The Fresh Air Interview
12:00 pm
Mon October 31, 2011

Tom Waits: The Fresh Air Interview

Originally published on Thu November 3, 2011 8:40 am

Tom Waits recorded his new album Bad As Me, his first collection of all-new studio recordings in eight years, in his studio, which he calls "Rabbit Foot" for good luck. The space, a converted schoolhouse, still has class pictures dotting the walls of each classroom.

"I never had my own place before," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "[In a studio], you know there was a band before you and you know you have to pack up at the end of your session because there was a band behind you. You have to photograph the board so no one changes your settings. Now, this is my own rig. It's my own trailer."

Bad As Me, Waits' 20th album, references the people he normally sings about: loners, losers, drunks and eccentrics. The "poet of outcasts," as The New York Times once called Waits, romanticizes loneliness, the city of Chicago, death and love, among other topics. The album also pays homage to some of Waits' favorite singers, including James Brown, Peggy Lee and Howlin' Wolf.

"I've always looked to [Wolf] for guidance, and probably always will," Waits says. "He does have a voice that is otherworldly. It should be in a time capsule somewhere. When you're a kid and you're trying to find your own voice, it's rather daunting to hear somebody like Howlin' Wolf, because you know that you'll never achieve that. That's the Empire State Building. You can scream into a pillow for a year and never get there."

One of the torch ballads on Bad As Me is called "Kiss Me," and has opening chords reminiscent of "Cry Me a River." The title, Waits says, was inspired by Kiss Me Like a Stranger, Gene Wilder's book about Gilda Radner.

"As soon as I heard it," Waits says, "I said, 'That's a tune waiting to be written.'"

To make the recording sound older, Waits added the sound of vinyl pops and clicks — using a piece of chicken barbecuing on a grill.

"It sounds exactly like vinyl if you hold the microphone up to your barbecue," he says. "It's the same sound, actually. ... I wanted to go back in time a little bit and give it a feeling like you're alone in a hotel with a record player."

For the words in "Kiss Me," Waits says he drew inspiration from songwriters like Peggy Lee, Julie London and Bessie Smith.

"For a songwriter, you don't really go to songwriting school; you learn by listening to tunes. And you try to understand them and take them apart and see what they're made of, and wonder if you can make one, too," he says. "And you just do it by picking up the needle and putting it back down and figuring it how these people did this magical thing. It's rather mystifying when you think about songs — where they come from and how they're born. Many times, it's very humble and very mundane, the origin of these songs."

Waits says he also grew up listening to James Brown and Ray Charles, whom he admired for his ability to sing in falsetto. Waits takes his own turn singing in falsetto in "Talking At the Same Time," which he says was inspired by Charles, as well as Marvin Gaye, Skip James, Prince and Smokey Robinson.

"Sometimes the magnetism of a song is impossible to ignore, and it demands that it be sung in a certain way," Waits says. "And that's really your job as an interpreter, to discover: 'What is the way in? Do I growl this? Do I eliminate all my growl and try to do it like a younger man? What does this song mean?' You're more like an actor."

But Waits says performing night after night on the road takes its toll on his voice.

"I bark my voice out through a closed throat, pretty much," he says. "It's more, perhaps, like a dog in some ways. It does have its limitations, but I'm learning different ways to keep it alive."


Interview Highlights

On Finishing An Album

"By the time you're done, you don't even want to hear it for a year. The songs have kind of grown up around you like vines, and you just want to distance yourself from it. And then when you hear it, it's like an old buddy. But I don't like listening to records a lot after they're done. There's just no real nourishment there for me."

On Working With Kathleen Brennan, His Wife And Longtime Collaborator

"I'm the other half of what I consider to be a really great songwriting team, which means that we argue a lot about what a song can be, should be, and what it'll be if you do this to it. So we discuss all these facets. She's Amelia Earhart and Jane Goodall and Joan Jett all rolled into one. She's really great to work with and amazing. She doesn't like the light of the business we call 'show.' She stays hidden, and that's where she likes it. But she's an amazing collaborator, and I feel like sometimes I have a map in my pocket that folds up and I pull it out and it's bigger than the table, and there's 1,000 places to go with her."

On Getting Older

"I guess I've always lived upside down when I want things I can't have. My wife actually thinks I have a syndrome called Reality Distortion Field. It's kind of like drugs, only you can't come back from it. Reality Distortion is almost a permanent condition. Things come in and they go out: Presto, chango! To a certain extent, I did that with myself. As a kid, I did want to be an old-timer, since they were the ones with the big stories and the cool clothes. I wanted to go there. Now, I guess I want to bring that with me and go back in time."

