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Another Night at the Opera for Waits

Tom Waits discusses his latest coallborative foray into musical theater

November 3, 2000 12:00 AM ET

There's this sense of Tom Waits as some sort of solitary post-apocalyptic sonic mad scientist. But what gets missed in romanticizing Waits' inimitable sonic palette is that the composer/musician is quite the team player. From slinging bebop folk with his Boho buddies Chuck E. Weiss and Rickie Lee Jones in the Seventies to his longtime musical (and domestic) partnership with wife Kathleen Brennan, Waits has always been interested in fusing his musical vision with kindred wandering spirits.

Waits' latest project brings Woyzeck, a nineteenth century play by doomed playwright Georg Büchner (who died at age twenty-three of typhus), back into the realm of the opera -- Alban Berg first adapted the play to music as Wozzeck more than seventy years ago. And as with their theater productions of Alice and The Black Rider Waits has collaborated with Brennan and avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson, whose glowing resume of musical collaboration includes work with Phillip Glass (Einstein on the Beach), Lou Reed (Time Rocker) and David Byrne (The Trees). The third installment in what can be viewed as a loose trilogy finds Waits, Wilson and Brennan mining a carnivalesque tale of the title character, whose over-stimulated aggression from a military stint prompts a jealous rage that causes him to murder his girlfriend. It's a grizzly tale, with timeless themes, full of song and possibility. The play seems custom fit for the Waits/Wilson combo, as they continue to experiment with theater as a sort of visually dazzling Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill for the new millennium.

And that sense of collaboration shines through when Waits talks shop. And no one does it quite the same way; Waits crafts metaphors for the creative process as effortlessly as Snoop Dogg drops a new term for marijuana.

Woyzeck, the play, has a healthy dose of singing in it, was there a musical appeal already there?

Actually that's what scared me more than anything.

Really?

Yeah. You know when you're trying to teach somebody how to do something you want them to do and they have very little frame of reference or irony? It's difficult sometimes to transmit that kind of nuance. Or sometimes you discover that your idea wasn't as good as theirs [laughs]. You know, you have to be willing to jump off the building. Working with Wilson is like an underwater ballet. Once you've seen that and been in one, wherever you go, you wanna tell people to slow the hell down [laughs]. [Imitating stage direction] And please do a 360 right there at the drinking fountain for me, will you? Feet first.

So now that you and Wilson have done this three times, do you have a comfortable approach?

Panic. Followed my more panic. Theater is torture. That's why they call it "the fabulous invalid." But with Bob I think it's addictive because he does have a worldview on light and movement and text that takes the world apart in a way that I like very much. But it does kind of ruin you for Neil Simon, you know. Not that you aren't already ruined for Neil Simon. But he just starts with the senses.

You have to give me a time [limit] here, because otherwise I'll start talking about my sick rat if we get going too long.

No, please, continue.

It's really kind of just the opportunity to work with Wilson. And that's where it stops. Because if we were going to just do theater, you can do it locally . . . if you dare. Plus it's not like making a record or a movie -- it's constantly going to change, you have to accept that. I like making records 'cause you go there, you're done . . . laminate it. This is very different. You're dealing with the drifting process.

So you lose the sense of permanence?

It's inevitable. It's nothing but unpermanent for days. So I write with my wife -- we've been through a lot of this. We wrote the songs for Alice, which was the last thing we did with Wilson. There's nothing like [working with Wilson], you know? It does ruin you for the rest. I don't know what it is, it's really hard to describe. You see people moving very slowly on stage dressed like a flying nun and saying non-sequitors and it's your job to score it. It's enchanting.

Do you feel Woyzeck is a companion piece to The Black Rider? They both have a gothic, carnival-ish feel.

True. Yeah, there's a murder in there. I guess I'm drawn to the carnival. You know I went and watched [the Hitchcock movie] Strangers on a Train to get some inspiration. It's so impressionistic, but it does draw from life. And then it becomes something very different from that. You kinda go along with the experience of working with Wilson, which is kind of like being an astronaut for a few months. You do feel sometimes you're sitting out there in the dark at a little table with these little lamps like you're at Cape Canaveral. And something otherworldly is being witnessed. Not sure where you're going, got plenty of oxygen, but . . . we like it [laughs]. For a sober person, like myself, it's the closest thing to a drug experience [laughs].

And Wilson brings that feeling to the theater?

It's somewhere between Freud and NASA, and it's like looking at water for the first time under a microscope and you say, "My god, there's a world in here! It's living, I don't know if I should drink it anymore." He has tremendous leadership qualities and you embark on an expedition with him. And you have to suspend disbelief in order to go and that's always thrilling, because real life can be kind of tedious.

Did you and Wilson find it a challenge to modernize the story?

