Tom Waits on Tom Waits
Interviews and Encounters
By Paul Maher Jr.
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2011 Paul Maher Jr.
All rights reserved.
CLOSING TIME (1973)
Tom Waits's earliest years as a performer were the mid- to late sixties — not as a folkie, but as a rock musician. He kept rhythm on a Saint George electric guitar for a band called The Systems, though that didn't last very long.
Later, in Southern California, Waits participated in Hoot Nights at places like the YMCA, the Bonita Inn, the Back Door, and the Manhattan Club ("hooting" is folk/country parlance for the stage being opened up for performers to play impromptu). At Mission Beach, California, as scores of long-legged, tanned teenaged girls and bands of roaming hippies burned bonfires on the sand, Waits fell into his own circle, intent on finding his way as a performing and earning musician. He never got caught up in Beatlemania in his early teenaged years, nor did he hike to Haight-Ashbury to be among the flower children. Working as a bouncer and doorman at the Heritage on Mission Boulevard, Waits waited his turn to step up to the stage. Having a girlfriend working as a waitress didn't hurt either, for she often put in a good word for him with Heritage management. More important, Waits's small-time job gave him a fringe benefit: he got to listen, and by listening he absorbed a slew of musical styles and inflections that he would continue to draw from for the length of his music career.
By November 1970, the humble doorman and probably the world's politest bouncer was advertised in the San Diego Tribune: "Singers Marko and David plus Tom Waits at 8:30 and 10:30P.M., Friday and Saturday." According to Bob Webb, who owned the Heritage, "Thomas Waits," as he signed his name, warmed the stage for the folk/pop duet Michael Claire, featuring Michael Milner and Claire Hart.
In 1971 Waits tried his luck in Los Angeles at the renowned Troubadour on Santa Monica Boulevard, where scores of musicians tried to sell themselves. If Waits was lucky, he was able to sing four songs on Monday nights once a month. Slipping under the radar, for nobody knew his name or his face, Waits sometimes got away with doing it twice. This continued through 1972 — until Waits caught the attention of David Geffen one night at the Troubador.
According to Jay S. Jacobs's 2000 biography of Waits, Wild Years,
Geffen wasn't planning on staying long when he dropped by the Troubadour that night in 1972, but he quickly changed his mind. Commanding the stage was a guy who looked more like a vagabond than a rock musician. But Geffen had barely taken his seat before Waits's seductive aura had encompassed him. "He was singing a song called 'Grapefruit Moon' when I heard him," Geffen recalled recently. "I thought it was a terrific song, so I listened to the set." He watched, he listened, and the wheels started turning. Here was an artist who could make some intriguing records. "After [the show], I said that I was interested in him. He said, 'Well, I'll have my manager, Herb Cohen, call you."' Geffen left the Troubadour thinking that since Cohen had his own record company, this would be "the end of it." But, to his surprise, Cohen did finally call: "He was interested in making a deal with me for Tom. ... Herb had said that he didn't really think that it was right for him to make the record. My making the record would help him with the publishing. So I made a deal for [Tom]. And he made a great first record."
Tom Waits's band for his first Closing Time tour, which ran from April to June 1973, consisted of Waits on acoustic guitar, piano, and vocals, Webb on stand-up bass, Rich Phelps on trumpet, and John "Funky Fingers" Forsha on guitar. The tour occasioned Waits to explore his diverse interests, absorbing the immensity of the country with the avidity of his hero, Jack Kerouac. The first stop was Washington, DC's Cellar Door, playing for six nights as the warm-up band for Tom Rush. They went north to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and played another five dates at Passim Coffeeshop in Harvard Square. While there, Waits and Webb took a side trip to Lowell, Massachusetts, in an effort to locate the unmarked grave of Kerouac, who had died less than four years before. At Max's Kansas City in Manhattan, the band opened for Charlie Rich, with other dates in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and Atlanta (warming up for Buffalo Bob Smith). By the time they reached the West Coast, Waits headlined for the first time in Redlands, California, playing for a general audience that had offered a one-dollar donation to attend (Arthur Lee Harper and the Buffalo Nickel Jug Band warmed up for Waits).
Waits's enthusiasm bled from a desire to reach beyond his San Diego confines, where he had been working side jobs as he pursued his musical inclinations. He explained to Music World's Jeff Walker in 1973: "San Diego musicians stay there and hope something is going to happen, but it never does. Nothing happens down there. You play in a rock band in high school and when you get out you end up playing in some swank club behind a girl singer or you stay in the rock band, play GI dances and get paid peanuts." Waits tried to up the ante by driving north to Los Angeles. "I came up as often as I could, but I didn't want to move here until something was happening. I just didn't want to wind up in a gas station." Barney Hoskyns interviewed Walker for his biography of Waits, Lowside of the Road (2009):
"He was so open." Walker recalls, "We talked about music and jazz and Beat poetry. He picked up a trumpet and played a little riff on that. We loved him." Waits, says Walker, was smarting from a tattoo he'd just had done in a downtown parlor. "Thursday afternoon, sober as a judge," he said of the heart and flowers design. "And yes, it hurts."
