by John Bloner, Jr.
As much as I love the sound of Tom Waits – blues shouter, field hollerer, junkyard dog howler, carnival barker – I also am jazzed by the man’s offbeat countenance and love to draw pictures of him. This is my most recent sketch, drawn while drinking morning coffee.
Tom’s a cross between Jack Skellington and Gumby, a used car lot’s inflatable dancing man and a jazz singer from some Eastern European dive bar. I’ve spent hours with pen and paper, trying to capture him in sketchbooks and on hot press paper (my favorite). He’s straight out of a German folktale, where everyone dies at the end, or he’s the guy you see stalking around the carnival, not certain if he works there. I swear I’ve seen him somewhere in a Fellini film and I’m pretty sure I once gave him a dollar on Chicago’s Madison Street. He didn’t say thank you; instead he mumbled something that sounded like it came from Zippy the Pinhead:
The El train tumbled across the trestles
And it sounded like the ghost of Gene Krupa
With a traffic jam session on Belmont tonight
And the rhapsody of the pending evening.Nighthawk Postcards by Tom Waits
Tom Waits was born in Pomona, California, but he’s as far from being a Beach Boy as the guy who cleaned your septic system last year. His songs are not sung as much as they are lived-in like the scent of persimmons in a motel room. Today, he lives in Sonoma County, but his music takes a Greyhound bus to Union Station, and roams around Middle America, stopping in its small town diners, where the red-headed waitress calls out, “hashbrowns, hashbrowns,” like she’s reciting a poem.
I imagine Tom in a construction site trailer, drinking cold coffee and smoking cigarettes, while waiting out the rain. He says “all songs should have weather in them. Names of towns and streets, and they should have a couple of sailors.”
Funeral Wells spun
Poodle Murphy on the target
As he threw his hardware, only
Once in Sheboygan did he miss
At a matinee on Diamond Pier and
She’d never let him forget itCircus by Tom Waits
Place names have music in them, particularly those from the Midwest. Tom sings a letter left inside a Christmas Card, penned by a hooker in Minneapolis. In another song, he says he’s “tired of taking orders, and I miss old Rockford town, up by the Wisconsin border.” For the tune, Heartattack and Vine, he spit-shouts a phrase which should be emblazoned on billboards across the Corn State. Someone should tell Iowa’s tourism department.
He’s Ken Nordine, Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac with Steven Allen, Lord Buckley, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins with a side of Mose Allison and Mickey Spillane.
Throughout his 50 year recording history, his song lyrics have set down in a lot of places, including in Murfreesboro and on Maxwell Street. On his 1982 album, Swordfishtrombones, he sings a love song for his wife, Kathleen Brennan, calling on her hometown, outside McHenry in Johnsburg, Illinois. He goes all Edward Hopper on his audience when he croaks out these lines from the tune, 9th and Hennepin:
Well it’s 9th and Hennepin
And all the donuts have
Names that sound like prostitutes
9th and Hennepin is a street in Minneapolis. In 1985, Waits told Glenn O’Brien of Spin Magazine, he was at a donut shop there when a pimp war broke out.
They were playing “Our Day Will Come” by Dinah Washington when these three 12-year-old pimps came in in chinchilla coats armed with knives and, uh, forks and spoons and ladles and they started throwing them out in the street. Which was answered by live ammunition over their heads into our booth.Tom Waits for No Man, interview with Glenn O’Brien
As far as donuts with names like prostitutes, I wonder if Foie Gras and and Cranberry Glaze are still working their corners? I hear Black Cardamom died a few years back. She’d made many a boy happy in her day.
In his first decade as a recording artist, Tom Waits adopted a persona of a drunken lounge lizard, who broke hearts with songs like I Hope I Don’t Fall In Love With You. He put himself in the shoes of a guy at the end of the bar, who spots a girl who would fit his fancy (and thinks she might like him, too) but she’s gone at closing time, and there’s nothing left to do but have one last drink.
I’ve always been a sucker for songs of unrequited love – You Don’t Know Me by Ray Charles and I Still Miss Someone by Johnny Cash are two of them – and Waits plays well the role of the heartbroken.
And I was always so impulsive, I guess I still am
And all that really mattered then that I was a man
I guess that our being together was never meant to be
But Martha, Martha, I love you, can’t you see?From the album, Closing Time, by Tom Waits
In song, he’s not only a wistful loner, he can be a snake oil salesman in Step Right Up from his Small Change album or climb into a 1949 Hudson with Dean and Sal from Kerouac’s On The Road to sing the tune, Burma-Shave or the medley, Jack & Neal/California, Here I Come. Back in the 1970s, he was hanging out with Chuck E. Weiss and Rickie Lee Jones, pulling on cigarettes, and filling up at the Last Chance Texaco.
