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A cluttered harmony

Tom Waits dwells in a place where cynicism and hope collide -- and the bat guano's free. As always, it's a realm that's somewhat removed.

September 26, 2004|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

Petaluma, Calif. — The Little Amsterdam sits incongruously in the rolling expanse of Sonoma County farmland, a low white building adorned with a Dutch windmill -- a "fake" windmill, Tom Waits' assistant has specified in her directions.

The restaurant's interior looks like something Waits himself might have had a hand in decorating. Besides the clutter of farm implements and copper cookware and sombreros, antique radios sit gathering dust, and an old-fashioned curved bicycle horn hangs in one corner. A large fish patrols the waters of a murky aquarium near the table where Waits sits drinking coffee from a plastic cup.

"Did you see the albino catfish?" he asks. "He apparently ate all the fish in the tank, and that's why he's so big."

The room is empty on this hot midweek morning, one reason the singer has come here to talk about his new album, "Real Gone."

Waits says he felt like "an unplugged appliance" when he moved to this area 15 years ago from Los Angeles. The big city's hectic pace and colorful denizens had fueled a body of work that made the unconventional, gruff-voiced singer one of the most admired renegades in pop music. Then he headed for the hills, where he's found domestic contentment without conceding any creative edge.

Since then, in fact, he's become even more a model of artistic independence, collaborating with his wife, Kathleen Brennan, on a series of albums, starting with 1983's "Swordfishtrombones," that explore his scrap yard symphonies and customized cabaret with a bracing sense of risk and freedom. He's also penetrated the high arts, teaming regularly with theater visionary Robert Wilson. One of their striking works, 1991's "The Black Rider," is in its North American debut engagement in San Francisco.

That's about an hour's drive from here, but it's a different world. Up here, Waits is just another local with a green thumb. He's slouching in his chair and exuding an air of supreme harmony with his surroundings when a small, wiry man with a wild silver beard approaches the table.

"Excuse me for interrupting," he says to Waits. "I know you're into some serious gardening. I'm cleaning up Spireto Ballatore's farm down there and I've got about a half a 40-gallon garbage bag of bat guano if you want it."

"Oh, bat guano! Good, good," Waits says with unnerving enthusiasm. "Oh, God, I'd be definitely interested."

"OK, well, I'll just set the bag out in front of the last barn; you can pick it up there.""

Waits' benefactor departs, waving off the singer's offer of payment.

"It all comes down to bat guano," Waits says. "With that much bat guano around here, that puts you in a whole other category."

Leap into the mud

"Real GONE," which comes out Oct. 5 on the Anti label, keeps Waits in the whole other category he's long occupied musically. Raw, rustic, primal and immediate, it's a leap into the mud from the refined platform of its simultaneously released 2002 predecessors, "Alice" and "Blood Money," whose songs had been written for Wilson theater pieces.

Now Waits returns to the percussive clank reminiscent of albums such as "Bone Machine," thickened with vocal beats Waits recorded in his bathroom and turntable scratching by his 19-year-old son, Casey, the middle of his three children.

"Part of my compulsion is I'm unable to repeat myself in certain things," says Waits, 54, groping to describe the origins of "Real Gone." "Other people are nervous when they have to digress or deviate from the scripts, and I'm compelled to change things all the time.

"Those last albums were more meticulous, there was more ballads on them, and there was strings and all that stuff. You've been kind of staring into the water and now you want to do something that's liberating. I don't know how it really came about. You have to stay mystified by it yourself. I don't think it's something you ever want to totally control or understand. Intelligence is highly overrated."

Songs such as "Don't Go Into That Barn," a killer-on-the-loose thriller, lead into some scary woods. There are also some hard-boiled portraits of drifters and dreamers, and a spoken reverie about a family of circus freaks.

But the songs that give "Real Gone" its emotional wallop are the ones that unambiguously address the current political moment. "Day After Tomorrow," an acoustic ballad in the form of a soldier's letter home, is the most direct of all, but "Hoist That Rag," a swaggering saga of a band of mercenaries, and the ominous epic "Sins of the Father," with its line about "the star spangled glitter of his one good eye" and its allusion to a game that was rigged, resonate with a topical urgency.

"You know, I'm not Billy Bragg, but I'm not Liberace, either," Waits says. "Making songs about what's going on, first you have to inherently believe that they have genuine power to be part of a change. I'm not sure that I completely agree with that. At this point it's like throwing rocks at a tank....

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