Skip to main content

The Linguistics of the Presidential Debates

As President Bush and Sen. John Kerry look to their second face-to-face meeting Friday night, linguist Geoff Nunberg considers the language of the 2004 debates.

08:05

Other segments from the episode on October 8, 2004

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 8, 2004: Interview with Tom Waits; Commentary on Presidential debates.

Transcript

DATE October 8, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Tom Waits discusses his musical influences and career
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Tom Waits is one of the true eccentrics of pop music. There's always been an
element of mystery surrounding his life. The people he sings about usually
are outsiders, outlaws, drunks, hobos and losers.

(Soundbite of "How's It Gonna End?")

Mr. TOM WAITS: (Singing): He had three whole dollars, a worn-out car, a wife
who was leaving for good. Life's made of trouble, worry, pain and struggle.
She wrote goodbye in the dust upon the hood. They found a map of Missouri,
lipstick on the glass. They must have left in the middle of the night. And I
want to know the same thing everyone wants to know. How's it going to end?
Behind a smoke-colored curtain, the girl disappeared; they found out the ring
was a fake. A tree born crooked will never grow straight. She sunk like a
hammer into the lake. A long-lost letter and an old, leaky boat. Promises
are never meant to keep. And I want the know the same thing, I want to know,
how's it going to end?

BIANCULLI: That's "How's It Gonna End?" from the new Tom Waits recording
"Real Gone." The darkness of his lyrics is enhanced by the rumble and rasp
of his voice, a voice that sounded old even when he was young. Waits has been
recording since 1973. His songs have been used on the soundtracks of several
films, and he's acted in the movies "Down by Law," "Short Cuts" "Wolfen,"
Francis Ford Coppola's "Dracula" and "Coffee and Cigarettes."

Terry spoke with Tom Waits in 2002.

(Soundbite of 2002 interview)

TERRY GROSS, host:

The arrangements for your songs are really good. Do you do the arrangements
yourself?

Mr. WAITS: Well, I collaborate with my wife on the songs in every aspect of
it, really; the composing and arranging and recording and all that business.
So, you know, we have a rhythm and a way of working. It's kind of like
borrowing the same 10 bucks from somebody over and over again, you know. But,
you know, when you live together, you know, it makes it a lot easier, the
payback, you know.

GROSS: What came first for you, being married or being song collaborators?

Mr. WAITS: Oh, I guess--I don't know. It seems like, you know--well, we
started working together right after we got married, I think. Yeah.
We--actually, my wife had $50 on her and I had 20 when we got married, and it
was a $70 wedding. So I actually thought, `This is not a good way to start.'
But we got married about 1:00 in the morning, you know, in Watts, and it was
kind of a whirlwind thing. And the preacher was on a beeper. But, you know,
it worked out. You know, sometimes, you know, really expensive weddings only
last a couple of weeks. So, yeah, it worked. Yeah.

GROSS: So you weren't already writing songs when you got together?

Mr. WAITS: Oh, well, I was. Yeah. And, you know...

GROSS: No, no. The two of you, I mean, collaborating.

Mr. WAITS: No, not really, no. We'd only know each other a short time when
we got married. No, we didn't really have any time to write any songs. We
just kind of swooped down and then we did it, you know.

GROSS: It worked, I guess, huh?

Mr. WAITS: Yeah. Yeah, it did. Yeah.

GROSS: You got a wife and a songwriting partner.

Mr. WAITS: Yeah, right, yeah.

GROSS: That's a good deal.

Mr. WAITS: Yeah, it was a good deal, yeah. And, you know, we--you know,
when you collaborate, sometimes it's somewhat of a quarrel. But I think that
it's good. It kind of keeps you away from the emperor's new clothes, or
whatever. Someone to check into with that you trust, you know. And so, yeah,
it's been really good for both of us.

GROSS: Do you think it's changed your style of songwriting, either changed
the music itself or changed the process of writing the music, to collaborate?

Mr. WAITS: Well, I don't know. I'm--I can run things by her and she says,
`Oh, that's a lot of hogwash. You've been doing that for years,' or--you
know. And say, `That's really corny,' or, `That's really a cliche,' you know.
And it's good, you know. So we kind of sharpen each other like knives, and it
seems to work out like that.

GROSS: Some of your music writing seems influenced by the German songs of
Kurt Weill. Have you listened a lot to him? Do you feel like he's influenced
your writing?

