9:15pm

Mon February 28, 2011
Music Interviews

Tom Waits: Skid Row's Boozy Balladeer

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:18 am

This month, five new performers will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It's an eclectic group of selections, ranging from pop diva Darlene Love to shock-rocker Alice Cooper. But in spite of their differences, each of these singers adopted a special identity or image to stand out from the rest of the pack. Morning Edition has been looking behind the personas of this year's inductees.

In the Los Angeles of the early 1970s, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor were all models for musical success. It seemed like being a sensitive singer-songwriter was the ticket to fame, so that's the way a 22-year-old Tom Waits pitched himself on a 1971 demo tape.

But Waits had little in common with the denim-clad denizens of the rolling hills west of L.A. In a 2006 NPR interview, Waits said it took him awhile to figure out who he was.

"I think most singers, when they start out, are doing really bad impersonations of other singers that they admire," Waits said. "You kind of evolve into your voice. Or maybe your voice is out there, waiting for you to grow up."

Waits found his own voice in L.A.'s Skid Row district, home to working-class stiffs on third shift, waitresses and drunks — not the usual subject matter of singer-songwriters. Waits wanted to tell the stories that never got told, and to do it in the improvisational cadence of his literary hero, Jack Kerouac.

The singer found a sympathetic ear in record producer Dayton "Bones" Howe, who'd had a hand in a 1960 album of Kerouac readings. Howe says Waits not only spun tales about the street; he also dressed the part and lived the life.

"He was staying in a motel on Santa Monica Boulevard," Howe says. "He was messy. He used to say" — and here he affects a Tom Waits impression — "I shave and get dressed and go to bed."

Working with Bones Howe over the course of seven albums, Waits painted a series of city scenes — everything from pulp-fiction melodramas to the ruminations of an inebriated lounge pianist. But Howe says that, over time, the singer started to identify a little too closely with his characters.

"Tom was always drinking," Howe says, "and he drank pretty heavily. It was what he was and what he was doing, and he didn't want to be interfered with."

The last time the two men worked together was on the soundtrack of Francis Ford Coppola's 1982 film One From the Heart. During that time, Waits met his future wife and current producing partner Kathleen Brennan, who helped him get sober. But that persona of the disheveled outsider persisted — it was Waits' sonic identity that changed.

"The person that I saw changed every year," Howe says. "His philosophy was, if I keep being a moving target, I can't get hit. He never wanted to be the same again in any way."

After a few years without a studio album, Waits recently returned to the recording studio — which means the target of his identity is likely to move again.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A new group of musicians will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the end of March. We've been looking at the stage personas of those who will be honored. Today, a performer who found his voice among the dispossessed of Skid Row. From member station WCPN, David C. Barnett has the story of Tom Waits.

DAVID C. BARNETT: It seemed like being a sensitive singer-songwriter was the ticket to fame in Los Angeles, back in the early 1970s. Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor were models for musical success. So, that's the way 22-year-old Tom Waits pitched himself on a 1971 demo tape.

(Soundbite of song, "Had Me A Girl")

Mr. TOM WAITS (Singer-songwriter): (Singing) Well, I had me a girl in LA, I knew she could not stay.

BARNETT: But, Waits had little in common with the denim-clad denizens of the rolling hills, west of LA. In a 2006 NPR interview, Waits said it took him a while to figure out who he was.

Mr. WAITS: I think most singers when they start out are doing really bad impersonations of other singers that they admire. You kind of evolve into your voice. Or maybe your voice is out there waiting for you to grow up.

BARNETT: Waits found his voice downtown, in the city's Skid Row district, home to working class stiffs on third shift, waitresses and drunks - not the usual subject matter of singer-songwriters. Waits wanted to tell the stories that never got told. And tell them in the improvisational cadence of one of his literary heroes, Jack Kerouac.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. JACK KEROUAC (Novelist and poet): (Reading) He's wailing beer caps and bottles and jamming at the cash register and everything is going to the beat. It's the Beat generation. It's Be-at.

BARNETT: Tom Waits found a sympathetic ear in record producer Dayton "Bones" Howe.

(Soundbite of music)

BARNETT: Howe says Waits not only spun tales about the street, he dressed the part and lived the life.

Mr. DAYTON "BONES" HOWE (Record Producer): You know, he was staying in a motel on Santa Monica Boulevard and I mean he just was messy. He used to say, I shave and get dressed and go to bed.

(Soundbite of song, "The One That Got Away")

Mr. WAITS: (Singing) Well, this gigolo's jumping salty, ain't no trade out on the streets. Half past the unlucky and the hawk's a front row seat. Dressed in full orchestration, stage-door Johnny's got to pay. And sent him home and talking bout the one that got away.

BARNETT: Working with "Bones" Howe over the course of seven albums, Waits painted a series of city scenes from pulp fiction melodramas to the ruminations of an inebriated lounge pianist.

(Soundbite of song, "The Piano Has Been Drinking")

Mr. WAITS: (Singing) The piano has been drinking, my necktie is asleep and the combo went back to New York, the jukebox has to take a leak.

BARNETT: "Bones" Howe says the singer was starting to identify a little too closely with his characters.

Mr. HOWE: Tom was always drinking. He drank pretty heavily. It was what he was and what he was doing and he didn't want to be interfered with.

BARNETT: The last time the two men worked together was on the soundtrack of Francis Ford Coppola's 1982 film, "One From the Heart." During that time, Waits met his future wife and current producing partner, Kathleen Brennan, who helped him stop drinking. But that persona of the disheveled outsider persisted.

(Soundbite of cheering)

(Soundbite of song, "Trampled Rose")

Mr. WAITS: (Singing) Whoa, whoa.

BARNETT: It was Wait's sonic identity that changed, says "Bones" Howe.

Mr. HOWE: The person that I saw changed every year. His philosophy was, if I keep being a moving target, you know, I can't get hit. He never wanted to be the same again in any way.

(Soundbite of song, "Trampled Rose")

Mr. WAITS: (Singing) Long way going to get my medicine. Sky's the autumn grey of a lonely wren.

BARNETT: The reclusive Tom Waits recently returned to the recording studio, which means the target of his identity is likely to move again.

For NPR News, I'm David C. Barnett, in Cleveland.

(Soundbite of song, "Trampled Rose")

Mr. WAITS: (Singing) Piano from a window played...

MONTAGNE: And you can see a slideshow of Tom Waits through his career at NPR music.org.

(Soundbite of song, "Trampled Rose")

Mr. WAITS: (Singing) Whoa, whoa, whoa.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

Related program: