TOM WAITS - Rolling Stone Italia - Dec 2006

A few miles inland from the fog-bound tide pools of Bodega Bay where Alfred Hitchcock filmed his creepy masterpiece “The Birds,” the motionless blades of a fake windmill point toward the Little Amsterdam. The dilapidated eatery, ominously decorated with For Sale signs, occupies a sullen stretch of highway an hour north of San Francisco. Deep into the rolling Sonoma County farmland, the place has the feel of submerged violence, like a murder about to happen – if it hasn’t already been committed.

“I live a ways from here,” Tom Waits mutters, a grudging explanation more than an apology for the rat hole we’re sitting in. “This is just the closest roadhouse to me so, y’know, it’s a good place to meet.”

It’s just past noon. Tom and I are sitting outside the Little Amsterdam by the kitchen door next to discarded appliances and mops solidified by unidentifiable and probably toxic substances into corroded buckets. An old piano stands by, played too long, too hard and too well by that old trio of sun, wind and rain to ever play another note again. The Little Amsterdam’s owner, a Dutch ex-sailor, was forced into bankruptcy after the county slapped him with a $100,000 fine for the trailer park he used to run without a proper license behind his restaurant. Mexican farm workers living there once filled the roadhouse with mariachi music and the rough merriment of men and women who work the land with their hands.

“It used to be wild, the old days,” says Tom, squinting into the ghost-like shadows. “Yeah, like Christmas Eve every night in there.”

Now the Little Amsterdam is history for sale and so is “Orphans,” Waits’ new limited edition, three-disc collection of fifty-six songs and spoken word pieces, including thirty brand new tracks and, as the publicity handout says, a “94-page handmade booklet of lyrics and rare photos.” The ambitious effort, which took Waits and his close collaborator Kathleen Brennan (who is also his wife) three years to assemble, is not quite a retrospective or a clearing out of the attic. Some old, some new, some borrowed, some rocking, some blue, the song selection organized by genre as Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards is perhaps the definitive Tom Waits statement, offering his unique three-wheeled view of life: Tragic, Hopeful, and… just plain Weird.

And if the Little Amsterdam has seen better days, Waits himself isn’t in such great shape today, either. He doesn’t drink, smoke or do drugs anymore, so maybe he just crawled out of bed which is why he’s clutching that paper cup of coffee, and why his eyes peer out so painfully, red around the rims, often looking away, either down at his shoes, or off into the distance, and occasionally with frank hostility at me. His skin is pasty and raw, his curly hair a faded shade of dead trout, thinning and greasy against his skull. What he’s wearing is so nondescript that it almost renders the thin, wiry 57-year old singer-songwriter-film-actor invisible. Like the Cheshire Cat, what will remain of him in my mind twenty minutes after saying goodbye and heading down the road, will be only his death’s head grin and the signature foghorn moan of his voice.

“Well, we’re all trying to fertilize the egg of commerce,” he says with just the barest civility in regards to what he and I are attempting to do here as I get out my pen and notepad and switch on my recorder. I’m only one of a parade of journalists ushered by his publicists through the greasy kitchen to this filthy and uncomfortable spot behind the Little Amsterdam. I’d be insulted if it weren’t for the somewhat amusing experience of finding Tom Waits presenting himself in almost a cartoon-like version of what his fans probably think he’s like.

The Laureate of the Low Life has bellowed his ballads of Losers and Life’s Lower Depths on countless tour dates and nineteen albums including his 1973 debut, the widely admired “Closing Time.” Since 1980, however, he has settled down to a more bourgeois life as a married man with three kids and a career. Professionally, he has attained both commercial and critical success in several media. He has appeared in films directed by Francis Ford Coppola (Rumble Fish, Cotton Club, Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and won two Grammys (Bone Machine, Mule Variations). He has collaborated on High Art stage productions with Robert Wilson (The Black Rider, Woyzeck) and his songs have been covered by Bruce Springsteen, The Eagles, Rod Stewart and Nora Jones.

Yet here he is, looking like fifteen miles of bad road and receiving journalists on hard, straight-backed chairs in this scullery-maid’s shit-bin. Why not one of the plush red booths inside the restaurant where we could at least have the pleasure of watching the Dutchman’s obese albino catfish prowling its tank in the bar? Nah, it’s Tom Waits staying true to character. Keeping down appearances, you might say.

For his part, Tom probably wouldn’t be here talking to me if it weren’t for the fact that he has to sell records to support his family and satisfy his record label. “Everybody does something,” he sighs. “It’s just part of what I do. Making people aware you got something our there.” And he stares at me unnervingly from behind his peculiar persona with pained eyes. I ask him about the publicity handout that describes him as “peculiar by nature.” Does he see himself as peculiar?