On Collaborating With Keith Richards

"There's nobody in the world like him. We wrote songs together for a while and that was fun. I had never really written with anybody besides my wife, so it was unique and a little scary at first. He doesn't really remember anything or write anything down. So you play for an hour and he would yell across the room, 'Scribe!' And I looked around. 'Scribe? Who's the scribe?' And he'd say it again, now pointing at me. I was supposed to have written down everything we said and dreamt of and played. And I realized we needed an adult in the room. I've never been the one that one would consider the adult. It was an interesting dynamic."

On Being A Father

"I realized eventually that you could roll your own. And my wife realized that, as well, I think. There are still a lot of things that being a musician is not helpful for family life. With things like 'Fix the shower,' 'Start the truck,' 'Get the milk.' Things that are all part of daily living, that being a musician doesn't give you an advantage. And I think even musical thoughts are inappropriate and poorly timed. It's like erotic thoughts in church. You have to bat them away, because the timing is wrong."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Tom Waits has a new album, and we're happy to have him back on the show to talk about it. As Jon Pareles recently wrote in the New York Times, quote: At 61, Waits is acclaimed as an American marvel, a songwriter who can be smart and primal, raucous and meticulous, ethereal and earthy, bleak and comical.

He's sung about drunks, tramps, carnies and killers, but has also shown a vulnerable side in tender, unironic love songs. When he emerged in the 1970s, he had clearly studied beat writers, jazz pioneers and Delta bluesmen. Now, indie rockers study him, unquote.

This year, Waits was inaugurated into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Neil Young. Waits' new CD is called "Bad as Me." It features guitarists Marc Ribot, David Hidalgo and Keith Richards, who also sings on one track. Let's start with the opening song, "Chicago," which was co-written by Kathleen Brennan, who has been Waits' songwriting partner and wife since 1980.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHICAGO")

TOM WAITS: (Singing) The seeds are planted here, but they won't grow. We won't have to say goodbye if we all go. Maybe things will be better in Chicago, to leave all we've ever known for a place we've never seen. Maybe things will be better in Chicago.

(Singing) Well it's braver to stay, even braver to go. Wherever she goes, I go. Maybe things will be better in Chicago. What we need, the Lord will give us. All we want, we carry with us. You know where I can be found, where the rainbow hits the ground. I'm not alone. I'm not afraid 'cuz this bird has flown from his cage.

(Singing) There's so much magic we have known on this sapphire we call home, with my coat and my hat I say goodbye to all that. Maybe things will be better in Chicago. Maybe things will be better...

GROSS: Tom Waits, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I love the new album.

WAITS: Oh thanks, Terry.

GROSS: So you're talking to us from your studio, your recording studio. What's different about your studio from anybody else's studio? Are there certain customized things for your particular needs?

WAITS: It used to be an old school, has high ceilings and wood floors. We call it Rabbit Foot Studios. And what's different about it? Big, empty rooms. Every room sounds different. There's still photographs up on the wall of all the kids who went to school here.

And I never had a place of my own, to work, before, so it was always you come into the studio, and you know there's a band before you, and you have to pack up at the end of your session because there's a band behind you. And you have to photograph the board so that no one will change your settings. And now, it's my own rig. It's my own trailer, you know.

GROSS: So the first track that we heard from your new album, "Bad As Me," is kind of raucous-sounding. But I think some of the really great tracks on the album are ballads. And there's really, some wonderful songs. And I want to play an example of that.

WAITS: OK.

GROSS: OK, and this is a song called "Kiss Me." And honestly, the opening - I don't know if you intended this or not; I assume you did - but the opening sounds so much like Julie London's "Cry Me A River" - like, the opening chords that Barney Kessel plays on guitar.

WAITS: Oh right, right. Yeah, I love Julie London. And, you know, we put some - the sound of vinyl...

GROSS: Yeah.

WAITS: The pops and clicks of vinyl on there to try and go back in time a little bit. Actually, it's not pops and clicks. That was barbecued chicken, actually.

GROSS: Really? It has that kind of sizzle of, like, the surface noise.

