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Tom Waits: On 'Alice' And 'Blood Money'

Since the 1973 release of his first album, Closing Time, Tom Waits has won fans over with his original songwriting and distinctive, gravelly vocal style. Musicians including Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen and Rod Stewart have recorded covers of his songs. He has also acted in films, including Sylvester Stallone's Paradise Alley, Jim Jarmusch's Down By Law and Robert Altman's Short Cuts. Waits has two new CDs out this month: Alice and Blood Money. The pair of very different-sounding albums were written and produced by Tom Waits and his wife and long-time collaborator, Kathleen Brennan.




Related Topic

Other segments from the episode on May 21, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 21, 2002: Interview with Tom Waits; Obituary for Stephen Jay Gould.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Tom Waits discusses his musical influences, his career
and his two new CDs, "Blood Money" and "Alice"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Tom Waits, is one of the true eccentrics of pop music. In The New
York Times this month, he was described as `the poet of outcasts.' There's
always been an element of mystery surrounding his life. The people he sings
about are usually loners, losers, hobos, outlaws and drunks. The darkness of
his lyrics is accentuated by the rumble and rasp of his voice; a voice that
sounded old even when he was young. Waits has been recording since 1973. VH1
named him as one of the most influential artists of all time. His songs have
been used on the soundtrack of several films, and he's acted in the films
"Down by Law," "Short Cuts" and Francis Ford Coppola's "Dracula."

Waits has two new CDs: "Alice" and "Blood Money." Each was written for a
music theater piece by Robert Wilson. Each has songs co-written with Waits
and his wife, Kathleen Brennan. Let's start with a song from "Blood Money."
This is "Misery Is The River Of The World."

(Soundbite of "Misery Is The River Of The World")

Mr. TOM WAITS: (Singing) The higher that the monkey can climb the more he
shows his tail. Call no man happy till he dies. There's no milk at the
bottom of the pail. God builds a church, the devil builds a chapel like the
pistols that are growing on the trunk of a tree. All the good in the world
you can put inside a thimble and still have room for you and me.

If there's one thing you can say about mankind, there's nothing kind about
man. You can drive out nature with a pitchfork, but it always comes roaring
back again. Misery's the river of the world. Misery's the river of the
world. Misery's the river of the world.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Music from Tom Waits' new CD, "Blood Money."

Tom Waits, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. WAITS: Oh, thanks. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Now this music started as a music theater piece?

Mr. WAITS: Oh, yeah, originally. This was a project done with Robert Wilson,
the avant-garde theater director. So it's the third thing that we've done
with him, and the production was called "Woyzeck," and these are the songs
from that.

GROSS: How did you get to collaborate with Robert Wilson?

Mr. WAITS: Well, let's see--you know, Wilson's like a surgeon. He's like
a--when you meet him, you think this guy's either with aerospace or he's some
kind of a medical guy, you know. There's that feeling around, rather a
certain precision to the way he speaks and works. And I thought it was very
different than my own approach, which was, I guess, more like falling down the
stairs compared to Bob. But somehow the fact that we were very different
seemed to, you know, come together.

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 I 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: it works for me, you know.

GROSS: I thought we could hear another one of your songs from "Blood Money,"
and this is called "Everything Goes To Hell." This is Tom Waits from his new

(Soundbite of "Everything Goes To Hell"; music)

Mr. WAITS: (Singing) Why be sweet, why be careful, why be kind. A man has
only one thing on his mind. Why ask politely, why go lightly, why say
`Please.' They only want to get you on your knees. There's a few things that
I never could believe: Oh, a woman when she weeps, a merchant when he swears,
a thief who says he'll pay, a lawyer when he cares, a snake when he's
sleeping, a drunkard when he prays. I don't believe you can go to heaven when
you're good, and everything goes to hell anyway.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: That's Tom Waits' "Everything Goes To Hell," from his new CD "Blood
Money," one of two new CDs. The other is called "Alice." And we'll listen to
music from "Alice" in a little while.

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

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.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WAITS: 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 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 actually, she 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. We'd only know each other a short time when we
got married. Now 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. 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 thing 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: 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: Mm-hmm. 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--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'd 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 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.

GROSS: My guest is singer, songwriter and musician Tom Waits. He has two new
CDs, "Alice" and "Blood Money." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Tom Waits. He has two new CDs, "Alice" and "Blood Money."

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

Mr. WAITS: Hmm. 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 it. I guess.
Yeah, sure. I walked with a cane. You know, I was going overboard, perhaps,

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.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. WAITS: 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.

GROSS: Uh-huh. Uh-huh.

Mr. WAITS: 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 pew, 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.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: That's "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" from the new Tom Waits' CD "Blood
Money." He also has another new CD called "Alice," and we'll hear some of
that a little bit later.

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: know.

GROSS: Well, you actually sing in different kinds of voices on your new CDs.
I mean, you have...

