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Tom Waits Makes Good : Rock’s Scavenger Songwriter Has Become a Legend in His Own Spare Time

<i> Robert Sabbag is the author of "Snowblind: A Brief Career in the Cocaine Trade" (Avon Books). </i>

PARKING IS NOT A PROBLEM ON a Saturday night at 6th and Main in downtown Los Angeles. Jack’s “Frolic Room,” by the bus station, does not cater to the carriage trade. There is plenty of room on the street and more than enough room at the bar inside, where a quarter will buy you a boiled egg, a Roi-Tan or a draft.

Tom Waits says, “I think you’re going to like this place.”

Jack’s is refuge to a regular clientele, to the occasional straggler or pilgrim, some dedicated to drinking, some just violating parole. The bartender, a certifiable rickets case, who looks like he would rather be reading the Racing Form, has just served a guy wearing a visored, blue polyester cap with crossed anchors on the crown.

“The captain,” Waits says. “Just in from Bermuda. All the eccentric millionaires come to Jack’s. The idle rich. They all come to Jack with their problems.”

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Singer, songwriter, actor, composer, something of a legend in his own spare time, Tom Waits, over the years like a wanted man lying in ambush in the musical chaparral, has fortified a shifting position for himself between infamy and obscurity.

A performer frequently associated in the popular imagination with the subject matter of his music--"Christmas Card From a

Hooker in Minneapolis,” “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)"--Waits has had a devoted and rather distinctive following from the outset of his career; admirers of his work customarily are greeted with the kindness bestowed only upon the afflicted. Even now, telling many Americans that your favorite singer is Tom Waits is like telling them that your favorite actor is John Wilkes Booth.

Current events threaten to change all that. “Rain Dogs,” issued in 1985 in advance of Waits’ first tour in two years, his first U.S. dates in five, was cited by the New York Times as “the year’s most dazzling and protean pop album.” Waits followed it with sold-out concerts in New York, Los Angeles and London. On the strength of the the album, Rolling Stone named him songwriter of the year. “Frank’s Wild Years,” a play he co-authored with his wife, writer Kathleen Brennan, was produced last summer by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company. Selected to open the New York Film Festival last fall was “Down by Law,” in which he stars. His next album, “Frank’s Wild Years,” will be released next month.

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The only witness unimpressed, if not unmoved, by these events appears to be Tom Waits himself. “I like it in here,” he says, as the bartender publicly shuts off a guy’s credit. “Nobody gives a damn about you. They don’t care who you are or where you’re from.”

Waits is of the scavenger school of songwriting, and at a place

like Jack’s, salvageable material is found in abundance.

“It’s really all around you all the time,” he points out. “It’s just a matter of framing it, getting thrilled by it. You have to find something to capture it in, make sure your umbrella is upside down.”

Waits is always one step ahead of, or one step behind, the conversation at hand, always alive to the action, his eyes perpetually shifting beneath the brim of his hat. Hanging out with him in public is like keeping company with a man pursued by assassins.

Speaking about the need to impose limitations, about constructing a framework within which to write, he draws an analogy.

“Like the guy in prison who made a tattoo machine out of a Bic pen, a guitar string and a cassette loader. Some red ink. He wrapped the handle in such a way, with a T-shirt, it felt just like a bird in your hand.”

All the while he is speaking, he is scanning the room.

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“I’d like to do a movie--48 hours in the life of a guy, he’s just been released from a mental institution, New York’s an inferno, and he’s just got a few pills left.”

His attention drifts eventually to the wildlife program on the television over the bar.

“They have programs about us, too, you know.”

He is talking about the animals.

He wants to know if you think the world is alive.

“I believe that the earth is a living thing,” he announces. “Everything outside is like barnacles on a whale. Someday it’s gonna rear up and throw us all off.” He shakes his head. “I’m afraid to dig holes in the yard. I won’t even cut the grass.”