WAITS: It sounds exactly like vinyl, you know, if you hold the microphone up to your barbecue. It's the same sound, actually. But yeah, I'm a big fan of those records, yeah.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is "Kiss Me," from Tom Waits' new album, "Bad As Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KISS ME")

WAITS: (Singing) The fire's dying out. All the embers have been spent outside on the street. Lovers hide in the shadows. You look at me. I look at you. There's only one thing I want you to do. Kiss me. I want you to kiss me like a stranger once again. Kiss me like a stranger...

GROSS: So that's Tom Waits from his new album, "Bad As Me," and the song is called "Kiss Me." So if "Kiss Me" was inspired by Julie London, and I assume by other torch singers like, say, Peggy Lee...

WAITS: Oh right, Peggy Lee, yeah, sure.

GROSS: When did you start listening to singers like that? And what do they mean to you? I mean, you listen to so many different kinds of music.

WAITS: In high school, I guess. I was always a big fan of melody, and that's - so that's where I looked. I like Barbra Streisand, and I like Peggy Lee and, of course, Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith. And - but as far as - of course Julie London. I love those old songs, and I guess, for a songwriter, you don't really go to songwriting school. You learn by listening to tunes, and you try to understand them and take them apart and see what they're made of, and you wonder if you can make one, too.

You know, and you just do it by picking up the needle and putting it back down, and figuring out how these people did this magical thing. It's like - it's rather mystifying when you think about songs - where they come from, and how they're born.

GROSS: So can you remember any specific songs that you deconstructed like that, songs by torch singers?

WAITS: Oh, well, "Cry Me A River" was definitely one that I listened to a lot. I remember listening to James Brown a lot and listening to "It's a Man's World," wondering how he came up with that. Ray Charles, I remember he had a recording that he did with Cleo Laine. It was all the songs from "Porgy and Bess," and he did "Bess, You Are My Woman Now." It was like, wow.

And he used a high falsetto in a lot of those songs. And I used to listen to that with great attention paid to the anatomy of the songs - and not only Ray's magic, but what these songs were built out of.

So yeah, it's something - it's ongoing. You still are mystified by the construction of songs, and you don't ever really get to a plateau where you feel like oh, well, I'm done; I know how to do this. You stay rather curious and puzzled by the whole affair, really.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Waits, and he has a new album that's called "Bad As Me." Now, the next track I want to play from it is called "Talking at the Same Time."

WAITS: Oh right, yeah.

GROSS: And when I first heard this - I was listening to an advance, and I didn't have any liner notes or personnel or anything.

WAITS: Oh yeah.

GROSS: And I'm listening to this track, and I'm thinking oh, it's a guest artist singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Now, I know you sing in different voices, but it just kind of threw me at first, because it's not the voice most associated with you. Would you consider this a falsetto?

WAITS: Oh, no question about it, yeah. It's limited, my falsetto, but I uh...

GROSS: So did you write this for your falsetto? Like, what came first - the song and deciding it should be falsetto, or wanting to sing in falsetto and writing this song for it?

WAITS: I don't know. It was a completely different song leading up to when we did it. And the night before, I decided I would do it as a lonely blues, with those horns echoing back and forth.

I don't know. It just - sometimes a song, and the magnetism of the song, is impossible to ignore. And it demands that it be sung in a certain way. And that's really your job as an interpreter, to discover what is the way in. Is this a spoken word? Do I growl this? Do I eliminate all my growl and try it do it like a younger man? Or, you know, what does this song need? It's more like an actor.

GROSS: It's interesting that first you write it and then you interpret it, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WAITS: Right.

GROSS: Yeah.

WAITS: Yeah, you're a writer-director and star.

GROSS: Let's hear it. This is "Talking at the Same Time" by my guest, Tom Waits. And here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TALKING AT THE SAME TIME")

WAITS: (Singing) Get a job, save your money, listen to Jane. Everybody knows umbrellas cost more in the rain. All the news is bad. Is there any other kind? And everybody's talking at the same time, everybody's talking at the same time.

(Singing) Well, it's hard times for some. For others, it's sweet. Someone makes money when there's blood in the street. Don't take any lip. Stay in line. Everybody's talking at the same time...

GROSS: That's "Talking at the Same Time" by my guest, Tom Waits, from his new album, "Bad As Me." Did you ever take singing lessons like, later in life, thinking, you know, the more styles of singing you wanted to do and the more voices you were comfortable using - that you wanted to just like, learn more about how the voice works, and how you could get the most out of yours?

WAITS: Uh, my voice - do you think that I should be taking voice lessons, Terry?

