Dream ticket

Innocent When You Dream: Tom Waits, the collected interviews

Edited by Mac Montandon <em>Orion, 39

Tom Waits shuffles on-stage at the Massey Hall, Toronto, in 1987 - fingerless gloves, roach-killer shoes, a Band-Aid above his right eye - settles himself at an upright piano and begins a lung-crunching travelogue about the nocturnal creatures that knock about in cheap hotels. Some wiseacre pipes up from the stalls, a plea for Waits to sing louder. "Well I'm hollerin' my fool head off," he rasps. "Ain't screamed so loud since the pigs ate my little brother."

It has the desired effect, according to the review republished in this mesmerising collection of writings and interviews from the past 30 years. The audience remains silent throughout, transfixed with a mixture of fascination and fear. The comment, of course, was an extension of Waits's highly theatrical stage act. Many musicians inhabit a character when they compose, but Waits takes the process one step further: he also performs as one. When he addresses the twilight world of the dispossessed, it appears to be from the well of his own experience. Even to-day, it is hard to gauge where his stage personality starts and where his lyrics blur into fiction.

This is not the case with his interviews. Line for line, the now 56-year-old Californian singer and actor delivers the best quotes of any composer on the planet. Where Dylan (though he rarely speaks) puts out a smokescreen of supercharged poetry, and Elvis Costello illuminating theory by the yard, Waits blind-sides us with a discourse that is highly wrought, reactive, tirelessly original and shot through - bizarrely - with a fairly conventional sense of logic.

In this splendid compilation, you see the ruffled old rascal dancing lightly around his less gifted examiners, locking horns with others, and launching himself into dazzling, spontaneous trajectories of thought and conjecture when he occasionally meets an inquisitor he considers a kindred spirit. There's even a delicious streak of cruelty, as in the every-split- syllable transcript of Waits's appearance on The Don Lane Show on Australian television in 1979. While the gravel-voiced guest is slumped on the settee, flicking ash all over the carpet and wondering loudly "whether there are nightclubs in heaven", his perspiring host back-pedals in a desperate attempt to rescue his reputation: "I've never had as good a time interviewing anyone as I have with this man, because he's the ultimate send-up!"

Virtually everything Waits says is memorable, even his most flippant asides. When a reporter from ZigZag magazine reveals he's got some of the man's albums in his bag, he shoots back: "they're harmful to swallow. If a rash develops, discontinue use and consult a physician immediately." Asked by Musician in 1987 about Keith Richards, Waits reflects that "he's like a tree frog, an orang-utan. When he plays he looks like he's been dangled from a wire that comes up through the back of his neck, and he can lean at a 45-degree angle and not fall over. You think he has special shoes."

Waits's first press release, in 1974, came from his own pen, and memorably began: "The blur drizzles down the plate glass and a neon swizzle stick stirs up the night, as a cueball maverick of a moon rolls across the obsidian sky . . ." When Waits was interviewed by Elvis Costello for Option in 1989, the pair kicked around the concept that musical sounds can attract or repel different people in the same way that different species of insects see the same flower in a variety of colours.

And along the way there are some fascinating insights into Waits's strange code of beliefs. He uses the same vintage microphone as Frank Sinatra and picks up instruments he doesn't really understand "because it's like giving a monkey a blowtorch". He thinks a percentage of musical heritage is genetic - hence his affection for Irish music from birth. His speech is peppered with sparkling metaphors ("like three blind men describing an elephant") and effortless turns of phrase ("I like to follow the rabbit and roll!"). And beneath it all is a refreshing sense of gentle self-deflation - "I've never met anyone who made it with a chick because they own a Tom Waits album," he confided in 1977. "I've got all three and it's never helped me."

He's the dream ticket, a singer with something to say and a captivating way of saying it. If only there were a few more like him.

Mark Ellen is editor of The Word magazine

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2006 issue of the New Statesman, A new sort of superpower