Real Gone

Tom Waits finds the only interviewer who really understands him

One of the central obligations of any rock 'n' roll iconoclast is to make his comparatively dull interviewers squirm, overcome with a mix of reverence, fear, and nauseated anxiety. Odds are Tom Waits has been down that road enough. As one of rock's most unequivocally cool cats, he's absorbed an endless parade of stuttered queries about everything from his unorthodox singing style to his hard boozing past. But no one's ever been able to drag much out of him. This might be because Waits, like Woody Guthrie and Charles Bukowski before him, is almost in competition with his own mythology—the working-class American poet who marches to his own drummer. Or it might just be because he's "difficult." So he decided to cut out the middle-man for publicity on his latest American tour, choosing instead to answer questions from the only person truly worthy of asking them: himself.

The highlights of Waits' third person self-analysis are numerous, and they help showcase just how funny the gravel-throated troubadour really is. There are also some substantial doses of politics, romanticism, famous quotes, absurdity, and, for good measure, sincerity. Here's a small sample:

Tom Waits: What's the most curious record in your collection?

Tom Waits: In the '70s a record company in Los Angeles issued a record called The Best of Marcel Marceau. It had 40 minutes of silence followed by applause and it sold really well. I like to put it on for company. It really bothers me, though, when people talk through it.

Tom Waits: What's heaven for you?

Tom Waits: Me and my wife on Route 66 with a pot of coffee, a cheap guitar, pawnshop tape recorder in a Motel 6, and a car that runs good parked right by the door.

Tom Waits: What's wrong with the world?

Tom Waits: We are buried beneath the weight of information, which is being confused with knowledge; quantity is being confused with abundance and wealth with happiness. Leona Helmsley's dog made $12 million last year—and Dean McLaine, a farmer in Ohio, made $30,000. It's just a gigantic version of the madness that grows in every one of our brains. We are monkeys with money and guns.

Tom Waits: What is a gentleman?

Tom Waits: A man who can play the accordion, but doesn't.

Tom Waits: Tell me about working with Terry Gilliam.

Tom Waits: I am the Devil in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus—not a devil, the Devil. I don't know why he thought of me. I was raised in the church. Gilliam and I met on Fisher King. He is a giant among men and I am in awe of his films. Munchausen I've seen a hundred times. Brazil is a crowning achievement. Brothers Grimm was my favorite film last year. I had most of my scenes with Christopher Plummer. (He's Dr. Parnassus.) Plummer is one of the greatest actors on earth! Mostly I watch and learn. He's a real movie star and a gentleman. Gilliam is an impresario, captain, magician, a dictator (a nice one), a genius, and a man you'd want in the boat with you at the end of the world.

Tom Waits: Do you have words to live by?

Tom Waits: Jim Jarmusch once told me, "Fast, cheap, and good—pick two. If it's fast and cheap, it won't be good. If it's cheap and good, it won't be fast. If it's fast and good, it won't be cheap." Fast, cheap and good—pick two words to live by.

Tom also takes a moment to vouch for the five piece band he'll have backing him on the current tour: "They play with race-car precision and they are all true conjurers. I'm doing songs with them I've never attempted outside the studio."

photo by Michael O'Brien