Tom Waits

Mojo Magazine, April, 1999

Interview by Barney Hoskyns

Tom Waits squats down on the fender of his blue Coupe de Ville and decides to
tell a joke.
Two men, he says, are sitting on a bench in Central Park, talking about their
retirement.
“I got this new hobby,” says one, “I took up beekeeping.”
“That’s nice,” says the other.
“Yeah, I got 2,000 bees in my apartment.”
“Two thousand, huh? Where you keep ‘em?”
“Keep ‘em in a shoebox.”
“A shoebox? Isn’t that a little uncomfortable?”
“Ah, fuck ‘em”
According to Waits, Eddie Izzard didn’t get it either. Waits concedes that you
probably have to have lived in New York City for a few years to fully
appreciate the joke.

Watching him on this sun-dappled winter afternoon, kicking back on a country
road on the outskirts of Santa Rosa, it’s hard to imagine Waits living in New
York City  or any other city, come to that. With his feet planted in a pair of
old boots and a nest of red-dyed hair dancing atop his creased, kindly face, he
looks like he just wandered in from his backyard after a long afternoon of
wrestling with some farm machinery. His strong, grarled fingers  several
adorned with chunky silver rings  are grey-brown and calloused. When I ask him
why he moved with his family to this part of northern California, he replies,
succintly, that he likes to pee outside.

One of the tracks on Waits’ new, largely bucolic Mule Variations is a hilarious
spoken-word piece called What’s He Building in There?, and it could almost be
about Waits himself. In it, a prying busybody tries to imagine what his
eccentric neighbor is up to in his uninviting abode. As the monologue
unfoldsteh conjecture becomes more and more fantastical:

“I swear to God I heard someone moaning low…”

“There’s poison underneath the sink, of course…”

“I heard that he was up on the roof last night, signalling with a flashlight…”

Sinister as the guy sounds, it’s clear that Waits’ sympathies lie with him
rather than the speaker. Indeed, Waits laments the fact that America has become
a country where any solitary activity appears to encourage suspicions that
there’s a serial killer, or a Unabomber, living next door.

“We seem to be compelled to perceive our neighbors through the keyhole,” he
says, “There’s always someone in the neighborhood  the Boo Radley, the village
idiot  and you see that he drives this yellow station wagon without a
windshield, and he has chickens in the backyard, and doesn’t get home ‘til 3
AM, and he says he’s from Florida but the license says Indiana… so, you know,
‘I don’t trust him.’ It’s really a disturbed creative process.”

Waits climbs into the 1970 Coupe de Ville  a replacement, he informs me, for a
1967 model he totalled last year. (“I’m not hurt,” he protested when his son
Casey saw him staunching a head wound with a McDonald’s takeout bag.
Fortunately for Waits Sr, Casey begged to disagree.) He drives towardds Santa
Rosa, decrying the way people move up here from San Francisco, tear down the
trees, then build gated communities called White Oaks or Pine Bluffs. He also
talks about his midlife as an unlikely paterfamiliar.

Rickie Lee Jones, whom Waits squired when he lived in the ‘70s in the West
Hollywood’s notorious Tropicana Motel, was wont to remark that behind the man’s
sozzled, skid-row exterior was an old bear that wanted to settle down in a
bungalow with a bunch of screaming kids. Give or take a couple of storeys, it
turns out she was right. The last time I met Waits, he was living in New York
with his screenwriter wife Kathleen Brennan, and young daughter Kelly. Fourteen
years on, he and Brennan have added Casey and a second son, Sullivan, to their
brood.

“You know,” he reflects as he drives, “I didn’t wanna be the guy who woke up
when he was 65 and said, ‘Gee, I forgot to have kids.’ I mean. Somebody took
the time to have us, right?”

Being a proper dad, as opposed to an absentee rock‘n’roll sperm bank, is
clearly high on Waits’ priority list. Even though he collaborates with Kathleen
on most of his songs, there’s precious little overlap between work and
domesticity in their house. “Mostly my kids are just looking for any way I come
in handy,” he says, “Clothes, rides, money… that’s all I’m good for. But I
think it’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

For the most part Waits is happy to answer questions about family life. But
there’s a wary guarded side to him that takes exception to prying. (“What’s he
building in there?”) “Tom’s a very contradictory character in that he’s
potentially violent if he thinks someone is fucking with him,” Jim Jarmusch,
who directed Waits in the wonderful Down by Law, has said, “But he’s gentle and
kind too. It sounds schizophrenic, but it makes perfect sense once you know
him.”

