By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Children are playing
at the end of the day
Strangers are singing
on our lawn
It's got to be more
than flesh and bone
All that you've loved
is all you own
. . . I'm gonna take it
with me when I go
"Come On Up to the House," the raucous hymn that follows, appropriately caps the album with a general offer of refuge.
What makes Tom Waits most valuable, and continually attractive to succeeding generations of listeners looking for something . . . nonstandard, is -- apart from his heart and his humor -- his restlessness, his perfect willingness to destroy the lab for the sake of the experiment. (He's the kid you knew who made models just to blow them up.) Except for Closing Time, a singer-songwriter album in an age of singer-songwriters, he's gone his own way, often too far from the pack even to be called out of step, but he's been influential around the significant fringes. (Beck, Sparklehorse, Nick Cave, Giant Sand and Los Lobos all owe him something.) Most important, he has never -- as pop stars so often do in their middle years -- equated quality with either technique or technology; if anything, he's a bit of a Luddite, standing for the "junkyard choir," the real room sound, the unplannable accident. He'd far sooner hit something with a stick than plug something in. There is an element of cultural bravery in all this, even if unintended, and Waits has become a kind of hero to the pop discontent. His appearance last month at the South By Southwest music conference in Austin was the weekend's hot ticket.
Because it gets relatively little airplay -- being too strange for the stations that play his chronological contemporaries and altogether unrelated to the business of modern rock radio -- Waits' music is spread most often, like a seditionary pamphlet, from friend to friend, lover to lover, parent to child, teacher to student -- a conspiracy of Tom. On the Internet one finds testaments from fans who first heard him . . .
. . . in the fifth or sixth grade [when] my science teacher listened toBone Machine every day before we students arrived . . . from my ex-boyfriend, and I am certain that it was the best thing he gave me at all . . . from a Swedish girl driving thru Omaha with my cousin . . . in my AP History class . . . in Trondheim, Norway, as an exchange student . . . in my dad's record collection . . . via a girl I fell in love with during my early years as a poor starving acting student in a small Miami art college -- she was a dancer who ultimately stepped on my heart and squashed it into the cheap beige carpet that covered the floor in my dorm room. Thank god for her, anyway . . .
They are every last one of them hoping he will come to their town, now that he has a record to promote. But Waits, who has scant patience for touring ("I like to come home before I get angry"), will likely make only a few ä appearances in a handful of "major markets."
"You don't feel the need to get up in front of a crowd and play, obviously?" I ask as we drive along a frontage road.
Tom: Not unless I can wear a leotard and a bathing cap and some fishing boots. That's what I'm looking for, some new channel, so you don't feel like you're doing a medley of your hits -- not that I've had hits. I'm just saying that after a while you sit down at the piano and start feeling like a lounge act. Everybody wants to hear this song or that song . . . This used to be all fruit stands, eucalyptus trees, used-car lots. There's an old Buick right there. Is that a Buick or an Olds? See the one I'm talking about? The four-door?
Me: It's the only one you could be talking about.
Tom: It's an Olds . . . fifteen hundred dollars -- Jee-sus. My first car cost me $50. It was a '55 Buick Special.
Me: Did it run?
Tom: Oh God yes. Swing low, sweet chariot. It was just a . . . boat.
Me: Do you have other cars than this?
Tom: I got an old Caddy. I got a '72 white Suburban that no one in the family will ride in. My vehicles have always been humiliating for the kids. This one, it's like a motel, and they even complain about this. I say, "You're nuts. You could live in this car."
Me: A family of five.
Tom: Comfort. Roadability. Reliability -- hence the name "Old Reliable." Smoked windows. For anonymity. 'Cause there's times when you just want to sneak in, do your business and sneak out.
Later that same day. An old roadhouse Italian restaurant 40 minutes out into the countryside, amid the green hills and spotted cows. "It's got the largest Elvis Presley decanter collection in the West," Waits had said. "That's something you gotta see. And they also have this tilted floor, and glasses fly out of your hand. I was gonna suggest perhaps later this afternoon meeting me there to see if we could get a glass to fly out of our hands. It's very chic. Big line around the block. Guy wears a uniform at the door. Little band. Very chichi. I don't even know if you can get in the way you're dressed . . . I never go anywhere without a tuxedo. At least the upper half of a tuxedo. Might be able to get away with your own pants, if you stay seated. In fact, you might want to bring a chair that you're already in, and just sort of scoot towards the door."