Tom Waits: The Whiskey Voice Returns
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
In December, Tom Waits, the singer/songwriter, will turn 57. Over the years, he's given up whiskey for family life and a productive songwriting partnership with his wife, Kathleen Brennan, but the flavor of the whiskey is still in the voice. And the lyrics still invoke the poets of the Beat Generation.
(Soundbite of "Bottom of the World")
Mr. TOM WAITS (Singer/songwriter): (Singing) Well, my (unintelligible) be looking back. The best friend you'll have is a railroad track. But (unintelligible) I said I rolling my own and I'm leaving Missouri and I'm never coming home.
SIEGEL: This is "Bottom of the World." It's one of 54 songs on a new three-CD album from Tom Waits called "Orphans." There are some old songs, some new songs, most of these songs by Waits and Brennan, but plenty of covers, too.
Tom Waits has written a lot for the movies and we talked about that, especially a song for an Academy Award-winning animated short called "Bunny." The movie is about a rabbit, a moth and the afterlife. The song he wrote for it is called "Bend Down the Branches." And it doesn't mention any of those subjects.
Mr. WAITS: I don't know what connection the song had, but it worked. You know, sometimes it comes in at a right angle. If it's too on the money, sometimes people won't pay any attention. You know, songs for movies, you know, it's usually, they're out of money and they're out of time and they're out of patience. And they usually have a problem with the film they want you to fix.
SIEGEL: You mean the song is supposed to -
Mr. WAITS: The song is supposed to fix their problem.
SIEGEL: I see.
Mr. WAITS: And then they don't have a lot of money and they want it by the weekend. That's always what happens. So -
SIEGEL: But at that time, do you sit down and try to write to order or do you look through the drawer and see what have we written already that might conceivably be adapted and fit that, something unpublished, say.
Mr. WAITS: You mean, do we need fresh material or do we have something in stock?
SIEGEL: Yeah, or do you have a drawer full of stuff that's almost ready to go but it's not quite finished?
Mr. WAITS: My feeling, if you've got a song left over from a project, I usually cut it up and use it for bait.
(Soundbite of "Bend Down the Branches")
Mr. WAITS: (Singing) The sky as deep as it can be. Bend down the branches. Close your eyes and you will see. Bend down the branches. Like a willow, once you are gold, they're made for bending. Even beauty gets old. Climb the stairs. They're not so steep. Bend down in the branches. Close your eyes and go to sleep. And bend down the branches.
SIEGEL: The song that comes on right after "Bend Down the Branches," "You Can Never Hold Back Spring," you sound to me like Louis Armstrong.
(Soundbite of "You Can Never Hold Back Spring")
Mr. WAITS: (Singing) You can never hold back spring. You can be sure I will never stop believing. The blushing rose that will climb. Spring ahead or fall behind. Winter dreams the same dreams every time. Baby, you can never hold back spring.
That was a song for Roberto Benigni, who did a movie called "Tiger in the Snow" about the Iraq war, and the movie was kind of built around the song. It played several times during the movie.
SIEGEL: Have you actually been able to see the movie when you wrote the song or to read the screenplay?
Mr. WAITS: No. No. He just said write a good song.
(Soundbite of "You Can Never Hold Back Spring")
Mr. WAITS: (Singing) Close your eyes. Open your heart to someone who's dreaming of you.
You hope when there's a, that you dock the whole thing, it's going to match up.
SIEGEL: But you said something interesting before about writing music for movies, which is if it's too literally on what the movie is about, it can be too much. That cannot work. It has to be elusive in some way, or I think you said come at it from a right angle, and you can get it.
Mr. WAITS: Yeah. It's like if two people know the same things, one of you is unnecessary. And I think a song is kind of a movie for the ears. So if it's just underscoring and restating what you're already experiencing visually, I think you just kind of bat it away like a fly unless it has some kind of nourishment from another dimension. So that's what you try to do with a song.
SIEGEL: Your rendition of "Hi-ho Hi-ho, It's Off To Work We Go," never have the seven dwarfs seemed more miserable to me, more utterly exploited than in the way you would have them sing about mining for diamonds and rubies.
(Soundbite of "Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho It's Off To Work We Go")
Mr. WAITS: (Singing) There ain't no trick to get rich quick. Dig, dig, dig with a shovel and a pick. Dig, dig, dig -
Actually, Disney tried to sue us after the record came out because they said you changed all the words.
SIEGEL: No, those aren the - I've gone back and looked at the lyrics and those are the lyrics.
Mr. WAITS: They're the same.
SIEGEL: Yeah, those are the lyrics, actually.
Mr. WAITS: Exactly the same. And so I thought that was kind of ironic. And -
SIEGEL: I'm not surprised they tried to sue you, though, just the same because you did sort of strip the song of its cheery, whimsical quality.
Mr. WAITS: I guess you could say that and be on the money, yeah. But sometimes that's what a song needs in order to survive that time it was born in. I thought it worked.