Jarmusch’s observation calls to mind an evening in the early ‘80s when Waits
rounded on a hapless Ian Hislop during a glib chat on the TV show Loose Talk.
“Could you speak up a little?” Hislop innocently requested, unable to make out
a word the gravel-toned Californian was saying.

“I’ll speak any damn way I please,” was Waits’ terse response to the future
editor of Private Eye.

Waits will be 50 in December, which makes 1999 a good year to look back over
his unique career. For the better part of three decades this weathered maverick
has remained determinedly out-of-step with pop culture, or simply years ahead
of it. When the British invaded America in the ‘60s, Waits played guitar in an
R&B band called the Systems. When the world beat a path to Haight-Ashbury, he
went back to the literature of the Beats and the jazz of the ‘40s and ‘50s.
When the denim cowboys of southern California made pseudo-country rock records
to snort cocaine by, Waits explored the Los Angeles of Raymond Chandler,
penning sketches of melancholy lowlifes cruising diners on rainy nights. And
when pop turned into a video parade of hideous hairstyles and bogus soul in the
‘80s, he offered up the primitive surrealism of Sworfishtrombones and Raindogs.

Two decades after The Heart of Saturday Night (1974) and Small Change (1976),
America has finally caught up with Waits. Suddenly, one can’t move for movies
like Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty, LA Confidential, and the Big Lebowski, all
bustling with characters straight out of Waits’ songs. Where has Waits himself
been? Apparently out of sight, though hardly idle: in a burst of energy in the
first half of the decade, he scored Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, collaborated
with Robert Wilson and William Burroughs on a macarbe musical called the Black
Rider, and recorded the stark, demented, Grammy-garnering Bone Machine.
(Wearing
his thespian hat, he also appeared as Lily Tomlin’s mate in Robert Altman’s
Short Cuts, yet another LA movie populated by Waitsian misfits and
sleazeballs.)

Now, 30 years after he first left the San Diego suburb of National City to try
his luck in Hollywood Babylon, Waits is releasing his first album in six years,
a record that captures him in all his favoured moods and guises: barking
bluesman (Big in Japan), maudlin balladeer (Take It with Me), Springsteenesque
believer (Hold On), backwoods Dadaist (Eyeball Kid). He’s still singing about
dogs and moons and shoes and ditches and trees, and he still sounds like a
mutant throwback: Howlin’ Wolf by way of Harry Partch and Don Van Vliet, a
poetic madman singing with the debauched growl of Orson Welles in a Touch of
Evil.

Mule Variations, moreover, is coming out at a time when Waits’ musical
influence
has never been greater  when the Nick Caves and PJ Harveys of the world are
carving careers out of the man’s crazed Bible-belt imagery, and when everyone
from Beck to Sparklehorse to Gomez is trafficking in his mangled country blues.

“With the digital revolution wound up and rattling, the deconstructionists are
coming the wreckage of our age,” Waits wrote in his introduction to
Gravichords, Whirlies and Pyrophones, Bart Hopkins’ 1996 book about
experimental instruments. “They are cannibalising the marooned shuttle to send
us on to a place that will sound like a roaring player piano left burning on
the beach.”

Fitting words for these apocalyptic times…

You’ve said you were on your own a lot as a kid. Was that solitude important to
your development?

I guess most entertainers are, on a certain level, part of the freak show. And
most of them have some kind of wounding early on, either a death in the family,
or a break-up of the family unit, and it sends them off on some journey where
they find themselves kneeling by a jukebox, praying to Ray Charles. Or you’re
out looking for your dad, who left the family when you were nine, and you know
he drives a station wagon and that’s all you’ve got to go on, and in some way
you’re gonna become a big sensation and be on the cover of Life magazine and
it’ll somehow be this cathartic vindication or restitution.

Can you recall an epiphanic moment that set you off in the direction of
becoming a musician?

I had a friend who was an ambulance driver, and he gave me a stethoscope, and I
used to sit in a dark room by myself, and I’d take the membrane of the
stethoscope and put it in the hole in my guitar. And that was really the
beginning of my hearing music very close up  seeing the hair on the music. And
I think maybe that was some kind of seminal moment for me. I would have been
about 16 or 17.

Do your early memories of Mexico still filter through your songs?

