was the hub of music world; all bop, berets and goatees. Waits himself sports a 35-year-old goatee on his 27-year-old chin. His threadbare cap seems even older. Talk about Kerouac's Visions Of Cody ("I've got a first edition that's signed by Jack"), Moondog, the legendary blind street musician who once made an album featuring the sounds of the New York streets; Symphony Sid, the deejay who once preached Bird and Diz from tiny Bronx radio stations WBNX: or King Pleasure, the singer who taught the world vocalese, and Waits latches on, swapping story for story.
He digs the whole beat generation scene ("I was something of a misfit during the sixties") but resents any suggestion that his act is any part of the current boom in nostalgia. He shudders when I toss around names like Bette Midler (who recorded Waits' 'Shiver Me Timbers' on her last elpee) or The Pointer Sisters. "The whole thing is rampant y'know. Those people who go in and enjoy Manhattan Transfer don't know who the hell Lambert, Hendricks and Ross are. Music is not a big part of most people's lives. When it stops becoming something you do and becomes rather what you are - then you begin to understand what's important historically. I don't see anything I do as being nostalgic - I feel very contemporary. "The thing is to do something that's not necessarily here today and gone tomorrow. But most people don't care about that, they're under a lot of social pressure. When getting laid depends upon what you've got in your record collection than you gotta have all top ten hits - that's the way it is."
Interviewing Waits is both easy and difficult. It's easy because he's an inveterate raconteur, a mainman on words, a sultan of scrabble. But the difficulty arises when he opts for being Waits the entertainer, testing whole routines on unsuspecting journalists waiting merely for the short answer. Already he'd thrown two monologues my way - one being a hilarious (but true) story involving Waits himself, his '54 Cadillac, Ed Begley Jnr.(5) and a girl from Persia who couldn't speak English ("I hadda pinned up against a wall, trying to explain things to her.") Another being a tale called 'Rocky And Charlie Dutton' that's likely to appear on what Waits terms his fourth, coming (geddit?) album. It takes a little time to get him back on course again.
So tell us about your backup band, Tom. "Well, I've got Frank Vicari on tenor sax, Dr. Hutingdon Jenkins III Jnr.(6) on upright bass, and Chip White on drums. Vicari's being playing since he was about 13 years old. He used to line up outside Birdland when he was a kid... the only white tenor player lining up with a whole lotta black cats - just for a chance to sit in, listen or hang out. Since then he's played for Woody, Maynard Ferguson... lots of others."
Waits has always had a penchant for useful tenor players, people like Tom Scott and Al Cohn(7), one of Herman's great '48 Herd, along with Zoot Sims and Stan Getz. "Yeah, I had Tom Scott(8) on one of my albums - but that was before I found out I could get anyone that I wanted. Tom's okay but he's too young and too stylised, more like a rock tenorman, not really what I'd call a jazz player, though he can play jazz. He did some nice stuff on the soundtrack of a movie called Taxi Driver that's very big in the States. Al played with me for a couple of weeks once and I hope to have him on my next album if everything fits in with his schedule. I admire him and his style. And he drinks about a quart of Johnnie Walker Red Label a night - though how he does it I just don't know."
Though Waits plays some guitar and a reasonable line in gin-soaked piano, he describes himself as a pedestrian musician. "I'd never cut it as a sideman, I just accompany, that's what I do. I'm glad to have my band with me, they're a real high-voltage bebop trio. I've been on the road for about five years now but I've never been able to afford a band until recently - and even now I can't afford it, I just pay through the ass."
Reminiscences next - about the time he tried to get a gig with a then unknown Al Jarreau at the Blah Blah Club in LA ("A real toilet that place"), about Maria Muldaur explaining to Martin Mull just how much an ancient necklace had cost her ("Just imagine what you'd have paid if it had been new," said Mull in mock wonder), and about the multitude of American tradenames and expressions that proliferate throughout Wait's albums... "Muckalucks are carpet slippers, a Peterbilt is a truck and Stacey Adams once were a very prestigious shoe... if you had them on then nobody messed with you and you could go anywhere. Stacey's stayed ahead of current affairs and were considered extremely hip. By the way, the shoes I'm wearing are called Ratstickers!" It's retaliation time so Waits begins writing down some of the British expressions he hasn't heard before. "You call them French Letters here?... or Packets Of Three? Yeah, I'll have to remember that."
One last question then. Is there anyone in this wide world that he'd actually like to cover his songs? "Ray Charles... and I'd like Cleo Laine to do one. The thing is, though, that people never record the songs I'm really proud of. There are songs I do every night and the magic is still there - but there are others that you can ambush and beat the shit out of until they just don't water anymore for you. "I've got a lot of new songs - 'A Bad Liver And A Broken Heart,' 'A Briefcase And The Blues,' 'Frank Is Here,' 'Whitey Ford'... and a lot of these haven't been written yet but I've got the titles and I'll be glad if somebody covers them.
After a brief discourse regarding that next album - which is likely to be called Pasties And A G-String - the subject moves finally to the ineptitude of some country rockers. "Those guys grew up in L.A. and they don't have cow-shit on their boots - they just got dog shit from Laurel Canyon. They wouldn't last two minutes in Putnam County, that's for sure. If somebody gets shot and killed there on a Saturday night, the Sunday papers say he just died of natural causes!"
At which point I, in the words of Waits himself, made like a hockey player and got the puck outta there.
© Fred Dellar 1976
(1) Brian Case: In-crowd joke. Case was a famous and apparently unconventional NME reporter. He did a couple of interviews with Waits: May 5, 1979; October 29, 1983 and November 11, 1987
(2) Ronnie's: Ronnie Scott's Club, Soho/ London. May 31 - Jun. 12, 1976. Further reading: Performances
(3) Ol' '55/ The Eagles: Cover released on "On The Border". The Eagles, 1974 Elektra/ Asylum LP 1004
(4) Ol' '55/ Eric Andersen: Cover released on "Be True To You". Arista Records. Recorded in Los Angeles, 1974. Arista AL 4033. 1975. For further reading please visit the official Eric Andersen site
(5) Emmy nominated American actor/ environmentalist. Further reading: Official Ed Begley jr. website
(6) Dr. Hutingdon Jenkins III Jnr.: That should read Dr. Fitz(gerald) Jenkins III. Further reading: Who's Who?
(7) Al Cohn: "And Al Cohn sharin' this apartment with a telephone pole" (Pasties & a G-string, 1976 ) - Alvin Gilbert Cohn. Born: Brooklyn, NY, November 24 1925 - Died: February 15 1988. American arranger, composer and jazz saxofonist. Also played on Jack Kerouac's "Blues and Haikus", 1960
(8) Tom Scott: tenor player. Worked with: Joni Mitchell, the L.A. Express, Tony Darren, Tony Williams, Eric Andersen, Rickie Lee Jones, Fred Frith. No confirmation he ever worked with Waits. Looking at the date of this interview, the album they could have been working on together would be Closing Time or The Heart Of Saturday Night.
(9) Rod McKuen: This might be Robert McGuinn from Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue. Maybe Waits is thinking of his attempted concert appearance, a couple of weeks ago at the Ballinjax Club/ The Warehouse, New Orleans, where he was kept off stage by McGuinn and others (lists as The Warehouse, New Orleans, Louisiana - May 3/6, 1976)
(10) Prez: Nickname of saxophonist Lester Young