Wild Years: The Music and Myth of Tom Waits

Wild Years: The Music and Myth of Tom Waits

by Jay S. Jacobs

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Newly updated to include his critically acclaimed post-millennial work, this look at Tom Waits--both the reality and the myriad myths--reveals how a self-taught, drunken hipster in roach-killers and a dirty beret has influenced a generation of musicians with his sound, warmth, and willingness to take chances.See more details below


Newly updated to include his critically acclaimed post-millennial work, this look at Tom Waits--both the reality and the myriad myths--reveals how a self-taught, drunken hipster in roach-killers and a dirty beret has influenced a generation of musicians with his sound, warmth, and willingness to take chances.

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"Jacobs' study isn't simply informative; it's a solid and entertaining read on its own." —Eric Waggoner, Phoenix New Times

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Wild Years

The Music and Myth of Tom Waits

By Jay S. Jacobs, Mary Williams, Crissy Boylan


Copyright © 2006 ECW Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55490-261-3



There are certain people in this world who are difficult to imagine as children. Tom Waits is certainly one of them. In fact, in the 1973 press-kit bio for his first album, Closing Time, Waits claimed that he was born in a taxicab with three day's growth of beard. As soon as he popped out, he told the driver to head for Times Square on the double. In other interviews, he maintained that the driver wouldn't let him out of the cab until he had come up with the fare — which was pretty tough since he didn't have pockets.

This tall tale evolved into stage patter. At a show Waits gave in Princeton, New Jersey, on April 16, 1976, he treated the audience to the following version: "I was born at a very young age in the backseat of a yellow cab in the Murphy Hospital parking lot in Whittier, California. It's not easy for a young boy growing up in Whittier. I had to make decisions very early. First thing I did was pay, like, a buck eighty-five on the meter. As soon as I got out of the cab I went out looking for a job. The only job I could land was as labor organizer at a maternity ward for a while. I got laid off, got a little disenchanted with labor."

Since then, the story that Tom Waits was born in a taxi outside a hospital has become official — the Gospel According to Saint Tom. Is it true? Quite possibly not, but the people who would know aren't talking (even the County of Los Angeles seems to be in on the conspiracy, accepting payment for a copy of Waits's birth certificate but failing to deliver it).

The taxi story didn't make it into the brief birth announcement that appeared on the society page of the Pomona Progress-Bulletin on December 9, 1949: "WAITS — To Mr. and Mrs. Jesse F. Waits, 318 N. Pickering Street, Whittier, a son, Thomas Alan, 7 pounds, 10 ounces, born December 7 at Park Avenue Hospital." But how else could that announcement read? "Born in a Tijuana taxi double-parked in a loading zone?" Not likely. In the end, it doesn't really matter. The fact is that even if Tom Waits wasn't born in a taxi, the notion feels right. It's the way it should have been.

So what do we know? He was born Thomas Alan Waits on December 7, 1949 at a hospital in the sleepy Los Angeles suburb of Pomona, not far from Whittier. Waits has often said in interviews — he did at the Princeton show — that he was born at the Murphy Hospital, and there is little reason to doubt it, despite the published birth announcement, which indicates he was born at the Park Avenue Hospital. The hospital-name discrepancy may be explained as a typo, a trick of memory, an institutional name change — it's not that important.

Waits's parents, Frank (after whom Tom named one of his most enduring musical characters) and Alma, were schoolteachers. They both taught for years, although in at least one television interview Waits claimed that his father was a bail bondsman and his mother was a fan dancer — his, he insisted, was a typical show-biz clan. Alma's family was Norwegian; Frank was of Scottish and Irish descent. Frank was actually named Jesse, after his own father, Jesse Waits, but he always went by Frank, his middle name. Tom has said that the name Jesse Frank was a tribute to Old West outlaws Frank and Jesse James — the James Brothers; but as a young man Jesse Junior started using his middle name because he liked the cachet of having the same handle as the Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra. The bobby-soxers just wouldn't fall so easily for a Jesse.

