Irrelevant Topics is a new section featuring conversations between musicians, artists, writers, etc. on various subjects, without promotional pretext or editorial direction. For the first in this series of conversations, the legendary musician and performer, Tom Waits agreed lend an hour of his time to talk about anything and nothing in particular. Here is Pt. 1 of that conversation.Tom Waits: How you doin’?
BH: Good, I’m good.
TW: Are we up and runnin’?
BH: Yeah I think so. Hey, I wanted to ask you about being from Los Angeles. You grew up there…
TW: Yeah, Whittier, La Habra, Downey, that whole area. Yeah, Los Lobos, they’re from Whittier. So is Nixon. I remember Nixon’s market. He had his own family market.
BH: He was? For some reason I thought he was from the Midwest.
TW: No, California, and we used to get a visit every year from the Oscar Meyer wiener mobile, which was an enormous vehicle shaped like a hot dog. The driver was a Dwarf, and the wiener mobile would broadcast music while he sang the song “I wish I was an Oscar Meyer wiener.” He drew quite a crowd. Pretty exciting for a shopping center.
BH: That car is still driving around. I see it from time to time.
TW: You see the Oscar Meyer wiener mobile?
BH: I’ve seen it parked.
TW: They used to pass out little whistles that were about two inches long and it had three notes available. (Laughs.) Whittier lore.
BH: I was born in the McArthur park area.
TW: You remember when they drained McArthur Park, the lake?
BH: I do, yeah…
TW: They found unbelievable things: Cars, human bones, weaponry.
BH: They should have done an exhibit.
TW: I don’t know why they didn’t. I thought that’s why they drained it.
BH: I’d always heard that when they drained the Echo Park Lake they found an amateur submarine.
TW: Oh, my God.
BH: I don’t know if that was lore.
TW: You mean a homemade submarine?
BH: Yeah, I think it was older too, from the early days of “home submarine building.” I don’t know if that subculture still exists?
TW: That was the East Kids.
BH: There’s so many different versions of the city.
TW: It is pretty international. Drive over here and you’re in Russia. Here, Indonesia, the Philippines, Central America. It’s pretty wild that way.
BH: I think of the city as a sort of mirage. If you look at pictures of the city a hundred years ago it’s just a bunch of weeds and desert dust. Its not really supposed to be here. I was always fascinated by the city it was meant to be. I guess it was a place created by developers. It’s not really like a city where some people roam around and then they find a good piece of land, and then they test it out for a while and make sure there is water so they don’t die, and then they decide to make a city. I started looking at some pictures…Beverly Hills was originally supposed to be called Morocco Junction. I started thinking, if they’d gone with that name we’d be in a whole other situation. I was wondering if there were any things that you remember? It seems like it’s shed its skin so many times.
TW: Well, cars choked everything. I know originally there was a red line that ran from San Bernardino all the way to the ocean and for 35 Cents you could ride a streetcar you know from…
BH: Yeah I heard you’d get there in 20 minutes.
TW: And in one of those red car buildings, dispatch is right there where Epitaph records is right around Sunset and Silver Lake. You remember the Continental Club in Silver Lake? That big Latin Club in Silver Lake. Burned down.
BH: Yeah I remember that.
TW: It was lightning.
TW: Yeah, a form of lightning.
BH: I played at this benefit concert where I was about to go on stage in 45 minutes. It was a clear blue sky and a bolt of lightning came out of nowhere. I don’t know if you heard about that? It was about twelve years ago.
TW: You got struck by lightning?
BH: No, I didn’t. I was inside, but someone in the audience did. I heard this crash, and looked outside and the whole venue was streaming out with people.
TW: You lost your crowd.
BH: Yeah, they had to cancel the whole thing.
TW: That’s what I hate about playing outdoors.
BH: Yeah right? I’ve had more outdoor shows canceled from natural disasters. I was playing in Mexico once and some kind of hurricane came. Turned into chaos. One time I was in Japan. I was going to play on Mt. Fuji and a typhoon hit.
TW: A typhoon hit? Wow. I haven’t really played outdoors much. I played in Japan once; I played in an abandoned temple. The roof had been torn off. They thought it would be a cool place for a concert but it was 30 below. All I remember was my sax player making a fire out of chop sticks and holding his horn over the flame to warm it up before we went on. Everyone was dressed up in moon gear. It was pretty cold out there. It’s hard to compete with the natural elements. It’s captured better in a theater. I’m probably a little old fashioned and a little backward.
BH: I’m always interested in how the whole festival thing evolved. Those pictures from the 50′s, the early rock ‘n’ roll people playing at the state fair.
TW: Opening for super markets.
BH: Yeah, exactly.
TW: Stages that were built in a few hours out of scrap wood.
BH: I’m always curious what it sounded like?