GROSS: Well, I think voice lessons are fascinating. I mean, I think - no, I think like, the human voice is such an amazing instrument - like, the more you understand it, the more amazing it becomes.

WAITS: Well I have been to, you know, voice doctors, throat doctors on the road. Periodically, I'll go in and have them tune me up. And then I have exercises I have to do before a show. And I sound very peculiar on the other side of the door. I bark my voice out through a closed throat, pretty much.

It is more, perhaps, like a dog - in some ways.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: But that's murder on the voice, isn't it?

WAITS: I hope it's not murder, but it is - it does have its limitations. And - but I'm learning different ways to keep it alive, and it is hard on - especially on the road, when you're doing night after night after night, you know.

GROSS: So what kind of - what do the exercises sound like that you do?

(SOUNDBITE OF VOCAL EXERCISES)

WAITS: Things like that.

GROSS: That sounds great.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And that, like, loosens up your throat?

WAITS: Yeah, it just relaxes the muscles and all that, you know. That wasn't bad, was it?

GROSS: No, that actually sounded great. It sounded...

WAITS: Yeah, I thought so, too, yeah.

GROSS: It sounded like - you know the "Ursonate"?

WAITS: The what?

GROSS: Kurt Schwitters' "Ursonate"?

WAITS: Oh no, but I'll look into that.

GROSS: OK.

WAITS: Kurt Schwitters?

GROSS: Yeah. Like, the visual artist...

WAITS: The Dadaist? Oh wow, I'm glad you mentioned that because...

GROSS: The Dadiast, yeah. He wrote this music piece...

WAITS: ...I was just looking at this collection of poetry that was written by these Dada poets. And some of them are like 1916, and they sound like 2090. It's amazing how - they were talking about bottle with wings of red wax in bloom, my calendar leaps medicinally, astral of futile improvement dissolves my candle. I love office accessories, for example, and fishing for little gods, gift of color in farce for the odorous chapter where nothing matters at all.

That's 1916. It's rather astonishing, when you think about it. I really identify with those guys.

GROSS: Why don't we hear another song? This time we can play "Back in the Crowd," which is a very, like, Mexican-flavored ballad. And it opens almost like "Spanish Harlem," the song.

WAITS: Right. Well, that - it's called Spanish tinge, that genre of music - this tempo, this beat. It does have a lot in common with "Spanish Harlem" and a myriad of other songs. Of course, it's missing the castanets. That was - it was fun to do.

GROSS: I remember you saying that when you were growing up, your father - you grew up near the Mexican border, and your father listened to, exclusively, Mexican radio stations, where they spoke in Spanish. And you got introduced to a lot of, you know, Mexican music that way, and Spanish music that way.

WAITS: Sure, yeah.

GROSS: So do you feel like that is really embedded in you, musically?

WAITS: It has to be. Most of us have the residue of thousands of songs in our ears, that I think if you wind up songwriting, I think you're mostly smoking the residue of all that material that you've absorbed over time.

GROSS: Did the Mexican radio stations sound thrilling, in a way, because they were coming from another country, in another language? I mean, one of the great things about - like, when radio was the only way of hearing a lot of music, you would try to get - pull in stations from far away. And the further you could go, the more kind of special and mysterious it all started to sound to you. Did you have that reaction to the Mexican stations?

WAITS: Hmm. Well, my dad did not recommend us listening to anything but that. For some reason, he thought that was - everything else was really unimportant. We had to speak Spanish at the dinner table, and all that. So...

GROSS: You had to speak Spanish at the dinner table?

WAITS: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: But he wasn't Spanish, right?

WAITS: No, my dad was from Texas. But he grew up around the orange groves in Laverne, Pomona - and, you know, ate with the workers in the field and learned their songs. And then when he was college age, it just seemed the most appropriate thing for him to be doing would be something that incorporated his love of the language and the culture. So he became a Spanish teacher.

GROSS: Oh.

WAITS: When I went to restaurants with my dad as a kid, when the mariachis would come to the table, he knew all the songs, and they were more interested in him. And he would suggest songs and was paying for them to play more and more songs. And by the end of the meal, he would usually get up and leave with them and go to the next gig with them.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WAITS: And we would find our way back to the hotel on our own.

GROSS: That's funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WAITS: Can you imagine that?

GROSS: So one more question before we hear "Back in the Crowd" - and you'll probably think I'm crazy - but were you thinking about Elvis a little bit when you were singing this?

