Tom Waits, poet


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The poetry of musician Tom Waits will see publication next year in the book ‘Hard Ground,’ published by the University of Texas Press. ‘Hard Ground’ is a collaboration with photojournalist Michael O’Brien and will be a visual and poetic look at homelessness.

It is not the first time Waits’ poetry has appeared in print (even if NME says it is). Waits attended a poetry workshop at Beyond Baroque, the literary center in Venice, Calif. A poem he read there -- an early version of ‘Diamonds on My Windshield’ -- was printed in the Sunset Palms Hotel, an occasional early ‘70s ‘zine (the cover featured a line drawing by Charles Bukowski).


But don’t call him a poet. In a 1975 interview with the Los Angeles Free Press (dug up by TwentyFourBit), Waits said, ‘I don’t like the stigma that comes with being called a poet.’

Again last year, Waits resisted the idea that he be identified as anything other than a musician. Talking to the L.A. Times about his role as the Devil in ‘The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus,’ he insisted that he not be called an actor. Despite having appeared in 20 films, Waits said only that ‘I do some acting.’ He continued: ‘Nobody wants you to be good at two things. They’d rather get a specialist, a guy who just works on eyes or scalp or ankles. Nobody wants a general practitioner. But the arts are such that there’s a place where they overlap.’

Waits’ life has often been conflated with the lowlife characters he created in his songs. Indeed, the page describing the book on the University of Texas Press’ website reads:

Tom Waits, described by the New York Times as ‘the poet of outcasts,’ to create a portrait of homelessness that impels us to look into the eyes of people who live ‘on the hard ground’ and recognize our common humanity. For Waits, who has spent decades writing about outsiders, this subject is familiar territory.

But in 1985, Waits told he told British rock journalist Barney Hoskyns, ‘People think I’m down on Fifth and Main at the Blarney Stone, throwing back shooters and smoking a cigar, but I’m really on the top floor of the health club with a towel in my lap, watching Johnny Carson.’ Hoskyns wrote the 2009 biography ‘Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits’ without Waits’ cooperation, trying to tease out the private person from behind the public persona.

Whatever we call him, Waits has written lyrics that tell better stories than most. Come March, we’ll get to see how they read on the page in ‘Hard Ground’ -- not to be confused with ‘Cold Cold Ground,’ which is a song on ‘Franks Wild Years.’


-- Carolyn Kellogg