Mr. WAITS: Well, you know, I didn't really listen to him until I had people
tell me that I sounded somewhat like him, or had some influence in there. So
I said, `Well, I'd better start listening to this stuff.' And...

GROSS: What'd you think?

Mr. WAITS: I--yeah, I like this. Oh, it's really angry. And I guess I like
beautiful melodies telling me terrible things, and...

GROSS: That's well put, yeah.

Mr. WAITS: ...so it works for me, you know.

GROSS: What was the music that you grew up listening to because your parents
were listening to it? I mean, before you were old enough to choose music
yourself, what was the music in your house?

Mr. WAITS: Really young, mariachi music, I guess. My dad only played a
Mexican radio station. And then, you know, Frank Sinatra, and later, Harry
Belafonte. And then, you know, I would go over to my friends' houses and I
would go into the den with their dads and find out what they were listening
to, because I was really--I couldn't wait to be an old man. I was about 13,
you know. I didn't really identify with the music of my own generation, but I
was very curious about the music of others. And I think I responded to the
song forms themselves, you know; cakewalks and waltzes and barcaroles and
parlor songs and all that stuff, I think--which is just really nothing more
than Jell-O molds for music, you know. But I seemed to like the old stuff;
Cole Porter and, you know, Oscars and Hammerstein and Gershwin and all that
stuff. I like melody.

GROSS: So when you were 13, being more interested in the music of your
friends' parents than in your friends' music. What was the music of your
generation that didn't interest you?

Mr. WAITS: You know, like the Strawberry Alarm Clock, or--you know. It
didn't really...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. WAITS: But later, I liked that stuff. You know, like The Animals and
Blue Cheer and--I don't know--you know, Led Zeppelin and all that stuff and
The Yardbirds and, you know, of course, the Rolling Stones and The Beatles and
Bob Dylan and James Brown. I was really, really hot on James Brown.

GROSS: What did you hear in them later that you didn't hear when you were in
your early teens?

Mr. WAITS: Well, I don't know. Maybe I felt like it was safe to go in and
listen to it now that it had been there for a while, or something. I don't
know. I think when you're a teen-ager, that music is really kind of like a
collared shirt or a, you know, watch or--it just seems more of an accessory on
a certain level.

GROSS: Or a badge of identity.

Mr. WAITS: Yeah. You're making a remark about yourself as to what you listen
to, and I think I--that part bugged me. And so it kind of kept me from really
listening to it just as music, you know, and--yeah.

GROSS: Now said your father listened mostly to the Mexican station and to
mariachi music.

Mr. WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: Was your father Mexican?

Mr. WAITS: No. My dad's from Texas. He grew up in a place called Sulphur
Springs, Texas. And my mom's from Oregon. She listened to church music, you
know, all that--Brother Springer, all the--she used to send money in to all
the preachers, you know. But the earlier songs I remember was "Abilene."
When I heard "Abilene" on the radio, it really moved me. And then I heard,
you know, `Abilene, Abilene, prettiest town I've ever seen. Women there don't
treat you mean in Abilene,' I just thought that was the greatest lyric, you
know. `Women there don't treat you mean.'

And then, you know "Detroit City"--`Last night I went to sleep in Detroit
City, and I dreamed about the cotton fields back home.' I like songs with the
names of towns in them, and I think I liked songs with weather in them, and
something to eat. So I feel like there's a certain anatomical aspect to a
song that I respond to. I think, `Oh, yeah. I can go into that world.
There's something to eat, there's a name of a street, there's a--OK. Yeah,
there's a saloon, OK.' So I think probably that's why I put things like that
in my songs.

BIANCULLI: Tom Waits, speaking with Terry Gross in 2002. His new CD is
called "Real Gone." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Tom Waits. She spoke
with him in 2002, after the release of his CDs "Alice" and "Blood Money."

(Soundbite of 2002 interview)

GROSS: Now you know how you said when you're in your early teens, music is
almost like a certain type of collar or a certain type of accessory.

Mr. WAITS: Right.

GROSS: When you started listening to older music and relating to that, did
other things accompany that, like a certain way of dressing or speaking or
behaving?

Mr. WAITS: Oh, yeah, sure. You know, I wore an old hat and I drove an old
car. I bought a car for 50 bucks from Fred Moody next door who's from
Tennessee, a '55 Buick Special, and, you know, AM radio in there. I guess.
Yeah, sure. I walked with a cane. You know, I was really--I was going
overboard, perhaps, but...

GROSS: What kind of cane was it?

Mr. WAITS: You know, a cane, like...