TW: My bass player Larry Taylor toured with Jerry Lee Lewis in the 50′s. They toured all over the US in a Cadillac and all their gear was in the trunk. The amps, the bass… the speakers in the hall they played at were no bigger than an encyclopedia. But there was still wild enthusiasm and energy created out of the performances and the crowds went out of their minds. But it wasn’t done with volume. It was the odd sight of a man possessed at a keyboard, with hair hanging down. The other thing: the mics for the piano – they just used a violin pick up wrapped in a hanky and stuffed it in the hole of a baby grand. Standards were lower.
BH: But it does make you play a different way. We did this thing a couple years back, we were on a tour in the South. After the show we’d find a bar and we’d play there with little practice amps. Maybe the bar might have a PA with two little speakers. Usually we were singing through a guitar amp. I remember one time we were in El Paso. We had the day off and we were just going through town, and we found a coffee house. They didn’t have any equipment. We just had a couple of those little 15-watt practice amps. I think my guitar player found a dorm or something down the street and started knocking on the doors and people lent us the equipment. You know, when we got in there and started playing, probably 100 people crammed into this café that didn’t even have a stage; you couldn’t hear anything. So the performance had to rely on whatever kind of feeling you could put out.
TW: People had to be quiet so you could be heard then. That’s just a basic human thing I guess, right?
BH: There’s something about that awkwardness of being bereft of a sound system and that volume you’re used to. You’re stripped of that and suddenly you have to make due with almost nothing. And the people were crowded in there. They were about two inches from your face. That’s another thing. You’re singing right into people’s faces, which is another interesting thing. (Laughs.)
TW: You’d like to be raised up a little bit. I played the Roxy with Jimmy Witherspoon a long time ago, and somebody hit the telephone pole in front on Saturday. Knocked out all the power – this was like 5minutes before we went on. Place was in total darkness. People were lighting candles. Jimmy Witherspoon went and did a killer show. He just put his organist on a piano, and he has this big big, huge voice any way. Got right on the lip of this thing. I was freaked out. I didn’t know what to do. He killed. I guess you have to get reduced to that to find out the origin and basic building blocks of what you do are still in tact. Look under the building, make sure the supports are still there and haven’t been eaten through. (Laughs.) But, yeah, you can do a lot with a bullet mic and a wah-wah pedal. But before that there was changing your voice and raising your volume. I guess we’ve all gotten very lazy with all the toys that are available.
BH: I wonder, in a way, if it’s good to put yourself in those positions where you don’t have the equipment, you don’t have those crutches. But I think we’re so attuned to hearing it at that volume and having to feel that impact? There’s something maybe uncomfortable now to just hearing somebody’s voice in a room singing.
TW: I guess it’s like when you make dinner at home. You shove the bowl across the table and you throw a fork and you drop the napkin.(Laughs.) You make due. I don’t know if it’s all cosmetic. I guess you can tell when something is primarily cosmetic and lacks the structural integrity. I think we all have an instinct about that. Where does this “Best” thing come from? Is that human? Is that American? Is it all over the world? Everyone wants the best eye surgeon, the best babysitter, the best vehicle, the best prosthetic arm, and the best hat. There’s also the worst of all those things available and they’re doing rather well. (Laughs.) Denny’s is doing great. It’s always crowded. You have to wait for a table.
BH: Also this obsession with ranking. All the “Best of” lists. I get asked to write “Best of” lists occasionally. An emphasis on ranking things. Having a hierarchy and having it be written in granite, written in stone.
TW: It’s economic. So you can charge more.
BH: Yeah, it must be. But maybe it’s just a need to have some order that’s been established, and that everybody has been notified. I don’t know.
TW: There’s too much of everything.
BH: Maybe it’s a millennial thing. It started around the millennium. “What are the best movies? What are the best songs?”
TW: Well, then there’s the pressure of feeling that you need to have what has been already rated the best. A lot of people are afraid to explore their own peculiar taste for fear – that it would be uncool. Just like when you’re a teenager you don’t want to be caught with the wrong sports shirt, the wrong socks.
BH: I think there’s a bit of that. Certain things haven’t made it to the “List,” so then they go into the category of guilty pleasure or something.
TW: My theory is that the innovators are the ones that open the door to things, and then behind them there’s a huge crowd and they are trampled by the crowd behind them. And then you have to peel the innovators off the ground like in the movie, The Mask. Like a Colorform.
BH: I was thinking about influences and people who jump on a train or a trend, follow something. I was reading about the Greek playwright, Euripides, and a few others. He had written 105 plays and two of the plays survived from antiquity. I was thinking, “Can you imagine writing 105 plays, and you had to write 105 for one or two of them to survive?” I was thinking maybe in a way that the people who were influenced by the lost plays are the ones who are going to help them survive in some way. It’s not really about what you’re doing originally, it’s about the transmitting of the thing to the next person. It mutates along the way and turns into other things.
TW: You leave a little map for somebody. Maybe the others were lesser works. Or maybe the two that survived were lesser works.
BH: Maybe they were the throwaways? You never know. Maybe there’s things in there that were lost that would’ve changed everything?
TW: That’s very possible.
BH: The throwaway ones that he wrote to make the deadline are the ones we have.
TW: It’s like they found one of those van Gogh’s at a garage sale. This woman bought it and she was using it to block out the sun in her kitchen. She was using it as a window shade, so it was getting all faded from the sun. And she cut it because it didn’t fit the window. When they finally discovered she had a van Gogh as a window shade, they brought in all these experts from the museum and they were all filling in her living room and they said, “How can you cut off the top off this painting?” And she said, “It was just a little piece of the sky.” Sometimes it’s the value you attach to things. It’s subjective. And we record on stuff that’s going to disintegrate. Just like films are made on celluloid that’s going to vanish, it’s going to be gone. It’s like drawing on wax paper or something.
BH: Yeah, I think I read that only twenty percent of the films made before 1930 have survived.
TW: It’s the way of all flesh. Even in the world we’re down to the last of 20 percent of all animals that were originally here on earth are left. There were millions of other species that vanished. You really have to fight. Only the strong survive. Whose song was that? “Only the Strong Survive”? Your songs have to wind up being used as soundtracks to jump rope. Tapes will go, but people will still be jumping rope. They’ll need tunes for jump rope.
BH: It’s true. I think the last song standing will probably be “Happy Birthday.”
TW: I’m sure it will be. It’s terrible, but I guess songs are just interesting things to do with the air.
BH: There’s sort of a planned obsolescence or something. That’s just part of it.
TW: Yeah and we have every generation making a whole bunch of new ones. Even though the generation before says, “What’s wrong with these tunes? We’ve got plenty of good tunes lying around here. What are you making new songs for? We’ve got cool songs about everything you’re writing about. We’ve got plenty of songs about girls.” “No, no. That’s all right, Dad. We’re doing something else, something cooler over here. You go ahead.” And the dad says, “Do you know Jimmy DURANTE? Have you ever heard of Jimmy Durante?”
BH: I think its gold panning. You know? They’re just holding out. They’re just gonna get some little piece of something. Some little piece, even if it’s just a crumb.
TW: Yeah, that’s what every body does. That’s what Alfred Hitchcock said when he saw Ginger Rogers in a gold lame dress at a movie opening on Hollywood Boulevard: “There are hills in them gold.”(Laughs).
BH: There is probably an alternate endeavor that can be engaged in and everyone can take a hiatus from “The Song.”
TW: Look. There were heavy metal bands whose music was being used to torture prisoners in Iraq. They played it real loud to get information. Well, they deprive you of sleep and they play these bands. And that’s all you get to listen to. It’s one particular song from this band. In the same way that they use it now in the parking lot of 7-11 when they play classical music. It keeps all the hoods away. They blast Beethoven. No one hangs out now, drinks beer in the parking lot. Changed everything.
BH: Yeah, so you may be an unwitting instrument.
TW: You don’t know how you’re going to be used. You could be a doorstop or paperweight or maybe a national anthem. There’s no way of telling. Once we’re gone, the whole promotion thing is over. Now we’ll see if it can fly on its own now. Like some tunes do, you know?
BH: I think they are also some kind of ephemera or reminder to give some impression of what it was like. You know, if we just had pictures of the 1920′s, 1930′s and 1940′s; it would be one thing. But some how, when you can hear the music?
TW: Yeah, people really did listen to the song and it really captured their imagination. You could hear a song about “California, Here I Come” and you would actually decide based on that song to move to California. That’s what people did to San Francisco.
BH: There weren’t really many songs about moving to Northern Finland.
TW: Yeah, or even Needles or look at Lodi. Not a good advertisement for Lodi, ’cause you say, “Stuck in Lodi Again.” Who’s gonna move to a place that this guy told the whole world he felt “stuck in”? Not every town gets their song. Actually, Sinatra tried to do a song about Los Angeles. It was really lame. Really lame. It embarrassed the shit out of me.
BH: That was in the 80′s right?
TW: “LA, You’re a Lady.” It was one of those lame, awful… Maybe it’s the rhyme or the rhythm of the name Los Angeles.
BH: Yeah I don’t think anyone has written a definitive LA song.
TW: Maybe it’s the rhyme or the rhythm of the name Los Angeles.
BH: Yeah, I don’t think you can…
TW: But Chicago or St Louis, such cool sounding names. New Orleans. So many songs about New Orleans.
BH: I’m trying to think, I don’t know if I’ve written any place-name songs? Oh no, that’s not true. I wrote one called “Modesto”.
TW: The city itself was named because the two guys who founded the town didn’t let them use their names in the name of the town. They were too modest and they didn’t let them use their names, so they called the town Modesto.
Pt. 2 continued next week.