“I don’t know. Yeah, I have aspects of me that are peculiar, sure. But so do we all, y’know? That which makes you peculiar…” He examines my face for clues, gives up and shrugs. “…and what makes me peculiar, those are different things. But I guess they were talking about the third disc [Bastards]. There’s a lot more spoken word. It’s got that insect number and more oddball arcane stuff, more unusual than on my popular records.”

I mention a quote from an interview where he explained his recent tour of the Southern states this way: “I went to Tennessee to buy fireworks and somebody in Kentucky owed me money.” He listens, looks at the ground and scowls. “Ah, I just tore that outa my ass. People ask you why are you touring and it’s kind of a rhetorical question.”

I ask a less rhetorical question about what he’s listening to when he’s in the more sentimental mood expressed by the ballads on the Bawlers disc. “I don’t usually match up what I’m listening to with what I’m feeling,” he confesses. “I usually put something on to change the way things are in the room, y’know. I put on Shuggie Taylor or Sister Rosetta Tharpe or Frank Sinatra or Bill Hicks…”

While he’s talking, I’m thinking to myself that Tom means Shuggie Otis, the guitar genius who replaced Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones after Taylor quit, and I’m also thinking how cool to mention the sadly forgotten Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the first Gospel star to make Billboard’s “Race Records” Top Ten, and even cooler to mention the late comedian Bill Hicks, a misanthrope who once defined humanity as “a virus with shoes.” But I’m also wondering if Tom really meant Dan Hicks, the San Francisco swing-jazz player—Dan Hicks and Hot Licks. Ah, but what the hell, Tom’s on a roll.

“I might put on Little Willie John,” he’s saying, “or Little Stevie Wonder or Little Milton – all the Littles. Then I go to all the Bigs. Big Joe Turner, Big Mama Thornton. The Bigs and the Littles.” Now he’s chuckling and so am I, for the moment. I ask him about his scratchy voice which someone once described as sounding like “Bruce Springsteen with throat cancer.” On his own Orphans artist statement he says “My voice is my instrument.”

“It’s what I’ve developed,” he explains haltingly. “It’s what I’ve worked on more. More than I worked on my piano technique. It’s what I watered more and it grew taller. I was searching for my identity when I started out. I didn’t have an identity and then burst on the scene. You make a record and then look around and realize, Oh, so what. Now you’re one of millions of people who’ve made a record. How are you going to distinguish yourself from there? Shave your head, start wearing a wetsuit? Start singing light opera? Learn how to juggle? You continue to grow, evolve and change. I just realized that my voice was where I was going to expand. I’ve always liked spoken word.”

He thinks about it a little more. Tom Waits is nothing if not a thoughtful man. “I don’t have a lot range,” he says finally, “but I have a lot of dimension. I can sound like a cherry bomb and I can sound like a clarinet. So that’s what I work on. Finding the right character for a song. It all comes down to choices—what does this song need? Does this song need to be whispered? Does this song need to be barked—falsetto?”

I run down a list of a few songs that I think are standouts in the new collection. “King Kong” is one of them. Composed by bi-polar Texas songwriter Daniel Johnston, the song also appears on “The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Uncovered,” a tribute album of covers by Beck, Sparklehorse, and Mercury Rev that was one of the most critically acclaimed albums of 2004.

“I tried to stay true to the original,” says Tom. “First time I heard that it was a really moving experience, bro. I didn’t think he could get anything more out of King Kong. Culturally it’s just been picked clean. There’s three cinematic versions of it. It’s a character that we all know. Johnston did it like a biblical story, like a psalm. It just nailed me.”

“Poor Little Lamb” is a song that Waits co-wrote with William Kennedy, the novelist and chronicler of the city Albany, New York. Kennedy’s novel Ironweed became a movie in which Waits played a small role.

“Kennedy read it on a water tower and wrote it down. Poor Little Lamb. It was in the book. So when we trying to write a song he said I’d like to work around this. We hung out for an afternoon. He’s a real gentleman. We’re still in touch. He really knows Albany, he knows every brick. He lives in the same apartment where Legs Diamond was murdered. Still bullet holes in the wall.”

“Long Way Home” is also one of the ballads on the Bawlers disc. Tom says he’s happy with the version that Nora Jones recently released. “Somebody does your song,” he frowns, shifting around his chair, getting antsy, “it’s a good thing.”

How about “Road to Peace,” I ask. Waits suddenly erupts. “Now what are you gonna do, ask me about every damn song? I feel like I’m on Meet The Press. Can’t we have a conversation?”

Cranky motherfucker. I’m thinking we’re about to come to blows here. What happened to fertilizing that ol’ egg of commerce? I feel like taking a shot, smacking him upside the head. But that would be the end of the interview, and my payday.

“Hey, there’s one song left to talk about, Tom, okay?” Okay, sure, he says, backing down sullenly.

“On the Road to Peace” describes in a very matter-of-fact way an Israeli family getting blown up by a terrorist bomb and a Palestinian family getting blown up by an Israeli rocket… all “On the Road to Peace.” It almost sounds like a news report. It turns out that is exactly what it is.

“It was an article I saw in the New York Times and adapted it,” he grumbles. “Put it in song form. That’s all.”

Does Waits have a position statement on the Middle East conflict, I’m wondering? Maybe even a solution to the ages-old conflict! But nah, he’s staring at his shoes again, and I’m thinking, shit man, this ain’t Abu Ghraib. Let’s lighten up, okay? Let’s talk about family. I have an 18-year old son who plays the drums in a band. “Oh yeah?” he says, expressing mild interest, but not pursuing the conversation until I point out that Waits’ son Casey also plays drums and backs up his dad on a cut on Orphans called “Low Down.” Tom shrugs.

“Casey’s been playing with me since he was twelve. He’s twenty now. He’s in the band. We did a tour. It went really well. I loved having him in the band. He was the youngest guy in the band. It was good for the old timers and it was good for him too. Is he going to continue doing that? I don’t know. If he has the time. If he’s not doing other things. When you’re twenty your life doesn’t center around playing in your dad’s band. He’s an artist. He’s a skater. He does a million things. His taste in music is mostly hip hop and all that stuff. He does beat-boxing, mouth rhythms. He’s very gifted and has a lot of range. My daughter’s a painter, my other son plays the clarinet.”

Still trying to have that conversation, while fertilizing the goddamn egg of commerce (there’s money in this for both of us), I talk about how my own son discovered my collection of LPs and we’ve bonded over those ancient scratched vinyl platters of Beatles, Howlin’ Wolf, The Doors. “Yeah, well, my wife had a better record collection than I did,” he says. “Better preserved. My records had hair oil and spaghetti sauce and gouges in them.”

I’ve heard that before—read it, actually. He’s used the same line about his old records in dozens of interviews, and now I’m getting irritated. The dude’s running on automatic.

We lapse into a long silence. I’m looking around and thinking: It’s actually nice out here, if you ignore the garbage. The late summer sun is slinking overhead towards the brown hills. Insect buzz fills the air and birds flutter about. Life’s not bad, it seems. What’s life like for Tom these days? I muse out loud.

“Like air traffic control,” Tom says, heaving a sigh like a body tossed from a parked car. “Moments of boredom broken up by sheer terror. Some days you’re going down the creek on a lily pad and other days the wind is tearing your skin off. Kids and life and life goes on.”

Sheer terror, eh? For instance, what scares him? “TV,” snaps Tom. “Mine’s at the bottom of the pool so we haven’t been able to get a picture. When we moved out here we said we’re not bringing the TV. The kids don’t watch TV. But if you have five minutes at a hotel, they sure get caught up.”

But putting together Orphans must have been a fun, involving, rewarding project, no?

“A lot of fits and starts because there were a lot of things happening that pulled me off the tractor,” he says. “So I had to stop and start again. I didn’t realize what it was going to require. You start responding to the stuff you listen to you, that you found. Then you start writing new stuff and rearranging and remixing and rewriting. So it was kind of a Pandora’s Box.”

Was it his original intention to organize the songs in categories of Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards?

“The categories came later. Every song fits into one of those categories. It was just a way of breaking it all down. I’d lost a lot of stuff. It was a big megilla. It was time consuming, an octopus. I found a great engineer named Karl Derfler works out at Bayside studios. That was a big turning point, finding him. Sometimes the tapes were older or I just had it on cassette. He did a lot restoration work as well as recording all the new stuff.”

I remind him that this interview will appear in an Italian magazine. With a bit of coaxing he admits to visiting Italy a few times, but doesn’t know when he’s going back. Waits says he stays in touch with Roberto Begnini, his co-star in the Jim Jarmusch film Down By Law, and warms to the thought.

“Oh yeah, we talk. We did Tiger in the Snow [La Tigre e la Neve, directed by Benigni in 2005]. Tremendous amount of enthusiasm and energy for life. All the time. It’s inspiring to be around him. I wouldn’t be able to last day in his life. But we all have a different row to hoe, but he’s really a warm and generous man. Him and Nicoletta we’ve known for a long time now, ever since Down By Law. They’re great people. Visited them over there and they here.”