WAITS: Oh, I think about Elvis all the time, but I think I probably was thinking about Elvis. You know, Elvis and Jim Reeves, too. My wife - you know, I'm the other half of what I consider to be a really great songwriting team, which means that we argue a lot, you know, about what a song can be, should be, what it'll be if you do this to it.

You know, so we discuss all these facets. And she's a great - I don't know, Amelia Earhart and Jane Goodall and Ariel Durant and Joan Jett all rolled into one. She's really great to work with. And I feel, sometimes, like I have a map in my pocket that folds up, and I pull it out, and it's bigger than the table, and there's a thousand places to go.

GROSS: So you said you sometimes argue about songs, like what the song should be.

WAITS: Oh God, yeah.

GROSS: So what was the argument in "Back in the Crowd"? What was one of the arguments?

WAITS: Oh, she probably wanted it to be maybe more elaborate, don't be afraid of it, maybe sing it again. Or maybe she said, don't sing it again. But, you know, we argue about everything: the cover. The cover, originally, for the record, was going to be me wearing a house dress, standing in a boat with four other ladies, holding an umbrella in like, 1890.

She said no, you can't. You know, it's a colorful record, and it needs to have some rhythm and some life to it.

Now, the last time you were on FRESH AIR, which was back in 2002, you said that one of the reasons you wanted a kind of raspy voice when you sang was that when you were a young man, you couldn't wait to be an old man.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: And you know, you mentioned like, Louis Armstrong and how when you were, I guess, a teenager, you walked with a cane for a while to affect a certain look.

WAITS: Yeah. I...

GROSS: And I'm wondering, that desire to like, be an old man, how is that feeling now - now that, like, you're in your early 60s?

WAITS: Now that I'm an old man.

GROSS: Well, you're not an old man, but you're closer than you were when you were in your teens, that's for sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WAITS: Well, I don't know. I guess I've always lived upside down. I want things I can't have. My wife, actually, thinks that I have a syndrome, it's called reality distortion field. You know, it's kind of like drugs, only you can't come back from it, you know. Reality distortion is almost a permanent condition. So I guess to a certain degree, I did that with myself.

When I was a kid, I did want to be in old-timer. I thought they were the ones with the big stories and the cool clothes, you know, and the great hats and, you know, I wanted to go there.

GROSS: You have a couple of songs about death on the new album and...

WAITS: Oh, about death, oh yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. And you know - well, like one is explicitly about death, and one of them is kind of a metaphor for death, called "Last Leaf."

WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: And...

WAITS: Well, I don't know. You could say it's a metaphor for death, or you could say it's really a song about the last leaf on a tree. You know, 'cause I did see a tree out in my yard; it had one tree - one leaf left on it.

GROSS: Oh, really?

WAITS: And I looked at that leaf and I said, hang on, buddy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WAITS: If you hang on, you can make it to the next season. And if you can make it to the next one, you might be here next year, greeting all the new ones. Hang on. But I remember saying that to myself, like I was talking to a cat, you know?

GROSS: Yeah.

WAITS: But, you know, my wife said oh, get Keith to sing on that.

GROSS: Yeah, this is Keith Richards...

WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...who is featured on guitar on several tracks, and on vocals.

WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: Vocal backup on this.

WAITS: Oh, yeah, and we didn't even send it to him. We sent him another one, called "I'm Waiting for My Good Luck to Come." And when we got together he said, you know, put that one on. Put on "My Good Luck to Come." And I said no, listen to this one. And we put on "Last Leaf," and he dug it. He even brought a guitar that I had given him a few years back, that he thought maybe I'd want to hear that - hear him play that guitar, you know. But it was great. Working with him is a - like they say with recording, it's either really easy or it's impossible. And with him, it's easy.

GROSS: So let's hear "Last Leaf." This is from Tom Waits' new album, "Bad as Me," and it features Keith Richards on guitar and backup vocals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST LEAF")

WAITS: (Singing) When the autumn wind blows, they're already gone. They flutter to the ground 'cause they can't hang on. There's nothing in the world that I ain't seen. I greet all the new ones that come in green. (Waits and Keith Richards) (Singing) I'm the last leaf on the tree. The autumn took the rest but they won't take me. I'm the last leaf on the tree.

(Singing) They say I got staying power here on the tree. But I've been here since Eisenhower, and I've outlived even he. (Waits and Keith Richards) (Singing) I'm the last leaf on the tree. The autumn took the rest, but they won't take me.

