Grim Weapers and Grand Weepers By Michael Barclay From Exclaim.ca
Tom Waits has three children, and at one point when they were still quite young, they asked him why he doesn’t have a straight job like everyone else. He told them the following story: "In the forest, there was a crooked tree and a straight tree. Every day, the straight tree would say to the crooked tree, "Look at me; I'm tall and I'm straight and I'm handsome. Look at you; you're all crooked and bend over. No one wants to look at you." And they grew up in that forest together. And then one day the loggers came, and they saw the crooked tree and the straight tree, and they said, "Just cut the straight trees and leave the rest." So the loggers turned all the straight trees into lumber and toothpicks and paper. And the crooked tree is still there, growing stronger and stranger every day." (Buzz Magazine, 1993)
In the 32 years since his debut album, Waits has continued to get stronger and stranger, one of those rare musicians who actually get weirder and more mysterious with age, at a time when most of his contemporaries are slathering on the string sections that Waits chucked out the window two decades ago. Yet despite commanding one of the most fiercely loyal audiences imaginable, very few people know very much about Waits, and he’d like to keep it that way. In a 1999 interview, he told Exclaim!: "Most people are more interested in something that's interesting, not the way things really are. I don't know what people know about me. Some of it's true, some of it's not. Just like everything you know about everybody else. Most of us are more interested in a good story."
1949-1963 Thomas Alan Waits is born on December 7 in the back of a taxi cab in Pomona, California outside of L.A. He has two sisters, and his parents are both schoolteachers of Scottish, Irish and Norwegian descent. Learns to play guitar from a 12-year old neighbourhood ruffian who lives in a trailer in the woods. Makes skateboards out of plywood and roller skate wheels and terrorizes his neighbours. His father is a Spanish teacher and the family vacations frequently in Mexico, where Waits is enthralled by carnival life. There he encounters wild accordion music and women with tails. His first instrument is trumpet. The family moved around California a lot when he was a child, settling in National City, a sailor’s town south of San Diego, when his parents divorce in 1959. Fatherless, Waits spends his time hanging out at friends’ houses—with his friends’ fathers. At 11, he develops an obsession with everything old, wears his grandfather’s hat, and can’t wait to be old enough to shave.
1964-1971 Waits is a huge Bob Dylan fan growing up, even framing some of Dylan’s lyrics on his bedroom wall. At 14, he works the overnight shift at a pizza joint, where he turns into what he calls a "private investigator of the night." This takes its toll on his formal education. Reads a lot of Bukowski and Delmore Schwartz, listens to Dizzy Gillespie and Ray Charles. A high school art teacher encourages him to play harmonica and do some soft shoe dancing in class. Continues to have misadventures in Mexico, including a few arrests and meeting a midget prostitute in Tijuana who sits in his lap and tells him about becoming a born-again Christian after murdering her pimp. In high school he plays in a soul group but drops out to play accordion in a polka band. At 19, he learns to play piano on an instrument where only the black keys work. In 1968 he doubles as performer and doorman at the Heritage Club in San Diego; on nights he performs, he and the staff wheel a borrowed piano down the street into the club. By 1970, he’s taking the bus to L.A. and lining up for hours to play the open stage at the Troubadour Club, a showcase gig for local songwriters and freak shows. It’s there that he meets manager Herb Cohen, who also handles Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, and Linda Ronstadt. In 1971, Waits records demos that surface 20 years later as The Early Years.
1972 Moves to L.A. and becomes a regular at the Troubadour, where Joni Mitchell, Elton John and Bette Midler become big champions. One night, David Geffen hears Waits singing "Grapefruit Moon" and offers him a record deal on his new Asylum Records, which becomes home of the California singer/songwriter scene: Jackson Browne, The Eagles, Warren Zevon, et al.
1973 Closing Time is produced by Jerry Yester of the Lovin’ Spoonful, and it’s a sweet, sentimental set of songs that is entirely out of character with the eccentric that Waits will become. Waits tours with John Hammond and Frank Zappa. Tim Buckley covers "Martha"; he and Waits are on a softball team together.
1974 Heart of Saturday Night is the first in a long series of records with producer Bones Howe, who dresses up Waits’s increasingly gravelling voice with syrupy string arrangements. The Eagles cover "Ol’ 55." Because they share a manager, Waits continues to serve as Zappa’s opening act, which Waits tells Exclaim! was "rough," to put it mildly. "He was using me as a rectal thermometer for the audience. After my cruel set, after the bleeding had stopped, I came back in the middle of his show and he would play "Ol' 55" and I'd tell a story. I had fun, some nights. But I had to have Frank on stage to keep them from hurting me. They thought that whoever was coming out before Frank, Frank had designed it that way and wanted them to hurt them: pelt them, throw things at them and abuse them. And the chant: 'We! Want! Frank!' Or 'You suck!' was also a big favourite."
