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Book Review: Tom Waits on Tom Waits: Interviews and Encounters, Edited by Paul Maher Jr.

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I am writing this review of Tom Waits on Tom Waits in the middle of a seedy, weedy garden with a cheap assed Casio Keyboard, a guitar with broken strings, sitting in a lawn chair that has seen better days and was trailer park chic when it was new. I am wearing a beat to shit, worn out, never-did-fit pair of black slacks tailored by the Salvation Army Band; Sans-A-Belt’s best polyester. A Permanent Wrinkle Shirt with string tie — knot the size of a pistachio — an old black blazer and wearing a “stomped on by everybody that I ever pissed off in a shady bar” stingy brim Stetson hat. My kicks are Stacey’s. Cheap sun glasses. I haven’t washed my hair in a week in preparation. There is scotch whisky in the coffee cup.The review will last as long as the battery in the laptop. You have to set the mood when you talk about Tom Waits and this book. When it comes to Tom Waits, you either get it, or you don’t. There is no in-between.

The Daily Telegraph calls him: “the greatest entertainer on Planet Earth.” He’s labeled himself “a rumor in his own time.” He’s been called a street poet, but get’s mad if you call him a poet. He describes his lyrics as an improvisational adventure or an “inebriational” travelogue. At his darkest he becomes a seedy slathering of organic word ooze that nails your attention span to the wall and keeps it there. He’s the perfect sound track for a film noir. Maybe a black and white porn film shot on 8mm. He’s a professional enigma.

The uninitiated and the hip are never sure whether they are being engaged by a brave and daring artist or if they are witnessing the biggest con job in rock history. With a voice like a bulldozer that needs a ring job, articulated by a drunk on the moon derelict who mutters and slurs his way through a “stream of semiconsciousness,” rich in metaphor, spiced with irony, and stirred with a spoon made of sarcasm. It’s a voice that makes Louis Armstrong sound like Pavarotti. It’s a voice marinated in whiskey and cigarettes and strained through the American night. It’s a voice that has lipstick on it’s collar and blood stains on it’s knees. It’s a voice that uses parking meters as walking sticks and does the inebriated stroll. It’s a voice that caught a ride hitchhiking with Jack and Neal telling stories about some whorehouse in Seattle.

His lyrics are hipster-hobo, with self proclaimed influences from James Brown, Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, Hoagy Carmichael, Charles Bukowski, Mark Twain. Allen Ginsberg, Howlin’ Wolf and the tin pan alley song writers. He was clearly listening to some carny hucksters, some pool shooting shimmy-shysters, and cats yowling in dark alleys. Tom Waits was born in Pomona, Calif. in 1949. December 7th. Pearl Harbor day. He says he was born at a very young age. He had a pretty normal childhood… or he was a pretty normal child hood, depending on the interviewer. He says he worked delivering pizzas, as a doorman at a strip club, and as a theater ticket taker, but he also says he was a labor organizer in a maternity ward. He rotated tires on miscarriages.

In his own words he is a pedestrian piano player with poor technique but a good sense of melody. He likes smog, traffic, kinky people, car trouble, noisy neighbors, crowded bars, and his favorite album is Kerouac/Allen (Jack Kerouac reading beat poetry to Steve Allen playing jazz piano). Yet, some of the greatest musicians working any side of the street trip over themselves to work with him. Victor Feldman, Jim Hugart, Plas Johnson, Larry Taylor and artists from Springsteen, to Jerry Jeff Walker to the Eagles have recorded his music. Bette Midler and Chrystal Gayle have sung duets with him. At his concerts and club shows you are apt to see many celebrities at the best tables and in the best seats.

Whatever else he is, his music has always been an uncompromising body of work stripped of any commercial sensibilities. From the first album, Closing Time, in 1973 through the ’80s he delivered songs that caught the attention of Frank Zappa, David Geffen, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, and a host of other music biz luminaries. They were stories, described as chronicling the underbelly of the American night, they pushed envelopes of popular music and defied classification; jazz, blues, rock, folk… you never knew where you’d find a Waits album in a record store. They were so entirely different from the usual pop songs or rock songs of the time.

