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Tom Waits: A Raspy Voice Heads To The Hall Of Fame

Tom Waits. (AFP/Getty Images)

This interview was originally broadcast on May 21, 2002.

The New York Times once described Tom Waits as "the poet of outcasts." There's always been an element of mystery surrounding his life.

The people he sings about are usually loners, losers, hobos, outlaws and drunks. The darkness of his lyrics is accentuated by the rumble and rasp of his voice, which sounded old even when he was young.

Since the 1973 release of his first album, Closing Time, Waits has won fans over with his original songwriting and distinctively gravelly vocal style. On March 14, he'll be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, alongside Neil Diamond, Alice Cooper, Dr. John and Darlene Love, in a ceremony that will include presentations by Neil Young, Paul Simon, Bette Midler, Rob Zombie and John Legend.

In 2002, Waits joined Fresh Air's Terry Gross for a discussion about his career and his albums Alice and Blood Money. The albums were written and produced by Waits and his wife and longtime collaborator, Kathleen Brennan. Waits said he enjoys working with his wife because he trusts her opinion completely.

"I can run a thing by her and she says, 'Oh, that's a lot of hogwash. You've been doing that for years,' " he said. "She'll say, 'That's really corny,' or 'That's really a cliche.' And it's good. So we kind of sharpen each other like knives, and it seems to work out like that."


Interview Highlights

On The Music He Heard Growing Up

"Mariachi music, I guess. My dad only played a Mexican radio station. And then, you know, Frank Sinatra and, later, Harry Belafonte. And then, you know, I would go over to my friends' houses and I would go into the den with their dads and find out what they were listening to, because I couldn't wait to be an old man. I was about 13, you know. I didn't really identify with the music of my own generation, but I was very curious about the music of others. And I think I responded to the song forms themselves, you know; cakewalks and waltzes and barcaroles and parlor songs and all that stuff, I think — which is just really nothing more than Jell-O molds for music, you know. But I seemed to like the old stuff: Cole Porter and, you know ... Gershwin and all that stuff. I like melody."

On Leaning That Johnny Cash Covered 'Down There By The Train'

"That killed me. That was wild. I was like — I said, 'That's it. I'm all done now. Boy, you know, Johnny Cash did a song of mine. Boy, I'm all done. Thanks very much.' That was really flattering, and I loved the way he did it, too."

On Stage Fright

"My first big gig was an opening show for Frank Zappa, and I think that was difficult. I was kind of like the rectal thermometer for the audience, and it was a little awkward for me. I was alone, and I was performing in front of large groups of people, and they were verbally abusive. And I'm like a dog. I was so beat as a dog."

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Transcript

(Soundbite of music)

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song, "Misery Is The River Of The World")

Another of the inductees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, along with Alice Cooper, is singer-songwriter Tom Waits. Critic Daniel Durchholz described his voice as sounding, and I quote, "like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon,�left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car."

Here is that voice singing "Misery Is The River Of The World."

(Soundbite of song, "Misery Is The River Of The World")

Mr. TOM WAITS (Musician): (Singing) The higher that the monkey can climb, the more he shows his tail. Call no man happy 'til he dies. There's no milk at the bottom of the pail.

God builds a church. The devil builds a chapel like the thistles that are growing 'round the trunk of a tree. All the good in the world you can put inside a thimble and still have room for you and me.

If there's one thing you can say about mankind, there's nothing kind about man. You can drive out nature with a pitch fork. But it always comes roaring back again.

Misery's the river of the world. Misery's the river of the world. Misery's the river of the world.

BIANCULLI: Tom Waits is one of the true eccentrics of pop music. The people he sings about are usually outlaws, drunks, hobos, and losers. The darkness of his lyrics is accentuated by the rumble and rasp of his voice; a voice that sounded old even when he was young.

Waits has been recording since 1973. His songs have been used on the soundtracks of several films and he's acted in the movies "Down By Law," "Short Cuts," "Wolfen," "Bram Stoker's Dracula" and "Coffee and Cigarettes."

Terry spoke with Tom Waits in 2002.

TERRY GROSS: Some of your music writing seems influenced by the German songs of Kurt Weill. Have you listened a lot to him? Do you feel like he's influenced your writing?

Mr. WAITS: Well, you know, I hadn't really listen to him until I had people tell me that I sounded somewhat like him or had some influence in there, so I said, well I better start listening to this stuff and...