In concert, Tom Waits has claimed that he was "conceived one night in April 1949 at the Crossroads Motel in La Verne, California [northwest of Pomona], amidst the broken bottles of Four Roses, the smoldering Lucky Strike, half a tuna-salad sandwich, and the Old Spice." Where could a couple of young parents go from there? As it turns out, the Waits family lived for most of Tom's first ten years in Whittier, a town that is probably best known as the home of Richard Milhous Nixon.

Tom had two sisters, and the childhood they passed together was fairly unremarkable. Frank was a frustrated guitarist, and he instilled in young Tom an appreciation of music. Despite his Anglo origins, Frank was fascinated by all things Mexican. By day he taught Spanish at a local school, and by night he played guitar in a mariachi band. Waits's earliest musical memories are of the mariachi, romantica, and ranchera music Frank would play on the car radio. Alma was also of a musical bent, singing whenever she had a chance. Tom, however, never really felt that he came from a musical family. When Mark Rowland asked him about it for a Musician magazine interview, Waits cracked, "Not like Liza Minelli, all right? Contrary to popular belief, we don't have the same mother. I took her out a couple of times, nothing ever happened."

The same Princeton audience that heard Waits relate the myth of his birth was also told a touching story of how Alma Waits nurtured her son's musical curiosity. She got him his first musical instrument. "I remember it was Christmastime ... As the snow fell down all over Whittier, I was coming home from work in the factory. I was right by Palace Pawnshop. There was a piano in the window. It was right next to an old bent-up saxophone, old Toro mowers, some dentures and shit. I knew I had to get my hands on that sucker. And it being Christmastime, I ran all the way home, pulled on my mother's coat ... [and] I said, 'I just got to get my hands on that piano so I can get double-parked on Easy Street.' Well, Mother, bless her soul, ran all the way down to Palace Pawnshop. The moon was high — she stood out in front of the pawnshop and goddamn if she didn't throw a brick through the window and get it for me. What can I say? The rest is history."

Tom had a gang of neighborhood buddies. They engaged in standard kid stuff — "hanging around in the Sav-On parking lots and buying baseball cards," was how Waits described it to Rich Wiseman of Rolling Stone. Waits learned to play the piano at a neighbor's house, and he tells the story of how he learned to play the guitar in a minor key from a childhood friend named Billy Swed. Billy also provided his pal with a verbal demonstration of the hard-luck lifestyle that has continued to enthrall Waits over the years. A twelve-year-old dropout who already drank and smoked, Billy lived with his overweight mother in a trailer on a polluted lake over by the local hobo jungle. Tom idolized Billy; he was convinced that the writing on Billy's blue jeans was some secret musical code that he was incapable of cracking. One day, Tom went down to the lake to see his friend, but Billy and his mother had vanished. Tom insisted that he learned more from Billy than he ever did in school.

He also received some life instruction from a young friend named Kipper. Kipper was handicapped — confined to a wheelchair. When they were both about ten, Tom and Kipper would hang out together, often racing each other to the school bus. Years later, Tom memorialized Kipper, and his neighborhood in general, in the song "Kentucky Avenue," named for a Whittier thoroughfare.

Waits introduced that song during a 1981 concert with this childhood reminiscence: "I grew up on a street called Kentucky Avenue in Whittier, California. My dad was teaching night school at Montebello. I had a little tree fort and everything. I had my first cigarette when I was about seven years old. It was such a thrill. I used to pick 'em up right out of the gutter after it was raining. My dad smoked Kents. Now, I never liked Kents — I tried to get him to change brands. I used to repair everybody's bicycles in the neighborhood. I was the little neighborhood mechanic. There was a guy called Joey Navinski who played the trombone, and a guy called Dickie Faulkner whose nose was always running. And there was a woman called Mrs. Storm. She lived with her sister. She used to sit in her kitchen with her window open and a twelve-gauge shotgun [sticking] out of it ... so we took the long way around."