GROSS: That's Tom Waits, with Keith Richards singing backup, from Tom Waits' new album, "Bad As Me." How do you and Keith Richards even know each other?

WAITS: Back in '84, '85 - I don't know - New York; we were doing "Rain Dogs." And my wife said, get Keith to play on this. I said oh, God, no, I can't. I'm not worthy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WAITS: And she said no, get him. And one thing led to the other and so, you know, he was called. And then I was mortified and embarrassed. And they sent him the record, and he liked it. And he came down with semi truck full of instruments and a musical butler. And you know, it was really hilarious. And we played 'til very late, you know, and he played only four or five songs. And so I've stayed in touch and known him since then.

And nobody in the world like him. We wrote songs together for a while, and that was fun. I had never really written with anybody except my wife, so it was unique - and a little scary at first, 'cause he doesn't really remember anything or write anything down. So you'd play for an hour and he would yell across the room: Scribe!

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WAITS: And I looked around - scribe? Who's the scribe? And then he'd say it again, now pointing at me: Scribe! And I was supposed to have written down everything we said and dreamt of and played. And then I realized that we needed an adult in the room. And I have never been the one that one would consider the adult. So it was an interesting dynamic, and I learned to be a scribe.

GROSS: So there's another great ballad on your album, called "New Year's Eve."

WAITS: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: And the song uses a line that you actually said in our previous interview.

WAITS: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: And what you said in the previous interview was that sometimes, you used to listen to two radios at the same time because...

WAITS: Oh, right, yeah.

GROSS: ...because you like hearing things incorrectly, and you got a lot of ideas by mishearing something. And...

WAITS: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: And in the song, you use the line: All the noise was disturbing, and I couldn't find Irving. It was like two stations at the same time.

WAITS: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: And, I guess, is that an image you've been carrying around for many years and it finally made its way into a song?

WAITS: That happens, so yeah. I'm sure I've been carrying it around. The other line in there that I wanted to get into a song was - you know, you ever said to somebody, just keep talking but don't use any names?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

WAITS: You know, like two spies talking, you know.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

WAITS: Or you're talking about drugs or you're talking about a woman or you, you know - and I, that's how the song kind of began, with just that line. And then we expanded it to a litany of trouble on New Year's. And then it all - then we all end up singing together in the middle of the evening filled with, you know, a burnt sofa and a runaway dog, and a broken window, and someone got arrested.

GROSS: Well, let's hear "New Year's Eve."

WAITS: OK.

GROSS: Anything else you want to say about it before we hear it?

WAITS: You know, well, I'll tell you, it was nine minutes long and Kathleen said, you can't have a nine-minute song. They won't hang in there with you. You've got to trim this down. Let's just get rid of the gristle; let's get this thing tighter. We argued about it. I said, I can't lose five verses. She says, you'll lose them. And I realized that I learned something from her, 'cause I learned that, you know, if you can say it - you know, like they tell you when you're talking to your kids and you want to give them some advice, 21 words or less. So sometimes, the same is true in a song. If you've already said it after two minutes, then get out, you know. So I'm learning.

GROSS: OK. Well, this is "New Year's Eve," from Tom Waits' new album, "Bad As Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD AS ME")

WAITS: (Singing) It felt like 4 in the morning. What sounded like fireworks turned out to be just what it was. The stars looked like diamonds and then came the sirens, and everyone started to cuss. All the noise was disturbing, and I couldn't find Irving. It was like two stations on at the same time. And then I hid your car keys and I made black coffee, and I dumped out the rest of the rum. Mmm. Mmm. Nick and Socorro broke up...

GROSS: That's "New Year's Eve" from Tom Waits' new album. "Bad As Me." Back in the days when you were living in a hotel, or living on the road...

WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...did you ever imagine that one day, you would be married for 30 years and the father of three?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WAITS: No. No, I didn't. But I do remember disciplining imaginary children in the back seat of my car.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Why?

WAITS: Hold your horses; Bill, it's enough out of you - I don't know why.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WAITS: Maybe I was anticipating their arrival, and I was rehearsing. I don't know. But no, you know, I couldn't have seen that one coming. I don't know how much of our lives we can actually see coming.

GROSS: Did you have an image in mind about what it would mean to be a father...

WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and husband, and everything that you'd have to give up, and how you'd become like, a conventional person or something? And that it turns out you could do it on your own terms and be not - it not be what you thought it might be?

