'Mule Variations' Biography
Tom Waits has been recording music for 25 years. Comparing his early work—-the Elektra/Asylum period from 1972-1980—-with what came after (his Island Records years and finally his latest effort Mule Variations on indie label Epitaph), one notices a palpable shift towards the eccentric. In 1983, with the release of Swordfishtrombones, Waits began mixing genres and doing some rather strange things to his voice. The Tin-Pan-Alley-style style gave way to a variety of experiments with bizarre textures, ethnic instruments, found sound, alternative recording techniques, and a diverse array of song topics.
Instead of telling stories in sung verse, he began framing words with impressionistic aural landscapes. The trademark piano-plus-combo foundation (with occasional orchestral underpinnings) of Waits’ first ten years of recording mutated into an array of things…calliopes, Balinese metal aunglongs, glass harmonica, bass boo-bams, brake drums, parade drums, bowed saw, pump organ, accordion, mellitron, optigon, farfisa, prepared piano, banjo, and even something that Waits had built: a percussion instrument he dubbed the condundrum.
Waits began to collaborate often with his wife, Kathleen Brennan, and started to produce his own records (also occasionally with Brennan.) The production values on his albums of the 80’s and 90’s were as integral to the creation of his work as to his choice of instruments, or his words. Waits went ‘low-fi’ one could say, opting out of high-tech digital gloss, sometimes for an almost field-recording quality. Other artists have taken a cue from this production style; the studio request of the day is often “let’s record this outside in the driveway with one microphone.”
This year brings the first new Tom Waits album in 6 years, Mule Variations, and his first for Epitaph. It expands upon elements of both phases of his storied career. The dark, bluesy, and often tender and poignant stream-of-consciousness storytelling that was representative of the early years (Heart Of Saturday Night) is surely present on this record, as are the more angular and subversive experimental sounds of the Island Records years (Swordfishtrombones). The strange tales are still a part of his repertoire, as is the trademark gravelly voice. (For more on Mule Variations, see attached Q&A.)
In the six years since the release of his last album, music from the Robert Wilson-directed opera based on the German folk tale The Black Rider in 1993, Waits has devoted time to various projects. He and Brennan wrote several new songs: “The Fall of Troy,” and “Walk Away,” for the film, Dead Man Walking, at the request of director Tim Robbins; “Louise,” for Ramblin’ Jack Elliot’s duets album, Friends of Mine (Waits joins Elliot on the tune); and “A Little Drop of Poison,” for the Wim Wenders film, The End of Violence. Waits also recorded a vocal for a 75-minute orchestral essay by composer Gavin Bryars, “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet,” in which he sings to a 1971 recording of an old hobo intoning the hymn of the same name.
Also following The Black Rider, Waits and Brennan co-wrote the songs and music for Wilson’s opera, “Alice in Wonderland.” The story is based not on the Lewis Carroll book, but on the relationship between Carroll and the girl who inspired the story, Alice Little. “Alice” and “Black Rider” (with libretto by the late William Burroughs) are still being performed at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg and throughout Europe, and discussions are underway to bring them to the Lincoln Center in New York. Both shows had their U.S. premiere in New York at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Festival in 1993 and 1995.
Though his live shows have been few and far between, Waits performed in Los Angeles in March 1998 with Ani DeFranco, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Eddie Vedder, and Michelle Shocked at the “Not in Our Name” fund-raising concert to benefit families of both murder victims and recipients of the death penalty. He also contributed the foreword for the book, and accompanying album, Gravikords, Whirlies, and Pyrophones, by Bart Hopkins (Ellipsis Arts), an examination of experimental musical instruments called a “fascinating piece of work” by Billboard Magazine, and its follow up, Orbitones.
Waits’ body of work, which began in 1973 with Closing Time, has often been covered by other musicians. That list includes Bruce Springsteen (“Jersey Girl”), Rod Stewart (“Downtown Train”), Marianne Faithfull (“Strange Weather”), The Ramones (“I Don’t Want To Grow Up”), Natalie Merchant (“I Hope I Don’t Fall In Love With You”), Bob Seger (“Blind Love,” “Sixteen Shells”), and Dion (“Heart of Saturday Night,” “San Diego Serenade.”) Eddie Vedder, Beck, Los Lobos, Chris Cornell and Ani Di Franco are among the artists who’ve cited Tom as an inspiration. It is therefore fitting that Waits was recently named one of VH-1’s “Most Influential Artists of All Time.”
Aside from the two Wilson scores mentioned previously, Waits is the composer of two film scores: Francis Ford Coppola’s One From The Heart (1980), which was nominated for an Academy Award (best original score), and Jim Jarmusch’s 1992 film, Night On Earth. More recently, he and Brennan wrote the score for a short animated film, Bunny. Waits’ movie work dates to 1978, when he composed and sang two songs for Stallone’s Paradise Alley, followed by two songs he wrote and sang for Ralph Waite’s portrait of Skid Row, On The Nickel. In 1985, he also composed and sang two songs for a documentary about street kids in Seattle called Street Wise.
Waits also has an extensive acting career, which dates back to 1978 with a small part in Sylvester Stallone’s “Paradise Alley.” He has since taken on roles, from supporting to principal, in Coppola’s The Outsiders (1983), Rumblefish (1983), Cotton Club (1984); Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law (1986); Ironweed (1987), Robert Frank’s Candy Mountain (1988); Cold Feet (1989), Queen’s Logic (1990), The Bearskin (1990, released only in Europe), The Fisher King (a cameo, 1991), At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991), Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993.) Additionally, Waits played the lead in a stage production of the musical he co-wrote with Brennan, Frank’s Wild Years, performed by the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago in 1986. Finally and most recently, in late ’98 and early ’99 he shot Mystery Men for Universal, directed by Kinka Usher, in which he takes on the role of Doc Heller, a weapons designer.