GROSS: No, I mean, did it have like a silver tip? I mean, how...

Mr. WAITS: No, no, an old man's cane from a Salvation Army. Yeah. And I
carved my name in it and everything, you know.

GROSS: And what did you think that that added to your image?

Mr. WAITS: It gave me a walk, I guess. It gave me something distinctive.
`Oh, who was that guy in here earlier with a cane? Did you see that guy?' It
just gave me something that I liked identitywise, I guess.

GROSS: I want to play another track from "Blood Money," and this is called "A
Good Man Is Hard To Find."

Mr. WAITS: Sure.

GROSS: This is Tom Waits.

(Soundbite of "A Good Man Is Hard To Find")

Mr. WAITS: (Singing) Well, I always play Russian roulette in my head, 17
black or 29 red. How far from the gutter, how far from the view, I will
always remember to forget about you. A good man is hard to find. Won't let
strangers sleep in my bed. And my favorite words are `goodbye,' and my
favorite color is red.

GROSS: Now I want to ask you about your voice. You have a very raspy singing
voice. Was that a sound that you strove for, you know, that you worked on
having, or is it what naturally developed?

Mr. WAITS: It's that old man thing. I couldn't wait to be an old man; old
man with a deep voice. No. I screamed into a pillow...

GROSS: Well, you know, John Mahoney, the actor?

Mr. WAITS: Sure, yeah.

GROSS: He told me he actually did stuff like that, that...

Mr. WAITS: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...he wanted a distinctive voice, and so he used to do these exercises
that he practiced in a closet of just, like, shouting and trying to, you know,
like growl a lot...

Mr. WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and it actually permanently did something to his vocal cords as a
result of it.

Mr. WAITS: Yeah, hooray. I'm all for it.

GROSS: Was, say, Louis Armstrong an influence on you?

Mr. WAITS: Oh, yeah, yeah, sure, yeah. You know, you can't ignore the
influence of someone like Louis Armstrong. You know, he's like a river. He's
like a country to be explored in and of himself. And--but, yeah, he came out
of the ground just like a potato. You know, he's completely natural. And,
yeah, sure, I love those tunes. And--but this one, this "A Good Man's Hard To
Find," was, you know, an attempt to kind of tip my hat somewhat to that...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. WAITS: ...you know.

GROSS: Have you ever worried about hurting your voice by...

Mr. WAITS: Oh, I've hurt it. Yeah, I have hurt it. But I have a voice
doctor in New York who used to treat Frank Sinatra and various people. He
said, `Oh, you're doing fine. Don't worry about it.'

GROSS: Oh, that's good.

Now you once said that you wish you could have been a part of the Brill
Building era, in which people like Carole King and Leiber and Stoller and
Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry were writing songs for singers and for vocal
groups. What do you think you would have liked about that?

Mr. WAITS: Well, I guess writing at gunpoint. It sounds really exciting to
me, those kinds of deadlines. I went into the rehearsal building on Times
Square in New York one afternoon and a really tiny little room. In fact, it
was probably smaller than the room I'm in right now, which is a little larger
than a phone booth. There's just enough room for a little spinet piano and
then you could just barely close the door and there you were. And you could
hear every kind of music coming to you through the walls and through the
windows and underneath the door. And you heard African bands and you heard,
like, you know, comedians and you'd hear applause every now and then and you'd
hear tap dancers. And I think I'd just like the whole melange of it, you
know. I mean, it all kind of mixes together. I like turning on two radios at
the same time and listening to them. I like hearing things incorrectly. I
think that's how I get a lot of ideas is by mishearing something.

GROSS: Although you weren't part of the Brill Building thing...

Mr. WAITS: No.

GROSS: ...other people have recorded your songs, and I thought I'd play one
of them. Johnny Cash...

Mr. WAITS: Go right ahead, yeah.

GROSS: ...recorded your song "Down There By The Train."

Mr. WAITS: Yeah, right. That killed me. That was wild. I was like--I said,
`That's it. I'm all done now. Boy, you know, Johnny Cash did a song of mine.
Boy, I'm all done. Thanks very much.'

GROSS: Do you...

Mr. WAITS: That was really flattering, and I loved the way he did it, too.

GROSS: Oh, yeah. Do you know how he knew the song or why he decided to
record it?