Yeah, but he breaks the platter and glues it back together incorrectly. It's no longer suitable for serving, but it's fascinating on the wall. But Kathleen and I, we're like Plink and Plank. I call her "Plink" and she calls me "Plank." I certainly don't have any formal background in music. When you say you're doing an opera, it's like when you're a seven-year-old and say, "I'm off to Washington, Dad." You kind of go, "Sure. Sure you are, son." We still go into a room and sit at the piano and go plink . . . and . . . plank. And that's what the songs come out of. So I guess in the end, with theater, no matter who's doing it, you wanna leave whistling a theme that you heard and remembering a particular moment.

"T'aint No Sin" [sung by William H. Burroughs on The Black Rider] was sure hard to keep from humming.

Oh right. Mr. Burroughs. That's an old song from the Twenties. "T'ain't no sin to take off your skin and dance around in your bones." That was his reference point for the whole play. He was looking rather skeletal himself and singing that tune was a Halloween moment. So we just integrated it, wove that into the score. That was a long project. But it got done and has played all over Europe. It only came to BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music] once, you know. But over there, it's kind of, I dunno, I was gonna say like Cats or something . . . everybody knows it. But they're also more of a theater audience. They still participate in those traditions, whereas here it takes a lot to get folks out to a theater. Unless you tell 'em it's a movie first...or it's gonna be one [laughs]

So this project isn't strictly scoring, though, right? There are full songs?

Yeah. It'll probably fifteen songs in here by the time we're done.

And do you get to play with those European instruments that you enjoy so much?

Yeah, the bass clarinet and hand bells. That's something I never experienced before, these hand bells. Mostly religious organizations use 'em. Tuned handbells. Everybody has one, and there's like eighteen of you and you ring consecutively and do Christmas music [laughs]. Like little carolers. We get those woven in there. Then there's usual stuff, the pump organ. So yeah, it's got that circus thing, waltzes. I don't even entirely know what it is yet, because it's not done. It's not on its feet yet, so it'll probably undergo a lot of changes between now and the end.

Isn't the debut just a few weeks away? You're really going to have to whip it into shape.

Yeah, you do have to whip it. And there's a lot of elements, and even where you get it where you like it, it's not gonna stay. It's like drawing in the dirt with a stick.

Alice was never released as a soundtrack album, like The Black Rider was. Any chance this one will sneak out?

Maybe yeah. I guess Epitaph [Waits' new label] might put it out.

The Black Rider felt like it disappeared without a sound.

They [Island, Waits' previous label] didn't do much with it. But you know, people don't know what to do with recordings from theater experiences. People don't know what to do with them if they buy 'em. They wonder, "Should I have seen the show? And if I haven't will it make sense?"

For whatever reason, it felt like The Black Rider had a brown vibe. Is there a color you think best represents Wozeck?

Oh yeah, well maybe this is more like black and yellow. Or lime. Black and lime. "Misery is the River of the World" -- that's one of the songs. Can't really think of all the titles right now . . . "All the World Is Green" is one.

Sounds like you have a broad mood spectrum.

Yeah, I guess we'll see what happens. We still have about three weeks before it opens.

How long is it expected to run?

Well as long as people keep coming. I really don't know how long it's gonna run. They'll stay on it. Keep it alive, I hope.

Any idea if you'll bring it to the U.S.?

It's too far in advance. But we could, I think. But theater you have to get used to the idea that it's gonna change, it's gonna grow, branches are gonna fall off. Folks are gonna live in it for awhile and then leave.

Do you appreciate that sort of malleability?

No! [laughs] I don't like it because I kind of like knowing that you work on something, then you've glued it to the floor and you know that it's gonna be there in a year. But I'm getting used to the fact, with theater people it stays alive in their heads. If you think about it, with the theater, everybody goes home at night, right into their houses, and if they all didn't come back the following day there wouldn't be a show. That's kind of exciting.

Any thoughts as to why theater is received better in Europe?

I don't know. Maybe it's just that you're closer to the source of all that over there. You're near the spring of it, and folks are still drinking it and bathing in it.

We have more television channels too.

Yeah, it makes you brain-lazy. The electronic media kind of says, "Please sit back and let us do this for you. You're not a professional." But over there, a lot of them have experience on the street doing theater and in warehouses.

Are there any other plays you'd like to adapt?

We're talking about this. I'd like to do a Beckett thing with Wilson.

Woyzeck has a spare Beckettness to it.

Well yeah, it has a certain kind of stripping down, kind of a cut-up text. I don't think Bob really likes words. He kind of thinks of them as tacks on the floor of a dark room and you've gotta walk to the door. I think he handles them very carefully.

Do you have any plans to record another studio album in the near future?

Yeah, going in to do another one pretty soon, after we're done with this.

Is it already written?

No, no, gotta start [laughs].

But it won't be another seven years before it appears?

No, God I hope not. I don't think so. We'll get something out pretty soon.

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