Waits has said that the musical persona he adopted was a slightly idealized version of his own father, and he's also maintained that his musical tastes were influenced by two of his uncles, Vernon and Robert. Through the decades, the exploits of this pair of uncles have recurred regularly in Waits's tales, and they have gradually reached Bunyanesque dimensions. Uncle Vernon had a hard, raspy voice. Young Tom wished he could sound just like him; and the adult Waits insists that he came up with his trademark vocals by imitating Vernon. His uncle's voice was affected by throat surgery he underwent as a child. Family lore has it that the doctors left gauze and a small pair of scissors inside him when they closed him up. Tom says that years later, during Christmas dinner, these surgical relics again saw the light of day — Uncle Vernon, choking on his food, coughed them up.

Uncle Robert was a botanist who also played the pipe organ for the local church, and Tom was intrigued by what he could do with the instrument. When Robert played the organ, the building would actually vibrate from the sheer force of it. The problem was, Uncle Robert's music kept getting louder and more experimental, prompting members of the congregation to complain. Old favorites became swirling masses of sound. Cherished hymns ended up resembling "Lady of Spain." The organ's vibrations were stripping the paint off the walls. Finally, Uncle Robert was fired, but he never stopped playing. The church was eventually torn down, and Uncle Robert had the pipe organ delivered to his house, where the pipes extended right through the ceiling. Uncle Robert also had a piano that had — somehow — been left out in the rain. Most of the keys no longer worked, so Tom learned to play it using only the black keys.

Waits has described how taken he was with Uncle Robert's house, which was in an orange grove. The place was a disaster area, clothes and trash strewn everywhere, but this was romantic clutter to Tom, a squalor born of long nights, hard work, and not enough money. The image of a downtrodden man in a downtrodden environment appealed to Tom so much that at one point he asked his mother why he couldn't let his room get as messy as Uncle Robert's. His mother pointed out that Uncle Robert was blind.

One of Waits's most famous remarks is that he slept through the sixties. In the early seventies most music-world denizens were still either on a post-Beatles psychedelic high or in a Southern California Jackson Browne folk-rock navel-gazing mode. Tom Waits seemed like such an anachronism — a grizzled, drunken hipster cat in roach-killers and a filthy beret who looked and acted like he'd just driven across town from skid row — that one could almost believe in that marathon sleep. But Tom's sixties experience was actually much more unsettling than his glib comment suggests.

The sixties began with upheaval for Tom. In 1959, when he was ten, his parents were divorced. Frank soon became involved with another woman; Alma remained single for years, and then she married a private investigator. After the breakup, Alma and the three children moved to Chula Vista, California, where Tom quickly became fascinated with nearby National City, a grimy suburb of San Diego near the Mexican border. "It was a tiny community," he told a concert audience. "The main drag was a transvestite and the average age was deceased." There, Waits became indoctrinated into a whole new world. He started hanging out with adults: pool hustlers, vinyl-booted go-go dancers, traveling salesmen, and assorted gangsters. As he tells it, National City was a sailor town, and the kids he knew had dads who spent more time at sea than they did at home. This made it a bit easier for him to deal with the absence of his own father —absent fathers were the norm.

"I guess most entertainers are, on a certain level, part of the freak show," Waits told Barney Hoskyns of Mojo in 1999. "Most of them have some kind of wounding early on, either a death in the family or a breakup of the family unit, and it sends them off on some journey where they find themselves kneeling by a jukebox, praying to Ray Charles. Or you're out looking for your dad, who left the family when you were nine. And you know he drives a station wagon and that's all you've got to go on, and in some way you're gonna become a big sensation and be on the cover of Life magazine and it'll somehow be this cathartic vindication or restitution." After the divorce, Frank Waits continued to teach Spanish, and he still took his son on excursions south of the border. In Mexico, Tom would get a haircut, experience the culture, and learn a little of the language. "That's when I started to develop this opinion that there was something Christlike about beggars," he explained. "See a guy with no legs on a skate-board, mud streets, church bells going ... these experiences are still with me at some level."

Alma took the boy to church, but Tom just never warmed to the undertaking. For a while he went along to keep his mother happy, but that didn't last very long. Which is not to say that Waits never pondered the existence of a higher power or a deeper meaning to life. He just sensed that what he was looking for could not be found in organized religion, and he refused to credit the notion of heaven and hell.

