“Now little Hans was always strange
Wearing women’s underthings
His father beat him but he wouldn’t change
He ran off with a man one day
Now his lingerie is all the rage
In the black on every page
His father proudly calls his name
Down there in the Reeperbahn”
As a follow-up to 1999’s million-selling and Grammy-winning Mule Variations, Tom Waits is releasing not one but two new albums—Alice and Blood Money—due in stores May 7th.
The albums are as original as they are different from each other. Alice’s songs are “a school of fish that lead the listener into the rapture of the deep,” said Waits. “Blood Money’s songs are musical dispatches from the dark, human carnival of life.”
Waits wrote and produced both records with longtime collaborator and wife, Kathleen Brennan. “As usual, some songs are mean and don’t want to be recorded and they will do anything to get away,” Waits noted. “Others must be sacrificed, cut up and used for bait to catch others. At their best, they are jewelry for the ears. My collaboration with Kathleen is as old as our marriage and just as strong. It gives the songs more depth and dimension. It works. We sharpen each other like knives, she has impeccable taste, she’s a great songwriter and I trust her immeasurably. Collaborating is like borrowing the same ten bucks from each other, over time, we end up even.”
Waits’ listeners have grown accustomed in the last decade to longer intervals between new albums. But, as usual, the only thing to be expected from Waits is the unexpected. Long admired as one of the most eclectic, innovative, uncompromising and enigmatic figures in popular music, Waits has been more visible lately.
He toured for Mule Variations throughout 1999 and until the spring of 2000, when he and Brennan began writing songs for “Woyzeck,” the play Blood Money is based on. Directed by Robert Wilson, “Woyzeck” premiered in the fall of 2000 at the Betty Nansen Theater in Copenhagen, Denmark, receiving Denmark’s equivalent of the Tony for Best Musical. “Woyzeck” has been touring Europe to sold-out houses and wide acclaim and will appear in New York and Los Angeles in the fall of 2002.
Waits also performed and spoke when he received the prestigious ASCAP “Founders Award” in May, 2001. Asked if he intends to tour around the two new releases Waits said, “Down the road sometime. Maybe some surprise gig somewhere.”
Waits has built a career as varied as there are creative outlets—delving into cinema (both composing and acting), musical theater, opera, live performance, and literature—yet seamlessly interweaving a truly distinctive and fully-realized persona. The tools of his trade have included such things as the marimba, trombone, brake drum, metal aunglongs, banjo, bell plate, bullhorn, conga, accordion, optigon, mellotron, maracas, pump organ, basstarda, chamberlain, harmonium, viola, sticks, chairs, a musical saw, as well as the regular old guitar, bass, piano and drums and, of course, that trademark voice. Among some of the new instruments on Alice and Blood Money are the pneumatic calliope, stroh violin, circular violin and the pod.
In a career that has spanned four decades, his music has taken adventurous turns, from confessional country-blues and jazz-flavored lounge, to primal rock and avant-garde musical theater. By turns tender and poignant, to strange and twisted, his songs tend to explore the dark, underbelly of society as he gives his uniquely human voice to adventurers both romantic and mercenary, drifters, con artists and those forgotten characters on the fringe and in the fray. Waits has expanded and drawn from a deep well of American song idioms: folk, blues, country, jazz ballads, polkas, waltzes, cabaret, swing, popular ballads, and a category that can only be described as Waitsian.
“I want that Beggars eyes
A winning horse
A tidy Mexican divorce
St. Mary’s prayers
And a Barman who always understands”
(The Part You Throw Away)
In the summer of the early ‘70s, Tom Waits was working as a doorman at the Heritage nightclub in San Diego, where artists of every genre performed. An avid fan of many writers and musicians, among them Bob Dylan, Lord Buckley, Hoagy Carmichael, Marty Robbins, Raymond Chandler, and Stephen Foster, he began developing a voice that expressed his appreciation by combining song and monologue. He took his newly formed act to Monday nights at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, where musicians from all over stood in line all day to get the opportunity to perform on-stage that night. Shortly thereafter, Waits was signed to Asylum Records at the age of 22.
Waits’ first formal recording, Closing Time was released in 1973 and contained the song, “Ol’ 55,” which was also covered by his labelmates The Eagles for their On the Border album. He began touring and opening for such artists as Charlie Rich, Billy Preston and Frank Zappa. Waits gained increasing critical acclaim and a loyal cult audience with his subsequent albums: The Heart Of Saturday Night (1974), Nighthawks At The Diner (1975), Small Change (1976), Foreign Affairs (1977), Blue Valentine (1978) and Heartattack and Vine (1980). It was an incredibly prolific period for Waits and one that solidified his reputation as one of America’s new leading songwriters. As a singer, his trademark gravelly voice became one of the most unique voices ever heard in pop music.
