No brakes

“Most of us are contraptions that we made.”

— Tom Waits, Los Angeles Times, 2004

Tom Waits makes a great character study. Like the misfits and oddballs he’s portrayed or inhabited over his three-decade career, Waits the Entertainer is a beguiling set of personalities welded and jerry-rigged together like used parts from different jalopies, and far more interesting for the flaws.

Tom Waits
Tragic lover, creepy neighbor, technophobe: Tom Waits. photo by Julianne Deery

There are the film roles, of course: Waits as club owner (The Cotton Club), jailbird (Down By Law), hit man (Cold Feet), bug connoisseur (Bram Stoker’s Dracula), arms dealer (Mystery Men) and scene-stealing limo driver (Short Cuts). Waits’ recording career features even more guises: the drunken angel, skid-row poet and jazz crooner of the Asylum Records years (’73-’80); the carney barker, merchant marine and cabaret maestro of his tenure at Island (’83-’93); and the creepy neighbor, tragic lover, grim reaper, and demented bluesman of the Epitaph years (’97-current).

Then there’s Waits’ most underappreciated role: interviewee. Not entirely swayed by the necessity or sanctity of the press’ role, he’s been known to spin yarns worthy of Samuel Clemens — another cynical character comprised of humor and darkness, and with a similar predilection toward the latter. Waits wasn’t granting interviews for this tour, saying in a press release only that “we need to go to Tennessee to pick up some fireworks, and someone owes me money in Kentucky.” Yup, as they say in the trenches, Waits gives great quote. So without further ado, we bring you Waits riffing and rhapsodizing over the years on

… his early drinking years and subsequent sobriety:

“I was running down the street to the Y to work out and I had a glass of alcohol in one hand, with some aluminum foil over it so it wouldn’t spill, and a cigarette in the other hand … and I realized I was kind of coming apart.” (Los Angeles Times, 1999)

“Getting sober’s not for sissies.” (Kansas City Star, 2004)

On his songs and the songwriting process:

“I put on a skirt, drink a bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream sherry, go out and stand on 8th Avenue with an umbrella and start reciting from the back of a parking ticket at full volume.” (The Face, 1985)

“All hardware items must be admired for their sonic properties.” (IMBD.com)

“I’m not original, I’m doing bad impersonations of other people.” (San Francisco Chronicle, 2004)

On wife and songwriting partner Kathleen Brennan:

“Kathleen was the first person who convinced me that you can take James White and the Blacks, and Elmer Bernstein and Leadbelly — folks that could never be on the bill together — and that they could be on the bill together in you.” (Hearmusic.com, 1999)

“Kathleen’s a great collaborator. She’s quick — she can catch a bullet in her teeth. She has a pet snake, reads The Wall Street Journal, has a ’64 Caddy, and loves periodicals. She’s from Johnsburgh, Illinois; that’s the last place you can get margarine before you cross the Wisconsin border.” (Interview Magazine, 1988)

On his influences:

“I listened to Frank Sinatra for a long time. That really made them mad.” (Sydney Morning Herald, 2002)

“I was born the day after Leadbelly died. I’d like to think we passed in the hall.” (Blues Revue, 2000)

“For a songwriter, Dylan is as essential as a hammer and nails and a saw are to a carpenter.” (HearMusic.com, 1999)

On religion:

“I had to go to church every Sunday. … Then I discovered donuts, cigarettes and coffee when I was 14, and that was it for church.” (The Village Noize, 1993)

On technology, computers and the Internet:

“I have no computer. It’s in the pool with the TV and the golf balls.” (USA Today, 1999)

“We live in an age when you say casually to somebody, ‘What’s the story on that?’ and they can run to the computer and tell you within five seconds. That’s fine, but sometimes I’d just as soon continue wondering.” (Harp magazine, 2004)

On major labels:

“The big [record] companies are like jellyfish. They have no anatomy. But they sting.” (New York Times, 2002)

On family:

“Something we have always done as a family is what we call ‘going for a spin.’ On a dark, rainy night, we take the old Caddy out on a stretch of treacherous, curving road and get it up to about ninety and slam on the brakes. The kids scream with glee because we always end up in a different place. It’s better than the Cyclone or the Tilt-A-Whirl, and best of all, we do it as a family.” Buzz Magazine, 1993)

[John Schacht is a contributor to Harp, Paste and All Music Guide, and still hopes to land an interview with Tom Waits someday.]


Tom Waits plays Thomas Wolfe Auditorium (87 Haywood St.) on Wednesday, Aug. 2 at 8 p.m. (no opener). Like his most recent record, tickets are Real Gone. 259-5544.

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