Despite a break-even at best career, he didn’t change. And about the time he had a large enough cult following to move out of the Tropicana Motel, where he says his neighbors were four-speed automatic transvestites, unemployed fireman, dykes, hoods, hookers, sadists, masochists, Avon ladies on the skids, reprieved murders, ex-bebop singers, the lesbian chapter of the Eskimo Hells Angels and one-armed piano players, he did change. He ditched the odd, if comfortable sound of string bass, drums with brushes, sax and him on piano or acoustic guitar or B3 Organ. Who could blame him? You expected him to cash in and go pop/rock/country. Almost anything. He wasn’t exactly tearing up the hit parade or knocking them dead on the FM dial. So, he ditched the rhythm section that was only marginally mainstream in favor of Bass Marimba, brake drum, accordion, a two by four on a bathroom door, a hammer on a Chevy fender, and traffic noises… not exactly jumping on the gravy train, but he never did it for the money. He preferred the Tropicana Motel to an address on Easy Street. As he told one reviewer early in his career, he didn’t want to live there, you get too much Pekingese shit on your Bazanti boots off of those shag carpets.

The book, is probably told in the only way you could tell a story of a man who is not only elusive, but whose art is so hard to define. Paul Maher Jr., the editor and biographer has culled from numerous interviews and profiles these snap shots to reveal Tom in his own words. Throughout the interviews it becomes clear that Tom waits can be illusive, intellectually abusive, or a warm person to interview. It also becomes clear that which Tom Waits you end up with oft times depends on the attitude of the interviewer. He is funny, a story teller, a liar, a huckster, and an entertainer.And totally original.

Tom Waits on Tom Waits runs a bit long at some 480 pages, and some of the interviews seemed to be the same one liners, the same revelations and as rehashed as the soup in an all night diner, but they do form a picture of this one of a kind artist and his 40 year career in music. Fans will rejoice, music lovers have got to have this book. One thing that stood out to me as I read through the interviews, both recent and at the beginning, was that Waits music and Waits himself were always described as relaying the underside of life, the underbelly of American culture and yet Tom Waits came from a middle class family. What none, or very few of the interviewers seemed to understand was to Tom Waits, these stories aren’t the “dark side” or the underbelly of life. They are life. They are the places most of us live or at least visit on a regular basis. We’d perhaps like our lives to be Take It Easy or Dancing Queen but in reality where we live is at Heart Attack and Vine in the Heart Of Saturday Night. As Tom says, “There’s a common loneliness that just sprawls from coast to coast. It’s like a common disjointed identity crisis. It’s the dark, warm narcotic American night.”

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About The Dirty Lowdown

I was born in Pomona, California at a very young age. I had a pretty normal childhood…or I was a pretty normal child hood if mom is telling the story. I was a paperboy and washed cars. I was a soda fountain jock-jerk and a manic mechanic but my first real job was as a labor organizer in a maternity ward. Then, because of the misjudgment of a judge I spent nearly 10 years in the service of our country mostly on KP duty. Our country sure turns out a lot of dirty dishes. I am a past master at pots and pans. They eventually recognized my real talent and let me wander around some very unfriendly places carrying a big radio that didn’t work. Along the way I took up the bass guitar, jotting down stories, electronic engineering and earned a degree in advanced criminal activities. I spent most of my adult life, if you can call it that, working in the I.T. industry, which I was particularly suited for since we worked in rooms with no windows. On and off I taught in colleges, universities and reform schools as a student teacher… I like smog, traffic, kinky people, car trouble, noisy neighbors, and crowded seedy bars where I have been known to quote Raymond Chandler as pickup lines. I have always been a voracious reader, everything from the classics, to popular fiction, history to science but I have a special place in my heart for crime fiction, especially hard-boiled detective fiction and noir. I write a book and music review blog for all genres at The Dirty Lowdown. And another dedicated to Crime Fiction and all things Noir called Crimeways. It’s named after the magazine that appeared in the Kenneth Fearing classic, The Big Clock. There I write scholarly reviews of the classic hard boiled, noir and crime fiction books from the 20's through today. Mostly I drool over the salacious pictures on the covers. I also write for Tecnorati/BlogCritics where i am part of a sinister cabal of superior writers.