Poet or Storyteller?

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Tom Waits on Tom Waits, a comprehensive collection of interviews and encounters spanning nearly forty years, is essential reading for any Tom Waits fan.

To say that I am a fan of Tom Waits would be an understatement. His music probably had more influence on my creative life than anything else I’ve ever encountered. I mention this only because I don’t think this book would be of much interest to non-fans. But for someone who was ushered into adulthood with Tom Waits albums, reading the interviews in Tom Waits on Tom Waits feels like catching up with an old friend.

It’s almost impossible to write an apt description of Waits, but every journalist in this collection makes a worthy attempt. Some of my favorites: “A mumbling sot on stage.” “A collector and researcher of bawdy stories.” “A half-buzzed derelict with the voice of a bulldozer.” “A gruff-voiced romanticizer of the seamy side of urban life.” “A practitioner of the fine art of conversation” “A Depression-Era hobo ridin’ the rails toward some unforsaken land.” “The teacher we wished we had.” “The greatest entertainer on Planet Earth.”

However he is described, Waits’s magnetic stage presence draws people to him. His live shows take on a theatrical quality, complete with spoken-word ramblings, chain-smoking, dramatic movements, and a lot of jokes. Waits is often referred to as a poet, a term he was quick to toss off in the early days.

“Poetry is a very dangerous word,” says Waits, “It’s very misused. Most people when they hear the word ‘poetry’ think of being chained to a desk, memorizing ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn.’ When somebody says that they’re going to read me a poem, I can think of any number of things that I’d rather be doing. I don’t like the stigma that comes with being called a poet—so I call what I’m doing an improvisational adventure, or an inebriational travelogue, and all of a sudden it takes on a whole new form and meaning. If I’m tied down and have to call myself something, I prefer ‘storyteller.’”

The book is organized chronologically and it couldn’t work any other way because Waits’s music has evolved so dramatically over the course of his career. In 1975, dissing the Eagles and disco (which he refers to as barely music), he antagonizes half the interviewers as he tries to figure out who he is and what kind of musician he is supposed to be. During the 80s, particularly around the time of Swordfishtrombones (shortly after he meets and marries Kathleen Brennan, the love of his life, and his longtime songwriting partner), he sheds most of his bad habits, seems surer of himself, and becomes more aware of the calculated character that he has developed on stage. By the time we get to the 90s his interviews are thoughtful, funny, and surprisingly intimate.

For a long time, Waits admits, he was in danger of being overtaken by the low life he wrote about. He drank too much. He made bad friends. “I wanted to experience what it was like to be on the road the way I imagined it would be for the old-timers that I loved, so I would stay in these down joints because I was absorbing all the atmosphere in those places; the ghosts in the room. You want to be where the stories grow, and you think if you live in those places they’ll come up through the sidewalks and out of the cracks in the wall—and they do. But you have to be very clear about who you are and who it is you’re projecting, and there was a time when I was very unclear about who I was and I became a caricature of myself.”

Over time, Waits’s persona becomes both clearer and even more difficult to define. It’s a strange contradiction. Each of his albums are so profoundly different, it’s as if we learn about a new side of Waits with every album. Some of the most interesting interviews include insight into his creative process:

“The creative process is imagination, memories, nightmares, and dismantling certain aspects of this world and putting them back together in the dark. Songs aren’t necessarily verbatim chronicles or necessarily journal entries, they’re like smoke, it’s like it’s made out of smoke.”

Waits rarely talks about his family, Kathleen Brennan, or his three children, but when he does it’s an incredible peek into what family life might be like at the Waits’s home, but perhaps the most enjoyable part of these interviews is when Waits brilliantly shifts an interview with a non sequitur: “Do you know how many teardrops it takes to fill a teaspoon? A hundred and twenty, actually, I tested it. I was very sad and thought, ‘I’m going to make some use of it, so I held a spoon at my cheek and I cried. This is my science experiment for the year.’”

Or, “Did you know that there’s a town in Chile called Calma where it has never rained. Never. They don’t talk about a little rain. They don’t talk about we’d like to have some more rain, or we’re hoping for a little more rain. They’ve just given up on the whole topic.”

The interviewers always seem a little thrown by these cheeky asides, but they often turn out to be the most interesting part of the interviews, and the bits that give us the most insight into Waits. It doesn’t matter if he’s putting on a show, or messing with the interviewers. This, it seems, is just Waits, in conversation.

Remarkably is a word that comes up many times over the course of this book, an adverb that is hooked on to any number of adjectives. Tom Waits is remarkably funny. Remarkably talented. Remarkably interesting. Remarkably innovative. Remarkably intelligent. It’s as if the interviewers can’t quite get over what a remarkable human being Waits is. It’s hard to hold that against them though because he is indeed quite remarkable.

Either you get Tom Waits, or you don’t. You love him. Or you don’t. There is no in-between. This book won’t shift your opinion one way or another, if you have one. This collection is brilliantly edited; every piece feels worthy of inclusion. The interviews are all fascinating, and I feel like I know him better after reading them, but the only way to really get to know Waits is to sit down and listen to his music. I listened to all of his albums while I was reading this book, and I realized this is where Waits lives, not in the pages of some book. Only through his music can we really get to know him at all. This, in all of his resolutely weird and beautiful sounds, is where Waits is most himself.

Nancy Smith is a writer and graphic designer. Her work has been published in Paper, The Believer, Seattle Weekly, Resonance, and Communication Arts. She has an M.A. in Media Studies and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. She is currently working on a Ph.D in Communication and Culture at Indiana University. She blogs about books, design, and technology here: somequietfuture.com More from this author →