Mr. WAITS: Well, a lot of people sent him tunes 'cause he was doing this
record with Rick Rubin and different people that--or, you know, different
songwriters sent him tunes, and he just picked from them. So I didn't know
if he was going to do it or not. I figured, well, I hadn't done it. I don't
know why I hadn't done it. I don't remember a whole--and so--yeah, and so I
didn't really know until I heard the record came out, and it was like, `Wow,
that's great,' you know? That's--when someone does a tune, well, especially
someone that you've been listening to since you were a kid, it's a bit of a
validation. And...

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

Mr. WAITS: So yeah, it's meaningful, you know.

GROSS: Yeah, Johnny Cash is pretty validating when it comes to that. Yeah.

Mr. WAITS: I know. Sure, yeah.

GROSS: OK. Well, let's hear it. This is from Johnny Cash's "American
Recordings" album, and this is the Tom Waits song "Down There By The Train."

(Soundbite of "Down There By The Train")

Mr. JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) You can hear the whistle, you can hear the bell
from the halls of heaven to the gates of hell. And there's room for the
forsaken if you're there on time. You'll be washed of all your sins and all
of your crimes, if you're down there by the train, down there by the train,
down there by the train, down there by the train; down there where the train
goes slow.

GROSS: That's Johnny Cash doing the Tom Waits song "Down There By The Train."
My guest is Tom Waits.

Did you hear anything different in that song when Johnny Cash recorded it,
different from how you heard it in your head when you wrote it?

Mr. WAITS: Well, he changed some stuff around. That's normal. I do the same
thing when I do somebody else's tune. You really have to--you try it on, and
if it's a little tight in here or doesn't quite close over this--you cut it
or, you know, you make it fit. You want to make it sound like yours.

GROSS: It's funny, 'cause that song--when he sings it, it sounds like it's
like an unusual spiritual.

Mr. WAITS: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: And usually you write about godlessness.

Mr. WAITS: Godlessness? Really? Oh...

GROSS: Wouldn't you say?

Mr. WAITS: Oh, I don't know about that.

GROSS: The absence of God?

Mr. WAITS: I don't know. Do you think so?

GROSS: Well, some of the songs.

Mr. WAITS: Yeah? Hmm.

GROSS: Well, one of them explicitly, like "God's Away On Business."

Mr. WAITS: Oh, oh, OK. Well, he's away. He's not gone; he's just away.
And, like, you have to understand, he was on business. So, you know, and a
guy like him has got to be busy, you know, looking after a lot of things,
you know.

BIANCULLI: Tom Waits, speaking with Terry Gross in 2002. His new CD is
called "Real Gone." We'll hear more from Tom Waits in the second half of the
show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WAITS: (Singing) You took all my money and my best friend. You know the
story. Here it comes again. I have no pride. I have no shame. You've gotta
make it rain, make it rain. Since you're gone, deep inside it hurts. I'm
just another sad guest on this dark earth. I won't believe in the mercy of
the world again. Make it rain. Make it rain.

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Coming up, Waits just a little bit longer. We'll listen back to a
1988 interview with Tom Waits. He has a new album called "Real Gone." Plus,
linguist Geoff Nunberg considers the presidential debates.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WAITS: (Singing) Long way going to get my medicine. Sky's the autumn
gray of a lonely wren. Piano from a window played. Gone tomorrow, gone
yesterday. I found it in the street. At first I did not see lying at my feet
a trampled rose.

(Announcements)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry
Gross.

We've been listening to a 2002 interview with Tom Waits. Now let's hear a
little of Terry's 1988 conversation with him. He'd just made the performance
film "Big Time" in which he appeared as several different characters. Terry
asked him about one of them, Vegas lounge singer Buddy Greco.

GROSS: Well, you know, I should play a couple of Vegas homages that you do
here. I mean, this is--I think of this as your homage to Frank Sinatra and to
show biz anthems.

Mr. WAITS: A lot of people think that is Frank Sinatra.

GROSS: Oh, singing on it, really?

Mr. WAITS: Yeah. Yeah. "Straight To the Top."

GROSS: What...

Mr. WAITS: A friend of mine was in the car with his mom and put on the tape
and she went--she is--`Is that a new Frank Sinatra song?' And she was dead
serious.

GROSS: Well, you know, I really like the song. I mean, it seems to me that
it's more of an homage than a parody. Do you know what I mean? I think it's
a good song.

Mr. WAITS: Oh, why thank you.

GROSS: Do you think of it that way, too? I mean, I don't read it as a parody
as much as a--tell me what you think.

Mr. WAITS: Tell you what I think about what?

GROSS: About your song "Straight To the Top."

Mr. WAITS: Well, that's one of those phases that just keeps you going.