“And you’ll die with the rose still on your lips
And in time the heart-shaped bone
That was your hips
And the worms they will climb
The rugged ladder of your spine
We’re all mad here”
(We’re All Mad Here)
In 1983 Waits signed a new recording contract with Island Records and released the album Swordfishtrombones. It marked a creative and startling turning point, which secured him a whole new generation of listeners. He began experimenting with ethnic instruments, altering the sound of his voice, trying unusual recording techniques and utilizing found sounds and bizarre textures. His trademark storytelling backed by his piano and a combo mutated into impressionistic and surreal aural landscapes. He went ‘lo-fi’ and helped set off a whole new aesthetic that other artists emulated. This period of bold experimentation continued with the albums Rain Dogs (1985), Frank’s Wild Years (1987), Big Time (1988), which was a film and soundtrack album of his acclaimed 1987 tour (which was named “Tour of the Year” in Rolling Stone Magazine), Bone Machine (1992), for which he won a Grammy for Best Alternative Album and The Black Rider (1993), a recording of the songs and music he wrote for the avant-garde opera based on the German folk tale that was adapted by Beat novelist William Burroughs for director Robert Wilson. Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan, his frequent collaborator in writing and production, composed songs and music for another Wilson opera, Alice. Tom also contributed a standout interpretation of the Disney classic “Heigh Ho (Dwarf’s Marching Song)” to the 1988 Stay Awake compilation.
Such rich imagery on record makes for the perfect cinematic companion, and so Waits naturally explored the worlds of composing music for film as well as acting. He wrote songs for and appeared in Sylvester Stallone’s Paradise Alley (1978). He wrote and performed two songs for Ralph Waite’s portrait of Skid Row, On the Nickel (1980). In 1982, Tom composed the score for Francis Ford Coppola’s One From The Heart, which earned him an Academy Award nomination. In the next two years, Waits would also appear in Coppola’s Rumble Fish, The Outsiders and The Cotton Club. In 1986, he appeared in Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law (with the U.S. debut of actor Roberto Benigni), and in the same year made his theatrical stage debut with “Frank’s Wild Years,” at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater, a musical play he co-wrote with Brennan. His other film appearances include Ironweed, Queens’ Logic, The Fisher King, At Play InThe Fields Of The Lord and a later Jarmusch film, Night On Earth, for which Waits and Brennan composed the score. Waits had memorable acting turns as the insect-eating Renfield in Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts.
After the release of The Black Rider in 1993, Waits devoted time to a variety of musical projects. He and Brennan wrote two songs for the Dead Man Walking soundtrack album at the request of director Tim Robbins. Tom also contributed the song, “A Little Drop Of Poisson” 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 sang to a 1971 recording of an old hobo intoning the hymn of the same name. In 1998, Waits and Brennan composed the score and a song to Bunny, which won the Oscar for Best Short Film (Animated). In 1998, they contributed two songs to the Liberty Heights film by Barry Levinson and in 2000, they composed “The World Keeps Turning” for the end credit of Ed Harris’ Pollack. Most recently the pair wrote two songs for the film, Big Bad Love, directed by Arliss Howard.
With his last album Waits departed from the major label road and signed with the independent punk rock label Anti/Epitaph. Mule Variations synthesized his finish. Waits’ affinity for American song from blues to country with his love of naturalistic sound worlds, he succeeded in creating the most direct and intimate album of his career. Most recently, Waits and Brennan collaborated for the third time with opera director Robert Wilson on a new production of Buchner’s play, “Woyzeck,” a 19th century nightmarish fable about a soldier who murders his girlfriend in Germany. Last month it received an award for best musical in Denmark, and the production is currently touring Europe.
Tom is a legendary live performer who tour extensively in the ’70s and ‘80s. In recent years, his live performances are rare, extraordinarily memorable and highly anticipated events. Part distorted vaudeville, part big top, part piano bar and part stand-up, Waits’ live shows are meticulously orchestrated to have all of the grace and excitement of a derailing train.
“I’d sell your heart to the junkman baby
For a buck, for a buck
If you’re looking for someone to pull you out of that ditch
You’re out of luck, you’re out of luck
The ship is sinking, the ship is sinking”
(God’s Away On Business)
Named as one of VH-1’s “Most Influential Artists of All Time” it is no surprise that Waits’ body of work has long been covered (and coveted) by other musicians. Notable cover versions include: Bruce Springsteen (“Jersey Girl”), Rod Stewart and Everything But The Girl (“Downtown Train”), Marianne Faithfull (“Strange Weather”), The Ramones (“I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”), 10,000 Maniacs (“I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You”), Bob Seger (“Blind Love”), Shawn Colvin (“The Heart Of Saturday Night”), plus Elvis Costello, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Johnny Cash, and many others. A diverse list of artists have cited Tom Waits as an inspiration, including Bob Dylan who has named him one of his “secret heroes.” And the adoration strikes a chord with a rabid fan following—there is even an annual celebration called “Waitstock” near Poughkeepsie, New York.
For more than 30 years now, Tom Waits has been creating music. He continues to inspire new generations of songwriters who have their own story to tell…and their own dark muse to follow.