1975 With his friend Chuck E. Weiss, Waits moves into the Tropicana Motel on Santa Monica Blvd. in L.A., a legendary scuzz haven for underground rock royalty: Janis Joplin died there, and everyone from Fleetwood Mac to the Ramones to Bob Marley stayed there. Waits saws off part of his kitchen counter to fit a piano, while the rest of the room is overflowing with vinyl, books, empties and porn. He racks up a few DUI convictions, and is "nabbed while pinching cigarettes from parked cars," according to Rolling Stone. He also tells the magazine, "I'm the type of guy who'd sell you a rat's asshole for a wedding ring." Times are tight, and he sacks his band because he can’t afford to pay them $150 a week. In July, he hires studio musicians and invites a private audience inside the Record Plant studio to record Nighthawks at the Diner live, four shows over two nights. The audience is provided with booze and potato chips, and a burlesque stripper opens each show. The album has more beatnik barfly monologues than it does tunes, and the result is critically panned—though it later provides inspiration for generations of pretentiously inebriated college students.
1976 At an artistic low, Waits gets fed up with writer’s block and relocates to London for a few months. He comes back with 20 songs, 11 of which appear on Small Change. The album, his defining work of the 70s, is a huge critical success and even cracks the Top 100, something he won’t do again for 23 years. Waits forms a new band, the Nocturnal Emissions, and tours extensively, including Europe and Japan. Meanwhile, his voice is sinking to further depths of dereliction, erasing any serious bid for the mainstream that Closing Time may have once promised. In addition to a hard drinking, heavy smoking lifestyle, Waits says he was trying to imitate his Uncle Vernon, because "everything he said sounded important, and you always got it the first time because you wouldn't dare ask him to repeat it," he tells Buzz magazine. "Eventually, I learned that Uncle Vernon had had a throat operation as a kid and the doctors had left behind a small pair of scissors and gauze when they closed him up. Years later at Christmas dinner, Uncle Vernon started to choke while trying to dislodge an errant string bean, and he coughed up the gauze and the scissors. That's how Uncle Vernon got his voice, and that's how I got mine- from trying to sound just like him."
1977 Bette Midler covers "Shiver Me Timbers," and appears on Waits’s new album Foreign Affairs, duetting on "I Never Talk to Strangers." Rolling Stone reports, "To open his shows on the current tour, he has been hiring local strippers at each of his stops. They are a perfect prelude for the act that follows. When Waits finally takes the stage, an air of crushed cigarettes and damp napkins clings to him like lint." A deluded fan believes that Waits proposed marriage to her while on tour in Japan. When Waits and band return to the U.S., the Japanese fan crashes a car outside one of his gigs mid-set at the Roxy in L.A., which causes a block-wide blackout. In the street, Waits tries to explain to her the miscommunication while the audience looks on. Starts dating songwriter Rickie Lee Jones, who also moves into the Tropicana. At the adjacent coffee shop, Waits and Weiss intervene in an altercation between three plainclothes policeman and a table of customers. Waits and Weiss are thrown in the back of a cruiser, threatened with pistols, and are arrested for homosexual soliciting and being drunk and disorderly. Eight eyewitnesses convince the jury that Waits and Weiss are not guilty. Waits and Weiss file a civil suit against the three cops for false arrest, false imprisonment, assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, malicious prosecution and defamation of character, and ask for $100,000 each. Five years later they win $7500.
1978 Waits makes his movie debut in Sylvester Stallone’s directorial debut, Paradise Alley, typecast in the role of a bartender called Mumbles. Blue Valentine marks the close of his piano ballad period with Bones Howe. In 1999 he tells Mojo: "I was not really able to articulate what I wanted to do. We ended up putting strings on everything. It was kind of like taking a painting that’s made out of mud and putting a real expensive frame around it. It was about as deep as that."
1979 Waits tells the NME: "You know people always expect me to be a drunk, but I ain't no drunk. If I was a drunk I couldn't be an entertainer, 'cos being a drunk is a full time occupation." Tired of his Tropicana lifestyle, Waits moves to New York for a change of scenery. Fresh of the success of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola soon enlists Waits to return to California to compose the score and songs for his next movie, a fantastical pseudo-musical called One From The Heart. He sets up Waits with an office at his Zoetrope Studios and puts him to work 9-5. Waits is excited by the professional process and learning curve, although he’s a bit frustrated that Coppola has demanded a "lounge operetta" at a time when Waits feels he’s spinning his wheels in balladry.
1980 On New Year’s Eve, Waits meets Kathleen Brennan, a script editor at Zoetrope born in Johnsburg, Illinois. She plays him all kinds of new records and gets him lost on aimless adventures driving around L.A. Waits is getting a bit squirrelly with the Coppola gig, and takes a couple of months off to write and record Heartattack And Vine, his swan song with Howe and his rawest recording to date, featuring plenty of electric guitar. He quits smoking and hard liquor, and even joins a fitness club. "I tried to arrive at some level of personal hygiene," he says in a record company bio. "I thought the [next] record deserved that." Marries Brennan at 1 a.m. one August night at the Always Forever Yours Wedding chapel in Watts, which he claims to have found in the Yellow Pages next to "massage." The couple honeymoon in Ireland.