WAITS: So it's not like the Army.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WAITS: Right? You get a uniform; here's your, your orders; report here at a certain time. Yeah. No, I realized, eventually, that it could be, you know - that you can roll your own. And my wife realized that as well, I think. I mean, there's still certain things that - a lot of things that being a musician is not helpful in family life. You know, when things like fix the shower, start the truck, get the milk - just, you know, things that are all part of daily living, that being a musician is not really a - doesn't give you an advantage. And I think even musical thoughts, sometimes, are inappropriate, and they're poorly timed. You know, they're like - it's like erotic thoughts in church.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WAITS: You have to - you bat them away, you know - and 'cause, it's just the timing is wrong. So - but yeah, I learned, I guess, at a certain point that I was going to do it my way. I don't know what any other way to do things is like, other than my way - to quote Frank...

GROSS: Right.

WAITS: Sinatra.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So I have to ask you - I was such a big fan of "The Wire," I have to ask...

WAITS: Oh, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: It used your song "Way Down in the Hole"...

"Down in the Hole," yeah.

WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...different versions of it. You had a version, Steve Earle...

WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...The Blind Boys of Alabama.

WAITS: Bunch of people.

GROSS: And then this group of Baltimore teenagers...

WAITS: Oh, right. Yeah.

GROSS: ...DoMaJe. And so can you tell the story behind writing this song? It's a song about keeping the devil down in the hole.

WAITS: Down in the hole, yeah. I don't know what the origins of the song - came, but it was very fast. And they needed a gospel song for this collection of tunes that we'd written for "Frank's Wild Years" - for a show, you know, that eventually was done by Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, and then became a record. I don't know. We had background vocalists on it, which I dug. But the song happened fast. It was like, I was probably thinking about Ray Charles, trying to find one of those grooves that he lives in. And once I had the groove, then everything else just kind of fell together, you know.

GROSS: So I want to play two versions, back to back, of "Way Down in the Hole."

WAITS: OK.

GROSS: Your version, and then also the version that was used for Season Four of "The Wire," which is the season set, in part, in a junior high.

WAITS: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: So when these - this group from Baltimore - and like I say, all I know about them is that it's a group of teenagers from Baltimore; I don't know whether they assembled just for this recording, or whether they're a pre-existing group. But did you work with them at all on this?

WAITS: No, I didn't, no. They kept the song as a theme, and they kept offering it to different groups to rearrange for their own purposes. And I didn't have TV, so I didn't really experience "The Wire" until it was over. And I got tapes of it, and I became a huge fan...

GROSS: Yeah.

WAITS: ...of the show and all of the people involved, after it was over. And I was really flattered to be a part of it, frankly, you know?

GROSS: Oh, it was such a - it worked so great as a theme. So let's hear your version...

WAITS: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...and then DoMaJe - if I'm pronouncing that correctly - version, back to back.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAY DOWN IN THE HOLE")

WAITS: (Singing) When you walk through the garden, you gotta watch your back. Well, I beg your pardon, walk the straight and narrow track. If you walk with Jesus, he's gonna save your soul. You gotta keep the devil way down in the hole.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAY DOWN IN THE HOLE")

DOMAJE: (Singing) He's got the fire and the fury at his command. Well, you don't got to worry, hold on to Jesus' hand. We'll be safe from Satan when the thunder rolls. But you gotta keep the devil down in the hole. Oh, yeah.

GROSS: That's Tom Waits' version of the song "Way Down in the Hole," and then the version that was used in Season Four of "The Wire." And that theme was used throughout "The Wire," and it worked perfectly, I have to say.

WAITS: Oh, cool.

GROSS: So I just want to quote something that you told the Guardian, the British newspaper, a few years ago - in 2006. And you said that when you stopped drinking, you wondered: Am I genuinely eccentric, or am I just wearing a funny hat? What am I made of? What's left when you drain the pool? So I think it was like years ago, many years ago that you gave up drinking. What did you learn about yourself when the alcohol wasn't there anymore?

WAITS: I didn't know what to do with my hands.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Oh, like when you stop smoking.

WAITS: Yeah. Well, yeah, I was smoke in one hand and a drink in the other. What did I learn? Boy, that's a big question, Terry. I...

GROSS: If it's too big, don't feel like you need to answer it.

WAITS: I think it's probably like the - what my wife said about the reality distortion field that I live in, which is kind of a place that you don't necessarily come back from. You know, maybe the drugs and alcohol are more of a vacation from reality, you know?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

WAITS: They say that life itself is really just the dead on vacation, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Oh gosh, I hadn't heard that.