He remains in close touch with Jarmusch who appeared at one of Waits’ shows in Akron on the recent southern tour. “It’s always nice to see him,” says Waits but there are no film projects on the boards with Jarmusch or anybody. “Get all kinds of offers,” he says. “Some are good, some are weird and some are unthinkable. Some are ridiculous, somewhere between the ridiculous and the sublime. But I’m not really a film actor. I do some acting but I don’t really consider myself an actor.”

The conversation limps on a few more minutes as we discuss a couple of his musician neighbors, veteran folkie Rambling Jack Elliot and legendary harmonic player Charley Musselwhite, who plays extensively on Orphans. He doesn’t see much of Rambling Jack, the subject of a recent documentary filmed by the daughter he neglected all here life (“Disturbing,” Waits says of it). But Tom and Charlie are buddies. “Yeah, he’s a great guy, lives nearby. Played on the record.”

I ask if there’s a tension between going out on the road playing concerts and staying at home with Kathleen and the kids. He ponders his shoes. “It’s what I do. It’s what I love. Everybody’s got something…..” he lapses into a long silence punctuated by low growls, wheezy breathing… a kind of death rattle for this interview.

“Well-l-l,” I say, leaning back in my chair, more than ready to pack up and hit the road.

“Well-l-l,” he croaks, leaning back in his. It’s still daylight and night seems far off, but closing time has sure as hell come early at the Little Amsterdam.


“I just came out of retirement to handle a singer,” Berry Gordy. Jr. starts to tell me, leaning forward confidentially with a twinkle in his eye.

“Stop!” one of his female handlers interrupts. “That’s all you can say, Mr. Gordy. Don’t say anymore!”

The legendary founder of Motown, still dapper at 80 in a sharp gray suit, tries to argue. Fifty years after discovering the Supremes and Mary Wells, Jackie Wilson and Smokey Robinson, The Jackson Five and Marvin Gaye, creating one of the most unique and universally popular catalogues in American musical history, Mr. Gordy wants the world to know that he can still pick the hits, dammit.

But the phalanx of five women in the penthouse suite at the Century City Hyatt Regency Hotel is tough. Publicists from Universal Music and others from who-knows-where, they’re making sure the octogenarian sticks to the script and it’s all about Motown’s 50th Anniversary: a 10-CD boxed set of Motown Number One singles, a TV documentary and even a Broadway musical. So the first African-American to own a major record label, the man who guided black music out of the ghetto and into the mainstream, is overruled when it comes to talking about his latest discovery and for a moment Gordy’s remarkably youthful face wrinkles into a frown. Women have always ruled his life.

“Is she really cute?” I ask.

“Uh, yes!” He breaks into a broad smile. The old rake has been married and divorced three times, producing seven children including a daughter with Diana Ross and a son with an ex-girlfriend, and along the way from Detroit to Hollywood has probably had more liaisons with more fabulous chicks than any man has a right to claim. So, he laughs and we laugh together – this new young singer he’s chosen to produce, whoever she is, has got to be good looking! But the women in the room aren’t laughing.

“Yes! Uh, not for me,” he hastens to add. “I mean, I have a granddaughter almost her age.”
Gordy was 29 years old when he started his record business on January 12, 1959 with an $800 loan from his family. The seventh of eight children from an upwardly mobile family, he had been a boxer, spent two years in the army, tried running a record store specializing in jazz, worked in the foundry at Ford's Mercury plant, earning $85 a week. Nothing clicked. “I was failure at everything else I did until I started Motown,” says Gordy. It was the women in his life who put him the right track. “My mother and my sisters, they ran the family. They were responsible for me getting my first writer’s contract with their boss, a guy named Al Green who ran the Flame Show Bar.”

He’d tried to enter the music business as a songwriter, achieving modest success with Reet Petite, a song he’d co-written with his sister for Jackie Wilson. Gwen Gordy ran a photo concession at the Flame Show Bar, a popular nightclub in Detroit’s Black Bottom section where Wilson was a budding star. Seven nights a week you could find top acts like Billie Holiday, T-Bone Walker, Wynonie Harris and Sarah Vaughan onstage, backed by Detroit’s finest musicians. Lonely Teardrops, another song penned by Gordy, was a breakout hit for Wilson in 1958 on the Chicago-based Brunswick label. The family loan and the hit song co-penned with his sister provided Gordy with the cash he needed to start his own label, and he wanted to do it in Detroit.

