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Gone North

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

--Tom Waits, not just whistling "Dixie"

 

I.

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."  

    Me: How did you end up in this neighborhood?

    Tom: It just seemed a good place to go -- north. You live in L.A., you go south, there's more L.A.

    We bought a house here several years ago right along the railroad tracks. And it was one of those things, they show you the house and you sit on the porch, and as you sit down on the porch there's a train going by, right? And the engineer waves to you. And then a cardinal comes and sits down right near your shoulder, and you hear the train whistle blowing, and the sun is going down, you have a nice glass of red wine. You think, "This is it." You buy the place, and the next day they say, "That was the last time that train ran. No cardinals have ever been seen around here. It must have been some freak thing." Then you quit drinking, and you're stuck with a house on a busy road, and the traffic noise is deafening. That was my introduction to the area. Now I live out. Way out.

    Me: You must be well-established here by now.

    Tom: I'm not well-established at all -- but I'm here.

    Me: You ever go down to San Francisco?

    Tom: I go down sometimes -- in for a weekend of excitement. Watch women's wrestling, or mud wrestling. Midget female mud wrestling. It's big there -- it's huge. It's bigger than the opera -- in fact, they call it "The Little Opera."

    Me: And have you been playing music in the time between records?

    Tom: The standard answer? I've been in traffic school.

    Me: You know, you can get through that in a day.

    Tom: They wanted to make an example out of me. I didn't have a good lawyer, and I just said, "Look, I'll do the time."

    Me: Traffic school is hard.

    Tom: It is hard. People don't really give it the weight it deserves.

    Me: To get something out of it.

    Tom: Exactly. More than just a diploma. I feel better as a person. I graduated vaya cum laude . . . Actually, I've been breaking in other people's shoes. Just on the side. Just to stay busy. You get 'em new, you're unhappy with them -- I wear 'em four or five weeks and mail 'em back to you. No obligation necessary.

    But just 'cause you're not fishin' doesn't mean there aren't fish out there. You can go out there when you want, when you're ready to do it . . . We've got a piano called a Fisher. And that's what we use to catch the big ones.

    Me: Could you stop playing music and still be happy?

    Tom: I thought about that. I don't know. I'd probably end up gluing bottlecaps onto a piece of plywood. I don't know how long I'm going to last. Until I get sick of it. Sick of myself.

    I get a lot of weird mail. I get letters from guys that say, "My wife and I ran a hotel for many years, and we've sold it. The folks that took it over are a nice couple, and if you're ever in town, you should go visit them. Tell them that you spoke to us." And I don't know those people. They've already told me some people that they know that I should go and talk to and tell 'em that I know these people that I don't know. And then they tell me about the fact that he had bypass surgery and he has two blood clots, and his wife had a 14-pound hairball removed from her and then they mounted it, you know, on a . . . globe.

    You know there's a device that they invented during World War II that could print 4,000 words on a surface the size of a piece of rice?

    Me: I did not.

    Tom: That's what I'm here for. Here's something else: Now, I hope you never have to use this, but if you're ever pursued by a crocodile, run in a zigzag fashion. They have little or no ability to make sudden changes in direction. But they're fast, they're very fast. In fact, there are probably more people that are killed by crocodiles than there are by . . . anything. More than heart disease. And I hear they're headed west.  

    Waitress [returning]: You're not going to eat? Not yet?

    Tom: Still nothing.

    Waitress: Nothing from nothing is nothing. You want more coffee?

    [He nods. She refills the cups and moves on.]

    Tom: You can sit here as long as you want. [A pause, as he consults his notes.] A mole can dig a tunnel 300 feet long in one night. A grasshopper can jump over obstacles 500 times its height. You know what creature has the largest brain in relation to the size of its body? The ant. An ostrich's eyeball is larger than its brain. You put those two things together and . . . I don't know what that means. I'm not going anywhere with that.

    Me: Where do you pick this stuff up?