WAITS: Isn't that terrible? Hmm. I don't know. Yeah, am I just wearing a funny hat? Am I just trying to say weird stuff ,or am I really peculiar, genuinely?

GROSS: Did you want to be peculiar?

WAITS: Well, I wanted - I've always wanted to be curious and provocative, I guess, and interesting, and interested in this kind of sparkling, you know, sapphire we all call home, you know. I always wanted to be mystified by it all - and rather fascinated with life itself. And I don't know, when, you know, I think maybe when you drink, you are - you're probably robbing yourself of that genuine experience, even though it appears what you're doing is getting more of it. You're getting less of it. And it takes a while, when you've had a rock on the hose like that for so long. It takes a while for the hose to be a hose again, you know, and for things to start flowing.

Like with songs, if you don't play for a while - if you stop playing for like, even like a year - sometimes it all builds up in a really great way. But there's no such thing as not playing. You know, there's just - you know, music has rests in it, so you are on a rest right now. And the music will begin shortly. You know, it's like an orchestra tuning up. I used to try and get myself started. I would take a tape recorder, and I would put it in the trashcan and - the ones that are on wheels, you know? And I'd turn it on, and then I'd roll around in the yard with it, and then play it back and see if I could hear any interesting rhythms, you know, that were just part of nature, you know.

Or - I tell you, the best snare drum on earth is a trampoline in like, November, when all the branches have landed and they're heavy and they're wet. And then you jump on the trampoline; they all lift up and come down at the same time. It's like, wow.

GROSS: Have you used those sounds on recordings?

WAITS: I haven't, but I intend to.

GROSS: That's great. It's like found sound.

WAITS: Found sound. Yeah - you know, one of my favorites.

GROSS: So in terms of your life, do you feel like at this point in your life that you are like, naturally eccentric and naturally interesting enough that no further artifice is required?

WAITS: Hmm, no more artifice? Well, there's always - you know, my wife thinks I'm a hoarder, you know, and I don't know. I collect things. I - it just occurred to me that I have a lot of National Geographics. And, you know, when they get wet - I mean, like, if you have like, 300 of them and they get wet, it could kill you - you know, if they're like above, in an attic, and they fall down. But - now, this is hoarder thinking...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WAITS: ...if you put those out in the sun, they'll dry. And then you can enjoy them again. You know, I have that kind of mentality. So I do accumulate things just naturally, and I can't stop doing it - although I have seen the show "Hoarders," and I know I'm not one - because I don't think any hoarder thinks he's a hoarder.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's right.

WAITS: Right.

GROSS: Well, you're certainly original.

WAITS: Instead of saying funny things, you say things - the way you say them is funny, instead of them being funny by themselves, you know. Or the - and then the same is true of melody.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

WAITS: I like writing melody without an instrument. It's just so - it's more like the choreography of a bee; you just go. You know, there are no frets on your neck, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WAITS: And my wife likes doing that, too. She'll just start singing out of nowhere, you know, and without an instrument. It's really, it's the best way to do it, I think.

GROSS: Well, one more song to close with, from your new album.

WAITS: Oh, OK.

GROSS: And this is "Face to the Highway," another great song. Do you want to say anything about writing it?

WAITS: Oh, God, all right. Well, I don't know. It's a road song. There's a lot of going-away songs on the record, and this is definitely one of those. A theme doesn't really begin when you begin. It usually forms later. And now I look back on it - and Kathleen felt, too - that the songs have a lot of going way, let's go get lost - "Chicago." So this is one of those.

GROSS: Well, I like the line, I'm going to turn my face to the highway...

WAITS: OK.

GROSS: And turn my back on you.

WAITS: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WAITS: Well, 'til we meet again, Terry.

GROSS: Yes. OK. It was so great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

WAITS: Yes. Good talking with you, too, Terry.

GROSS: Tom Waits' new album is called "Bad As Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FACE TO THE HIGHWAY")

WAITS: (Singing) I'm goin' away. I'm goin' away. I'm goin' away. I'm goin' away. The cradle wants a baby. The kitchen wants a pan. The heart wants a certain kind of lover if it can. The ocean wants a sailor. The gun wants a hand. The money wants a spender. And the road wants a man. I'll turn my face to the highway. I'll turn my face to the highway. I'll turn my face to the highway. And I'll turn my back on you.

GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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