“Detroit was difficult,” Gordy says, describing the Motor City music scene in the late 1950s. It was a city dominated by the auto industry, its population swelling with black émigrés from the poverty-stricken South. They came to work on the assembly lines of Ford, Chrysler and General Motors in the post-war years when the world’s biggest car companies built more and bigger factories to meet America’s insatiable demand for transportation. The new immigrants, schooled in Delta Blues, New Orleans jazz and African-American gospel, brought a rich supply of musical talent to Detroit, but the center of the music business was elsewhere. “The big studios were in Chicago and New York. I felt that Detroit was my home and I could figure out how to make it work in Detroit.”

He bought a drafty two-family home at 2648 West Grand Boulevard previously owned by a photographer. Gordy moved into the upstairs apartment with his girlfriend and three children. Gordy’s father “Pops,” a contractor, helped convert the downstairs rooms into offices for Gordy’s newly hatched Jobete Publishing and the basement photography studio into a recording space labeled Studio A. The new sign out front declared "Hitsville USA, The Sound of Young America," and Gordy was in business.

He was controversial from the start. “People didn’t know how I made it,” says Gordy, shaking his head at the memory of the struggle he went through. “They thought I was in the Mafia – they couldn’t believe a black kid from Detroit could create one of the biggest record companies in the world with very little money. In those days people would say you can’t do that, it was impossible then to do that because no one had ever done that before. I say that’s no reason not to do it. That’s the reason more likely you should do it, because no one has ever done it before. So why not do it and be special.”

The eager young hopefuls who knocked on the doors of The Motown Record Corporation in the early years were schoolgirls and sons of autoworkers, ex-church choir members and former gang members with police records. Under Gordy’s tutelage they became Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Mary Wells, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Little Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, The Jackson Five, The Marvelettes, and Martha and The Vandellas.

The stars were polished by "Motown U pros," mainly Gordy’s sisters who taught the young performers how to dress, stand, wear makeup, and do their choreographed motions onstage with style, poise and grace.

Gordy’s in-house staff of songwriters and producers included Smokey Robinson, Norman Whitfield, the Holland-Dozier-Holland team and Gordy himself, assembling the basic architecture of the distinctive Motown Sound. Artists were assigned to a specific team of producers, and each artist’s team worked on every recording by that particular artist. Some of the producers were also recording artists: Smokey Robinson produced Mary Wells, the Temptations produced the Miracles, and it all added up to a product consistency not unlike the automobiles rolling out of Detroit’s factories.

“It’s so simple,” Gordy says about The Motown Sound, “that it seems complicated. It’s a combination of everything I heard in my life that makes you feel good. Whether it be gospel, blues, jazz, whatever. I don’t like labels. When people ask me, I just say it’s pop. That means it is popular – it sells over a million records. That’s what it was.”
Underneath the smooth surface of Motown’s million-sellers, pop songs so perfect they sound today like something eternal, lay innovative techniques that evolved in the making of every track: two drummers instead of one, sometimes overdubbed or playing in unison, and three or four guitar lines as well; charted string and horn sections; meticulously arranged harmonies. A new marketing approach sprang organically from the talent on hand; Motown was first to introduce girl groups such as The Supremes, Martha & the Vandellas and The Marvelettes as marquee attractions.

From 1964 to 1967, Motown scored fourteen Number One pop singles, twenty Number One singles on the R&B charts, forty-six Top Fifteen singles on the pop charts and seventy-five other Top Fifteen R&B singles. In 1966, three out of every four Motown releases made the charts, a huge success for black culture at a time when African-Americans were struggling for their lives in the Land of the Free.
Although the Motown Sound brought white and black together on the dance floor, the company was not immune to the turmoil of the times, even if Gordy might have preferred to hide from the storm brewing in the streets. Marvin Gaye ushered the storm into Studio A with his groundbreaking album What’s Going On.

“What’s Going On was a turning point,” Gordy admits. “I didn’t want him to release the record at first until I realized how passionate he was about it. He wanted to awaken the minds of men He was the truest artist I’ve ever known but I didn’t want him ruin his career because he was a sex symbol. He was a beautiful, great singer – all the women really liked him, and I didn’t want him to do protest records at that time. Motown was not about Vietnam and all the protest stuff at that time. Because he was just at the peak of his career at that time, my number one male artist. But when he told me how passionate he was, well, then I had to let him do it.”

Unlike many people who regard What’s Going On as one the era’s most eloquent rallying cries against poverty, war, and racial discrimination, Gordy doesn’t see Gaye’s work as a political statement.

“I don’t know that it’s political,” he says thoughtfully. “It’s a meaningful record because it opened up the minds of so many people. That was Marvin’s goal. And he succeeded at that. He had a divided soul, himself, but he was the purest artist. He believed he was spiritual.”
Gordy wants to make sure he’s not misunderstood about his political activism. “Hey, I made a political record with the Temptations called Power. It’s an incredible record about greed, power and stuff like that. It was never a hit because every time they played it there would be such uproar. It was too powerful. It was a long way from My Girl, But so was Ball of Confusion, Cloud Nine, Psychedelic Shack.”