In 1982, Waits broke away from the character he’d cultivated. He was newly married and his wife, Kathleen Brennan, played a major role in revamping his sound and image, exposing him to artists outside his oeuvre like Captain Beefheart. There were also doses of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht in his new sound, along with echoes of hobo composer and latter-day Don Quixote, Harry Partch who, with his cloud chamber bowls and Mazda marimbas, referred to himself as a philosophic music-man seduced into carpentry.
Tom’s songs became percussive, disorderly, and his vocals became increasingly phlegmatic. He hissed, howled, and roared, while never completely abandoning his tender side. He and his band banged on fenders, dragged chairs across the floor, struck a stone slab with a giant hammer, and recited poems into a police horn. They played the Theremin and Waterphone, as well as a photon clarinet.
Not everyone was thrilled with his new direction. His record company dropped him. Independent label, Island Records, signed him and released his album, Swordfishtrombones, followed by Rain Dogs, Frank’s Wild Years, Bone Machine, and The Black Rider, along with a live album.
My wife, Roberta, became popular at parties around this time, because she had memorized the artist’s spoken-word piece, Frank’s Wild Years, (from the Swordfishtrombones record) and would recite it on demand. We still crack up about the little chihuahua named Carlos and his sad fate.
In December 2019, Tom turned 70. I recruited a dozen or so friends, who are poets and musicians, to celebrate the septuagenarian songmaster on his Big Day. Don Miller at Fusion performance space in Kenosha welcomed us to put our tribute show on his stage, and poet/singer/zinester Jessie Lynn McMains served as our emcee and contributed vocals and accordion. Nick Ramsey of Family Power Music led us off with his rendition of Step Right Up from Waits’ Small Change album, and other performers took turns over a couple hours to perform tunes and spoken word pieces from the Tom’s songbook, including Brent Mitchell, Boylamayka Sazerac (Patrick McMains), Jordan Kobishop, Voices and Verses, Esteban Colon, and Dan Nielsen and Georgia Bellas. Glen Kelly of The Puppet Underground and Castle Hambone created a video for the night. The bash was recorded and released on the Kenosha/Racine Poets Laureate channel on YouTube.
Our event was called From Natchez to Kenosha, getting its title from a lyric in the songwriter’s tune, Fish in the Jailhouse.
A few months after this concert, I put out a zine, dedicated to music and musicians, and included not only one of my Tom Waits’ drawings, but a Waits-inspired poem by Jessie Lynn McMains, and pieces by two other artists.
The first time I met Jessie, I was interviewing her for the position of Racine Poet Laureate, and she spoke of her admiration for Tom Waits. I had to resist the urge to grant her the laurel wreath right then and there. Jessie is one helluva writer and performer. She served a two-year term as Racine Poet Laureate, 2016-17, and today is operating her own small press, Bone & Ink Press.
My music zine also included these Tom Waits’ inspired works. From left to right is my drawing of the man at his piano, an image by Robin Casey, and a painting by Steve Furnett.
Tom hasn’t put out a new album in ten years (the 2011 release, Bad As Me, but word’s out via his website that he’s been in the recording studio.
He was recently featured in a Coen Brothers’ film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, playing a gold prospector. He has also acted in other feature films. Among my favorites are his turn as a jailbird on-the-run in Down By Law and as a commune leader in the motion picture, Wristcutters: A Love Story.
He has 45 credits in his acting career, working several times with Jim Jarmusch, along with Terry Gilliam, Robert Altman, Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola, and Wim Wenders, among others. He’s appeared at the Steppenwolf in Chicago for a stage version of Frank’s Wild Years (based on the album of the same name, and not the song from Swordfishtrombones), and with Robert Wilson for the musical, Alice, based on Alice in Wonderland.
Check out this 1992 video of excerpts from a performance of Alice from the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg, Germany and of Tom’s reflections on his career and craft of songwriting. If you’re as much of a fan of Tom Waits as I am, you might want to watch it a hundred times.
I regret that I’ve never seen Tom in concert (unlike Jessie McMains and Dan Nielsen), but like all of us, I have the music, his stories, and hope he brings us more this year and in years ahead.
Thanks for reading. See you next week.