Waits discusses Bad As Me and his eventful career – plus, Tom's riddles!
“A man gets on the elevator at the 10th floor, goes down to the ground floor, gets off, and goes to work every day. When he comes home that day, he gets on the elevator, goes up to the seventh floor, gets out and walks up the remaining three floors. Except when it’s raining, then he goes all the way to the top.*
“Another one: A man was put on trial for murder, and found guilty by a jury of his peers, and when it came to the sentencing, the judge leaned over and said, ‘You’ve been convicted of this crime of which you’ve been accused, but I cannot jail an innocent man’, and he let him go. What were the circumstances which led to his being set free? ** [See panel on the final page for the answers]
“One last word thing. We’ve all heard the expression ‘stealing my thunder’. Before Shakespeare, they devised all these techniques to create audio illusions in the theatre – there were no soundsystems, so everything was done in a very crude, hands-on way. To make the sound of thunder, this man devised a big round bin, into which they put cannonballs, which they pushed around. But the production in which it was first used was completely canned, shut down after just two nights.
“A few months later, another director’s play used the thunder effect. This guy who created the effect was there in the audience that night, and he stood up and shouted out, ‘He stole my thunder!’ True! In those days, publishing was not very sophisticated, so if you had something which was yours, you had to defend it, or someone would just take it. And they did.”
Given Waits’ own experiences defending his copyrights and distinctive vocal stylings from advertising hucksters, his sympathies are doubtless with the hapless inventor.
In between times, Waits talks about his delightful new album, Bad As Me, a typically stubborn, individualistic collection of burly R’n’B and wilful bizarrerie, of heartbreaking pathos and comical bathos. It has that great clanking, squawking, compelling rustic-engine quality that sets Tom Waits albums apart from those of his peers, but all the sonic invention can’t disguise the solidity of these songs, their seriousness and depth and, yes, their charm. You could perform them unaccompanied save for piano or acoustic guitar, and they would still wield an undeniable impact; but having heard them this way, why would you want to strip away those starkly patinated arrangements?
Great American Songwriters are (thankfully) still in no short supply; but Waits taps into the spirit of the Great American Primitives, one-off artists like Partch and Moondog and Beefheart, which is something far rarer and more precious.