He grins, recalling the heady times of the 1960s. Somehow, he survived and now here he was, the Elder Statesman of Soul. How the hell did he do it?

Looking back and trying to analyze the reasons for his success, Gordy says, “You have to have a vision. That’s what we had. We had a vision. We wanted to make music for all people. Not just black people. We knew that they would like our music. But this music was for people all over the world. Black, white, blue, green. We wanted to spread music that had a lot of love in it. It was built on truth. We knew we were successful when our first big international record Baby Love hit the charts in 1964 – people around the world loved Motown music.”

Sure, but day to day life at Motown, handling a roster of tempestuous talents like Gaye, Diana Ross, Martha Reeves and all the Jackson brothers, must have been a constant trial for the man at the top.

“All the artists were tough to deal with because they were so pure in their determination,” says Gordy. “I always believed that competition breeds champions. I always believed that if I made logic the boss I would win. I was in charge but logic was the boss.”

Sometimes, apparently logic didn’t always work at Motown, such as when Gordy resisted the release of Gaye’s version of “I Heard It On The Grapevine,” no matter how much producer Norman Whitefield argued. It eventually became one of Motown’s biggest hits and remains the iconic Motown recording.

“Anybody could argue with me,” Gordy says genially, a rosy view of the past painting over any painful facts. “I love people to argue with me, I love people to debate, as long as they know I can veto whatever I want to veto, which I never do because I know I can’t. But I love it when they have better ideas, because if they have the same ideas as me, then one of us is not necessary.”
Behind every song, and every battle over every song, was the superb musicianship that Gordy demanded. He recruited the best jazz musicians he could find to hunker down in “The Snakepit,” as Studio A became known, to play the simple tunes Gordy handed them.

“We didn’t have music written out,” he says. “We had chord charts in most cases. The producer would tell them what to play. If I was producing I’d always have to have Benny Benjamin on drums and James Jamerson on bass.”

Benny "Papa Zita" Benjamin and bassist Jamerson were part of the studio session band that became known as The Funk Brothers, including keyboardists Joe Hunter and Earl "Chunk of Funk" Van Dyke, Eddie "Bongo" Brown, Eddie "Chank" Willis. It was a collision of sensibilities that churned together, playing from 1959 to 1971 on more Number One singles than Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones combined. They contributed enormously to Motown’s success even if Gordy never quite understood or truly appreciated what the hell it was these talented jazz players were doing in The Snakepit. That is still evident today from the way Gordy talks about the late James Jamerson, regarded as one of the most influential bassists in modern music history.

“Jamerson was the hardest to handle because he was a jazz person,” Gordy explains, “and he looked down on the rhythm & blues music. He was so talented but he would always try to put jazz riffs in my stuff. I would say ‘James! Jimmy! Jamerson! You can’t do that! We are not doing a jazz record! We’re doing rhythm & blues and we want to get that feeling.’ And so he would say okay, and he kept slipping little notes in. Anybody else who defied me like that, they’d be gone. But Jamerson was so good I had to bear my embarrassment at him slipping in those notes. Everybody knew it and they would look at me to see what was going to happen. And I’d look at him and I would want to go in and say you’re fired. But I couldn’t.”

The only sideman bassist ever inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Jamerson died broke and bitter at the age of 47 a fate not unusual for Motown musicians. Un-credited on the recordings and paid a session fee instead of sharing in the millions of dollars of royalties earned by Motown hits, the musicians’ bitterness lingers on, as detailed in the recent documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown.”

By 1972 Berry Gordy was the richest black man in America with an annual income in excess of $10 Million. With an increasing interest in the movie business and dismayed at the deterioration of Detroit after the devastating 1967 riots, Gordy moved the company headquarters to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, expanding into film and television production. Removed from its roots and a long way from the time and place when Gordy would say Motown’s music was based on “rats, roaches, soul, guts and love,” did Motown lose its touch?

“Well,” says Gordy, with the kind of ready answer that comes from hearing that question before. “If he were living you could ask Rick James.”

It’s true that Superfreak Rick James was a big star for Motown, working as a recording artist and producer (Teena Marie was one of his protégés) in the late 1970s and 80s. “We carried our music with us,” asserts Gordy. “We carried Detroit to the West Coast.”