Mr. WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS:, your very deep growly voice and then a lighter voice that you

Mr. WAITS: You know--well, it's just like--it's just a musical vocabulary,

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. WAITS: You know, you find the appropriate sound for the correct tune and
match them up. Yeah. You know, I like to scream and, you know, I can croon,
you know, all that stuff.

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, 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.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WAITS: I like turning on two radios at the same time and listen to them.
I like hearing things incorrectly. I think that's how I get a lot of ideas is
by mishearing something.

GROSS: Tom Waits has two new CDs, "Alice" and "Blood Money." Each was
written for a music theater piece by Robert Wilson. "Blood Money" is for
Wilson's avant-garde interpretation of the 1837 play "Woyzeck." It will be
performed this fall at BAM, the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Tom Waits will be
back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "Starving In the Belly Of A Whale"; music)

Mr. WAITS: (Singing) Life is whittled, life's a riddle. Man's a fiddle that
life plays on. When the day breaks and the earth quakes, life's a mistake all
day long. So tell me who gives a good goddamn. You'll never get out alive.
Don't go dreaming. Don't go scheming. A man must test his mettle in the
crooked old world.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WAITS: (Singing) Starving in the belly, starving in the belly, starving
in the belly of a whale. Oh, you're starving in the belly, starving in the
belly, starving in the belly of a whale.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WAITS: (Singing) Don't take my word. Just look skyward. They that dance
must pay the fiddler.


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with singer and songwriter
Tom Waits. He has two new CDs, "Blood Money" and "Alice." Each was written
for a music theater piece by director Robert Wilson. When we left off, Waits
was talking about how he wishes he was part of the Brill Building era, when a
lot of pop songwriters in the '60s had offices in Manhattan office buildings,
where they wrote songs for other performers.

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,

GROSS: So did you meet Johnny Cash?

Mr. WAITS: No, no. I have not met Johnny Cash. I would look forward to that
day down the road, and I would love to meet him.

GROSS: Tom Waits, you have two new CDs. We heard part of "Blood Money." You
have another new CD called "Alice," which, I believe like "Blood Money," also
has its origins as a Robert Wilson music theater piece.

Mr. WAITS: Right. Yeah. Yeah. I was down in Hamburg quite a while ago, in
'93, something like that.

GROSS: And what is "Alice" about?

Mr. WAITS: It's a hypothetical situation, kind of imagining the obsession
that Lewis Carroll had for this young girl Alice and...


Mr. WAITS: know, what it might have been like inside of his mind in
Victorian England and all that stuff--the beginning of photography, and his,
you know, young gal, and, you know, it's kind of like a, you know, fever dream
or whatever, kind of virus of the mind.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear the title track? This is called "Alice," and
if there's something you want to say to introduce it, that's great, and if
not, we'll just hear it.

Mr. WAITS: Yeah. This is "Alice." This is kind of like the opening tune,
and it's like a private moment, and it's like sitting in a chair by yourself,
thinking about someone.

GROSS: OK. Here's "Alice," the title track from the new Tom Waits CD.

(Soundbite of "There's Only Alice")

Mr. WAITS: (Singing) It's dreamy weather whereon you waved your crooked wand
along an icy pond with a frozen moon; a murder of silhouette crows I saw in
the tears on my face, and the skates on the pond--they spell `Alice.'

I disappear in your name, but you must wait for me. Somewhere across the sea
there's a wreck of a ship. Your hair is like meadowgrass on the tide and the
raindrops on my window and the ice in my drink. Baby, all I can think of is

GROSS: That's the title track of Tom Waits' new CD "Alice," one of two new
CDs that he has.

Did you even as a kid like, you know, murder ballads and stories of depravity
like you do now?

Mr. WAITS: Oh, yeah, everybody loves that.

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: 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 captivate me, those little tales.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Monster movies?

Mr. WAITS: And monster movies, 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 would get--you know, afraid to get out of bed. 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).

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

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 duck tail 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 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: My guest is singer-songwriter and musician Tom Waits. He has two new
CDs, "Alice" and "Blood Money." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Tom Waits. He has two new CDs, "Alice" and "Blood Money."

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.
Didn't like the ceiling in the rooms. I didn't like the holes in the ceiling,
those little tiny holes and the cork board 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 I just--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 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 of 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, where 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; 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 out the next morning and
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 gave me a good feeling about

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 now, you know, those things. I get
real nervous when--but I think I wish I had done that, because it looks like
it takes a lot of guts, and I think that you would 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. Yeah. But my first gig--my first big gig--was an opening
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 so 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.
I mean, and 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, you know, 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 in 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 the producer--you know, the big,
shining producer, who was, like, I guess, the director of 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.' But I want to tell you, I got a taste for it. I
really like 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.

GROSS: Tom Waits has two new CDs, "Alice" and "Blood Money." Each was
written for a music theater piece by Robert Wilson. "Blood Money" is for
Wilson's avant-garde interpretation of the 1837 play "Woyzeck." It will be
performed this fall at BAM, the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

This is FRESH AIR.

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

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript
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.

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