    Tom: Just livin' . . . The Ringling Brothers at one point were exhibiting Einstein's eyes, Napoleon's penis and Galileo's finger bones, all on the same bill. Different tents. 'Course I missed that. You ever hear of Johnny Eck? He was a Ringling act. The Man Born Without a Body. Johnny Eck had his own orchestra and was an excellent pianist and he'd stand on his hands and wear a tuxedo.

    I used to take the bus to the Troubadour and stand out front at 9 o'clock in the morning on a Monday and wait all day to get up and do 15 minutes onstage . . . 'Cause you know, you never had confidence, you have absolutely no self-esteem, but you have this mad wish to do something public at the same time. You're sitting all day next to a guy with a silver trumpet who's on acid, you're sharing cigarettes and drinking Tabs. And then like a whole Mexican family with nine kids comes in in matching vests and pants and studs and hats, from ages 19 down to 4, and they get up and do "Guadalajara," "Eres Tu?" -- remember that? Break your heart, just break your heart . . . I saw Miles Davis there. Professor Irwin Corey. They swing a spotlight around right by the cigarette machine to pick you up:

    And nowwww, ladies and gentlemen, the Troubadour is proud to present . . .

    And they'd say your name, and they'd walk you up to the stage in the spotlight. I used to watch other acts do that, and I'd be in the audience with my coffee, and I said, "That's it. That's it for me."

    You know this group called That Mean Old Man Next Door? They've got a record called Tijuana Moon.

    Me: I like the name.

    Tom: I just made it up.

    Me: Did you?

    Tom: Could be the other way. Could be a group called Tijuana Moon.

    Me: Could be. It's confusing sometimes.

    Tom: You ever try to get a sandwich made for you in England? It'll just make you crazy. "Put a little more sauce ä on that." And it's your sandwich, you're gonna pay for it and you're gonna eat it. But they look at you like [snooty voice], "I won't do it." "Put a little more lettuce on that for me." "I can't do it." "And don't cut the crust." "I have to cut it off." I used to get in arguments. I used to end up going over the counter. I'd say, "Gimme that bread, goddamn it. Let me have that thing. I'll show you how to make a goddamn sandwich." I was young. I was rude. But there was something real and sincere about my reaction.

    [The waitress approaches with a coffee pot.]

    You got a decaf? I got to calm down.

     

    II.

     

    Driving me back to my hotel in the big black Silverado he calls (today, at least) Old Reliable, Waits detours to a flower-bedecked makeshift roadside shrine dedicated to the memory of 12-year-old Georgia Lee Moses, the subject of "Georgia Lee," a lilting Irishy lullaby on Mule Variations.

    "It's a good spot," he says as we pull over to a grassy plot of trees and brush by a freeway onramp. "She'd run away from home, been missing for like a week. I guess this is where they found the body." He takes a plastic point-and-click camera from his pocket and shoots a picture. "Not to make it a racial matter, but it was one of those things where, you know, she's a black kid, and when it comes to missing children and unsolved crimes, a lot of it has to do with timing, or publicity . . . and there was this whole Polly Klaas Foundation up here, while Georgia Lee did not get any real attention. And I wanted to write a song about it. At one point I wasn't going to put it on the record, there were too many songs. But my daughter said, 'Gee, that would really be sad -- she gets killed and not remembered and somebody writes a song about it and doesn't put it on the record.' I didn't want to be a part of that."  