GROSS: What did you think?

Mr. WAITS: Yeah, I liked it. It was really a lot of it's really angry. And I guess I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well put. Yeah.

Mr. WAITS: And, so it works for me, you know.

GROSS: What was the music that you grew up listening to because your parents were listening to it? I mean before you were old enough to choose music yourself. What was the music in your house?

Mr. WAITS: Really, Mariachi music, I guess. My dad only played a Mexican radio station and then, you know, Frank Sinatra and later Harry Belafonte. And then, you know, I would go over to my friends' houses and I would go into the den with their dads and find out what they were listening to. That's what I was really - I couldn't wait to be an old man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAITS: I was about 13, you know, I didn't really identify with the music of my own generation but I was very curious about the music of others. And I think I responded to the song forms themselves. You know, cakewalks and waltzes and barcaroles and parlor songs and all that stuff, I think I which is just really nothing more than Jell-O molds for music, you know. But I seemed to like the old stuff: Cole Porter and, you know, Oscars(ph) and Hammerstein and Gershwin - all that stuff. I like melody.

GROSS: So when you were 13 being more interested in the music of your friends' parents then in your friends' music, what was the music of your generation that didn't interest you?

Mr. WAITS: You know, like the Strawberry Alarm Clock, or I didn't really or...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. WAITS: But later I liked that stuff, you know like The Animals and Blue Cheer and, you know, Led Zeppelin and all that stuff, and The Yardbirds and, you know, of course, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles and Bob Dylan and James Brown, I was really hot on James Brown.

GROSS: Now you said your father listened mostly to the Mexican station and to Mariachi music.

Mr. WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: Was your father Mexican?

Mr. WAITS: No my dad's from Texas. He grew up in a place called Sulphur Springs, Texas. And my mom's from Oregon. She listened to church music, you know, all that Brother Springer and all the...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAITS: She used to send money into all the preachers, you know. And, but the early songs I remember was "Abilene." When I heard "Abilene" on the radio it really moved me. And then I heard, you know, Abilene, Abilene, prettiest town I've ever seen. Women there don't treat you mean. And "Abilene," I just thought that was the greatest lyric, you know, women there don't treat you mean. And then, you know, "Detroit City," last night I went to sleep in Detroit City...

(Singing) And I dreamed about the cotton fields back home.

I liked songs with the names of towns in them.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WAITS: And I think I like songs with weather in them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAITS: And something to eat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAITS: So I feel like there's a certain anatomical aspect to a song that I respond to. I think, oh yeah, I can go into that world. There's something to eat, there's the name of a street.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAITS: There's a - OK, and there's a saloon, OK. So I think probably that's why I put things like that in my songs.

GROSS: I want to play another track from "Blood Money" and this is called "A Good Man Is Hard To Find." This is Tom Waits.

Mr. WAITS: Sure.

(Soundbite of song, "A Good Man Is Hard To Find")

Mr. WAITS: (Singing) Well, I always play Russian roulette in my head, 17 black or 29 red. How far from the gutter? How far from the pew? I will always remember to forget about you.

A good man is hard to find. Only strangers sleep in my bed. And my favorite words are good-bye. And my favorite color is red.

GROSS: Now, I want to ask you about your voice. You have a very raspy singing voice. Was that a sound that you strove for, you know, that you worked on having? Or is it what naturally developed?

Mr. WAITS: It's an old man thing. I couldn't wait to be an old man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAITS: Old man with a deep voice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAITS: No, I scream into a pillow.

GROSS: Well, you know, John Mahoney, the actor?

Mr. WAITS: Sure. Yeah.

GROSS: He told me he actually did stuff like that.

Mr. WAITS: Oh, yeah?

GROSS: That he wanted a distinctive voice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And so he used to do these exercises that he practiced in a closet of just like shouting and trying to, you know, like growl a lot and...

Mr. WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...it actually permanently did something to his vocal chords as a result of it.

Mr. WAITS: Yeah, hooray. I'm all for it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Was, say, Louis Armstrong an influence on you?

Mr. WAITS: Oh, yeah, yeah. Sure. You know, you can't ignore the influence of someone like Louis Armstrong. It's a, you know, he's like a river. He's like a country to be explored in of itself and but, yeah, he was like, he came out of the ground just like a potato, you know, he's completely natural. And, yeah, sure, I love those tunes. And, but this one, this "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," was, you know, was an attempt to kind of tip my hat somewhat to that.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: Have you ever worried about hurting your voice by...

