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CRITIC AT LARGE

Tom Waits--Eccentric in the Very Best Sense

January 14, 1988|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

To anyone who is too long in the tooth to qualify for the yuppie generation, what has been depressing about the whole phenomenon is that the yuppies seem to march off an assembly line, as shiningly alike as so many BMWs.

Their devout similarities in tastes and goals, their seemingly paradoxical mixture of egocentrism and conformity, is enough to raise fears that our society will run short of eccentrics, freethinkers and other apostles of idiosyncrasy.

But it is pleasing to report that, yuppies to the contrary, there are still a few eccentrics--in the best sense--among us. There is at least one, anyway, and he is singer-performer-actor Tom Waits.

His low and rasping voice suggests a power saw attacking the carcass of a tractor tire. His wavy hair slopes up on one side as if it were being ruffled by a one-man breeze. His speech is a kind of spontaneous free verse, original and vivid and strewn with a range of references that a social historian might envy and admire.

He is not easy to get on paper because he talks in images that are fresh, fast and fragmentary, the verbal equivalents, possibly, of action paintings that you feel as much as comprehend.

He has been famously described as "minstrel-in-chief to the urban underbelly," a poet of society's fringe. His jazz-flavored rock concerts are free-form, talky and intimate ("quirky sounds, offbeat lighting, wiggy jigs," said a headline).

Just now Waits the actor has played second wino to Jack Nicholson in "Ironweed." He is the dapper and doomed Rudy, cocky and tragic. "I'm not dead yet," Rudy says confidently. "That's what you think," replies Nicholson, who in William Kennedy's story has begun to have trouble distinguishing the living from the dead. In the case of the Waits character, he is correct either way. It is a strong and poignant performance, flamboyant but not histrionic (there being a subtle difference).

"Until now," Waits says, "I'd always thought that being a hobo was like running away from home, letting your beard grow, eating out of cans in hobo jungles under a railroad bridge." The realities, brushed against during the location in Albany, N.Y., were less romantic.

"I was a dark horse for 'Ironweed,' " Waits said the other afternoon over a bottle of stout in a downtown saloon. "When I tried out for it in New York, I had a toothbrush in my shirt pocket. I think it made the difference.

"For me to play a bum was not much of a stretch, that was the opinion I had from my friends. A cop would be a longer drive for me, they said."

Waits, who is 37, grew up in Los Angeles. His father teaches Spanish at Belmont High School just west of downtown. "Forty-seven countries represented at that school," Waits said. He listened to a lot of Latin music at home but he also speaks eloquently of the music of Prokofiev, Duke Ellington, Muddy Waters, Thelonious Monk, Dixieland, the early variant of reggae called Ska--a whole eclectic set of influences.

He has been touring since he was 21--"clubs and that whole catastrophe." In New York he performed at the Bitter End, the Bottom Line and eventually Avery Fisher Hall and, most recently, at the Eugene O'Neill Theater.

But growing up in Los Angeles, he was also intrigued by the movies.

"There in the darkness, it was like going to sleep with a whole bunch of people and dreaming your way into the film. It's an intimidating world out there, and it was like finding your way to safety, like finding a rabbit hole where you could be warm and safe. The movie house was like a cathedral. You could check life at the door."

But the movies seemed very inaccessible. "It was like the guy on the door was going to stop you. You had to be born into the business or pay somebody off."

His music got him past the symbolic guard at the gates of Hollywood. Waits wrote songs for Ralph Waite's low-budget but impressive Skid Row drama "On the Nickel," and for "Streetwise." He began to act in films as well: "The Cotton Club," "Wolfen," Sylvester Stallone's "Paradise Alley."

He received an Oscar nomination for his song score for Francis Coppola's unorthodox electronic musical "One From the Heart" ("our lounge operetta," Waits calls it) and subsequently acted parts for Coppola in "The Outsiders" and "Rumble Fish."

One of his 11 albums, "Rain Dogs," generated the idea for Jim Jarmusch's "Down by Law," a loose-jointed account of three born losers in New Orleans. Waits played one of the leads.

"I tell people the only reason I play small parts is that I keep dreaming the director will get sick and I'll have to take over. I'm half kidding, of course," Waits said. "But only half."

Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan, wrote "Frank's Wild Years," a play with music that was produced by the prestigious and avant-garde Steppenwolf Company of Chicago, with Waits starring.

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