And the other thing I find interesting is that when I'm listening to it, it doesn't sound like I'm saying we dig in the mine. It sounds like we're digging in our minds. And that even takes on another quality to it. We dig in our minds all day long. Dig, dig, dig. That's what we like to do. There ain't no trick to get rich quick if you dig, dig, dig with a shovel and pick.
You know, that we are all digging in our minds. And so, that was a hoot.
SIEGEL: Yeah, I bet it was. Just lacks a certain cavalier quality to the hi-ho, hi-ho part.
Mr. WAITS: Yeah, I took the skip out of their step.
(Soundbite of "Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho It's Off To Work We Go")
Mr. WAITS: (Singing) Hi-ho. Hi-ho. It's off to work we go. We keep on singing all day long. Hi-ho.
SIEGEL: Was there a particular song or album of songs or singer whom you heard as a teenager or even younger and you heard that and you said having heard that, I want to write songs?
Mr. WAITS: Well, sure. There's always a moment where you say maybe I can do this. Well of course, when I was a teenager, you know, I was listening to James Brown and Bobby Blueblan and Jamie Witherspoon and Bob Dylan and Ray Charles.
I think most singers, when they start out are doing really bad impersonations of the singers they admire. You kind of evolve into your voice. Or maybe your voice is out there waiting for you to grow up. Then it meets you. I don't know. What about your voice? You must have started out like a singer.
SIEGEL: Being very imitative.
Mr. WAITS: Yeah.
SIEGEL: Like many young people in radio, always wanting to sound older than I was.
Mr. WAITS: Ah, yeah.
SIEGEL: And I'm now old enough to want to sound a little younger than I am.
Mr. WAITS: See, I went the same way. I wanted to sound like an old man when I was a kid. Until I became an old man.
SIEGEL: Who wants to sound like that?
Mr. WAITS: But yeah, that's interesting.
SIEGEL: Because Ray Charles and Bob Dylan were both people who demonstrated that you could be a great American singer - Louis Armstrong as well - and not be a velvety crooner. There was a lot of room for somebody whose voice had a lot of rough edges to it.
Mr. WAITS: Yeah. Right.
SIEGEL: And you certainly -
Mr. WAITS: I push this to the limit.
SIEGEL: Push this to the limit, yes.
Mr. WAITS: But I try to make different kinds of characters out of my voice. You know, I have a falsetto and I kind of sound like a cherubim and a clown and an old fashion crooner.
SIEGEL: And sometimes, you'll actually, purposely, well, purposely degrade the quality of your - and in the recording, I mean, you'll -
Mr. WAITS: Oh, that's just fun.
SIEGEL: - go for distortion. You'll go for distortion.
Mr. WAITS: Oh, yeah.
Mr. WAITS: It's like it's an instrument, you know. I mean, after a while, you learn there's different stuff you can do with it.
(Soundbite of song, "Home I'll Never Be")
Mr. WAITS: (Singing) So I left Montana on a long freight train. The night my father died in the cold, cold rain. Home in old Medora, home in 'ol Truckee. Apalachicola, home I'll never be. Home I'll never be. Home I'll never be.
SIEGEL: The Beat Poets were very influential of you, very important for you.
Mr. WAITS: Yeah. They were like father figures, I think, for me because you have to have somebody you could really look up to. And they were like pirates, you know, like buccaneers, struck out their own, made names for themselves and -
SIEGEL: Carol Atkins with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was he -
Mr. WAITS: Oh yes. Ferlinghetti. No question about that.
SIEGEL: We were big fan of Coney Island of the Mind?
Mr. WAITS: Oh yeah, yeah. I remember that book. I got it signed when I was a teenager. I took the train to San Francisco and went to the bookstore. And, you know, went to a bar nearby where I heard that he hung out. Gave it to the bartender, said if he comes in there, I'm signing it for me, will you, and he did. Yeah, that's great piece and it feels very current in spite of the fact that it's probably 50 years old now.
SIEGEL: So how do you do with the idea that you start off determined to be from the outside and to be different and to be avant garde? And you're at serious risk of being, you know, Tom Waits, pop culture superstar here.
Mr. WAITS: It is scandal, I guess. You know, every now and then, all you got to do is disappear for a while. I try to keep my audience a little hungry, you know. Don't feed the dolphins, Robert. The next time you go out, they'll put a hole on your boat. So they don't need to be fed everyday.
Mr. WAITS: That's the thing about your audience.
SIEGEL: You've given them quite a meal this time, though.
Mr. WAITS: Yeah, yeah. I'm going to have to really cut back here.
Mr. WAITS: This is the last they're going to hear from me for a long time.
SIEGEL: Well, Tom Waits, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. WAITS: Good talking with you.
SIEGEL: I hope this is not the last time we'll hear from you.
Mr. WAITS: Oh no. It won't be.
SIEGEL: Tom Waits's new three CD album is called "Orphans." And there are more selections at our Web site, NPR.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.