The Resurrection of Tom Waits

"Mule Variations," his first record in six years, Tom Waits rounded up his multiple personalities – barfly poet, avant-garde storyteller, family guy – and came up with the biggest hit of his career

By |

Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 815 from June 24, 1999. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

You know what I'm big on? Strange and unusual facts," Tom Waits says, flipping through the pages of a crumpled notebook filled with bursts of serpentine scrawl that he has pulled from his back pocket. Waits should be gabbing about Mule Variations, his first album of new songs since 1993 and his debut, after long spells with Elektra and Island Records, on the independent Epitaph label. Instead, the forty-nine-year-old singer and composer — dressed in ranch-hand denim, with brown dirt encrusted on the left shoulder of his jacket — takes a moment to decode his handwriting, then looks up with a lopsided grin.

"Did you know there are more insects in one square mile of rural earth than there are human beings on the whole planet?" Waits asks in the warm, lumpy growl that, with a few extra notes, doubles as his singing voice. "Most dangerous job? Sanitation worker. There are 35 million digestive glands in the human stomach." Waits turns to the blackboard menu in Washoe House, a nineteenth-century roadhouse that is a short drive from Waits' home in the verdant California farmland north of San Francisco. "What did you order — the club sandwich? You're gonna need all those glands."

When he finally starts talking about the fantastical blues and spectral ballads on Mule Variations — about his songwriting and the autobiography embedded in his stories — Waits still sounds like he's reading weird-science entries from his notebook. Take, for example, "Chocolate Jesus," a hobo-string-band stomp about religious icons that literally melt in your mouth.

"My father-in-law has, over the years, tried to get me interested in certain business propositions," he says. "One of them was Testamints: These lozenges, they got a little cross on 'em and a Bible saying stamped on the back. Unable to worship? Have a Testamint," Waits says, his face so deadpan you're tempted to ask for a stock prospectus. "So Kathleen and I" — referring to his wife, co-songwriter and co-producer, Kathleen Brennan — "just took it out: 'What is he trying to get us involved in? What's next? A chocolate Jesus?' "

The riotous field holler "Filipino Box Spring Hog" is, Waits claims, based on the queer cuisine and mad guests ("Rattlesnake piccata with grapes and figs/Old brown Betty with a yellow wig") at rent parties he used to attend. And the vacant piece of real estate in "House Where Nobody Lives" — a country-soul weeper about how love, not decor, makes a home — was inspired by a place not far from Washoe House.

"It had busted windows, weeds, junk mail on the porch," Waits says. "It seems like everywhere I've ever lived, there was always a house like that. And what happens at Christmas? Everybody else puts their lights up. Then it looks even more like a bad tooth on the smile of the street.

"This place in particular," he goes on, "everybody on the block felt so bad, they all put some Christmas lights on the house, even though nobody lived there."

Waits stops for a gulp of his split pea soup. "I'm just like everybody else," he admits. "I'm nosy. If I know three things about my neighbor, I take those, and that's enough for me to go on." And what he doesn't know doesn't stop him: "Everybody mixes truth and fiction. If you're stuck for a place for a story to go, you make up the part you need."

Waits wags his notebook in the air as if to suggest that his most outrageous Mule inventions — "Eyeball Kid," a guy who is all cornea and smarm; the mystery recluse in the creepy spoken-word piece "What's He Building?" ("He has no dog, and he has no friends, and his lawn is dying.... And what about all those packages he sends?") — are only as twisted as life itself.

Songwriting, he says, "is not a deposition."

Waits is standing in a record store down the road a piece from Washoe House, holding a Japanese import CD by Rage Against the Machine that he's just bought for his thirteen-year-old son, Casey. "He'll think I'm really cool for getting him this," Waits says proudly.

He looks at the store racks packed with CDs. "It's gotta be hard for someone starting out now," Waits remarks, a bit sadly. "All the business you have to go through, making the videos, all this competition." He waves a hand at the mass of music in front of him. "I thought it was bad when I started out."

That was in 1973, the year Waits issued his debut album, Closing Time — a collection of hard-luck and bruised-love songs, soaked in Johnny Walker Red and Johnny Mercer chord changes, released in the thick of glitter rock and arena boogie. "I'm on the wrong end of the wheelbarrow every time," Waits notes with a gritty laugh.

Waits has spent much of the Nineties disengaging himself from the grind of what he drolly calls "this business we call show." His last major tour was more than ten years ago, documented on the 1988 live record Big Time. You can count the albums he's issued since then on one hand: 1992's Bone Machine and the sound-track to the Jim Jarmusch film Night on Earth; Waits' score for The Black Rider, his 1993 theatrical collaboration with Robert Wilson and the late William S. Burroughs; the anthology Beautiful Maladies: The Island Years.

"I see what you mean," Waits concedes. "It's like looking for your waitress. People get like that with artists. We are a product-oriented society. We want it now, and we want an abundance of it in reserve.

"But there are limits to what you can do. One is not a tree that constantly blooms in the spring; the fruit falls and you put it in a basket."

As an Epitaph artist, Waits is no further from the mainstream than he was as a major-label act. Of the fifteen records he made for Elektra and Island, only Small Change (1976) and Heartattack and Vine (1980) cracked the Top 100. Waits' deal with Epitaph, the indie-punk imprint founded by ex-bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz, only covers Mule Variations. But Waits says he already plans to re-sign: "They're easier to be around than folks from Dupont. Not to generalize about large record companies, but if you're not going platinum, you're not going anywhere."

To read the full article, you must be a subscriber to Rolling Stone Plus. Already a subscriber? Continue on to The Archives. Not a member and want to learn more? Go to our Rolling Stone Plus benefits page.

From The Archives Issue 96: November 25, 1971