As much as anyone’s memories do. I’ll start out with pictures of things that
have happened, then slowly they start to get more like paintings, and then
maybe they just turn into shapes. Then slowly they fade to black, I guess. My
dad taught Spanish all his life, so we went down to Mexico. Used to go down
there to get my haircut a lot. And that’s when I started to develop this
opinion that there was something Christ-like about beggars. See a guy with no
legs on a skateboard, mud streets, dogs, church bells going… I’d say, yeah,
these experiences are still with me at some level.

Had things been different, might you have resigned yourself simply to living in
National City, working at Napoleone’s Pizza House, or whatever might have
followed from that?

Sure, yeah. I’m still not convinced that I made the right decision. Who’s to
say, y’know? I go back and forth. I think I’m, like, doing this children’s
work. “What do you do?” “I make up songs.” “Uh, OK, we could use one of those,
but right now what we actually need is a surgeon.” In terms of the larger view,
there’s no question that entertainment is important. But there are other things
I wish I knew how to do that I don’t.

There’s this received notion that the ‘60s somehow bypassed you  that you
weren’t interested in The Beatles or the radical spirit of the times.

Yeah, but it has to do with when you choose to enjoy these things. I’m just
suspicious of large groups of people going anywhere together. I don’t know why,
I always have been. If there 30,000 people going to see some event, I’m
suspicious of it. But the thing about a record is that it’s a record: if you
don’t want to listen to it right now, don’t listen. Listen in 30 years. You
know, in the tombs of the Pharoahs they’ve found jars of honey, and the honey
is just as fresh as the day they collected it. In a sense, you put a record on
and there it is. There’s that moment they captured. I mean, I just heard Kicks
by Paul Revere and the Raiders on my way here, and that’s a cool song! Wild
Thing. Louie Louie. I heard Son of a Preacher Man the other day, and it just
killed me. There’s a point in the song where she just kind of whispers, “The
only one who could ever love me”, really smoky and low  that’s a sexy song!
Hey, it’s all out there.

When you finally discovered jazz and Jack Kerouac, around 1968, did you bond
with other people through that, or was it a fairly solitary passion?

Oh yeah, it’s just like when you buy a record and you hold it under your arm
and make sure everyone can see the title of it. It’s about identity, I guess. I
felt I had discovered something that was so rich, and I would have worn it on
the top of my head if I could’ve. I mean, I incorporated it into what I was.

How long did you work at the pizza place?

I was there from when I was about 14 to when I was 19.

You were writing songs by the time you were about 19, I assume.

Starting to. I don’t know if they were really songs. Mostly they parodied
existing songs with obscene lyrics. That’s what most people do, or that’s what
I did.

What was you life like in San Diego?

Well, it was a sailor town. The military was the centre of life. Everyone I
knew came from navy families. My dad was gone for good, and their dads were in
the Philippines for eight months at a time. So nobody had dads around. I
remember living next door to a family, woman’s name was Buzz Fletterjohn. She
was, like six feet nine with no fingernails, husband was chief bosun in the
navy and I think he was in Guam for a year and a half. She raised four boys,
and their backyard was this strange place with carp in the bathtub. I was never
allowed in Buzz Fletterjohn’s yard, that was the big thing. We actually made up
a song about it, but it didn’t wind up on the record. Then we had a big dog, a
boxer, and whenever our dog got out, all the kids in the neighbourhood would
shout, “Pepper’s out!! Pepper’s out!!” It was like an air-raid warning. All the
kids would scramble and hide in the trees. At a certain age, you realised the
cool thing about San Diego was that there were a lot of tattoo parlours, and
when you were ready, you knew exactly where you were going. I was talking to
Paul Ruebens [Pee-Wee Herman] about it the other day. He said that he grew up
in Sarasota, Florida, and hated it, but when he went one night to a diner, and
the whole joint was populated by circus people, and he went, Oh, what a cool
place to live. So there’s a certain place where you make that identification
with your community. And then the next thing it’s  like, Jeez, I gotta get the
hell out of here!

But you got your tattoo?

Oh, yeah, I got a map of Easter Island on my back. And I have the full menu
from Napoleone’s Pizza House on my stomach. After awhile they dispensed with
the menus: they’d send me out, and I’d take off my shirt and stand by the
tables.

What were the first songs you sang publicly?

Oh god. I’m not gonna tell you the truth about this. I did an all-Schoenberg
programme for the first year… no, I played Hit the Road Jack, Are You Lonesome
Tonight. It was pretty lame, really, but I knew at a certain point that I had
to get into show business as soon as possible. I probably should have changed
my name, but by then it was too late.

