Waits discusses Bad As Me and his eventful career – plus, Tom's riddles!

Do you listen back to your albums much once you’ve finished making them? There are some artists, like Scott Walker, who never listen to their work again once it’s completed.
People are like that with movies, too. There’s people that make movies that have never even seen the movie. Like Jimmy Stewart, towards the end of his career, didn’t like the way he looked, he was unhappy with his appearance, he’d gotten older… and Johnny Depp, I don’t think, has ever seen one of his movies. I listen to the hell out of this stuff as we’re making it, then once it’s completed and out, the thing is, you’ll never listen as closely as you do when you’re making it – there’s a lot of micro-, macro-determinations that you’re making, you’re listening on many levels, but once it’s over… it’s kinda like the ashes of the work, and what you really want is new wood.

“Pay Me” has some lovely cantina piano, like the stuff Henry Mancini did for Touch Of Evil.
Remember the last line in Touch Of Evil? [Together] “He was some kind of a man!”
What does that mean? I really got a kick out of that! The other thing I remember from that movie is Dennis Weaver holding onto a small tree, shouting, “I’m the night man! I’m just the night man!” Like, don’t ask me, I don’t know what goes on around here, I’m the night man!

You know that Hugh Laurie series, House? He [Dr Wilson] has the one-sheet for Touch Of Evil on his office wall, and every time we wait for the camera to pan by – ‘There it is! Touch Of Evil!’. That was a Mancini score? That clanky piano, sounds like it has tacks on it, that was good. You don’t think of border music being played on a piano. I asked David Hidalgo about a song called “La Golondrina”, sung by a mariachi band at the end of The Wild Bunch, and he said it’s about a bird. Then I asked a Mexican cab driver, and he said kids sing it in school when they’re going away for the summer, saying goodbye to their teachers. I was trying to get a bit of that on “Pay Me”. The line, “The only way down from the gallows is to swing” – that was going to be the title, except I’m not sure how many times you can hear that in a song! Imagine getting to the chorus: “All right, everybody! The only way down from the gallows… Come on, you know the words!”

There’s lots of highly quotable lines on the album. I love “I’m the last leaf on the tree, the autumn took the rest, but they won’t take me.”
That was Keith Richards singing. He really can sing, y’know? We’re singing in unison for the most part, but he has a real country voice. He embellishes, and does these flights. We tried it once or twice, and got it, and that’s it.

How did he take to being mentioned in “Satisfied” (“Now Mr Jagger and Mr Richards/I will scratch where I’ve been itching”)?
That just came out, y’know? We wanted to make it a reaction song – ’cos everytime I hear “Satisfaction”, I think the same thing: if you guys can’t get any satisfaction, nobody’s getting it! I always joke about it, and we decided to make a tune that said, “Fuck it, I will be satisfied!… oh, and by the way, Mr Jagger and Mr Richards…?” That was how that happened. It’s a bit of a rant.

The phrase “I will have satisfaction” comes from duelling, doesn’t it? It’s the slap in the face with the glove.
Yeah! Somebody heard it, and they told me, “You sound so upset about it!” [Laughs]

Do you find your own tastes in music changing as you grow older?
Some things you just deepen your appreciation for. Other things you deepen your dislike for. It don’t matter how many times you hear Johnny Cash – he endures. In terms of nourishment, some writers and singers really nourish you, and continue to; others you discover for the first time.

Who’ve you discovered recently that you’ve liked?
Well, the thing is, when you have kids, you don’t run the turntable any more! So whatever comes in the house, it ain’t you that’s deciding what gets played. You’re a patron. Serving whatever they call the arts. It challenges your sense of what’s enduring in you, and what we rebel against when we hear something new. You go, “Oh man! You know where that shit came from? You know who the Clancy Brothers are? Let me tell you…” You get real uppity about it. “You never heard of Howlin’ Wolf?! Have you stopped breathing?”

But it’s their world, we just live in it, as they say. I have a perverse appreciation for the pandemonium of the musical pantheon, and what gets challenged and knocked off the horse. But it’s interesting to see what kids will hear once or twice, and then it’s in there – I played Little Richard and Buddy Holly for my boy when he was young, every day on the way to school: “You gotta get this shit in you!”

And did it work?
Yeah! Now, he hears it, and he’s, like, “Oh, it’s Little Richard.” You try to instil things, and at the same time, you’re learning yourself – they have you listen to things, and I’m always open to stuff.

It’s odd how we come to music in our own time. When I was growing up, I’d listen to Beefheart, and it was only later that I heard Howlin’ Wolf, and this big lightbulb came on, the penny dropped. It’s not the order that novels are written in that matters, it’s the order in which they’re read.
Oh, that’s a really nice way to see it. Because it’s not a linear learning experience, ever. That’s what I loved about Theme Time Radio Hour, because the discoveries were your own. [Does Dylan impression] “This one’s about roses. Red roses. Yellow roses. Thorns on roses – watch out, it’ll prick your finger…”, and oh, man, you’re off to the races, you’d hear “Yellow Rose Of Texas”, “My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose”… I loved that show, you got to see connections that you might never make yourself – between Judy Garland, and Sylvia Plath reading her poetry, and Henry Threadgill.

It reminded me more of the radio that I used to hear when I was a kid, when you’d have a DJ who’d say, “Hey, check this out,” and he’d play Lightnin’ Hopkins, then maybe transition into some classical piece or maybe Gershwin: it helps you see things. As you said, it’s the order they’re heard in, not the order they’re recorded in. You don’t wanna be a prisoner of time. Otherwise, you’re a goldfish in a plastic bag, and you’ve just been lowered into the aquarium, and told to stay in the bag. An aquarium is isolating enough, but to be in a bag in the aquarium is really depressing!

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