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Critic's Notebook: The lowdown with Tom Waits

Similes, metaphors, memorable characters and lyrics — it's all there in the singer-songwriter's notebooks. Here, he talks about birthing his first new album in seven years — 'Bad as Me.'

October 22, 2011|By Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
  • KEY TO THOSE TUNES: Tom Waits on where he gets his ideas: "Once you sit down and decide, 'OK, we're going to write some tunes,' then you've begun."
KEY TO THOSE TUNES: Tom Waits on where he gets his ideas: "Once you sit… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Petaluma, Calif. — — Over the course of three hours of conversation at a roadside diner here called Pete's Henny Penny, Tom Waits, the singer, songwriter, pianist, arranger, actor and note taker, will offer the following similes and metaphors, seemingly at random though just as likely cataloged in his memory for future use: an aging musician as "a Popsicle in the sun on a bus bench in Florida"; the process of creation as "like making Chinese food — it's very exotic and it takes a lot of time"; the Henny Penny as "privately owned, like I am"; and a woman losing her wedding ring near a lake, biting into it later when eating fish, and how such magical irony may or may not have something to do with the way Waits and his longtime collaborator-wife, Kathleen Brennan, create songs.

Waits, 61, had walked into the diner just off Highway 101 around lunchtime last week wearing blue jeans and a jean jacket and carrying a black leather bag the size of a briefcase fastened shut with buckles and packed with whatever it was that I'll always regret not asking about. (Notebooks? Change of clothes? Horse manure?)

He sat down in a booth, dropped a few pocket-sized notebooks on the table — messages and reminders regarding his new album, "Bad as Me" — and ordered a cup of decaf. He lives somewhere around here in Sonoma County with his wife — his three children are all in their 20s now — and will swing by the diner from time to time when he's "washing the dishes," his term for the requisite media rounds that accompany the release of new music after the feast that is creating it.

The singer with the lowdown Howlin' Wolf yowl, which is richer and more elastic than ever on "Bad as Me," still has a mound of dark brown hair, same style, though thinner, that he's worn since his first album in 1973. The Whittier native but longtime Northern Californian swung by the 24-hour restaurant to talk about studio album No. 20 (give or take), being released Monday on Los Angeles-based Anti- Records, his first new studio album in seven years, and one of the best of his wildly fruitful creative life.

Waits, of course, has his own take on the new work. The born raconteur, whose way with words has created such American classics as "Downtown Train," "Jersey Girl," "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" and the perfect midperiod classics "Swordfishtrombones," "Rain Dogs" and "Frank's Wild Years," takes a sip of coffee, opens one of his notebooks and reads some of his scribbled words on "Bad as Me."

"If I was listening to this, and I didn't know me," he says by way of introduction, "the notes that I would make" — his voice takes on a tone of authority — "He's a soul man in chain mail on a burnt rocking horse. Brutal lurching. Strange train set. Come on, put your stumps together. Clear water from a dirty glass. Studly vibrato. Songs of broken trust. The riddle of death in the face of war."

Process of creation

After settling in by addressing the futuristic insect-sized drones that he says the government has developed and the "aviaries" that house them, Waits edges closer to a discussion about making "Bad as Me." He much prefers talking around the process of creation to talking about the finished work, as if to poke at it too much would disturb the humming hornet's nest that generated it.

The record, however, swirls with adventure and includes the instant classic ballad "Back in the Crowd," the stomping march "Hell Broke Luce" and the transcendent closer "New Year's Eve," a quiet yarn of a waltz.

Waits and Brennan populate these songs with a cast of characters that include Mackey Debiasi ("a complicated man"), Nimrod Bodfish ("have you any wool?"), Ice Pick Ed Newcomb ("on a slab in the morgue"). A guy named Calvin recommends that the narrator of "New Year's Eve" go back to driving a truck; Geoff, who was a chef before he died in battle, is recalled in "Hell Broke Luce," a war lament, as is Sergio, who's "developing a real bad cough" while fighting. They're meth heads and soldiers, revelers and tight-sweatered ladies, many rich with enough detail to build one-acts around.

As they have done since his transformative "Swordfishtrombones" in 1983, Waits and Brennan, listed as co-writer on all songs, have created tunes that draw from all corners of folk and popular music. Few if any artists working today contain these foundational multitudes that make Waits a composer who's absorbed the breadth of 20th century musical instrumentation so completely that it's melted into one beautifully chaotic thing.

He's done this gradually, over time. His work in the 1970s relied on standard instrumentation — mostly Waits on the piano with smoky-jazz accompaniment. But as he moved into the '80s and married Brennan, herself a screenwriter and playwright, the musical palate expanded greatly. Where once he banged on pianos, he now bangs on everything, and he weaves layers of sound, dust and melody throughout.

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