What prompted the switch from acoustic guitar to piano?

Somebody gave me a piano. Put it out in the garage. I played and I learned
songs, and then I memorised songs and pretended to be reading the notes. I’d
even get a little closer to the sheet music. I realised that I was good at
memorising: if I heard a song I could play it. And I still pretty much can do
that. If I hear a particular change or something on somebody else’s song, I can
go to the piano and find it.

Was Randy Newman an influence?

Yeah, because he was always like a Brill Building guy. He was part of that
whole tradition: you go siddown in a room and you write songs all day. Then you
get these runners and you get the songs out to Ray Charles or Dusty
Springfield. I mean, that’s what Joni Mitchell was doing too, she was sitting
in a room writing songs, it was just the perception of yourself as a songwriter
was changing. And I caught that wave, the songwriters garnering understanding
and sympathy and encouragement. Up until that point, who cared who wrote the
songs? Just, you know, kill me with it. Nobody made a distinction between a
song Elvis sang and a song Elvis wrote. Did he write it? Does it matter? No.
And then everybody kind of wore that around. For awhile there anybody who wrote
and performed their own songs could get a deal. Anybody. So I came in on that.

On the first album, Closing Time, one could almost be forgiven for thinking,
here’s another member of the Asylum gang: Joni, The Eagles, Jackson Browne,
J.D. Souther…

They always try to create scenes, just making connections so that they can
create circuitry. It all has to do with demographics and who likes what: if you
like that, you’ll like this. If you like hairdryers, you’ll like water-heaters.
Then you try to distinguish yourself in some way, which is essential- you find
your little niche. When you make your first record, you think, That’s all I
wanna do is make a record. Then you make a record and you realize, Now I’m one
of a hundred thousand people who have records out, OK, now what? Maybe I outta
shave my head.

To what extant was the Tom Waits persona already in place with Closing Time?
How much had you learned from Lord Buckley and Lenny Bruce at that point?

I don’t know. You take a little bit from here and a little bit from there.
Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. My dad’s hat,
my mom’s underwear, my brother’s motorcycle, my sister’s pool cue… and there
you go.

When did you know you’d found your voice?

After I got my grandma’s purse.

How important was it meeting Bones Howe- somebody who understood what you
wanted to do?

Well, Jerry Yester [producer of Closing Time] was a great producer- the first
guy whose house I ever went to and found a pump organ. Bones I met… I don’t
remember how I met Bones. In those days, nobody would even think of sending you
into the studio without a producer. In their mind, they gave you 30 grand, you
might disappear to the Philippines and they never see you again. They’re not
giving you 30 grand, they’re giving this guy who plays tennis and wears
sweaters
and lives in a big house, they’re giving him the money and he’s paying for
everything. Just show up on time and stay out of jail. Bones and I did a lot of
2-track records. Even though there were more than four tracks available, I was
paranoid about it. Once I left town and they added strings and chick singers
and all this, I was like, “I don’t like that. Let’s just do it so it’s done.”
Bones had a background in jazz, and he’d done a lot of records like that
anyway. He’s a gentleman. We’ve had our conflicts. He loves the mythology of
the music scene. He’ll say, “I stood right here with Elvis Presley.” A lotta
stories. See, I was not really able to articulate what I wanted to do. Ended up
putting strings on everything. My voice has this cracked quality, so let’s put
strings behind it. 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. And
I look back later and think, well, I could have done a lot of different things,
but I didn’t have the wherewithal.

You regret all those string arrangements?

Well, it’s MSG: enough already. Enough with the corn starch.

I always thought you were in this unique position of having one foot in the
Elliot Roberts-Asylum camp and the other in the Herb Cohen-Bizarre camp. You
had a song covered by the eagles, but you went on tour supporting Frank Zappa.

I was always rather intimidated by Frank, ‘cos he was like some type of baron.
There was so much mythology around him, and he had such confidence. Tremendous
leadership and vision. When I toured with him, it was not well thought-out. It
was like your dad saying, “Why don’t you go to the shooting range with your
brother Earl?” And I was like, I don’t really want to, I might get hurt. And I
did get hurt. I went out and subjected myself to all of this intimidating
criticism from an audience that was not my own. Frank was funny. He’d just say:
“How were they out there?” He was using me to take the temperature, sticking me
up the butt of the cow and pulling me out. Kind of funny in retrospect. I fit
in, in the sense that I was eccentric. Went out every night, go my 40 minutes.
I still have nightmares about it. Frank shows up in my dreams, asking me how
the crowd was. I have dreams where the piano is catching fire and the legs are
falling off and the audience is coming at me with torches and dragging me away
and beating me with sticks… so it was a good experience.

