The storyteller, songwriter, noisemaker, fantasist, actor and living legend of American arts, Tom Waits, turned 71 two days ago. Probably.
He’s created so many brilliant, often hilarious myths around himself, his songs and the arcana of Americana, that you would not want to be betting your house on the certainty of his birth date.
However, if we accept it for the sake of argument, then Tom Waits was born eight years after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, released his first album in the year Richard Nixon was forced from office, and as another disaster – the Trump presidency – ends, he is still one of the great figures of contemporary music.
And a man who knows his way around – and then beyond - an iconic bit of Australia too.
In this 2004 interview we graze on patches of truth, fields of not-quite-truths, nick trucks with his partner Kathleen Brennan and decipher the circus. All normal Tom Waits territory.
Tom Waits once told an American newspaper that “I have a hard time talking about things directly”. He was not joking.
Like his songs, in which live characters like Molly Hoey who “drank Pruno and Koolaid [and] she had a tattoo gun made out of a cassette motor and a guitar string”, his answers are detailed, circuitous. And that route is the scenic one.
In his raspy but still languid tones he chuckles dryly and spins his yarns – sometimes true, sometimes fantastical – in the same way he might tell you about the workings of a piece of machinery on his California farm. You may choose to believe him; you may choose not to.
For example, a misunderstanding about to whom he was to speak finds him clarifying that this interview is for a morning paper, the one “that arrives whether you want it to or not”. His wife and co-writer Kathleen Brennan is known for collecting at least four different papers each day so I wonder if he reads them or prefers to keep away.
“Oh yeah, sure I read the paper,” he rasps. “The TV I poured a soda in the back and we haven’t been able to get a good picture ever since.”
Well yes, that does tend to happen when you mix your soda and a TV. Was it a deliberate move?
“Yeah, it was a desperate move, trying to correct the vertical hold,” he says. “Now it’s a coffee table, with an interesting light, and nothing more.
“When I met my wife I had a TV where the picture had been getting progressively smaller and smaller and smaller until it was just a strip of light across the centre of the frame and I remember the last thing I was watching before the strip itself finally disappeared was basketball. It was like watching midget basketball: everything squished down to this little strip of light. It was a colour TV but you had to choose what colour you wanted everything to be. You could get it in red, blue, yellow or green but one at a time. So I told her I’ve got colour TV, come over to my place.”
Of course. It may well have happened too. The 55-year-old former king of the Los Angeles demi-monde whose ‘70s albums of bar-room ballads and wordy, witty tales cast him as some kind of musical Bukowski, did win Brennan over in 1988.
“She’s a botanist, went to med school for a while, worked at the good Samaritans who fly around doing medical work and she can fix the truck, take an engine apart and put it all together,” he says proudly.
If she wasn’t real, she’d be a perfect character for one of his songs.
“Yeah, I got lucky. And she’s a certified public accountant. And remains completely accountable for all she says and does. She can even drive heavy equipment, earth movers. They used to leave the keys in those things on construction sites. We were driving by one of those sites one night - we used to play this game called let’s go get lost where she’d tell me to turn until we got lost – [and] we found this earth mover, a big bulldozer, and she started it up and took a spin around the vacant lot. I think I fell for her at that moment.”
Yes, it would be hard to say no to a woman after that.
They’ve written together, produced together and for some years now have lived in a dusty corner north of San Francisco from where they record albums which can veer from neo-Broadway songcraft (in fact one of the musicals Waits has written, The Black Rider, in this case to the words of William Burroughs, will be performed in the Sydney Festival) to what Waits has described as “junkyard orchestral deviation”.
Wait’s latest album, Real Gone, while sitting somewhere between those two points may be said to lean towards the junkyard. In fact you could imagine he had a microphone handy when he poured the soda down the TV as there are sounds here which could easily be a TV exploding.
“Everything’s valid. All sound is music to someone. That’s my theory,” Waits rumbles. “It’s just how it’s organised whether it’s pleasing to your ears or mine. For example if you’re in the middle of the ocean, your boat’s just sunk, you’re flapping around and sharks are circling and the most beautiful sound in the world would be the sound, very loud and very close, of a helicopter. Under most circumstances at home having a drink you’re not going to want to listen to helicopter music. You have to match the event with the sound.”
Speaking of which, one of the things which permeates Real Gone, as it has many of his albums, is death. Not in a murder ballad, glum manner but the raw visceral lives and the closeness of death to them. From the intimidatory Don’t Go Into That Barn and the soldier on a feckless leader’s stupid war in Hoist That Rag to the road-living and road-dying folk of Circus.
What is it about fairgrounds and circuses that appeals?
“Probably the same reason that theatres are dark on Monday because that was hanging night. You couldn’t really get a crowd at a theatre on a Monday night because everyone was at the hanging. Including the actors in the theatre,” Waits says, as if it was a perfectly natural answer.
“I don’t know. Just the fact that before the circus got there it was just grass and trees. Everybody wants to run away and join the circus. That’s what a lot of people do in music to some degree. You want something with heightened reality. That’s what I wanted to do.”
There is something about circuses: they’re not real in some ways but it’s the blood and guts and the bare elements of physical life which is something like what you get in a Tom Waits song. You get the crunch and the squeak of bodies.
He laughs. “I was thinking about the only horse in the world who did card tricks. His name was Lucifer. He worked for a carnival and the owner of the horse was old and he no longer was able to feed and care for this horse so the horse fell into other people’s hands. The horse got sold to another circus and eventually started pulling a wagon.
“At one time he’d been a big star this horse and one day a guy who knew about the card tricks was visiting the circus and said ‘in the name of God what are you doing having Lucifer pulling a wagon, this genius horse?’ So they got him out of the wagon thing and put him back into his routine where he was drawing crowds again. And when he died, when the horse died, they skinned the horse and took that skin and wrapped it around a barrel and used it as a wind machine in the local theatre and they used that same wind machine for a hundred years.
“Isn’t that wild? That’s a true story you know.”
Of course it is.