PUT YOURSELF in my place. Scant hours earlier I'd been regaled with the tale of how, in an interview the previous day, Tom had turned on a somewhat surprised lady journalist and growled, "I don't think I like you," in a voice that would trip the San Andreas Fault. For an hour they glared at-each other in almost unbroken silence. So what chance do I have?
There's a favourite scene in gangster movies where the private dick is standing at the bar with the bad guy and the bartender slips him a note with his double brandy. "Look out kid, he's got a gun," it says. I had a similar experience when the phone rang an hour before I left my house and Waits' press officer nonchalantly told me, "You know he just got married?"(1)
"TOM WAITS? MARRIED?"
"Yes. Last month, to a script analyst at 20th Century Fox."
Waits' version of how it happened is more appealing.
"Kathleen was living in a convent, studying to be a nun. I met her when they let her out for a party on New Year's Eve. She left the Lord for me."
The encounter is taking place in Dino's, a classless Italian diner, full of South Ken schoolkids, across the road from the hotel. Tom's eyes roam the room until he zeroes in on a waitress.
"Two double brandies and two toasted cheese sandwiches." he orders, then, looking at me knowingly, "You have to have the food to get the drink." It's an apology.
"I've spent ten miserable years looking for her." He means his wife, not the waitress, although his songs might lead you to suspect otherwise. I recall tales of the days when it was not unknown for Waits to arrive at Warner Brothers Records in Los Angeles with a waitress in tow. He'd likely have met her in Reno or San Bernadino, wherever, and now he'd like W.E.A. to find her a job. She could sing like an angel. They all could.
"My wife's part Irish. Brennan. So we spent our honeymoon crawling up and down the shoulders of Ireland for the last three weeks. Best thing that ever happened to me."
"We stayed in an old house, used to be owned by William Blake. Radio was busted, so we called down to the guy on the desk but he'd gone to get parts for the radio. Didn't come back for four days. Just great. They live at my level of incompetence. We fit in real well there."
I notice that he's talking to my tape recorder rather than to me, and I wonder if he distrusts me. Maybe I should ask. I ask. There's a long pause. He coughs. He looks away and, just when I think I'm going to be ignored, he turns to my tape recorder and tells it, "Journalists enjoy creating scenes. You've created a situation here in order to write about it. You mix my words with your feelings and memories. That's what I used to do. I used to feel I had to create a situation where I could live out the life in my songs, but now I know that a distance from it can give you an equally important focus. I used to see Bogart movies and think that someday I'd meet him in the street in an old hat, trench coat, cigarette, smell of whiskey, on his way to a whorehouse, you know?"
It begins to seem possible, that Kathleen, the script analysing nun, has had her effect on music's most notorious deadbeat. Waits' career has always been bolstered by his authenticity. While others simply wrote about being down and out, Waits lived the life. Or appeared to.
Confused, I turn to his three-years-out-of-date self-penned official biography. "It says here that your mother got you your first piano when you were just a kid?"
"Wellllllll," he draws the word out and leans forward to confide in me, "There's a sucker born every minute."(2)
If there's a mental equivalent of a groan, it fluttered through my mind at that moment. How do' you talk to a man who'd fake his own biography? I needed a plan and, fortunately, I had one. I'd prepared a long list of references from his songs and I nervously suggest to him that maybe we could, just for laughs, try word association. I'd give him a word and he'd react.
How about it?
"Excuse me." he growled and left the table.
As well as a plan, I needed another drink. Thankfully, he returned moments later and ordered two more doubles. "O.K. Let's try it. What you got?"
Relieved, I glance down the list. "Winchell's Donut Shop?"
He coughs. "Part of the urban landscape of Los Angeles. There's one right near the studio. Highway patrolmen live on a steady diet of Benson & Hedges and Winchell's glazed donuts. That's why they're so mean."
"I borrowed a line from him. 'Anybody who hates dogs and children can't be all bad.' Right? He was destined to either become a national institution or be locked inside of one."
I begin to relax. Either that second double has just hit him or he's starting to almost enjoy this. I pick another at random.
"Rickie Lee Jones."
"An old friend of mine. Not a good subject."
Panic. Try again. "Tijuana?"
"My father was a Spanish teacher. When I was ten we lived on a chicken ranch in Baja California for about five months. I spent a lot of time in Mexico but I hardly go back now."
That's better. "Francis Ford Coppola."
"I've been working on Francis' new film since last April(3). It's called One From The Heart. A whole catastrophe. I've never taken on anything that big, but I enjoyed it very much. I did songs and underscoring. I really enjoy his creative process."
Kurt Vonnegut Jr used to do an excellent lecture in which he claimed that there were only three basic plotlines for authors to work with. The first one is - boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. According to Tom Waits, that's also the plot of One From The Heart.
Checking the list again I pick out "Kentucky Avenue." It's a song in which Waits included the lines:
"Take the spokes from your wheelchair
and a magpie's wings
and tie 'em to your shoulders and your feet.
I'll steal a hacksaw from my dad
and cut the braces off your legs
and we'll bury them tonight in the cornfield."