How do you remember the Troubadour in LA?

That was the big place to play. They’d put a big picture of you in the window.
In those days, if you sold out at the Troubadour, that was it. People weren’t
playing sports facilities. At the Troubadour, they announce your name and
picked you up with a spotlight at the cigarette machine, and they’d walk you to
the stage with the light. It was the coolest. The owner, Doug Weston, would go
out on-stage naked and recite The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. He’d have
guys on acid who wanted to tell stories. It was like Ed Sullivan, without Ed.
Anyone could get up. It was very thrilling, though, because you would find
people who’d hitchhiked to this sport for their 20 minutes.

To what extent did the persona you created on The Heart of Saturday Night merge
with the real Tom Waits?

You mean, am I Frank Sinatra or am I Jimi Hendrix? Or am I Jimi Sinatra? It’s a
ventriloquist act, everybody one.

But some people are more honest about it being an ‘act’ than others. We aren’t
supposed to think Neil Young is doing an ‘act’.

I don’t know if honesty is an issue in show business. People don’t care whether
you’re telling the truth or not, they just want to be told something they don’t
already know. Make me laugh or make me cry, it doesn’t matter. If you’re
watching a really bad movie and somebody turns to you and says, “You know, this
is a true story,” does it improve the film in any way? Not really. It’s a bad
movie.

Let me put it like this. The person that people thought they were seeing
on-stage- how much of a true story was that?
I don’t know. How many Germans does it take to screw in a lightbulb? How many
sperms are in a single ejaculation? Four hundred million. And it’s hard to
believe that all of us are the ones that won.

In 1975, when Born to Run and Nighthawks at the Diner came out, did you ever
look at Bruce Springsteen and think, Gee, maybe I should have done that? Later
songs like Downtown Train sort of lean in that direction, as does the new
album’s Hold On, for that matter. Bruce could easily sing that one.

I saw Bruce in Philadelphia when I was about 25, and he killed me- just killed
me. I don’t know, nobody sits down to write a hit record. I got to a point
where I became more eccentric- my songs and my world view. And I started using
experimental instruments and ethnic instruments and trying to create some new
forms for myself. Using found sounds and so forth. Everybody’s on their own
road, and I don’t know where it’s going.

Did you share many fans’ view that Small Change was the crowning moment of your
beatnik-glory-meets-Hollywood-noir period?

Well, gee. I’d say there’s probably more songs off that record that I continued
to play on the road, and that endured. Some songs you may write and record but
you never sing them again. Others you sing ‘em every night and try and figure
out what they mean. Tom Traubert’s Blues was certainly one of those songs I
continued to sing, and in fact, close my show with.

Foreign Affairs had extraordinary songs like Burma Shave and Potter’s Field on
it, but one sensed you were growing tired of working in that musical vein.

I guess I was. I was still in the rhythm of making a record, going out on the
road for eight months, coming home and making another record, living in hotels.
That’s kind of what my life was in those days. I was trying to find some new
channel or breakthrough for myself.

Would it be fair to say with Blue Valentine and Heatattack and Vine you were
inching your way towards the sound of Swordfishtrombones? I’m thinking, for
example, of the heavy blues guitar riff on Heartattack itself.

Well, when you’re working with the same producer and you’re kind of
collaborating on the records, it’s a little harder to go your own way. You kind
of wanna take everybody with you. For me, eventually I just wanted to make a
clean break. Both those records I did with Bones, and I as kind of rebelling
against this established way of recording that I’d developed with him. And I
was still with Herbie Cohen in this tight little world.

Were you happy or unhappy at that point?

I don’t know if I’d call it particularly unhappy, but I was at the end of a
cycle there.

Were you also tiring of the whole Tropicana lifestyle at that point?

At some point there, I moved to New York and then came back to start working at
Zoetrope Studios and writing songs for One From the Heart. Then I took a break
from that and got in a humbug over my whole thing with the picture there. For a
brief spell I moved out of my office at Zoetrope and went and wrote a record,
and that was Heartattack and Vine. And by then I had Kathleen.