GROSS: OK.

Mr. WAITS: It's like big time, you know? It's like you got to have a plan
in this world, you know? You've got to have some place you want to go so you
know when you've arrived, and "Straight To the Top" is just one of those
songs, you know?

GROSS: I've put together a little medley of "Straight To the Top" and "I'll
Take New York" so we can hear a little bit of both of them.

Mr. WAITS: Boy, thank you.

GROSS: OK. Somebody's got to put show biz medleys together, right?

Mr. WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: So let's give it a listen and this is in the movie "Big Time" but
we're going to play it from the album "Frank's Wild Years." And this is Tom
Waits.

(Soundbite of medley)

Mr. WAITS: (Singing) I'm going straight to the top, whoa. I'm going where
the air is fresh and clean. I'm going straight up to the top. If you know
me, you know what I mean. I can't let Mrs. Sorrow try and pull old Frankie
down. We'll live for tomorrow. I have found you. Straight to the top. I'm
going up where the air is fresh and clean. I know I'm never gonna stop until
I know, I know I'm wild and free. Hey. I'm...

I'm ...(unintelligible) boy. I'm gonna shine. I'll ride that dream till the
end of the line. I'm going to be going places. I'm gonna ride. Take me to
the riverside. I'm gonna take you, New York! I'll make it happen...

GROSS: That's Tom Waits. I have to say, when you do this in the movie,
there's something very Liza about it, very Liza Minnelli, like in "New York,
New York."

Mr. WAITS: Ah. Oh, yeah. Thank you.

GROSS: You know, with your arm gestures, you know?

Mr. WAITS: Uh-huh, yeah, I get a lot of that type of thing. People think
that I'm--we're not going out anymore but she gave me a lot.

GROSS: Wait, here's my fantasy about your voice, that you initially sang
hoarse because you liked it stylistically and then you ended up with a really
hoarse voice.

Mr. WAITS: You mean, like if you cross your eyes they'll stay that way? And
your mom says, `Don't turn your eyelids inside-out, Bobby.'

GROSS: I guess not unlike that, yes.

Mr. WAITS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So that's my fantasy. What's the reality?

Mr. WAITS: I don't know. I guess when I was a little kid I used to try to
make my voice lower because I wanted to grow up real fast so I could be an old
man and play golf, you know? I couldn't wait to get there, wear wild slacks
and drink coffee and smoke cigars and talk about finance, and it happened
very, very fast. You know, I started talking like this--you know, there--I
saw the clubs, they appeared in the corner of the room, and so I don't know.
I guess you get the voice you deserve.

GROSS: Are you taking better care of your voice now? I read that you'd given
up smoking.

Mr. WAITS: Uh-huh.

GROSS: And that's really hard to do. So you must have really been committed
to...

Mr. WAITS: It is hard to do.

GROSS: ...doing it.

Mr. WAITS: I am committed to doing it. I drink my own urine and I think
that's...

GROSS: That's enough for your voice, right?

Mr. WAITS: It's not bad with a little ice and a twist.

GROSS: Oh, this is the doctor's recommendation, no doubt.

Mr. WAITS: Uh-huh.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WAITS: I don't know. I can--you know, I still have a falsetto. It's
somewhere around here.

GROSS: You want to demonstrate that for us?

Mr. WAITS: Uh-huh. Well, that's gonna cost you.

GROSS: Right, OK.

Mr. WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: I want to give our listeners a sense of what you were doing earlier in
your career and the kinds of stories and songs that you would do based on what
you'd seen in diners and in bars. This is from an early album of yours called
"Night Hawks At The Diner."

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WAITS: I was always a kind of one who liked to consider myself kind of a
pioneer of the palate, a restauranteur, if you will. I wined, dined, sipped
and supped in some of the most demonstrably ...(unintelligible) bistros in the
Los Angeles metropolitan region. (Laughs) Yeah, I've had strange-looking
patty melts at Norm's.

(Soundbite of laughter, applause)

Mr. WAITS: I've had dangerous veal cutlets at the Copper Penny.

(Soundbite of laughter, applause)

Mr. WAITS: But what you get is a breaded Salisbury steak in a shake and bake
and topped with a provocative sauce of Velveeta and half and half. (Laughs)
Smothered with Campbell's tomato soup.