"My best friend, when I was a kid, had polio. I didn't understand what polio was. I just knew it took him longer to get to the bus stop than me. I dunno. Sometimes I think kids know more than anybody. I rode a train once to Santa Barbara with this kid and it almost seemed like he lived a life somewhere before he was born and he brought what he knew with him into this world and so..." His voice fades off for a moment, then, "...It's what you don't know that's usually more interesting. Things you wonder about, things you have yet to make up your mind about. There's more to deal with than just your fundamental street wisdom. Dreams. Nightmares."
"Nightmares?" I perk up. "One of the words on my list is nightmares."
He nods, as if he knew. "I have very violent dreams. A lot of that happens because you're on the road a lot and you wake up in a hotel room and you don't know...I used to wake up alone, but now that I'm married there's somebody to turn to before you forget."
Yes, the new Mrs. Waits is having her effect. I try another from the list. "Perrier Water."
"The French pulled one over on us. They wash their feet in it and sell it to us for 99c a bottle."
And another. "The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetry?"
"No, I'm not familiar with that. Do they travel in packs, like dogs? At one time, when I was younger, when I was on the, uh, threshold of unravelling my personality," he glances at me to see how I'm taking this and, apparently satisfied with my glazed stare, continues, "I was trying to decide who I was, where I was going, whether I wanted to be a bricklayer or a hairdresser. I was looking for career alternatives and Kerouac just ...there's a great deal of pressure on you at that age to decide what you're gonna do."
Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, I try, "Ronald Reagan."
"We (he means America) watched the whole campaign for the Presidency like it was a situation comedy. The Carter administration was a television programme that ran for four years, then the network cancelled it. We look on everything in television terms. When you're a child it's your parents, or at least your babysitter. You don't feel any sense of government control in America. You expect to see anything on television. We wanna hear bad news out of a pretty mouth. Now, they choose announcers like they choose juries, colour coded - black, Chinese, Jewish, Mexican, Catholic - to suit every taste. Newsreaders are the real personalities."
My list is getting shorter. A misunderstanding of the word 'Prez', included as an influence in his biography, caused me to pick Elvis Presley as a topic on my list. (Prez is actually the nickname of saxophonist Lester Young, and my ignorance can only be excused because any interest I might have developed in jazz was systematically pumped out of me by an elder sister who played Kenny Ball's 'Midnight In Moscow' ad nauseam. That's Latin for twice.)
After the misunderstanding is cleared up, Waits tells me, "I felt that what they did to him after he died was necrophilia. You don't think of people like that as being mortal. They don't cry or bleed or sleep. I wrote a poem about it after it was over. It felt like something had ended."
"How about the Ivar Theatre?"(4)
"A burlesque house in Hollywood, right next door to the library. It was originally a legitimate theatre. Lord Buckley and Lenny Bruce played there. Now it's just a strip joint, full of transsexuals. Behind the Ivar is another nightclub called The Gaslight. Used to be called the Sewers Of Paris."
His visions of the seamy side of Hollywood make Waits unique among Californian musicians. Rather than sun, sand and surf, or even cowboys, coke and cactus, Waits sees California as damp, dark and dangerous.
Next on the list? "Knife fights."
"I stay away from those. There's a lot of Mexican street gangs in Los Angeles. I don't subscribe to gangs of any kind." Guns and knives crop up frequently, in his lyrics, so it's no surprise to learn that the first song he remembers hearing was 'El Paso' by Marty Robbins.
"I've been all over the world, every city in America and I feel like I don't know anyplace. Some name comes up in conversation and I can say, 'Oh, I've been there.' But I don't know anything, never see anything. You're so insulated, usually you get no time to find a neighbourhood where you feel comfortable. You learn to wear your home on your back. It's strange and peculiar mostly. That's why I liked Ireland. My wife and me stayed three weeks."
"Sure. That's even more important to me now that I'm married. For a writer, it seems that your anonymity is important. The Devil's Dictionary defines being famous as being 'conspicuously miserable'.(5) I like to feel I can move around without being noticed."
I see his eye straying continually to the clock. He's been doing interviews all day, sneaking the odd ten minutes between each to slip up to his room and talk to his wife. There's already another hack waiting to invade his privacy in the hotel, and then there's the rehearsal at eight and Europe in the morning. Still, he gives me all the time he can.
"One last question?"
"There's a soft streak in you, isn't there?"
He laughs. It's a deliberately naive question, because there's a soft streak in everybody. I just didn't expect it to be so near the surface on Tom Waits. "Yeah. Right up my back. Charles Bukowski says, 'As the spirit wanes, the form appears.' The whole creative process is kind of embarrassing sometimes. 'As the spirit wanes, the form appears.'" He repeats it for my benefit, picks up the tab and we leave.
With Waits there's no way to tell what's real and what's imagined. In the flesh, just as on his albums, he's able to evade you, make you wonder what he invented, what he embroidered and where the fact meets the fiction. His whole career, so far, could be straight out of Kerouac, but from here on it might well read more like Flann O'Brien.
"I've spent ten miserable years looking for her." Those words will echo heavily in the hearts of Waits worshippers who will find it as difficult to swallow as Dylan finding God. After all, didn't Waits write 'Better Off Without A Wife'?
And so what? He's five years on now, and if it ends in divorce next year I'll applaud as Waits punches the first idiot to say 'I told you so'. After ten years of nightmares, give him the right to one dream, and who knows, maybe they will live happily ever after.