Is it fair to say that the One From the Heart soundtrack draw a curtain on that
very melancholy Tin Pan Alley style?

I think by the time Francis called and asked me to write those songs, I had
really decided I was gonna move away from that lounge thing. He said he wanted
a “lounge operetta,” and I was thinking, well, you’re about a couple of years
too late. All that was coming to a close for me, so I had to go on and bring it
all back, It was like growing up and hitting the roof. I kept growing and kept
banging into the roof, because you have this image that other people have of
you, based on what you’ve put out there so far and how they define you and want
they want from you. It’s difficult when you try to make some kind of turn or a
change in the weather for yourself. You also have to bring with you the
perceptions of your audience.

There’s always been this dialectic on your albums between hard and soft, grit
and schmaltz, and it’s still there on Mule Variations. For instance, you come
straight out of the demented Eyeball Kid into the very delicate Picture in a
Frame, the out of the completely crazed Filipino Box Spring Hog into the tender
Take It with Me. Is that dialectic indicative of some split inside you?

I don’t know if I’ve reconciled those things. I guess I would like to try and
find some way to put those things together, instead of putting them end-to-end.
Find a way to smash one into another, or mutate it in some way. I guess they’re
different facets of things I’m drawn to. Or maybe it’s just, you put your fist
through the wall and then you apologize- the alcoholic cycle! I don’t know, I
think Swordfishtrombones was trying to channel some of that rage through the
music. But I think maybe it goes back to dances when I was a teenager. You
know, they’d do four or five fast songs and then it was a slow dance when you’d
get to ask the girls to dance. And that cycle of music, I think, always stayed
with me. It really has to do with the heart rate, and then songs that are
slower, and I guess I’ve always made a distinction between those.

What drew you to acting?

Well, I wasn’t drawn to it, I was asked. I don’t know if I really think of
myself as an actor. I like doing it, but there’s a difference between being an
actor and doing some acting.

Tell me about the “perverted doctor” you play in the forthcoming film Mystery
Men.
Perverted? I don’t know. There’s a scene with a woman in her nineties at a rest
home where we watch television and I make advances, but I wouldn’t necessarily
call that perverted. Dr. Hiller likes older women, and I guess it’s so
radically different from the Hollywood cycle of older men with younger women.
What’s really perverted is there old- timers going and picking up these young
gals. I respect maturity and longevity.

You’ve said that One from the Heart helped to discipline you as a songwriter.
Did that discipline carry through to the Island records?

I think I always tried to imagine for those guys who sat in an office all day
and wrote songs. I always fantasized about what that might have been like, and
I really had my chance to do that on One from the Heart.

How much impact did New York have on the sound of Swordfishtrombones and
Raindogs? Some of the imagery in the songs on those albums was obviously
affected by that environment.

Any place you move is going to have some effect. I was exposed to a kind of
melange of sounds out there, because I went to clubs more. It’s rather
oppresssive, I think. I’d write and go down to the Westbeth building [Greenwich
Village,] where I shared a room with John Lurie and his brother Evan. We’d go
down there at night and write songs. It was quiet at night. I’d work ‘til late
and come home. The thing when you have kids is that you can stay up ‘til five
in the morning, but you still gonna get up and have to feed them.

You’ve said that Victor Feldman [English-born vibraphonist] had a lot to do
with the sound of Swordfishtrombones, although as I understand it you were
already fully aware of people like Harry Partch by that point.

I don’t know, a lot of credit has to do to Kathleen, because that record was
really the first thing I decided to do without an outside producer. It was
really Kathleen that said, “Look, you can do this. You know, I’d broken off
with Herbie, and we were managing my career at that point, and there were a lot
of decisions to make. I mean, I thought I was a millionaire, and it tunred out
that I had, like 20 bucks. And what followed was a lot of court battles, and it
was a difficult ride for both of us, particularly being newly weds. At the same
time, it was exciting, because I had never been in a studio without a producer.
I came from that whole school where an artist needs a producer. You know, they
know more than I do, I don’t anything about the board. I was really
old-fashioned that way. And Kathleen listened to my records and she knew I was
interested in a lot of diverse musical styles that I’d never explored myself on
my own record. So she started talking to me about that- you know, “You can do
that.” She’s a great DJ, and she started playing a lot of records for me. I’d
never thought of myself being able to go in and have the full responsibility
for the end result of each song. She really co-produced that record with me,
though she didn’t get credit. She was the spark and the feed. The seminal idea
for that record really came from Kathleen. So it was scary and exciting, but it
was like, “Well, OK, let’s find an engineer.” And I found Biff Dawes, and he
was into it. And I knew a lot of musicians. So I went in and did four songs,
and I went and played them to Joe Smith at Elektra-Asylum. And he didn’t know
what to make of it, and at that point I was kind of dropped from the label.
Then [Chris] Blackwell heard the record and picked it up. That was kind of a
bumpy ride there for awhile.