"I don't know what's out there or up there," he told Chris Douridas of kcrw-fm's Morning Becomes Eclectic. "Maybe a little office. Like when your car gets towed in New York ... You have to go down to Pier 74, and it's four in the morning, and there's a Plexiglas shield. It's three inches thick with bullet holes in it and an old woman with bifocals, sitting there at a typewriter. You can see it, chain-ganged to hundreds of other cars over there. Your car looks ashamed and embarrassed. And you realize she's got your destiny in her hands. [Religion's] probably something like that. I mean, after you die ... people think it's gonna be simple, but, please ... It's gonna be an organizational nightmare ..."

A neighbor gave Tom an old piano, and they installed it in the Waits garage. Soon Tom had memorized all kinds of songs. He had an ear for music: he could play any tune he heard, despite the fact that he hadn't yet learned to read music. Somehow feeling that he should have mastered this skill, he faked it, and no one was the wiser. He'd just commit a song to memory and pretend that he was reading the notes as he played along.

A favorite haunt of Tom's at about this time was a local movie theater, the Globe. Seeking escape and inspiration, he'd sometimes spend the whole day there, catching ten films, hopping from screening room to screening room, subjecting himself to the manager's weird programming choices, soaking it all in. Waits recalls seeing a Globe double feature of Disney's 101 Dalmatians and a gritty urban drama called The Pawnbroker, starring Rod Steiger. Cruella DeVil of Dalmatians has frightened countless young children, but Steiger's Holocaust survivor who sets up shop in Harlem is in a whole other league. Waits later remarked that whoever was in charge of programming at the Globe either had an extremely offbeat perspective on life or was completely deranged. Still, such experiences were shaping Tom. He was catching some tantalizing glimpses of life's broad spectrum and starting to sense rich possibilities for art and entertainment.

Early in his career, Waits said that he first acquired appreciation for the blues while attending an all-black junior high school. He'd sneak out at night, head over to Balboa Stadium, and see shows by the likes of James Brown and the Famous Flames. Young Tom also became a huge fan of Ray Charles. Once, years later, while in the bathroom of a club in East St. Louis called the Dark Side of the Moon, he spotted some graffiti that read, "Love is blind. God is Love. Ray Charles is blind. Therefore Ray Charles must be God." Tom Waits was already a believer.

Tom was an industrious boy. "I had a lot of different jobs when I was a kid," he told the crowd at a 1990 concert. "I used to deliver papers. I had two routes because the first route was such a washout. It ... didn't make me feel like a paperboy. It made me feel like a guy who just throws papers away. It started to get to me so I got another route — it was called the Independent. When I used to have to go collect for the Independent it was always so sad. A nice woman would come to the door and she'd say, 'Wait a minute.' She'd say, 'Bob, they're collecting for the Independent,' and off in another room I'd hear, 'Fuck him!' It did nothing for my self-image."

By the time he was fourteen Tom was working on the graveyard shift at Napoleone's Pizza Parlor, an establishment he would later immortalize in the song "The Ghosts of Saturday Night." Back in 1965, you got to Napoleone's by following National Avenue, past the infamous Mile of Cars, up to the north end of the strip. On the Mile Tom bought a 1955 Buick Roadmaster for $150, and it turned out to be such a lemon that he'd put another $3,500 into it by the time a dealer gave him $12 for the parts. National Avenue was also home to the Golden Barrel, Wong's Chinese Restaurant, and Escalante's Liquor Store. Napoleone's could be found between the Burge Roberts Mortuary and a Triumph motorcycle dealership.

The pizza parlor had been operating for twenty-five years before Tom Waits showed up, and few significant changes had been implemented during that time. Nor has Napoleone's changed all that much in the decades since. Of course the jukebox now plays cds instead of 45s — for some reason the featured Tom Waits cd is not The Heart of Saturday Night, which contains Waits's tribute to the place — but Napoleone's has retained a strangely comforting forties feel. Maybe this in some way explains why the teenaged Waits regularly made the five-mile trek to Napoleone's instead of seeking employment closer to home.


Excerpted from Wild Years by Jay S. Jacobs, Mary Williams, Crissy Boylan. Copyright © 2006 ECW Press. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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