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

February 22, 1987|ROBERT SABBAG | Robert Sabbag is the author of "Snowblind: A Brief Career in the Cocaine Trade" (Avon Books).

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."

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.

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.

"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.

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.

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