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Gone North 

Tom Waits, upcountry

Wednesday, Apr 21 1999
Photo by Jay Blakesberg
"I usually have a hard time talking about things directly, you know?"

--Tom Waits, not just whistling "Dixie"



Morning. A truck-stop diner along Highway 101 near Santa Rosa, California, north of San Francisco. A horseshoe counter, tables, booths. Plain but clean. The focal point of the room is a large painting of an 18-wheeler on a country road, a painting that somehow speaks not of modern power but of classical repose: the Peterbilt as stag. The customers are mostly in their 40s, 50s and 60s, dressed for hard work or unfashionable comfort, the men almost invariably bearded.

Related Links:
  • Official Tom Waits Website
  • Collection of Tom Waits Lyrics
  • In a booth by a window sit two patrons: One of them, Most Obviously Not From Around Here, is me. The other is Tom Waits, a musician and occasional actor. (His next film, Mystery Men, a superhero comedy, is due out this summer.) Formerly of Los Angeles, he has lived in the area several years with his wife (and co-writer and -producer), Kathleen Brennan, and their three children, and has taken on something of the local coloration. He wears unprefaded denims and big boots, and the only remaining emblem of his erstwhile cloth-cap-and-pointed-shoes flophouse-jazzbo neoboho fingersnappin' self is the Dizzy G. soul patch parked subtly beneath his lower lip. The towering monolith, or towering inferno, that was famously his hair has collapsed into something more like a brushfire.

    Born on the eighth anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Waits will celebrate 50 years on Earth three weeks before the end of the century. But like some other people who do not punch clocks, unless it's to stop them from ringing, he seems to exist outside of conventional time, and -- judging at least by the person on his records, which range from his folkish 1973 debut, Closing Time, to the bop prosody of Small Change and Foreign Affairs, to the taxonomically confounding vaudeville of Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs and the stone-age blues of Bone Machine -- even to have lived backward, from premature middle age into middle-aged youth, from (apparent) sophistication to (deceptive) simplicity. His first new album in six years, Mule Variations, which incorporates, refines and extends these previous researches into something at once fresh and familiar, is set for release April 27. And it was in this very diner that he sealed his new surprising-yet-not-really-when-you-think-about-it deal with Epitaph Records, the Los Angeles­based independent best known for the punk pop of Pennywise and Rancid, and founded by Brett Gurewitz, formerly of Bad Religion. Though he can claim Jackson Browne as a onetime labelmate and has been covered by the Eagles and Rod Stewart, Waits is by persuasion an outsider. "I think they're all great," he'll say later of Epitaph's young, enthusiastic and musically inclined staff. "I came from the whole period where record guys, it's like meeting guys from DuPont -- they start looking at you like they want to lift up a part of you and look underneath, you feel like they're smelling meat."

    On the table are a tape recorder, its red recording light on, two cups of coffee, a hat and a pair of reading glasses. Waits rummages in his pockets, producing various sheets and scraps of scribbled-upon paper that he spreads before him. He picks up his glasses to study the documents, then lays them down again. His voice when he speaks has the friendly rustle of dry leaves.


    Tom [leaning forward confidentially]: The Washington Monument sinks six inches each year. Six inches.

    Me: You brought notes?

    Tom: You don't think I'd come unprepared, do you? I'll tell you what's good here: specials. If you're hungry go for the specials. It's like your grandma. They got borscht here. They got turkey loaf. This place hasn't really been discovered yet. [Indicates the truck painting.] That's the table I usually try to get. Just to be near the painting. It's kind of like the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa has no eyebrows -- you ever notice that?

    Me: Maybe that's the secret of that painting, more than the smile.

    Tom: The shaved eyebrows. That's what I go for . . . When I was a kid, I had a friend whose dad was a truck driver. His name was Gale Storm. We had moved to National City, and his dad was coming through town, and he picked me up and he took me back up to L.A., to Whittier, to stay for a weekend. And I rode in the truck all the way up there. I was just like, "I'm gonna -- I don't know what I'm gonna do, but I'm changed."

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