Tom Waits, All-Night Rambler

A past-midnight drive with insomnia's best pal

tom waits 1975
Richard Creamer/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Tom Waits in Los Angeles, circa 1975.
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LOS ANGELES—A diamond mist sticks to my windshield as irrepressible night cat Tom Waits and I take off on a deserted Santa Monica Boulevard in my '69 Chevy.

It's 3:15 a.m., we have no direction, and – as Waits would say – it's colder than a well-digger's ass.

This has been an important night for Waits and he's not through with it yet. A couple of hours earlier, he had finished his first engagement at the Troubadour, and the songwriter/poet singer/actor had done well. Owner Doug Weston had just told him so in the alley as we were leaving. He wants Waits back soon.

The three days had been a real challenge for Waits, who's to the seamy side of city life what John Denver is to Rocky Mountain High. As opening act to Little Feat, he was playing before houses mostly unfamiliar with his bluesy, boozy world of muscatel moons, naugahyde bars, cruising Oldsmobiles and used car salesmen with Purina checkerboard slacks.

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Tom Waits

Waits educated the crowd soon enough. Looking like an emaciated Skid Row refugee in a rumpled black suit and undone greasy tie, he would do a wino shuffle to the microphone and open each set with the jazzy talker, "Diamonds on My Windshield" – a Kerouac-style ode to freeway driving which he delivered in a jiver's slur, snapping his fingers on his right hand and waving his constant Old Gold in his left. After performing several songs off his two excellent Asylum albums, Closing Time and The Heart of Saturday Night, on the piano, he would return centerstage. "Easy Street," a barrage of metropolitan double talk would follow:

"There's some kind of a blur drizzle down the plate glass and the neon swizzle stick is stirring up the sultry night air. And the buttery biscuit of a cueball moon, it's rolling maverick across an obsidian sky. And the buses are grroooaaning and wheeezing down on a corner and I'm freeeezing on Restless Boulevard. . . ."*    

"I'll always be a night owl and I'll never move to some cabin in Colorado," Waits says as we camp down on Sunset in a Copper Skillet, an orange naugahyde coffee shop with a planter of plastic flowers in our booth--Waits's kind of place. It's four o'clock now and Waits's young face with his jazzman's goatee looks more drawn than usual, and a shock of his dirty blond hair, uncovered by the cap he wears onstage, is hanging over a part of his forehead. He talks earnestly and articulately.

"Yeah, the moon beats the hell out of the sun. There's something illusionary about the night. If we were sitting here in the afternoon looking out that window you wouldn't be able to see the reflection of the kitchen and the cook. And you wouldn't know what's in that parking lot across the street. So your imagination is working overtime.

*Easy Street by Tom Waits ©1974, Fifth Floor Music Inc.

 

"And the night is music. I couldn't sleep on 23rd Street in New York – it was a musical traffic jam session. You can hear a melody, a horn section, haaa heee haaa, broken glass jig-jag clack whack shuffle shuffle. And a radiator with all those little Doc Severinsens playing. There's food for thought at our fingertips and it begs to be dealt with."

Waits was born 25 years ago in a California smoghole, Pomona, and spent most of his first 12 years in Whittier "hanging around in Sav-On parking lots and buying baseball cards." When his parents were divorced, he moved to San Diego with his mother and two sisters. Shortly thereafter, he began working nights at Napoleone's Pizza House, where he was to develop his feel for nocturnal life. "I thought high school was a joke. I went to school at Napoleone's."

Veins of blues, jazz and folk run through Waits's sound and the former can be traced to his junior high days. "I was going to an all-black junior high. I showed up at Balboa Stadium to see the Flames or else I didn't go to school the next day." Ray Charles remains his favorite singer. Jazz and folk entered his life when he was 20. He became involved in a strong social clique at the now defunct folk club, the Heritage, where he worked as a doorman. He got involved with jazz, ironically, after reading On the Road.

"Kerouac liked to consider himself a jazz poet, using words the same way Miles uses his horn. And it's a beautiful instrument. He had melody, a good sense of rhythm, structure, color, mood and intensity. I couldn't put the book down. And I got a subscription to down beat afterwards."

Waits and a friend, Sam Jones, undertook their own countrywide odyssey shortly thereafter. When he returned he decided to throw himself into entertaining and he took to the hoot circuits of San Diego and Los Angeles. He spent countless Mondays on the sidewalk outside the Troubadour for the chance to cast his ego to the Troubadour fates.

"It was frightening to hoot, to be rushed through like cattle. And at the Troubadour it's like the last resort. You see old vaudeville cats, bands that have hocked everything to come out here from the East Coast just to play the Troub one night. You also meet a lot of carnival barkers in polyester, smoking Roi-Tans and giving you some long Texas routine. They say, 'Hello sucker.' And I was a sucker. But you're desperate, you're broke."

Waits met Herb Cohen, manager of Frank Zappa, Tim Buckley and, at the time, Linda Ronstadt, at a Troub hoot one desperate and broke night in 1972. "I was disappointed. I had done my songs – I was still slumping in a semi-professional thing onstage at the time – and the audience had gone henna henna henna. And Herb came over to me, was very honest and upfront. And the next day I had a songwriting contract and $300 in my pocket. We've been together ever since."

Although he's been on the road much of the last year, Waits has kept his one-bedroom house in the Silver Lake district of L.A., a description of which serves to illuminate Waits's lifestyle and the total lack of effect success has had on him. "I live in a predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood and I get along fine there. My friends won't come over. It's a hovel. My landlord is about 90. He's always coming over and asking me if I live here. And my neighbor up front is a throwback to the Fifties, an old harlot. She wears these pedal pushers and gold-flecked spiked heels and has a big bouffant hairdo. She has one of the worst mouths I've ever heard. I wake up to that. But I need a place that's cluttered so I can see the chaos. It's like a visual thesaurus."

Waits is now at work on material for his third album, a concept album to be centered around "Easy Street." He feels he's on the verge of something important. "It concerns the art of storytelling. I hang around in bars and cafes taking down people's conversations, trying to keep the meter, picking up expressions. This stuff is my meat and potatoes."

As for the portrait of the young artist, paint Waits with his $2.50 used imitation alligator boots on the ground. "People say, 'Oh man if I could just get a record out.' It's like a diploma. But I wouldn't be playing the Troubadour without a couple of records. When you get a record you're just thrown into another arena, with the thousands of other cats who have records just like you.

"I'm not hooting anymore, but I'm still pimping. I'm just on a different corner."

I leave insomnia's best pal at the Tropicana Motor Hotel, near the Troubadour. It's 6:10 and we've squeezed every minute out of this night. In four hours, Waits will be on a plane to Minneapolis for another engagement – and some more easy-days nights.

This story is from the January 30, 1975 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 179: January 30, 1975