Nevertheless, despite five Academy Award nominations for Lady Sings The Blues, the Gordy-produced feature film with Diana Ross starring as Billie Holliday, Motown’s movie and TV ventures faltered. Motown’s $100 million annual sales slipped to $20 million by 1989, with few stars left on the roster beyond Boyz II Men and Queen Latifah. By then, with the company hemorrhaging money, Gordy had sold his ownership in Motown to Music Corporation of America (MCA) and Boston Ventures for $61 million. The company went through various upheavals and management changes until it came to reside with its current owner, Universal Music. Gordy had already sold part of his ownership in Jobete Publishing to EMI. One of the most valuable catalogues in the music industry with 15,000 titles, Gordy sold the rest of his interest to EMI in 2004 for $80 million.

If he were a younger man, just starting out today, would he do it all over again?

Gordy thinks about it, but acknowledges the music business has changed radically. Downloading music is not the same as selling a stack of 45s and today’s sounds don’t excite him. He likes the late Tupac, he says, but confesses he doesn’t listen to a lot of hip hop.

“P. Diddy is one of my favorite producer-type people,” he says, mainly because Diddy is an admirer of Motown. “He’s not only looked at the music, he’s looked at the business model, too. He studied me. He told me the last time I saw him that everything that he’s done has been based on Motown in some way.”

With the failure of the American auto industry, the city Gordy left behind is in danger of becoming a ghost town, but that prospect just leaves him sounding philosophical.

“At one point Detroit was one of the top three cities in America,” he says. “But the whole thing fell apart. I left Detroit over thirty years ago but it will always be my home. It was a great place to grow up. It was warm and friendly and I worked hard. Worked for Ford in the foundry but it was the worst day in my life.”

The government bailout? A tough question. He’s thought about it. But saving Detroit is not foremost on his mind right. You see, Gordy has this new singer and maybe we’re all going to know her name someday. But whatever happens to her, the Motor City or even Berry Gordy Jr., nobody’s ever going to forget Motown.

INTERVIEW WITH MICKEY ROURKE - Rolling Stone Italia- July 2005

I used to see him sitting on the patio at the Café Mediterranean up on SunsetPlaza. Sitting there in the middle of a pale LA afternoon over a barely touched plate of pasta with a little sausage of a dog cradled in his arm…

Yeah, it was Mickey Rourke, the tough guy pain-in-the-ass movie star who’d given up acting to be a boxer, or something. You could see tourists going by on the sidewalk pointing at him, whispering to each other. “Isn’t that –?” But the locals didn’t give him a second look. Mickey Rourke, the washed-up actor, was yesterday’s story.

Sure, a lot of Hollywood people had written him off. Just one look at that once sharply handsome face, now bruised and misshapen as an overripe cantaloupe, told you why. He was a man who had pursued his obsessions down a dark path and lost his way. It wasn’t the first time a bright light had doused his own flame in this town, and while the tabloids pissed on the ashes, was there anybody to blame but he? And what did it matter, anyway? The time for blame was over. The world spun around a few times and Hollywood moved on.

Now here he is, sitting on the sofa across from me in a fancy suite in the Regent Beverly Wilshire, ready to talk about his new movie, “Sin City.” You know Mickey’s back in the ring because he got a corner man – a short balding guy tucked silently in a chair by the window. He must be some kind of assistant, the kind of flunky that stars keep around to fetch the coffee and make sure the limo’s on time. Yes, it is comeback time for Mickey Rourke, and even Loki – that little sausage of a canine padding across the carpet to nuzzle my hand – wants me to know it.

“Hey, you know the dog’s name,” Mickey chuckles in a voice thickened with nicotine. “You get an extra fifteen minutes.”

Hell, I got the mutt’s name from the publicist in the hallway, figuring it might work in my favor.

“Pat Connolly says hello,” I say, playing another card.

“Pat, you mean Pat the ref?” Mickey says, eyes widening at the mention of Pat Connolly, the legendary boxing referee, ex-IRA man, and one of my oldest friends in this town. “Haven’t seen Pat since we went to the fights at the Olympic. That was a long time ago, jeez. How is the guy?”

Pat’s getting a heart operation, I tell him. Before he went into the hospital Pat told me that on “A Prayer For The Dying,” he set Mickey up with a dialog coach to get his character’s Belfast accent right. The guy he set Mickey up with had also served a stint with the IRA and was later busted by the Feds in New York.

“Oh, and the Tattooed Man says hello, too,” I add, giving him all my news.

“Oh, yeah? He’s in Iraq now, I hear.” “Give him my best,” says Mickey.

The Tattooed Man is Stanley White, legendary Sheriff’s homicide detective. I spent a few nights on the murder beat with Stanley when I was doing research for my movie, “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane.” The first five or six cadavers bothered me… after that, well, just pour me another drink. I’d always wanted Mickey to play Ford. What’d I get? Andrew Dice Clay. Okay, back to “Sin City,” directed by Robert Rodriguez.