And on that note, the interview takes to the street.

THE TRAVEERS CAFE, on Temple, just off the Hollywood Freeway, featuring “delicious Filipino-Chinese food” in addition to the standard American fare, is serving three neighborhood customers at the counter tonight. The booths in the back are empty. The only traveler in evidence, an elderly gent hunched over a weathered walking stick, is anchored to a cushion on the couch by the door.

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If Waits is the Travelers’ most celebrated regular, it is only insofar as he is celebrated outside the neighborhood. As far as proprietors Leon and Pauline are concerned, around here he is just Tom. The father of two, Waits is reluctant to open his house to the press, and taking guests to the Travelers, just a few blocks from home, is his variation on bringing out the good china.

He slides into a booth and orders coffee.

“My run-down career?”

“A rundown on your career. On the subject of your career.”

“Oh, well, that’s another thing entirely,” he says.

Does he agree that, in fact, it is taking off like a rocket?

“My career is more like a dog,” he concedes. “Sometimes it comes when you call. Sometimes it gets up in your lap. Sometimes it rolls over. Sometimes it just won’t do anything.”

The theatrical voice, a cross between mellifluous baritone and heavy-equipment breakdown, is only part of what draws one’s attention to Waits. An apparently healthy young man, a vigorous performer, Waits works hard to display the visual attributes of a guy on the back end of a drunk-and-disorderly arrest.

His clothing, at best, borders on the nondescript. As a sartorial statement, it crosses that frontier between optimism and delusion. As friend and fellow musical outlaw Kinky Friedman points out, Waits is a guy who “looks like he was put together by committee.” Sporting a fedora of the kind associated less with the stalking of vanished missionaries and more with the likes of Hoagy Carmichael, he carries his head low, in the manner of the chronically self-effacing. He speaks at the speed at which 40-weight motor oil circulates in the cold, and with the possible exception of Keith Richards, whom he admires, Waits lays claim to what may be the sorriest posture in rock ‘n’ roll.

His appearance reinforces that image of him so often painted in the press--the Damon Runyon of downtown Los Angeles, mired in a landscape strewn with the working parts of his music, “hobos, prostitutes, people in trouble, the negative machinery I create to

motivate myself.” It is an image that his audience has come to embrace. It is not, he admits, an entirely accurate one.

“When you have a certain geography that becomes associated with you,” he explains, “people dream you into it. They develop their own ideas about who you are and what you do, and you can only control a certain amount of that.”

Meeting every opportunity to look off into the distance, reaching into his pockets, dragging on his jacket’s flaps, his hands continually tampering with the structural integrity of his hat, Waits exhibits the body language of a man who is eminently ill at ease when it comes to talking about himself.

“I am not a photojournalist,” he continues. “I do not do reportage. You tell someone stories--they come from a lot of places, dreams and memories and lies and things, things you found and heard and saw and read and dreamed and made up.”

Waits, who communicates with the world at large most successfully on the strength of his music, and in the absence of that, principally by way of rumor, works hard to remain an outsider.

He plays fast and loose with his biography; his press kit reads like a rap sheet on a guy with nothing but aliases.

“I see the way a lot of people talk to the press. To me it’s a bit like talking to a cop.” What the media seem to have replaced, he says, is any organic sense of people. “So maybe I pull back. I’m more interested in these types of things"--he does pull back, looks out the window, waves his hand--"these people, I guess, in these neighborhoods. My dad teaches school not far from here, and sometimes I get recognized on my block--that’s Frank’s boy, over there. I like that; that’s more interesting to me.”

Tom Waits, the second of three children, as far as anyone can tell, was born in Pomona, eight years to the day after the bombing

of Pearl Harbor, the only son of two Southern California schoolteachers, neither of whom was a practiced musician.

“All the psychopaths and all the alcoholics are on my father’s side of the family,” he will tell you. “On my mother’s side, we have all the ministers.”

