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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

You're just as likely to hear hints of rockabilly as Brechtian song cycles; blues and show-tune sounds blend together with gospel hand claps and baritone sax runs that sound ripped from classic doo-wop; avant rock mergers with soul and R&B; his big-tent music includes nods to Gypsy ballads, Mexican rancheras, foot-stomping Sousa marches, sad, violin-scratched laments and sweet, Sinatra-esque love songs. Vocally, he channels Elvis Presley, Don Van Vliet, Louis Armstrong, Blind Willie Johnson and Billie Holiday.

James Booker-esque barrelhouse piano rolls on the slow-galloping "Talking at the Same Time." It wobbles with a pedal steel as Waits, in a raspy falsetto, captures in couplet America 2011: "Well we bailed out all the millionaires / They've got the fruit, we've got the rind / And everybody's talking at the same time." References to war and class permeate the record, though much of it indirectly. Mortality, especially, is on his and Brennan's minds, most successfully in "Last Leaf."

I fight off the snow

I fight off the hail

Nothing makes me go

I'm like some vestigial tail

I'll be here through eternity

If you want to know how long

If they cut down this tree

I'll show up in a song

Busy during break

Waits says there's no real reason why it took seven years between "Bad as Me" and 2004's "Real Gone," which has sold 202,000 copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan. In the interim, he did some acting gigs ("The Book of Eli," "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus") and released a triple-disc collection of outtakes and unreleased songs called "Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards." As well, he undertook an acclaimed Glitter and Doom tour and issued a live document of it.

"I haven't been fishing," he says of the time away from the studio. Touring is his least favorite part of the musicmaking cycle, though he says he'd like it much more if his was a traveling family band. Thus far, he has no plans to take "Bad as Me" on the road.

He has, however, been camped out in the metaphorical natural world listening for signals. "You just have to be ready," he says of his relationship with inspiration. "It's like nature photography. You have to be in a bunker with a piece of plywood and a camera and sit there for three days. You have to be watching. And it happens. And it happened with all of the people who played on this record."

Those people include both Waits regulars and occasionals, most notably Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, Los Lobos multi-instrumentalist David Hidalgo, Les Claypool of Primus, Waits' son Casey on drums and longtime guitarist Marc Ribot, along with Keith Richards on guitar and backing vocals on the exquisite lament "Last Leaf." (Richards, in fact, comes up lyrically in the fantastic "Satisfied," in which Waits declares confidently that "Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards … will scratch where I've been itching." Waits says Richards "got a kick out of it.")

"Once you sit down and decide, 'OK, we're going to write some tunes,' then you've begun. But you're either absorbing or you're secreting, and sometimes a little bit of both at the same time. Everything you listen to and see is somehow going in there, and it'll find its way out in one form or another."

Waits cites as an example the strange birth of the song "Raised Right Men," a sturdy blues with classic James Bond/John Barry brass bursts and Waits' gruff throat complaining about worthless men and the trouble they carry. The song got its start as a playful interaction between Waits and Brennan about the morning coffee, he recalls. Riffing on Johnson's call-and-response version of "John the Revelator," whenever Waits would bring Brennan her coffee, he'd sing, "Who's the bring-alator?" and she'd answer, "You're the bring-alator!"

Brennan soon introduced "raised-right men" as a phrase she'd sing to him in the same fashion. "We were throwing it back and forth: 'There ain't enough / Raised-right men.' It was an attempt to do an Aretha song, something Aretha would say, like 'Be a do-right man.' This was like, 'There ain't enough raised-right men. Where are all the raised-right men?' And we made some examples. The guy in the toll takers' booth? There's your trouble right there. His head was so thick she had to knock out a tooth."

Waits' blue eyes light up as he recalls his playful interaction with Brennan. "So, we had this little exchange going back and forth, a little litany. Sometimes, songs come out of other songs. The eggs are always inside other songs waiting to be broken open or fertilized, or released in just the right weather conditions. Who knows why? It's a mystery, and I'm filled with wonder about it. And it's probably why I keep doing it. If it happened every time, I'd stop doing it."

randall.roberts@latimes.com

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