“We stayed very true to the pages of the comic book,” Mickey explains. “It’s a testament to Robert as a filmmaker. He really made it come alive. I think the younger generation will like this. It’s got a lot of energy. People go ‘Oh, it’s bloody’ but it’s not just blood. It’s got a little kick in the ass, a sense of humor to it. It’s not just blood or something vicious. You can laugh at it.”

How did he get involved in “Sin City”?

“I was walking down Wilshire Boulevard and I saw big smoke signal, it said ‘Mickey, we’re looking for you.’”

He pronounces it “Wil-SHYER.” But now he decides to get real with me, sorta. “I’d worked with Robert previously on ‘Once Upon a Time in Mexico.’ Had a good relationship with him. He called my agent and said he said he and Frank [Miller – creator of the graphic novel on which the movie is based] would like to meet with me. Because Frank had yes or no over everything. We met at the Four Seasons and the meeting went well. We took it from there.”

Mickey gives Loki a stroke beneath the chin, then continues.

“They were still playing with Marv, my character in the movie. There were still variations on how Marv was going to look. They wanted Mickey to come through and keep Marv,” he says, speaking of the special live-action/animation look of the film. “They did a lot of tests. So they finally got the look they wanted. Just using the three pieces—the chin, the nose and the hair.

Was there a big challenge involved (…and I’m thinking: staying sober? Making the morning call on time?).

“Biggest challenge?” he think a moment, then smiles. “Eating lunch with the makeup on. It was hot in Texas. My forehead would start to sweat. But it was fun. It wasn’t that serious a film. Didn’t have to dig too deep.”

In fact, Mickey didn’t have to interact with the rest of the cast at all. Everything was done on a green screen and cut together with the digital visual effects in the editing room. His only scene was in the opening shot with the girl in the bed. Most of his scenes were working with Robert reading the lines. He didn’t meet any of the other cast members (Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, Clive Owen, Rosario Dawson, etc.) until the looping sessions when they added their voices to the film.

The critics called Sin City an homage to film noir. That’s ironic because it’s where Rourke got his start, the film noir-ish Larry Kasdan picture “Body Heat.” Mickey’s whole life and career, through “Barfly” and “Wild Orchid” and everything else, has been in the film noir mode. He seems to understand that, and alsom come to understand his limitations as an actor. But he’s carved himself a niche and maybe that’s marketable, because he also knows how hard it is for filmmakers today to capture that particular dark mood authentically.

“Most film noir is a little piece here and there,” he says “Maybe they get the fucking words, the dialog, the cigarettes and the good-looking broad. But they don’t get the whole thing. I think Robert captured the whole thing. You see the old Robert Mitchum movies, but I think Robert transcended all that.”

I mention “Body Heat.” “Hell, I was just glad to have a job,” Mickey says, rubbing Loki’s absently hairless belly. Another world, another time. “Everything changes from day to day,” he muses, and gets to talking about boxing. “I used to see myself as a guy in the ring. That was very comfortable. A more honest role. But I’m okay with this one.”

Silence follows the remark—a silence not exactly like the grave, but a few steps away holding flowers and peeing in the shrubbery. I’m thinking: Boxers are always having comebacks. His role in “Sin City” is potentially Mickey’s comeback. Aloud, I venture that it must have taken some doing to resurrect his career.

“There must have been some little agent guy,” I say, drawing on a bit of Hollywood wisdom earned from near a quarter century in The Business, “some little agent dork running around Hollywood dropping your name in clubs and at dinner parties.”

“Yeah, a little agent guy named David Unger,” Mickey chuckles. “Before he was engaged, he used to get laid doing that, dropping my name at parties.”

The dorky little guy sitting in the corner seems to sneeze and cough at the same time, a choking noise emitting from his throat and his face flushes the color of a baboon’s ass.

“Isn’t that right David?” Mickey deadpans, nodding at him. “He always says he puts up with a lot. I like to see him turn red.”

“And boy do I turn red,” says David Unger, Mickey Rourke’s agent, loyally putting up with this, and probably a lot more shit to come.

Mickey’s eyelids droop and he looks away for a long moment, signaling the interview is over. But somewhere deep within those sleepy eyes a spark still smolders. I spotted it up on Sunset Plaza, something elfin and wild. It was the Irish in him, and you could see the crazy Mick still had some fight left. They hadn’t counted him out just yet. The kid still had legs to stand up on, still had a few punches in him, and maybe, if you gave him half an Irishman’s chance he’d knock your head off with his famous left hook from outa nowhere. Yeah, just maybe.