School, like any family business, posed its problems for Waits. His formal education was unremarkable at best. What little he picked up that was compelling in school--apart from a desire to leave it--he picked up, he says, at Robert E. Lee Elementary in South Los Angeles. There he picked up a trumpet.

“A Cleveland Greyhound. It was a silver trumpet, and I played taps at the end of the school day and got there early and played reveille as the flag went up.”

It was the first and last instrument on which Waits took lessons. From cheap Mexican guitars he moved on to the piano--and from playing Jerome Kern and George Gershwin he moved on to playing around with music of his own. It was not something he was prepared to hook his future on until a succession of jobs after high school left him with little enthusiasm for anything else.

“It’s like throwing yourself through a window,” he says. “If you don’t make any progress, it’s kind of embarrassing.”

Among the clubs he played was the Troubadour in West Hollywood, where a performance in 1969 landed him a management contract. Three years later he signed with Asylum Records. His first album, “Closing Time,” in 1973, won him an immediate audience and earned him the instant recognition of his contemporaries: “Ol’ 55,” later recorded by the Eagles, is one of many songs he wrote covered by performers more successful than he.

“Heart of a Saturday Night,” released in 1974, was followed a year later by a live two-record set, “Nighthawks at the Diner,” the experiment that crystallized various elements of his act: the sophisticated funk, the Skid Row baritone, the arranged disarray, the rocks upon which he built its musical church.

Waits, at the time, was touring continually, his answer to no-fixed-address the Tropicana Motel on Santa Monica Boulevard, then a $9-a-night, music-industry hobo palace where rock ‘n’ roll met Nathanael West--a kind of ranchette manque , pop-culture landmark haunted by the ghosts of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and

others and immortalized on celluloid by Andy Warhol in “Trash.”

There Waits’ public image began taking on its anatomy. “When I lived at the Tropicana, I wanted to break windows, smoke cigars and stay up late. That was my dream.”

It was from the Tropicana that Waits, over a piano in the kitchen, would fulfill his promise as poet laureate of the down-and-out. In 1976, from some fertile lake bed of the imagination where “Naked Lunch” and Stephen Foster uneasily converged, drawing up such sweet odes to misery as “Invitation to the Blues” and “Bad Lives and a Broken Heart,” he delivered his fourth album, “Small Change,” the rich, expressive tour de force that established his reputation as an outright original.

Profiles in the New Yorker and Newsweek were two of many that year. Three albums later, in 1980, Waits was hired to compose the sound track for Francis Coppola’s offbeat “lounge operetta,” “One From the Heart.” “I wrote my first tango. That’s always a big moment.” The movie did very little business. Waits was nominated for an Academy Award.

It was the success of that endeavor, more than anything else, that enabled Waits to do what he did next. With “Swordfishtrombones” and subsequently “Rain Dogs,” his eighth and ninth albums, it was as though he had finally taken his hat off and let the birds fly out. On top of the guitar, bass, piano and traditional percussion that had distinguished his music, he imposed marimbas, metal Anglungs, bagpipes, the bowed saw, brake drums under stress, the accordion and the force applied to a chair.

“You can bang on anything,” he is fond of saying.

As Waits’ music got further out there , his following curiously grew larger. In its way, this mainstream acceptance contradicts everything he has learned about popular music.

“Most music, in its purest form, has to be gentrified before it reaches the big ear. It’s the same thing with fashion. You can’t walk into a room wearing nothing but aluminum foil. There has to be something familiar there--you have to be wearing a tie.”

On “Rain Dogs,” one of the more flamboyant neckties was Keith Richards’ guitar.

“An animal,” Waits says. “He’s part of the earth. I was expecting a big entourage like a Fellini movie, you know--people that don’t speak English, a lot of fur. And they just tumbled out of a limo. He comes in laughing, shoes all tore up. He stands at 10 after 7, if you can imagine that. Arms at 5 o’clock, legs at 2 o’clock, with no apparatus, nothing suspended. He’s all below the waist. And if he doesn’t feel it, he’ll walk away. I was just flattered that he would come. It’s kind of like a rite of passage or something.”