As Jeff and his photographer girlfriend Kim Gottlieb drove home to Laurel Canyon, they decided to make Waits the cover star of the June issue. "Because we were a free magazine, we didn't have to put somebody well known on the cover," says Gottlieb. "We could afford to take somebody that not too many people knew and put them on the cover." Adds Walker, "We went away and said to ourselves, 'This is going to be an important record and this guy's going to be an important artist.' You felt really privileged to be meeting him." Walker saw Waits' boho-beatnik act as a conscious assertion of identity. "It seemed to me this was all very deliberate, pushing the boundaries and genres that he had come out of," he says. "But he was fairly forthcoming. He wasn't holding back or mysterious."
In its forty-plus years of radio broadcasting, KPFK's FolkScene has been vital to the dwindling audiences of contemporary folk music. The show was well received by folk music fans and musicians, who appreciated hosts Howard and Roz Larman's purist devotion to the genre. Waits's appearances on the radio show bracketed him into the folk genre, which he ultimately placed behind him in favor of a more eclectic approach to his music. Roz Larman recollected those early years in 2010:
I don't really know why Waits was drawn to Folk Scene. We invited him to come on the program, and he agreed. It might have been because he could perform live on the radio. I think we were the only live music program in L.A. at that time. One thing I can remember was that I gave Tom a dollar to buy a Rolling Stone magazine to see the review of his first LP. A few years ago we got this idea to use one of Tom's performances from the San Diego Folk Festival back in the 1970s as a thank-you gift for one of our fundraisers at our local station. Tom called me, and asked me not to use it. At that time we joked about that dollar, that with interest, he now owes me a small fortune. All I can remember about Tom and Howard was that they got along well. He must have enjoyed doing the program, as he came back again. He said things on the program at that time that we are no longer allowed to say, something about his "monkey-shit-brown car."
Interview with Tom Waits
Folk Scene, KPFK September 21, 1973 Howard Larman
Tom Waits: I'm from San Diego, really. I was born in Whittier, California; that's where President Nixon was from. In fact he used to go to our church on occasion, I think. That was a long time ago; he's come a long way since Whittier. Then I moved to San Diego and I guess I kind of grew up around San Diego; I moved there when I was about ten.
Howard Larman: I heard that you tried to write country songs — is that true?
TW: I used to write a lot of them down there at KSON, which is the big country station. I listened to that a lot and wrote a lot of country songs. They don't get me off anymore. I still got a whole closet full of them, but I've been trying to go in other directions with my songwriting.
HL: Were you playing more guitar then?
TW: Yeah, I was playing quite a bit of guitar and I've been playing the piano for a couple of years. Writing on the piano is different than writing on guitar: you get different feels; in fact a lot of times you write a tune with some other artist in mind. I got one right here where I kind of had Ray Charles in mind — it's called "San Diego Serenade."
HL: You wrote that with Ray Charles in mind?
TW: Yeah, I kind of thought he'd like to do it — I don't know. I don't know him; I don't talk to him.
HL: I guess you performed in San Diego?
TW: I played around San Diego quite a bit for a couple of years while there were clubs still open down there — it's very difficult to find a place to play now. Like Folk Arts — Lou Curtiss still has that outfit going on weekends. I used to play at The Heritage — it's closed now — and they turned it into a spiritual bookstore or something. Bob Webb owned it and I used to sit on the door. I used to hoot down there and then I gave that up and I said I'll sit on the door, made five dollars a night, and then I started doing a weekend occasionally. Jack Tempchin was playing around the area at the time. I haven't been doing too many gigs here in L.A. but I was out for two months on the road with a group on the East Coast — did that — and I've been back about a month now. I did a thing out in Redlands, not too many clubs around town though right now. I still hoot at the Troubadour occasionally; I haven't been booked there yet. There's supposed to be a club opening up called Roxy that I'll probably play at on the Strip — but for now I've been staying home, getting a lot of sleep, trying to write tunes.
[Plays "Ol' 55" on piano] That tried to be a single but didn't. It was on my record, Closing Time, kind of an old song about my car, a "car" song.
HL: How did you get out of San Diego and into other bookings?
TW: I was coming up on the bus and doing four or five songs on Monday nights. I guess I kind of made the big jump into showbiz there, met Herb Cohen, and got a songwriting contract and wrote for a couple of years before I got a recording contract with Asylum Records. After the record came a tour and it went real well. I'd never done anything like that. I'd never even been to most of the places that we played, real exciting tour. I went with stand-up bass, Bob Webb, and Rich Phelps on trumpet and a guitar player, John "Funky Fingers" Forsha.
