Saturday, March 30, 2013

Tom Waits

Barry Alfonso and I interviewed Tom Waits in the lobby of the Little American Westgate back in the 70s; he was wearing a ratty bathrobe, slippers that curled up, Aladdin-like, where the toes would usually be, his hair was a mangy hedge, and he smoked an entire pack of Winston's while we chatted in the hotel's opulent lobby. He tore the filter off each cigarette and smoked them, one after the other. He was a nice man. I suspect he still is. Some years before then, 1970 I believe, my high school girlfriend Laura and I went along with our friend Molly who wanted to sing that night at the open mic night The Heritage folk club offered during its tenure in Mission Beach.

 It was a two dollar admission for the no age limit club, and I as scraped together the greasy dollar bills that constituted the saved up tip money from my dishwashing job at the La Jolla Shores Colony Kitchen, I looked up at the employee taking the money and issuing the hand stamps for re-admission; he wore a suit with skinny lapels that was too small for him--his pant legs stopped at the ankles and he wore black socks . He had short hair, wore a small hat with a brim that curled up like a cheap rain gutter. He had one of those soul-kiss beards right smack in the center above his chin. Molly signed the performers sign up list and in time we were sitting there drinking coffee that was barely a passable version of chalk shavings in a glass of old milk, sitting through one banjo and harmonica toting, goatee wearing straw-man and Madonna after another, all of whom seemed to nasally intone paeans to cultures they knew only from Classics Illustrated and the backs of bubble gum cards in various degrees of flesh-eating drone . "Mother of God, " said the Doorman.  Molly eventually got up and sang her song, a nice, pleasant cover of Melanie's song "Psychotherapy". All I wanted to do was to go over to Laura's house and ask her what she wanted to do, ball or send me on my way. 
Image may contain: 2 people, people sitting, table and indoor
Left to right, Tom Waits, myself,  Barry Alfonso.

Years later, but not before our arrival at the Little American Westgate, I walked into Golden Hall in downtown San Diego expecting to see The Mothers of Invention perform their usual brilliant said of complex, tick tock comedy, the kind busy, bullshit art-rock and turgid comedy I found appealing at the time. What I heard instead was Frank Zappa introducing Tom Waits; what the goddamned fucking whorehouse nut grabbing was this nonsense was this? I hated him at once, intensely, with an irrational intensity suitable for a shooting range or the pronouncement of a death sentence. This is not what I paid to see, I thought, although I was well aware that the tickets were free because I was there in the capacity of a reviewer who was assigned to write a critique of the show.

 The review I wrote was kind to no one who performed, although I cannot remember if it was published or not. Likely that the editor had wearied of my airs and my aromas. In the meantime, I reviewed records for a partial living and managed to listen very, very close to several Waits releases and came to the reasonably argued conclusion that Waits was one of the three or four best pop-rock lyricists of all time. Waits was my second choice at the time, my first pick being Elvis Costello, whose impenetrable surrealism I equated with genius. I still regard EC has a high talent, but there is the advantage in having three decades between you and your first encounter; too many of the songs just made no sense what so ever, and they lacked even the surface quality one wants if coherence is not to be had; to this day I really have no idea what John Ashbery is talking about, but there are a number of things he brings to the blend, such as wit, erudition, a tangible philosophical struggle with the notion of life as he lives it and the language he is forced to contain his experience of it. 

This process is fascinating even when clarity takes a holiday while you read him. The third lyricist was always changing--sometimes it was John Lennon, sometimes Bob Seger, other times Robert Palmer James (from King Crimson). The last time I compiled a list of three best lyricists, I settled for Keith Reid of Procul Harum for third place. I suspect he's gone too. Of them all, Waits is the only one I still care about.  I no longer have copies of those reviews , which pisses me off  if only because the pieces, exercises in my efforts to teach myself to write with style (and style being the means to insight and wit), contained ideas worth salvaging and expanding upon now that my age has caught  up, just a bit, with my youthful ambitions. In any event, this change of heart brought me and, at that time, my new friend Barry Alfonso to the lobby of the Little American Westgate to interview an artist who was doing what no one else could get away with. Barry Alfonso was a nice man at that time, I know he is still is. And his wife  Janet is very nice as well. 


  1. Ted, you are an all-around good egg and solid sender yourself.

  2. Thanks for this trip down memory lane with Mr. Waits, Ted. I too remember our encounter with Tom, probably the very first time I ever interviewed a pop musician for publication. Thanks for inviting me along.

    I recall two key things Waits said at the time: One, that he “liked to eavesdrop on people’s conversations” – something that comes out in his lyrics, I think. Two, in response to my asking what his favorite San Diego greasy-spoon hangout was, he named Rudford’s on El Cajon Boulevard. That place (30-plus years ago, at least) was the Real Deal – a crummy all-night depot for the elderly, the strapped, the ripped and the displaced. A great spot to overhear people yakking about bad breaks, broken hearts, ragwater and Blue Ruin.

    When we talked with Waits, he was still in his Kerouac mode, doing the Beat poet thing. It’s to his everlasting credit that he was able to reinvent himself in the mid-‘80s as a trans-global surrealist raconteur who borrowed creatively from everyone from Kurt Weill to Harry Partch and Don Van Vliet. Part of the credit goes to Kathleen Brennan, his wife and collaborator – she helped him get more serious and more bizarre simultaneously.

    I met with Waits two times subsequently – once at Zoetrope Studios and again at Elektra Records’ LA offices, where I doing freelance bio work. Waits still had this sort of feral quality about him, the cagey street poet tics, like he was dodging creditors. I remember at one point he said, apropos of his place in the music business, “I feel like someone is going to tap me on the shoulder and ask me to leave.” As it turned out, he was dropped by Elektra and my bio was never used. The album Elektra declined to release was Swordfishtrombones – the record that began his ascent into a higher, stranger kind of artistry. He hasn’t looked down since.


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