    Waits recorded 25 tracks for the 16-song Mule Variations, which takes its title from the fact that "Get Behind the Mule," a low-slung gospel blues more or less about persistence, had been attempted in several styles; but the mule is an apt enough totem for the record, stubbornly itself and not as pretty as a horse. Like Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind, it's a mature work that trades away a young man's flash effects for an older one's plain speaking -- a step forward that can sound like a step back -- and like that record, it alternates between mutant blues and bravely sentimental ballads. ("It's got a lot of ballads," he says, "which I was nervous about at first," but which makes the album more immediately accessible than the elemental Bone Machine or the troll-cabaret The Black Rider.) While he has not abandoned his familiar lyrical complement of drifters, town-edge dwellers and sideshow freaks (like the "not conventionally handsome" "Eyeball Kid," whom the singer gives his own birth date), his subject here overwhelmingly is Home. (He will say no more about it than "You write about what you go through.") Waits -- who moved several times as a child, and conceived a fondness as an adult (in what might be termed his Bukowski phase) for flophouses and fleabag hostelries, living notoriously for a spell in West Hollywood's Tropicana Motel -- was formerly a poet of transients, and of transience; Mule Variations, a family man's album, is by contrast founded primarily upon household images: "Evelyn's kitchen," "Beulah's porch." "Never let the weeds get higher/than the garden," he advises in "Get Behind the Mule," while at the "House Where Nobody Lives," "the weeds had grown up/just as high as the drawers," and the unsavory neighbor of "What's He Building?" "has no dog and he has no friends and his lawn is dying." "I hope my pony knows the way home," sings the weary traveler of "Pony." "Picture in a Frame" provides a swell little metaphor for commitment and the civilizing influence of small gestures. "Filipino Box Spring Hog" concerns a barbecue. And in the breathtakingly intimate "Take It With Me," perhaps the most beautiful and most beautifully sung song in his canon, domestic pleasure inspires a vision of transcendent permanence:

     

    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 to Bone 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.

     

    III.

     

    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."

    No one is at the door, in a uniform or in line. The interior is strictly red checks and paneled walls. There's no band, but there is an old upright piano, an enormous rack of antlers, a collection of dusty paintings, including one of John Wayne, "the patron saint," says Waits, "of all Italian restaurants." And in wall-mounted glass cases, dozens of decanters of varying shapes and sizes -- nary an Elvis, however.  

     

    Me: Do you feel isolated out here?

    Tom: I guess I used to, but I don't really anymore. I think what happens is that when people move to the sticks, they still want all their products and services, and they get out here and then gradually the place they thought was bucolic and serene starts looking like all the places that they left, because they brought with them all the things that made the place they used to live in look so . . . crappy. And they have to keep moving further away, but they're really bringing it all with them.

    When I went back to Los Angeles after having not been there for a while, I was surprised at how many words you see when you're driving. It's shocking. Every square inch of space that you can see from your windshield there are words. Hundreds and hundreds of words. In places you never would imagine. And I found myself unable to drive safely. Even after seven years of traffic school, I was having problems with focus and attention. I was going to lose my diploma.

    There was an earthquake in 1812 in the Midwest that changed the direction of the Mississippi River. Did you know that? Church bells rang as far away as Philadelphia.

    Me: From the earthquake?

    Tom: I don't mean it was Sunday.

    Me: Is this how you spend your time?

    Tom: I can't finish a book, you know, but I snack on information. The origin of pumpernickel bread, for example. Na-poleon's horse ate the best bread. All the soldiers were livid. What they really wanted was to eat as well as Napoleon's horse ate. And he ate pumpernickel. His horse's name was Nikolai. Nikolai . . . pumpernickel.

    Me: I think of that as a German word, and yet it's apparently from the French.

    Tom: And yet. And yet. It's just one of those things that . . . gives you a reason to live.

    Me: Keeps you mystified.

    Tom: Like this place. [Portentously:] Notice the plastic pitcher. The plastic tumbler. It was at one time glass. You know how the nicer restaurants have a piece of glass? They finally just said . . .

    Me: Flew off the table too many times.

    Tom: The overhead was just amazing.

    [A waiter approaches.]

    Waiter [noticing the tape recorder]: You're not going to tape me, are you?

    Tom: No. We're going to listen to music. But only we can hear it. We're dogs.

    Waiter: Well, crank it up.

    Tom: It is cranked up. What do you mean, crank it up?