HL: How long were you out for?
TW: Two months, covered most of the East Coast and played Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Georgia, Denver, Boston, New York, all over.
HL: Were you writing songs for other people during your songwriting contract?
TW: That's the general idea — I was writing and then the songs were run around to other artists that don't write but put out that they want a song about a frog or something. A lot of people just write, they're staff writers that just write for various groups. I was just writing for anybody who would record it, and nobody did, but maybe that'll change.
HL: Who do you listen to?
TW: I listen to AM radio a lot cause I don't have an FM. I listen to Ray Charles; I got a lot of old Ray Charles records. Let's see, Diana Ross, I like her a lot. I got some old Billie Holiday records; I listen to her. Mose Allison, I'm real fond of Mose Allison, Dale Evans, Miles Davis, a little bit of everything. I try to integrate different styles in my writing, it's important to do that. With a piano it's easier for me to write, I can find a lot more things that I could never find on guitar, so it helps with writing on the piano. I played guitar before I played piano. I'm no technician, no big "fancy" fingers. Writing on an instrument is different than being a real master of an instrument. It's more of a process of investigation than anything else, so you may be lacking in technique but high on the investigation scale. Right now I'm looking forward, sometime this month, to going into the studio and work on another album with Asylum. I'm trying to keep the group together in order to do that. I guess writing is the most difficult thing and the one thing I'm trying to do the most of.
HL: While writing for Herb Cohen, did you drop out of performing?
TW: I just hooted at the Troubadour a lot; that was about it, not too many L.A. appearances. I used to be at the Heritage a lot, but that's in the past.
HL: Did you always want to be a musician?
TW: Yeah, I guess so, I couldn't think of anything else I really wanted to be. It seems to be today that nobody wants to be anything, but nobody wants to be a baseball player anymore or anything. Everybody wants to be a rock 'n' roll star. I was always real interested in music; it never really struck me to write until I guess about the late sixties, about '68 or '69. I started writing. Up until then I just listened to a lot of music, played in school orchestras, played trumpet in elementary school, junior high, high school, went through all that and hung around with some friends of mine that played classical piano and picked up a few little licks here and there. Played guitar and stumbled on the Heritage, and actually the first real songwriter I really saw and really got enthused about was Jack Tempchin, and that was in about 1968 at the Candy Company on El Cajon Boulevard. He was playing on the bill with Lightnin' Hopkins, and he was real casual and everything. It was just something I wanted to try my hand at, so I tried my hand at it. I don't know. I guess you get better as you go along. The more music you listen to, the more perceptive you become toward melody and lyric and all. The only places really to play in San Diego were folk clubs. I used to go to a lot of dances. I played in a band in junior high called The Systems.
HL: Was that trumpet?
TW: I played rhythm guitar and sang. I listened to a lot of black artists, quite a few black artists. I had a real interest in that. James Brown and the Flames were real big. I went to O'Farrell Junior High School, an all-black junior high school, and I went out to Balboa Park and saw James Brown. He knocked me out, man, when I was in seventh grade. So I've kept up on that scene too and I listen to as many different kinds of music as I can.
[Starts playing "Depot, Depot"] A little bluesy thing about the Greyhound bus depot downtown. It's funny, not many people go to downtown L.A. Los Angeles Free Press did a big article called "Downtown L.A., Who Needs It?" I've been going there since I moved here — I've been here a year — I go to hang out down there. I live in Silver Lake, so I'm about ten minutes from downtown. I go down there just to hang out. Not too many people live down there really, people work down there and hang out, that's all.
[Starts playing "I Hope That I Don't Fall in Love with You"] You take all the bar songs in the world and put 'em together, they'd stretch all the way to Kansas City I guess, millions of 'em. This is just another one.
[Starts playing "Closing Time"] It's an instrumental done with standup bass, trumpet, and piano. It was real effective in concert. We closed the show with it.
[Plays a portion of "The Heart of Saturday Night"] It's a new song, I'm anxious to play it. It's kind of about driving down Hollywood Boulevard on Saturday night. Bob Webb and I were kicking this around one afternoon, Saturday afternoon it was, the idea of looking for the heart of Saturday night, hadn't really worked on any tune about it yet, we're both real Jack Kerouac fans and this is kind of a tribute to Kerouacians I guess.
HL: Do you feel under the gun going into the studio, to write more songs?
TW: I'm not really pressured about it. I wrote a lot before I went on tour, but it's best to go in with more than you need in order to select the twelve or fourteen or however many you can squeeze on both sides. (Continues...)
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