(Soundbite of laughter, applause)

Mr. WAITS: Because, you see, I have kind of a--well, I order my veal cutlet.
Christ, it left the plate and it walked down to the end of the counter and I
had to ...(unintelligible). Waitress, `See my ...(unintelligible)?' Boy,
she's wearing those rhinestone glasses with a little pearl thing clipped on
her sweater. And my veal cutlet come down, tried to beat the (censored) out
of my cup of coffee, but coffee just wasn't strong enough to defend itself.
(Laughs)

BIANCULLI: Tom Waits from the 1975 recording "Night Hawks At The Diner"
Asylum. Terry Gross spoke with him in 1988 and again in 2002.

We'll hear more from that recent interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Tom Waits has a new CD out called "Real Gone." Terry spoke with
him in 2002.

GROSS: What are some of the things that scared you as a kid, either that
scared you in real life or movies or music that you found
frightening--interesting but frightening?

Mr. WAITS: Yeah. Oh, I don't know. I guess, like, the plastic covers on
sofas scares me--the sound that makes when you sit down on a sofa that's
covered with plastic. It crinkles and--I don't know. I used to watch Alfred
Hitchcock and "The Twilight Zone." Those captivated me, those little tales.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Monster movies?

Mr. WAITS: And monster movies, yeah, sure. But, you know, things that
really scared me--I don't know. I guess, you know, I could conjure up just
about anything and scare myself, you know? If I heard a sound at night, you
know, and then it would get larger and larger and stranger and stranger, and,
you know, it'd get--you know, afraid to get out of bed. And I think I had
some kind of a disorder, the way I heard things. If I moved my hand across in
the air, I heard, like, (makes whooshing sound), you know?

GROSS: Wow, really?

Mr. WAITS: And cars going by sounded like planes, and, you know, very small
sounds in the house got enormous. But I think it was just a temporary
condition.

GROSS: Did you ever see a doctor about it?

Mr. WAITS: (Laughs) They said they couldn't help me.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: What was your first instrument?

Mr. WAITS: I don't know. I don't know, probably a box or something.

GROSS: But, I mean, the first `instrument' instrument.

Mr. WAITS: Oh, my dad gave me a guitar when I was about nine and, you know, I
learned "El Paso" and--actually, I learned it in Spanish because he wouldn't
purchase any, you know, like, English-speaking records. He didn't like them.
And, in fact, I remember going by...

GROSS: This is your father. Yeah.

Mr. WAITS: That's my dad, yeah. We went by a stop sign once. There was a
guy in a hot rod with, you know, a ducktail and everything, greased-down hair,
combed way back, and he's gunning the motor. And we're in this station wagon,
and he looked over at that guy like, you know--and then he looked over at me
as if to say, `Don't get any ideas,' you know? And--but, yeah, so I had a
guitar. I learned three chords. I thought I knew everything. And it kind of
grew from there.

GROSS: Now you dropped out of high school. Why did you drop out? Is there
something that you wanted to do instead, or did you just hate going?

Mr. WAITS: Oh, I wanted to go into the world, you know? Enough of this. I
didn't like the ceiling in the rooms. I didn't like the holes in the ceiling,
those little tiny holes and the corkboard and the long stick used for opening
the windows.

GROSS: Oh, God, yeah, we had one of those in my elementary school. Yeah.

Mr. WAITS: Oh, I just hated all that stuff. I was real sensitive to my
visual surroundings, and, you know, I just wanted to get out of there.

GROSS: Did any adults try to stop you, either your parents or teachers?

Mr. WAITS: I had good teachers. I had some--my folks broke up when I was
about 11, and so I had teachers that I liked a lot, that I kind of looked up
to, but then they seemed like they couldn't wait to get out into the world
themselves and do some, you know, banging around and learning and growing.
And so I thought maybe they were encouraging me to leave.

GROSS: So did you succeed in kind of getting out into the world, so to speak?

Mr. WAITS: Pretty much, yeah.

GROSS: What'd you do?

Mr. WAITS: Oh, I hitchhiked all over the place, and, gee, I don't know...

GROSS: What's the craziest ride that you got when you were hitchhiking that
you would shudder to think about now?

Mr. WAITS: Well, actually, I had some good things that happened to me
hitchhiking, because I did wind up on New Year's Eve in front of a Pentecostal
church, and an old woman named Mrs. Anderson came out to the--I was stuck in
a town with, like, seven people in this town and trying to get out, you know?
And my buddy and I were out there for hours and hours and hours getting colder
and colder, and it was getting darker and darker. And finally she came over
and she says, `Come on into the church here. You know, it's warm and there's
music, and you can sit in the back row.' And we did.