You must have felt liberated by the time you’d come out the other side.

A lot more self-esteem, I think. We’d done something on our own. It just felt
more honest. I was trying to find music that felt more like the people that
were in the songs, rather than everybody being kind of dressed up in the same
outfit. The people in my earlier songs might have had unique things to say abd
have come from diverse backgrounds, but they all looked the same.

Would you ever attempt anything as ambitious as the Steppenwolf Theater Company
production of Frank’s Wild Years again?

Well, you have to be a little foolish to do something because a play takes a
lot of energy- emotionally, financially. And the other thing is that it only
lives when you’re in it. But Steppenwolf was the right way to go. First person
we approached was Robert Wilson, and he didn’t know what to make of it. Of
course, later I came to work with him on The Black Rider and Alice in
Wonderland.

Could you have written songs like Bone Machine’s Murder in the Red Barn if you
hadn’t moved to the country?

I buy the local papers every day, and they are full of car wrecks and… I guess
it all depends on what it is in the paper that attracts you. I’m always drawn
to these terrible stories. I don’t know why. Black Irish? You know, my wife is
the same way, she comes from an Irish family and she’s drawn to the shadows and
the darkness. Murder in the Red Barn is just one of those stories, like an old
Flannery O’Connor story. My favorite line is, “There’s always some killin’ you
gotta do around the farm…” and it’s true.

How much of a homebody have you become in recent years?

Gee, I don’t know. That sounds like a loaded question. If I say no, I’ll get
into trouble with my family, and if I say yes I get in trouble with everybody
else. You know, I live in a house with my wife and a lotta kids and dogs, and I
have to fight for every inch of ground I get.

Did the Black Rider grow out of an interest in that German cabaret style? Were
you already interested in that style before you did What Keeps Mankind Alive on
Hal Wilner’s Kurt Weill album?

That macarbe, dissonant style, yeah. See, when I hear Weill I hear a lot of
anger in those songs. I remember the first time that I heard that Peggy Lee
tune, Is That All There Is?, I identified with that. (Sings.) “Is that all
there
is? If that’s all there is, then let’s keep dancing…” So you just find
different things that you feel your voice is suited to. I didn’t really know
that much about Kurt Weill until people started saying, “Hey, he must be
listening to a lot of Kurt Weill.” I thought, I better go find out who this guy
is. I started listening to The Happy End, and the Threepenny Opera and
Mahagonny and all that really expressionistic music.

How did you get on with William Burroughs when you collaborated on The Black
Rider?

Well, we all went to meet Willian in Lawrence [Kansas.] Greg Cohen and Robert
Wilson and myself. And we talked about this whole thing. It was very exciting,
really. It felt like a literary  summit. Burroughs took pictures of everyone
standing on the porch. Took me out into the garage and showed me his shotgun
paintings. Showed me the garden. Around three o’clock he started fondling his
wristwatch as we got closer to cocktail hour. He was very learned and serious.
Obviously an authority on a wide variety of topics. Knew a lot about snakes,
insects, firearms.

Had he been an influence on you the way that Kerouac was?

Oh, course, yeah. He was Bull Lee in On the Road. He was the one that I guess
was more like Mark Twain with an edge. He was more suited to the whole notion
of the country having some type of alter ego. He seemed to be ideally suited to
the position of poet laureate. He seemed to have an overview, and one of
maturity and cynicism. I’ve heard a lot of the stuff he did with Hal Willner.
The Thanksgiving Prayer and all that stuff. It just really killed me. He had a
strongly developed sense of irony, and I guess that’s really at the heart of
the American experience. If you read the papers over the years, you have to see
that there’s something very ironic about everything.

The opening track on Mule Variations, Big in Japan, is a furious blues rocker
in the vein of 16 Shells from a 30.6 and Goin’ Out West. Isn’t it a little
ironic that here you are making music that’s so much harder and grittier than
you did when you were 23?

Yea, right, yeah. I always start at the wrong end of everything: throw out the
instructions, and then wonder how you put this thing together. I don’t know,
maybe I’m raging against the dying light. What do they say? Youth is wasted on
the young? You’re more in touch maybe with those feelings the further you get
from them. Time is not a line, or a road where you get further away from
things, it’s all exponetial. Everything that you experienced when you are 18 is
still with you. Something like 43 million tons of meteor dust fall from the
heavens every day… and what that has to do with it I have no idea. And more
importantly… on that same topic, while you’re here you’ll wanna check out the
Banana Slug Festival.

I beg your pardon?

Gelatinous gastropods 10 inches long. People cook with them. You find them in
your yard at about six in the morning. And this is the season of the banana
slug.

Are they indigenous to northern California?

Yes. So indigenous, in fact, that a nephew of mine asked me to capture and send
him one. And we did, and it was a big hit.

Do they have hallucinogenic properties?

Not that I know of, but they might. There’s also a company round here that
makes a wine out of ammonia, ox blood, and banana peels. There’s no grapes
involved. And the bottle is made out of bread and meat. I swear to God.

Is there any reason why you’re playing so much less percussion on Mule
Variations than you did on Bone Machine?

Gee, I don’t know. You’ve stumped me there. Is that a true-or-false question? I
don’t know, when you’re producing a record and you’re also recording it
yourself, a lot of people divide those jobs. You have to decide what you role
is going to be. You farm out or subcontract the rest of the job. I don’t always
do my own electrical work at home, I usually hire an expert. So we hired
professional musicians- and I don’t know if I can honestly consider my part of
that group. I am like the creator of forms and I sometimes get my own way. The
main thing is to have people working with you that will succumb to the power of
suggestion. The whole thing is kind of a hypnotic experience, and when you say
you want musicians to play like their hair is one fire, you want someone who
understands what that means. Sometimes that requires a very particular person
that you have a shorthand with over time.

The track Low Side of the Road is amazing- it sounds like Beck’s Hotwax crossed
with Beefheart’s Low Yo Yo Stuff, then slowed to 78 rpm. It’s also the only
track on Mule Variations which has anything to do with death, whereas Bone
Machine seemed fixated with it.

When I was done with Bone Machine, we listened back and we were like, “Oh, man,
everybody’s got problems on this record.” But the whole arc of it you don’t
really get a sense of it until it’s all completely done. In the meantime, we
were just doing the finer, closer work. You don’t stand back from it and see
how it all works together, then when it’s all over you have to decide if it has
four legs and a tail or what.

I know you are friendly with Beck. Are you a fan?

I like Beck very much. Saw him in concert a couple of times, and it really
moved me. He’s got real strong roots It’s funny, I heard him talking about
Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and I used to open shows for them in the old
days. It was nice to hear a kid as young as he is talking about them, because I
loved those guys. There’s a really rich cultural heritage there, and it’s nice
to see that it’s living on in someone as well-rounded and as good a spokesman
as Beck seems to be. He’s got some street credibility too, because from what I
hear he was a busker and really went out there and stood on a corner and drew a
crowd. I love that. Those are some real important chops to have. And when he
goes up on-stage and throws that guitar around like a Hula-Hoop, it’s pretty
remarkable what he can do to an audience.

How do you and Kathleen collaborate on songs like Lowside of the Road?

Oh, y’know, one person holds the nail, the other swings the hammer. We
collaborate on everything, really. She writes more from her dreams and I write
more from the world. When you’re making songs you’re navigating in the dark,
and you don’t know what’s correct. Given another five minutes you can ruin a
song. So time’s always a collaborator. Over the years she’s exposed me to a lot
of music. She doesn’t like the limelight, but she’s an incandescent presence on
all songs we work on together.

Do you think musician’s marriages last longer when both parties are involved in
the music, at least in the career?

Well, we’ve got a little mom-and-pop business. I’m the prospector, she’s the
cook. I bring the flamingo, she beheads it; I drop it in the water, she takes
off the feathers… no-one wants to eat it.

You’ve said that you tend to “bury” directly autobiographical stuff. What about
Who Are You? Should we know who that’s about?

Gee, I dunno. I think it’s better if you don’t. The stories behind most songs
are less interesting than the songs themselves. So you say, “Hey, this is about
Jackie Kennedy.” And it’s, “Oh, wow.” Then you say, “No, I was just kidding,
it’s about Nancy Reagan.” It’s a different song now.

In fact, all my songs are about Nancy Reagan.


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