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.