And they were singing and, you know, they had a tambourine, an electric guitar
and a drummer. And they were, you know, talking in tongues, and then they
kept gesturing to me and my friend, Sam, and said, `These are our wayfaring
strangers here,' and so we felt kind of important. And they took up a
collection, they gave us the money, bought us a hotel room and a meal. And we
got up the next morning and then we hit the first ride, 7 in the morning, and
we were gone. It was really nice. I still remember all of that. And it was
a--gave me a good feeling about traveling.

GROSS: Did you ever do the street-musician thing?

Mr. WAITS: I didn't, but when I see people do it, I say, `Oh, man, I should
have done that.' I'll tell you, you really get your chops together, you know,
'cause I'm real, I guess, particular about how--you know, those things. I get
real nervous and--but I think I wish I had done that, because it looks like it
takes a lot of guts, and I think that you'd probably cut through a lot of
potential stage fright that you would eventually have and maybe it'd help you
down the road. I don't know.

GROSS: So has stage fright been an issue for you?

Mr. WAITS: Oh, yeah, yeah. I go through all kinds of stuff about it. But,
you know, when I get out there, I'm all right.

GROSS: So the bad part is thinking about going out.

Mr. WAITS: Yeah. And--but my big gigs are opening a show for Frank Zappa,
and I think that was difficult. I was kind of like the rectal thermometer for
the audience, and it was a little awkward for me. I was alone, and I was
performing in front of large groups of people, and they were verbally abusive.
And I think it--I'm like a dog. I was beat as a dog, so...

GROSS: Is there a point in your career that you see as a turning point from
getting to where you are now from where you were when you started performing?

Mr. WAITS: Oh, yeah, probably--well, I got married, really, you know? That
was it, you know? I mean, that's, like, the most important thing I ever did.
And then Kathleen really was the one who encouraged me to produce my own
records, you know, and...

GROSS: What kind of music background is she from?

Mr. WAITS: Oh, gee, I don't know. She's got, like, opera in there, and she
was going to be a nun, you know, so we changed all that.

GROSS: Yeah, I guess so.

Mr. WAITS: But, no, she's adventurous, you know? And she kind of picks up a
lot of stations that I don't pick up. I get kind of narrow and concerned in
making something--giving it four legs and getting it to stand up, and she's
more interested in what goes inside. And she's very feminine, and I think
that's what works. And the idea of going into the studio and doing your own
record is kind of scary. You know, pick the engineer, pick all the musicians
and, you know, write some kind of mission statement for yourself and what you
want it to be and sound like and feel like and take responsibility for
everything that goes on the tape. That's a lot to do, especially--it's a lot
for a record company to let you do when you behave like I did, and they
didn't--they thought I was--you know, I think they thought I was a drunk, and
they--you know, and I was really non-communicative and I scratched the back of
my neck a lot and I looked down at my shoes a lot, and I, you know, wore old
suits and they were nervous about me.

But it's understandable. And in those days they didn't really let artists
produce themselves. That was also the day of, you know, the big, shining
producer, who was, like, I guess, the director on the film. They give you the
money and say, `Go make a record with this guy over here and see what you can
get out of him,' that kind of thing, but once I got a taste for it, I really
liked it.

GROSS: Tom Waits, thank you so much. It's really been great to talk with
you. Thank you.

Mr. WAITS: Oh, oh, we're all done.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. WAITS: Oh, OK. Nice to talk to you, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Tom Waits speaking with Terry Gross in 2002. His new CD is called
"Real Gone." Here's another track from it called "Dead and Lovely."

(Soundbite of "Dead and Lovely")

Mr. WAITS: (Singing) She was a middle-class girl. She was in over her head.
She thought she could stand up in the deep end. He had a bullet-proof smile.
He had money to burn. She thought she had the moon in her pocket, but now
she's dead. She's so dead. Forever dead and lovely now.

BIANCULLI: Coming up, Geoff Nunberg on the presidential debates. This is
FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Commentary: Sporting comparisons regarding the presidential debates
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

The second presidential debate is tonight. This time the candidates will
field questions from a selected audience of uncommitted voters. Our linguist,
Geoff Nunberg, says that if debates are the only chance we get to see the
candidates think on their feet, the town hall format of tonight's debate might
be the ultimate test.