Mr. WAITS: Oh, I've hurt it. Yeah, I have hurt it. But I have a voice doctor in New York who used to treat Frank Sinatra and various people. He said, oh you're doing fine, don't worry about it.

GROSS: Oh, that's good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now you once said that you wish you could have been a part of the Brill Building era in which people like Carole King and Leiber and Stoller and Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry were writing songs for singers and for vocal groups. What do you think you would have liked about that?

Mr. WAITS: Oh, I guess writing at gunpoint sounds really exciting to me, those kinds of deadlines.

I went into a rehearsal building on Times Square in New York one afternoon and I - in a really tiny little room. In fact, it was probably smaller than the room I'm in right now, which is a little larger than a phone booth. There was just enough room for a little spinet piano and then you could just barely close the door. And there you were. And it was, and you could hear every kind of music coming to you, through the walls and through the windows and underneath the door.

And you heard African bands and you heard like, you know, comedians and you'd hear applause every now and then and you'd hear tap dancers. And I think I just like the whole melange of it, you know, how it all kind of mixes together.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WAITS: I like turning on two radios at the same time and listening to them. I like hearing things incorrectly. I think that's how I get a lot of ideas is by mishearing something.

GROSS: Well, what was your first instrument?

Mr. WAITS: I don't know. I don't know, probably a box or something.

GROSS: But, I mean the first instrument instrument.

Mr. WAITS: Oh, my dad gave me a guitar when I was about nine and, you know, I learned "El Paso." And actually, I learned it in Spanish because he wouldn't purchase any, you know, like English-speaking records.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAITS: He didn't like them. And, in fact, I remember going by...

GROSS: This is your father?

Mr. WAITS: This is my dad, yeah. We went by a stop sign once. There was a guy in a hotrod was, you know, with the ducktail and everything, greased down hair combed way back. And he's gunning the motor and we're in the station wagon and he looked over at the guy like you know, and then he looked over at me as if to say don't get any ideas, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAITS: And, but I yeah, so I had a guitar. I learned three chords. I thought I knew everything and then it kind of grew from there.

GROSS: Now you dropped out of high school. Why did you drop out? Is there something that you wanted to do instead or did you just hate going?

Mr. WAITS: Oh, I wanted to go into the world.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WAITS: Enough of this.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WAITS: I didn't like the ceiling in the rooms. I didn't like the holes in the ceiling, the little tiny holes and the corkboard and the little - the long stick used for opening the windows.

GROSS: Oh God, yeah we had one of those in my elementary school. Yeah.

Mr. WAITS: Ah, I just hated all that stuff.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAITS: I was real sensitive to my visual surroundings and I just, you know, I just wanted to get out of there.

GROSS: Did you ever do the street musician thing?

Mr. WAITS: I didn't, but when I see people do it I say, aw, man, I should have done that. That's how you really get your chops together, you know. But my first gigs, my first big gigs were opening a show for Frank Zappa and I think that was difficult. I was kind of like the rectal thermometer for the audience.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAITS: And it was a little awkward for me. I was alone and I was performing in front of large groups of people and they were verbally abusive. And I think it - I'm like a dog, I was beat as a dog, so.

GROSS: Is there a point in your career that you see as a turning point from getting to where you are now from where you were when you started performing?

Mr. WAITS: Oh, yeah. Probably, well, I got married, really, you know, that was it. You know, I mean that's like the most important thing I ever did. And then, Kathleen, really was the one who encouraged me to produce my own records, you know?

GROSS: Mm-hmm. What kind of music background is she from?

Mr. WAITS: Oh, gee, I don't know. She's got like opera in there and she was going to be a nun, you know, so we changed all that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah, I guess so.

Tom Waits, thank you so much. It's really been great to talk with you. Thank you.

Mr. WAITS: Oh, we're all done?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. WAITS: Oh, OK. Nice talking to you, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Tom Waits, speaking to Terry Gross in 2002. The 26th Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony will be held March 14th.

Next week, we'll feature interviews with other artists to be honored at that same ceremony: Darlene Love, Neil Diamond and Dr. John.

Coming up, a look at the new onslaught of reality shows on broadcast television.

This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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