Interview by Chris Roberts
Tom Waits had just released the concert film, Big Time, when he was interviewed by Chris Roberts in September 1988. The interview was recorded on cassette tape at a recording studio; you can hear various tunes playing in the background. We found the interview in the Rock’s Backpages archive.
“He’s a natural raconteur,” Chris told us. “You just get out of the way and let him do his thing, perform. If you can nudge the jokes along, so much the better.”
The Animated Transcript
Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and popular culture for many years.
I was always laughing in church. There’s nothing that makes me laugh more than being in the situation where you’re not supposed to laugh. Funerals. People crying. Breaking down. Telling you their life. I’m the worst. I’m the worst at that.
What are you reading about? Are you reading this?
Somebody gave this to me, so I’m trying to memorize all the streets of London and I’m doing quite well if you want to quiz me later.
So you can be a cab driver.
I’m ready. I’m ready to take the exam.
Where have you never been that you’d like to go?
I’ve never been to Stonehenge. There are moles beneath Stonehenge, the most elaborate system of mole catacombs is beneath Stonehenge. There are more moles beneath Stonehenge than there are anywhere in the world and the community, they reward moles that have the courage to tunnel beneath great rivers. It takes an understanding of physics and engineering, that type of thing. Because if you make a false move, you bring the river in on you, you wipe out the whole world. They have executions for moles that have made the wrong turn.
New York forces you to be in an endless surreal situations where the $50,000 Mercedes, gun-metal Mercedes, pulls up into the puddle of blood and out steps the 25-karat, blonde transvestite with a $2 wristwatch. It’s always setting you off balance. A night club in a church.
People smoking reefer under a stain glass window. I think it’s good. It fractures you a little bit, or that I think it’s stimulating for artists because if you’re visually susceptible to images as optically it’s constantly bombarding you with a lot of information if you can take it without becoming part of it.
I think you just write, and you don’t try to make sense of it. You just put it down the way you got it. You don’t try to organize it or give meaning to it. I think the best thing to do is just take pictures of it. It’s like you go in there with a safari rifle and a telephoto lens, and just wait in the bushes.
When I first got into show business, my step-father bought me a wild shirt which was… said more about what he thought show business was than what I thought it was. It was this lime-green shirt with like seven different kinds of fabrics and textures on it with wooden buttons. It looked like a Hawaiian nightmare. He gave it to me, very serious when he gave it to me, and it was like he was giving me a sword: “to go out into the world of show business and kill some dragons, pal, and bring us back the skins.” I looked at that shirt, and I was like, “God damn.”
Do you think you’ve made the big time, or is that just a hint of irony there?
Yeah, I think quite a bit of irony. I don’t know what the big time is, really, except that it’s probably some terrible place that you can’t get out of, or that you fall from and break all your bones, or try to go further and burn up. So I don’t know. It’s just one of those expressions that’s been around for so long. It’s curious, so I don’t know. It’s a riddle. Big time.
I met a guy one night who came up to me with his hand out, I said, “oh, no, no.” He said, “yeah, yeah, listen, man, it’s not what you think. I don’t want any money. I just want to be your friend.” He said, “my name is Charlie. What’s your name? How you doing?” He said, “that’s all I wanted, see.” He went all the way around the block, came all the way back, and then when he came around the corner, he saw me, he said, “hey, Tom, it’s your old buddy Charlie. Could you loan me a couple of bucks?” I got a kick out of that.
Chris Roberts on Interviewing Mr. Waits
“If you can nudge the jokes along, so much the better. Waits is a dream interviewee. If only more artists gave a one man show via the medium of interview.
You stay loose. Don’t trample on his lines. Let him be Tom Waits. That’s what you want, it’s what he wants and it’s what the readers want. Don’t rein him in. No point putting a champion racehorse on a leash.
If they’re on fire – as a Tom Waits, Iggy Pop or David Bowie usually is – then just let them flow, and throw your preparation away. Keep it as a conversation where they say more than you, rather than an interrogation.
This was my second interview with Waits. The first, in New York in 1985, was more physically eventful – walking around Manhattan during Hurricane Gloria, bumping into friends of his. It was the first time I’d ever been to New York, indeed to the USA. Hurricane Gloria was raging as we landed. At the hotel the news said to stay indoors at all costs. The photographer and I of course – being crazy, curious Brits – went out and saw a near-deserted, post-apocalyptic Times Square, bejewelled only with discarded broken umbrellas. (This was heaven for the photographer, given the album’s Rain Dogs theme). Next day we met Waits and he was hilarious as ever, and showed us around a bit. His wife was about to give birth ‘any minute’.”
The Bukowski Influence
Waits first discovered Bukowski through the writer’s column in the LA Free Press. Waits says of Bukowski: “he seemed to be a writer of the common people and street people, looking in the dark corners where no one seems to want to go.”
Animated Tom Waits in 1979
“It was nearly two years before MTV’s debut, and six years before an animated rock video would appear on MTV, but we were inspired by a burgeoning market: rock n’ roll videos. All we needed was a subject… and then I recalled Waits at The Roxy. With his signature vocals and body language, Tom Waits’ motion would translate beautifully into animation.” – John Lamb
Hear how Tom Waits starred in a brilliant, experimental rotoscope animation
Watch vintage Waits in full-on barfly troubadour mode in 1978 on Austin City Limits
A Poem for Keith Richards
Tom Waits and Keith Richards have been friends for years with Keef appearing on several of Waits’ records. Recently Waits wrote this crazy/great poem to his friend:
Tom Waits Song Map
Of course someone mapped the locations in all of Tom Waits songs. It’s awesome.
“Hang Down Your Head”
“Keep My Heart” Deep Sounds
“Marinier” Anne-Maire Bernert
“Ten Men Dead” Deep Sounds
“Gypsy Twang” Paul Lenart, Bill Novick