Waits, whose musical development is probably more typical of

jazzmen than of popular musicians--"The geography of the imagination should have a little bit more wilderness to it; I hate when it becomes subdivided"--is no stranger to compromise or the toll it takes.

“Thelonious Monk’s brother works in a tollbooth on the Jersey Turnpike. That’s who’s taking the toll. He gets everything. So you feel better about making those compromises.”

LITTLE CARBON CLEAN-OUT here on Union Avenue.”

Cruising the boulevards of downtown Los Angeles with Tom Waits is like walking the streets of 17th-Century London with Samuel Pepys. Nothing escapes his very particular interpretation of history.

“I get in the car, I just start to drive, and my mind wanders.”

Coleridge blamed it on opium.

“Everything here eventually turns into something else. It’s not good if you’re insecure. That was a fire station, now it’s an Asian market. I bet they still get calls for fires. Which must be uncomfortable. To have to tell a guy whose house is burning down that he’s got the wrong number. It must be disturbing.”

Even eyesores, such as cigarette billboards, get sucked into the dissertation.

“Now, the Marlboro man, his mom is a night clerk at the Wilmont Hotel in Chicago. I’ll swear on a stack of Bibles. I checked in; I told her I was playing a club there. She said, ‘You’re in show business?’ I said yeah. She said, ‘The Marlboro man is my son. You probably know him if you’re in show biz. Bob Jenkins, works out of Phoenix.’ ”

This is not information one is likely to find corroborated in travel brochures. It is not the stuff of American legend.

”. . . the Silver Lake Motel. That’s where Sam Cooke died.”

Maybe it was the Hacienda.

“Here it is. Robert Taylor’s Car Wash. I do not lie. I shagged cars, pumped gas, I did like a hot wax--that was my speciality. They didn’t have a hot wax here until I came in. I said you got to get yourself a genuine Simoniz paste-wax job. They tip their hat to me when I come around here. When I’m playing in town, they put me on the marquee--see the marquee, over there?”

“CAR WASH / 8:30-5:30"?

“TOM WAITS.”

“They used to open later. Hi Ho Inn, across the street. You could spend your day here. You wash the car, you get breakfast over at Al’s while your car is being washed. You go for cocktails at the Chit Chat. Get a flattop at the barbershop. You go sleep it off at the Hi Ho. The day is complete. Then there’s tomorrow. Those were the days.”

Tom Waits says it is pretty much goodby to L.A. According to sources, he has been saying this for years.

“Maybe we’ll end up in Missouri. I want a place where I can put a brier patch. Sit on the porch with a shotgun and collect all the kids’ baseballs. Go crazy. ‘Don’t hit one in my yard!’ A place where everything I drag home I can leave in the yard, you know.”

On Rampart, there is a tree that has grown up around one of the street lamps. On the way back to the Travelers, Waits points it out.

“You know Poire William?”

“It’s a brandy.”

“It’s a pear brandy,” he says. “And it’s from France. And every bottle has a pear in it. What they do is, they grow ‘em that way. Every pear in the orchard, at a certain point in the maturity of the fruit--they take and they put a bottle over the bloom. And the bloom matures inside a bottle that’s propped up by a crutch. I mean it, you didn’t know that?”

“It’s bottled on the tree.”

“At a certain point, when the pear is full throttle, they snip it. And it’s a riddle. It’s a riddle, and they allow you to spend the rest of your life solving it.”

Tom Waits, a man, it seems, who has finally moved into his season, is content to view such riddles as their own reward. Ask him, was it just a matter of time, did he always know it would happen, and, navigating the traffic of downtown Los Angeles, he will hit the accelerator and tell you, “You can’t really look in the mirror that much.”


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