1981 Bruce Springsteen starts covering "Jersey Girl" in concert. Waits joins him onstage at the L.A. Sports Arena. Finally records One From the Heart, enlisting the considerably smoother vocal talents of country singer Crystal Gayle as his duet partner; Bette Midler had turned down the gig. Waits parts ways with longtime manager Herb Cohen.
1982 One From the Heart is released, and lasts one week in the theatres before Coppola pulls it, shamed by the critical lambasting and the barren box office. This puts Coppola $30 million in debt and closes Zoetrope Studios. As a consolation for 18 months of hard work, Waits is nominated for Oscar for best score (he loses to Henry Mancini for Victor/Victoria) and Coppola gives him small roles in his next three films: The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, and The Cotton Club.
1983 Waits tells Bones Howe that he wants to break the mold; the two part amicably. A four-song demo is rejected by Asylum. Flat broke and with nothing to lose, Waits enters a studio for the first time without a producer, a record company, or management. Egged on by his wife, Waits tentatively takes the reins himself, abandoning his jazz combo schtick and embracing ancient keyboards, found sounds and junkyard percussion. It’s the difference between a man whose songs are laced with syrupy strings, and a man who admits he prefers the sound of an orchestra tuning up. Swordfishtrombones marks an entirely new beginning for Waits, alienating most old fans but gaining him new credibility and fanatical reviews. He moves to New York City again, across the street from the Salvation Army, and he meets future collaborators filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, guitarist Marc Ribot and Lounge Lizard John Lurie. Daughter Kellesimone is born.
1985 In a decade of career highs, Rain Dogs is his crowning achievement, an incredibly diverse record of rhumbas, country ballads, polkas, tarantellas, boozy and bluesy blusters, and tender folk songs, including some of his most often-covered material. On tour, he showed up more than an hour late for a New York concert and offered as an apology, "I was shampooing my dog...and he likes to have a moisturizer too. Once you start with the toiletries, there's no end in sight." Films the Jim Jarmusch classic Down By Law, co-starring John Lurie and Roberto Benigni. Waits plays a down-and-out DJ whose on-air name is "Lee Baby Sims," a name he borrows from his favourite childhood DJ. He doesn’t realise that the real-life Sims is still alive and working in Hawaii, and threatens to sue Waits. Makes tentative plans to produce The The, the Neville Brothers and Marianne Faithfull, which never materialise. He does, however, give Faithfull the song "Strange Weather." Son Casey is born.
1986 Waits and Brennan give a character from Swordfishtrombones his own "operachi romantico in two acts" by writing the musical play Frank’s Wild Years, which debuts at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago and runs for three months. It’s directed by Gary Sinise, with Waits in the title role, who learns magic tricks from Teller (of Penn And…) for the role. He describes it to the NME "as a cross between Eraserhead and It's A Wonderful Life." Springsteen’s version of "Jersey Girl" appears on his live box set. Waits plays piano on the Rolling Stones’ Dirty Work album, a returned favour for Keith Richards’ work on Rain Dogs.
1987 The Frank’s Wild Years album is released, with most of Waits’s vocals recorded through a bullhorn. Moves back to L.A. with his family. Waits gets his first major Hollywood role starring alongside Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep in Ironweed. He also appears in Candy Mountain, set in Nova Scotia with Mary Margaret O’Hara and Rita O’Neill, and directed by Robert Frank of the Rolling Stones’ Cocksucker Blues fame.
1988-1989 Perhaps inspired by Led Zeppelin and Prince, the 1988 concert film Big Time features great live footage but is hampered by a lame surreal storyline and slapdash editing. Waits tells Rolling Stone, "If we had more money, we would have done the Rangoon gladiator sequences. We could have gotten the underwater ballet sequences, but it really would have been a different film, I think." By 2004, there will be only one theatrical print of the film in existence, and still has yet to arrive on DVD. Waits is invited to play guitar and organ at a Roy Orbison tribute concert alongside Springsteen, Elvis Costello, and Bonnie Raitt. After years of turning down commercials and endorsements—and publicly denouncing those who do—Waits hears a radio ad for Doritos imitating his 1976 song "Step Right Up"—even more ironic considering that the song is a parody of sales pitches. Frito Lay’s ad agency had deliberate hired a singer known for his Tom Waits imitations for the job; in fact, the executive who put the ad together had previously offered Waits a soda commercial, and was quoted as saying of Waits: "You never heard anybody say ‘no’ so fast in your life." Waits sues Frito Lay and the ad agency for "voice misappropriation" and "false endorsement." In 1990, he wins $2.6 million in damages. When asked by National Public Radio host Terry Gross how he developed the vocal style in question, he deadpans, "Terry, I drink my own urine."
1989 Rod Stewart has a #1 hit with his schmaltzy cover of "Downtown Train"; he will later tackles "Tom Traubert’s Blues" and "Hang On St. Christopher." Waits appears on-stage in L.A. in a play called Demon Wine, alongside Bill Pullman, Bud Cort and Phillip Baker Hall. His disembodied voice stars as a radio DJ in Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train. Waits covers "Heigh Ho" from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves for Hal Wilner’s Disney tribute album, Stay Awake.
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