GEOFF NUNBERG (Linguist):

In the build-up to last week's presidential debate, nobody could resist
comparing it to a sporting event. The only question was which. Chris
Matthews called it the big casino. Joe Scarborough described it as Sammy Sosa
vs. Pedro Martinez. And Andrea Mitchell was one of about 31 commentators who
compared it to the Super Bowl. On CNN, Robert Novak said that Bush can play
little ball but Kerry has to hit a home run, while Al Sharpton reminded Kerry
to `cut the ring off and make him fight.' But the most apt sporting
comparison is probably to Olympic figure-skating, a quadrennial competition
that nobody has any idea how to score unless one of the competitors actually
falls down.

If you listened only to the media talk about the debates, it could be hard to
tell them from an "American Idol" episode. Over the years, the proportion of
post-debate coverage devoted to discussions of the issues has dropped to
around 10 percent. The pundits dissect each twitch and frown for the impact
it might have had on the ordinary folks who will be chewing it over at the
water coolers the next day. Party spokesmen hype the rhetorical skills of
their opponents with the implication that the viewing public is easily taken
in by debating gimmicks.

You'd think the viewing public would be insulted by that except that we don't
really think it applies to us. We all consider ourselves wise to the play of
appearances. And when we finally make up our collective mind about the winner
two or three days later, nobody's sure what the criteria were, apart from the
mysterious business of `Who looked presidential?' to the voters. As it
happens, that phrase first became common in the American political lexicon in
the 1970s when the televised debate was permanently revived after a 16-year
lull and when the networks first began broadcasting post-debate commentary and
spin.

`Looking presidential' in debates is like artistic merit in figure skating, an
imponderable that nobody feels obliged to pin down. High-minded people tend
to grumble that the rules are set up to turn the confrontations into beauty
contests rather than what they call `real debates.' Shortly after the
Kennedy-Nixon debates, Henry Steele Commager wrote that the format,
privileges, the glib, the evasive, the dogmatic and the melodramatic over the
sincere, the judicious, the sober and the honest, but actually what the
critics mean by a real debate isn't much like what goes on at the Oxford Union
or a high-school debate club. It's more like a serious back-and-forth
discussion of the issues where each candidate would lay out his views on
whether China should be included in the negotiations with North Korea and then
public could make up its own mind who was right.

But the fact is that the debates are about the only occasion we have to watch
the candidates thinking on their feet. True, what they're mostly thinking
about is which canned response to substitute for an answer. But there's an
art to that, too. The elaborate rules the party's set up in advance can only
determine what kind of talk show the debate is going to be. In the end, the
candidates are going to be evaluated according to how well they perform as
guests. And in that department, we viewers are as knowledgeable as a
figure-skating judge who's giving points for a triple Axel.

And the debates are undeniably informative, even if they don't leave us much
clearer on the issues. As Alan Schroeder remarked in his history of the
presidential debates, `No matter how the deck has been stacked, little arrows
of verisimilitude manage to shoot out of the screen.' The format of last
Thursday's debate may have been chosen to minimize the risks to the candidates
but it also happened to create a setting that discouraged grandstanding and
condescension. Even if the answers were ultimately aimed at the viewing
audience, they had to be framed as if they were addressed to Jim Lehrer, which
required a certain modulation of tone. A candidate can't respond to a
question with the jabs and one-liners that he uses to work the crowd at
campaign rallies. It would feel the way it does when a comic tries to
converse with Leno or Letterman in nightclub shtick.

As it happens, that format neutralized a lot of the techniques that have made
the president so effective when he's speaking to his supporters. The sarcasm
that brings the listeners in on the joke, the rising pauses that seem to ask
for a response from the audience. Even if we couldn't see Jim Lehrer's
reactions, we know he wouldn't have gone there. And it was striking that
Kerry came off so well without following the pundits' advice to avoid
complexity and reveal his lighter side. True, he was a bit crisper than
usual, but his sentences were still a lot longer than Bush's and he kept
ticking off points on his fingers. And apart from a kindly quip about Bush's
daughters, he was all business. This may all play very differently in the
town hall format of tonight's debate where the audience will be an active
force in the room and where the setting's more congenial to elaborate
demonstrations of feeling people's pain.

Even so, neither of these two candidates is going to be able to keep viewers
from taking their measure. We're at least as skillful at watching talk shows
as they are at appearing on them.

BIANCULLI: Geoff Nunberg is a Stanford linguist and the author of "Going
Nuclear: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times."

(Credits)

BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

'Underground Railroad' Director Barry Jenkins Sees Film As An 'Empathy Machine'

Director Barry Jenkin's new series is based on Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about an enslaved teenage girl who escapes from a brutal Georgia plantation. He says it was the most difficult undertakings of his career.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue