Tom Waits x Beck Hansen : Pt. 2

Last week we launched the new section, Irrelevant Topics, with Pt. 1 of a conversation with Tom Waits, which can be found below. Here is Pt. 2 of that conversation.

BH: So how long ago did you leave Los Angeles?

TW: Oh god, 20 years ago. I haven’t been there in a long time. Like I was telling you my dad taught school at Belmont. We lived on Union Ave.

BH: Oh, that’s down in McArthur Park. Pico Union?

TW: Yeah this was Union between Temple and Beverly. Like, seven churches on this street. Parades.

BH: What kind of neighborhood was it then?

TW: Well, split. Latino, Central American, Korean and…

BH: Yeah I was born near Union, couple blocks from Union. Near 8th or 9th street down on Burlington.

TW: Yeah, I remember Burlington. Yeah, well you’re still there. You must be getting something out of being there. It’s a tremendous amount of energy. It’s like a battery. It’s always plugged in. When you move away, when you go to a small town, the first thing you experience is being an unplugged appliance. You think of the town, you know. I used to go back to LA just to get a charge, but after a while…It’s an exciting place for me to go now, just because its so alive. In your windshield, everywhere you look there’s a word. At all times, in every direction. Advertising is everywhere. Everywhere you would think to look, someone would put “Buy This!”

BH: Yeah, they turned them into TV’s now. Don’t know if you’ve seen that? The billboards are TV’s.

TW: No I haven’t.

BH: Yeah. So you’re looking up and it’s a billboard and about 3 seconds later it’s a different billboard. So you’re driving down the street and all these billboards are changing.

TW: Oh, I’m out of it.

BH: Yeah they just started doing that in the last year or two. I was wondering when you come back now, is it more dramatic, the change? Or does it seem the same old place?

TW: In some ways. ‘Cause you see the stuff you remember. But it feels like a hundred cups of coffee. You look for certain landmarks and you say stuff like “Hey! That used to be a barber shop, and before that it was a coffee shop and before that it was a bank.” You remember everything the way it used to be.

BH: Yeah, someone gave me a book Ed Ruscha did in the 60′s where he drove down Hollywood Boulevard and took pictures of the entire street and connected them. And then he did it again a few years ago. The pictures were side by side.

TW: What streets?

BH: It’s all Hollywood Blvd. I think it was from Silver Lake up through Beverly Hills.

TW: You know Western Ave is one of the longest streets in the world?

BH: I’ve always heard that. I’ve wanted to take a trip from one end to the other, see what’s on the other side.

TW: Yeah, I never did that, but I’ve seen pictures of Western Ave when it was just a dirt street. Looked like a street out of an old western town. With horses, a delivery stable, a saloon. A guy standing around on a wooden sidewalk.

BH: Yeah I have a few books with pictures. There’s no trees. Very few Trees. Just all flat. Just dirt.

TW: Yeah, all dirt. You must get charged being there as far as song ideas. Driving around, do you get stimulated by the environment.?

BH: I do. I guess there’s always been a plastic quality to LA. But it’s always had something underneath it. I find myself writing songs questioning where this is all going? Songs about everything turning into the ‘faux Mediterranean stucco retail living unit.’

TW: Yeah, it’s amazing we’re all responsible for its being built. The whole town is kind of like a folk song. It’s like public domain. You do have a hand in the building of it. It didn’t get built by one guy. This is what I envisioned, we all work together. Even in your house, the things you do to your house, well, someone will be living in it, and its what you did to it. And someone after them will be living in it. I get bothered by all the people you see every day that I’ll never see again. We’re surrounded by strangers. Millions and millions of people you see every day that are just like fish. They’re just extras in the movie starring you and you’re an extra in the movie starring them. It’s just peculiar. Then you’re really aware of it in a city ’cause there’s so many people and you’re just pushing through. You’re just like a sperm flipping your flagellum around, you know, trying to make your way through the city.

BH: Who you know and whatever situations you find yourself in with whatever people—it’s all sort of arbitrary. There are an infinite amount of doors you could’ve opened.

TW: And walk right out and walk right into another door and start another life six blocks away.

BH: I wonder if you could really do that anymore? I just went to Japan and they scan your eyes when you come into the country now. They have a computer that reads your finger print.

TW: At the airport?

BH: Yeah, when you’re going through customs.

TW: They read your eye? Oh, man!

BH: Yeah they read your eyeball.

TW: Japan is the home of the $700 orange.

BH: It’s the best orange you’ve ever had. It’s gonna be a religious orange experience. (Laughs)

TW: It’s supposed to be. Yeah, you…you’d want a room. Just with you and the orange, I think. (laughs) They take all the blossoms off the tree except for one, and that’s the one that becomes the orange. All the nutrients are going to one orange. And they have a square watermelon, you know? It matures inside a wooden box, then they cut the wood off and they have this square fruit. Slice it like bread and stack it in a warehouse.

BH: Have you been to Japan many times?

TW: I haven’t been there in a long time. I remember being able to buy underwear in a vending machine. That was pretty exciting.

BH: When they name their cars, they have names like the Toyota President or the Nissan Cedric.

TW: Oh, I like that.

BH: I don’t know if when you were there – all the taxis have doilies. The doily industry dried up out here probably a good 70-80 years ago, but it’s still alive there.

TW: Where have all the doilies gone, long time passing.

BH: They’re all in Japan. And the taxi doors open by themselves.

TW: You’re joking? Yeah, in Mexico they found out the only Chevy that was doing the worst business was the Nova. In Spanish Nova means it doesn’t go. So they weren’t buying it. No one wants a car that doesn’t go.

BH: But I thought maybe there was some reverse psychology they could do, you know? Like use some different car names, like the Dodge Apocalypse or the…

TW: The Sleep Walker. The Viking, or The Zipper. I don’t know. Yeah, Dodge Neon. I couldn’t drive the Neon.

BH: The Aspire, the Aspire is another one. You’re not quite there… You’re making the effort. (laughs)

TW: The Aspire! Yeah. It’s better than No Va.

BH: When I first got my license, you could get a car second hand from an ad in the Recycler [classified ads]. Nobody wanted them; maybe because it was in the early 80’s. You could get a car from the 50’s or 60’s for $200 – $250.

TW: It’s still a new car. They don’t say ‘used,’ they say ‘previously owned.’ I can’t remember when I last saw a car pulled over on the side of the road with the hood up and a guy with his head under there. You just don’t see it any more. It was very common. Underneath, you know, with a wrench. Now it’s all computers. People don’t know what to do when their car stops.

BH: I bought a car once– I didn’t know the battery was under the driver’s seat. I had taken it in to get an oil change. When I showed up, the mechanic…his pants were burned off. The metal in the seat, it hit the battery and it went up in flames.

TW: Burnt his pants off?

BH: Yeah. He had been a master mechanic in Germany. But when he came to America he didn’t have the same credentials and was working out of a Salvadorian tire shop. He was a genius mechanic. I showed up one time and said I only had $15 and the car was on its last leg. We had become friends, so he said he would see what he could do. I came back later and he had taken a piece of string and a matchstick and re-rigged the stick shift. It would have another good month in it. But when it burned his pants that was the end, he wasn’t having it. I called the car Jaws because the front of the hood had been smashed in so the hood was slightly open. It was a station wagon so it kind of looked like a shark. I painted some teeth on it at one point.

TW: That could catch on…that’s what Einstein said, if it has a flaw and its irreparable turn it into a feature. If you’re always burning the pancakes, put it on the marquee. Burnt Pancakes, 99 Cents. People who can fix anything with string are disappearing. I think most things can be fixed with string, but we need to be reminded of that. Except if you pour a fresca into your computer, I don’t think that will work. Or if you pour a coke in the back of your television the string won’t work. It’ll turn into a coffee table immediately.

BH: There is a photographer, Chris Jordan, I did a video with. He takes pictures of landfills. One that has tires valves, one that’s just plastic bottles, one that’s just cell phones. He some how figured out how to take the picture and alter it to where it’s the same exact number of that object that’s being thrown out every day. They’re beautiful photos. Gigantic. When you stand back you don’t know what it is, it’s kind of abstract. When you get closer you see what it is. I don’t remember the numbers. 350,000 soda cans a minute. This was just in America, too. One that was amazing was like 400,000 cell phones thrown out a day.

TW: Well you know space is already getting crowded. They’re planning on blasting up all the trash up in space. There’s things in contracts about that already. Disposing of certain materials. You have to promise, in order to get rid of it, you’ll put it on a rocket and blast it into space.

BH: Won’t it be more expensive to put it in space than what it costs originally? I guess you’ll have to buy space on the rocket for the thing you buy. It’ll be in the cost of the microwave.

TW: It’ll be on the spaceship…

BH: Space cartage fee… So how long have you been doing photographs?

TW: Oh, a couple of years. Some of them are pretty wild. I don’t know if anyone is as interested in them as I am. The shapes are just bizarre. [Photos of oil stains found on the ground]. I don’t think they’re going to be the next big thing. “Look Honey, Look, there’s Jackie Gleason; he’s got a Horse coming out of his head. It looks like a bird is eating his chin. There’s a camel, see the camel? The camel is disappearing into the pond right here and now there’s a fountain coming and Richard Benjamin is launching.” I see stuff that nobody else sees. I think they’re just for the home. Just for my own peculiar amusement.

BH: Thank you for doing this. It was a good excuse to call you up and bug you, pull your ear for a while

TW: You only live once, this is good. I would like to continue this. This is very interesting to me. Maybe I’ll make some notes next time. You know, the yo-yo is a sixteenth century Philippine weapon. It weighed 4 pounds and had twenty feet of cord and only came to the US in 1929.

BH: I’m wondering what’s going to show up in 2029 from the fourteenth century? Maybe there are other possibilities in the wings.

(end of conversation)

Tom Wait’s website
For more Tom Waits in conversation, here is a great interview he did recently.

Caetano Veloso Shannon Theule Will Ferrell Tom Waits Demetri Martin