I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

15 Somewhat Disparate Thoughts I Had While Watching Tom Waits

by Jake Goldman
Aug. 22, 2012

1. Anyone who has what seems to be the standard contemporary view of Tom Waits as a drunken maniac who growls his way through creepy, circus-like melodies ought to watch these first two clips. In the first, he plays “Old 55” from his first ever record (a record that seems to be one of that Waits recorded before years of cigarettes and booze took their toll) with very little in the way of accompaniment. What results are two incredibly controlled, truly heartfelt performances that show off Waits as a sensitive, soulful dude. Yes, of course, he sure enjoyed getting fucked up, but he also is capable of thinking deeply and allowing that to spill into his work. What I’m saying is: Tom Waits is not as terrifying as you think.

2. I think, in a big way, Waits HAD to live the life he lived so he could come out wiser on the other side. You can just see it in the way he writhes on stage. This music is embedded deeply in his bones, but when you make the conscious choice to make that your life, your reason for existing, that can do some crazy shit to your head. You can see him progressing through that inner struggle, I think, onstage and in his music, constantly processing it, constantly trying to figure out exactly where he fits in.

3. Yet, it’s clear that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. That’s evident in the way he interacts with Letterman on an early Late Show. There is a goofiness to their rapport and they both seem to respect one another. It almost seems like Letterman wishes he had a little bit of that trademark Waits recklessness in him. I think Tom Waits does that to a lot of people, especially those in the business of creating stuff; there is a certain purity to the way he just sort of ambles on over to the microphone and digs in, not needing any sort of grand introduction or context. Waits himself is all the context you need; the second he opens his mouth he’s grabbing ahold of you. He just isn’t equipped to do anything but this.

4. I think most artists ought to take themselves a little less seriously. Sure, the idea is that you’re supposed to examine what it means to be a human being but that can also get incredibly dreadful, incredibly fast.

5. I’m chopping up potatoes and onions now, by the way. Waits is on Letterman again, and this time he clips a microphone to his chest for some reason as he walks from the couch to the organ where he starts up a fairly jaunty, haunting tune. These were some seriously dirty potatoes, mind you, plucked from a nearby farm. Once I was able to scrub off all the dirt, I had an intense urge to just bite into the thing, chewing methodically while staring out the window at the feral cat across the street.

6. My eyes are really stinging from this onion, but I’m beginning to think that it feels better this way, like I’ve actually worked for something. I’m probably giving myself way too much credit. It’s just a fucking onion. I haven’t even showered today.

7. I think when musicians get criticized for straying too far from where they began is a bullshit criticism. I like that Waits tries things on for size, maybe some bluesy stuff here, maybe some weird nightmare-inducing stuff there. The way he moves through different phases really does fit and often feels like he’s somehow got some kind of control panel for his own brain, constantly tweaking little knobs until he gets it just right.

8. In one sense, it’s tempting to say that the reason Waits is so magnetic is because of this disjointedness, but I think that’s not giving him enough credit. There is a certain deliberateness to his stage persona that I love.

9. What I mean by deliberateness, I guess, is that Waits seems to be conscious of how creepy he can be but instead of mocking it in that meta, post-modern way that seems almost too easy to do, he embraces that weirdness.

10. I love this bit of banter before he starts into “Innocent When You Dream”: “This is a song my dad taught me when I was a kid. (pause). That’s a lie. (pause). This is a song I learned from kids I met in a back alley. (pause). That’s also a lie. (pause). This is a song I learned form Gregory Peck. (pause). That too is a lie. They’re all lies. The whole song is a lie. (pause). No it’s not. (pause). I learned this song from Pavarotti. (pause). The bats are in the belfry…”

11. Why is there a light hanging off his microphone stand?

12. Tom Waits throwing confetti on himself and then saying to a Letterman studio audience “Thank you. I love you. I love you individually and as a group. This is a song about travel,” is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in awhile.

13. The potatoes are in the oven, by the way. I’m roasting them with some spices. It’s pretty easy: you just chop ‘em up, toss some olive oil in there, throw some pepper, salt, garlic powder and red pepper flakes and throw ‘em in the oven at 450. Why am I telling you this? Hey, why not? Maybe you’d like something different in your life.

14. When Jimmy Fallon introduces Waits he is goddamn giddy. To be fair, Fallon probably appears giddy to anyone that makes eye contact with him. But that giddiness I think, translates to a hard-to-attain respect, reserved for very few people. Waits gets that respect from so many people because you just watch him onstage with his eyes closed, veins bulging in his neck, his fingers slamming down on piano keys like it’s the last song anyone will ever play and feel enthralled. You don’t feel envious or bitter because you know Waits can only be Waits, and no one else could ever do this shit like he does.

15. The potatoes are through and I’m now waiting for the beans to simmer. Tom Waits is pulling on a shimmering emerald green jacket of some sort and walking into the shadows of some stage, probably completely unsure of where he’s headed next.

Jake Goldman is a writer and a teacher. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.  Occasionally he writes songs.  If you are so inclined, check out Internetdogfist.com for words and Otsego.Bandcamp.com for music.