    [A puzzled pause. After which Waits orders lasagna.]

    Waiter: And some soup?

    Tom: I'll have some soup. In preparation for my lasagna.

    [The waiter withdraws.]

    Me: You're really putting on the feedbag this evening.

    Tom: It's a matter of being polite. If you don't eat, they'll get you later. "Well, why'd you come in here? To laugh at us? To laugh at our decanters? Our crooked floor?"

    Me: When you were living in Hollywood 20 years ago, did you ever imagine you'd wind up a country squire?

    Tom: Then, no. Now, neither. You do get addicted to noise living in the city. There's a great deal you have to recover from if you leave. When I first came out to a small town, there's a guy with a dustpan and a whiskbroom, a policeman, in the middle of the street, sweeping up glass. And then I ordered a coffee in a little café -- the waitress says [sweetly], "Hi, how are you?" "I don't think that's any of your business, how I am. I'm just drinking my coffee." Took me a while.

    Me: You had the shell on. The protective coating.

    Tom: It's a little drop of Retsin. That outer candy shell that seals in the freshness.

    Me: Do you feel countrified yet?

    Tom: I don't know. I hope I'm becoming more eccentric. More room, you know. More room in the brain.

    Me: Did you feel limited by Hollywood or New York?

    Tom: Well, gee, after a while, it just gets . . . change is good. I can go there if I want. They didn't get rid of it.

    Me: No, they did. It's gone.  

    Tom: I was afraid that might happen if I left. But I have film; I have a lot of it on film . . . Western Avenue, you know, is the longest street in the world. I hear it runs down to Ensenada.

    Me: Tierra del Fuego.

    Tom: La Paz. You get on Western and you just keep driving and it's pretty unbelievable. A lot of hair-care places. I think there's probably more hair-care places on Western than there are in Hollywood. You think of Hollywood as obsessed with its hair, but folks who live way out on Western are just as interested in hair care and hair-care products.

    [The waiter brings soup.]

    Tom: What was that big high-speed chase that came through here in the '30s -- remember that?

    Waiter: Gosh, I forgot about that.

    Tom: There was a bank robbery in the city, and it was like a . . .

    Waiter: You're talking about the '30s or the '70s?

    Tom: The '30s. There was a shootout at the creamery -- you know the creamery? Big shootout. Three guys dead. The car was on fire, the whole place.

    Waiter: I missed out on that one.

    Tom: I thought maybe you'd heard something recently about it. It's all in the Library of Congress.

    Waiter: That's the first time I heard it.

    [The waiter withdraws.]

    Tom: They don't like to talk about it here -- afraid they're gonna lose business. I think they stole like half a million dollars. On back roads from Petaluma. Like a Bogart movie. There was a dairy right behind here, and that's where they had this big shootout . . . And afterwards they all came here. And they all made up.

    Me: They sat down together.

    Tom: You gotta eat. You have to stop a minute and just . . . eat. My stepfather's mom dated Al Capone.

    Me: Really?

    Tom: Went out on a few dates.

    Me: Nothing serious.

    Tom: I don't know.

    Me: Could have turned into something.

    Tom: Could have developed. Who knows? How much of what really happened do you tell? The reason that history is so distorted is 'cause most people aren't talking. Most people really don't want you to know the truth.

    [The waiter returns with lasagna.]

    Waiter: Tom, you ready for that lasagna?

    Tom: Um, yeah . . . I was going to ask you about the Elvis decanters. Was there an abundance of Elvis decanters here for a while? Or did I just create that, out of a desire to see more of them?

    Waiter: Well, that may have been. The bartender at one time, who was married to Dolores, who's bartending now, he was an impersonator of Elvis. Maybe you saw him.

    Tom: No, I could have sworn I saw . . .

    Waiter: I think there's a couple in the bar.

    Tom: There's got to be.

    Waiter: He may have taken them when he left.

    Tom: There it is, you see.

    Waiter: The '30s, though.

    Tom: The '30s. A high-speed chase. Big bank job. A shootout. All along the Shoreline Highway. Ended up at the creamery. Three guys dead. And afterwards they came over here. It's in the library.

    Now I've got to ask a question. Those stories about the glassware. I'm surprised you brought a glass. You set a glass down on a table here. There are certain places here where a glass will fly off the table and hit the wall?

    Waiter: I've heard that. [Pointing] Over there.

    Tom: Is that why there's no glassware on that particular table? First thing I noticed -- that you'd gone with the plastic cups. A safety feature. What else has happened over there?

    Waiter: Pictures.

    Tom: Pictures have fallen?

    Waiter: Fallen off the wall. That one . . .

    Tom: I just saw it move.

    Waiter [concerned]: Do you want your check now?

    Tom: No. I came for that.

    [The waiter withdraws.]

    Tom: You notice on trash day how somebody's going through the trash, you stick your head out the window and say, "What the hell you doing in there?" And then they leave and you start going through your own trash? You start re-evaluating the quality of your own trash, wondering if you made some terrible mistake, if you've thrown out something that is now going to be essential to your life.  

    Kathleen and I came up with this idea of doing music that's surrural -- it's surreal and it's rural, it's surrural. [sings] Everybody's doin' it doin' it doin' it. Surrural. She'll start kind of talking in tongues, and I take it all down. She goes places . . . I can't get to those places. Too, I don't know . . . pragmatic. She's the egret of the family. I'm the mule. I write mostly from the world, the news, and what I really see from the counter, or hear. She's more impressionistic. She dreams like Hieronymus Bosch. She's been a lot of things. She drove a truck for a while. Had her own pilot's license. Worked as a soda jerk. Ran a big hotel in Miami. She was going to be a nun. When I met her, she was at the corner of nun or ruin. So together it's You wash, I'll dry. It works.

    She's exposing me to all kinds of things I'd never listen to. It's kind of like trying on hats. "Is that me?" You have to kind of let it all down and not worry about what's hip and what's cool. I guess I'd been trying to find some music that's my own music -- it's like home cooking, you know? Of course if I'm making something just for me, I'm not very picky, I might just pour some sugar in my ear, suck on a piece of dirt in my mouth, light my hair on fire. I'm fine with that.

    What I did for a long time was put my head on other people's bodies. You look for your own niche. How have all these things synthesized in you? You take your Elmer Bernstein and you take your 7 inches of throbbing pink Jesus and you put it together and you try to make some sense out of it. Melt it, crush it, saw it, solder it. I've always had diverse influences, and I never know how to reconcile them. There was a point where I wasn't sure whether I was a lounge act or . . .

    Me: A main-room act.

    Tom: Yeah. "Am I too hip for the room?" I don't know. "I'm not hip enough for the room." Or am I just, like, you know, a garage sale? It's an ongoing dilemma. Where are you, what are you? In popular music, the key word is "popular," and popular usually connects something very temporary -- once popular, then they call you once-popular.

    Me: Ninety-five percent of everything is temporary.

    Tom: I'm okay with that . . . But it's nice to think that when you're making your music and you bring it out, someone's going to pick it up. And who knows when or where? I listen to stuff that's 50 years old or older than that and bring it into myself. And so you are in a way having communion and fellowship with folks you have yet to meet, who will someday hopefully bring your record home and -- you know, they're running a little lingerie shop down on Magnolia -- and put it on, and bring it together with the sounds that they hear in their own head. It's nice to be part of the dismemberment of linear time.

     

    The meal is finished, the check paid. On the way out, half a dozen decanters representing Elvis Presley in the several stages of his fine, fine, superfine career are discovered in the bar. Outside, a red Corvette is parked. Waits hands me his camera, and I take his picture posing proprietarily by the car. For a second, he looks about 17. Then he climbs into his hulking black Silverado and drives away, into the cow-covered hills, back to the family, as night falls on the countryside.

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