It’s late spring 1977, and Thomas Alan Waits, better known as Tom Waits, is squatting in his dressing room. His longish dark brown hair slicked back, he’s got blue eyes, a modest goatee, and he’s being interviewed. A journalist from the college paper is asking him questions, and because Waits, who is wearing a shiny black suit and scruffy black pointed boots, and is squatting as he smokes a Viceroy (at the time he had a three pack a day habit) and drinks a brown liquid from a plastic bottle, the journalist is squatting too. Meanwhile, I’m taking photographs of Waits, occasionally taking notes, and biding my time. When the other journalist leaves, I’ll ask my questions.
“I led a normal boring life up to the age of 15,” Waits says. “I landed a job at Napoleone’s Pizza House in National City [in southwestern San Diego, County, California]; things began to pick up, working until three and four in the morning, cooking, scrubbing floors, washing dishes, playing pool and getting a well-rounded education on life after midnight.”
The dressing room is backstage at Zellerbach Auditorium on the University of California Berkeley campus. Waits is 27; I’m 24 and still fairly new to interviewing musicians. Waits has just finished performing to over 2,000 fans. Since March of 1973, he’s had four albums released by Asylum Records, beginning with Closing Time (which included “Ol’ 55,” a song covered by the Eagles on their hit album, On the Border). His most recent album (as of the night I wait to speak to him) is Small Change which furthers Wait’s evolution from a piano-playing folk-pop singer/songwriter to Beat influenced jazzbo. A fifth album, Blue Valentine, will be released in a few months.
Leaping up and stretching his legs, he considers some trays of soggy sandwiches, carrots and yogurt dip. “Only in Berkeley,” Waits says, pulling a pile of sprouts out of an avocado and Swiss cheese sandwich. “Only in Berkeley would they give you an organic spread.” Tossing the sandwich onto the floor he takes another swig from the plastic bottle and returns to his squatting position.
“What I got to do now is get home,” Waits says. “I’m afraid I left the water running in the tub and we’ve been gone like two months now. I was in Belgium and I just went shit! And I think I left my dog tied up in the bedroom and it’s gonna be a real mess when I get home. The only thing I’m banking on is he got hungry and died. That’s the only way I’m gonna be able to go back to a clean home.”
Michael Goldberg: What’s the appeal of the sleazebag scene?
Tom Waits: An appeal is what comes after a sentence. Ha Ha. What comes after a sentence. It’s a little joke. What’s the appeal of diners? Ah, it’s just around me all the time. I mean I’m really not any different than anybody else. I mean as far as what’s American, I mean it’s hard to avoid.
Goldberg: Well a lot of people seem to avoid it. I mean the newspapers don’t exactly put it on the front page. You have to go down to Mission Street [in San Francisco] or the Tenderloin to seek it out.
Waits: Seek out what specifically?
Goldberg: You’re dealing with a certain part of the American culture that’s not generally dealt with. A lot of people who are losers, who couldn’t deal with the American economic system and have ended up living a financially meager existence.
Waits: Well, I don’t just sing about that!
Goldberg: Well, your image goes with that. Is it true that you live at the Hollywood Tropicana Hotel?
Waits: Yeah, I never should have made that public. I get a lot of real strange guests now that I made that public. But it sounded like a good idea at the time. I write about things that are important to me, things I see around me. Give a certain amount of dignity to the things that I find interesting to write about. I’m kind of like a curator or a private detective. I sleep with one eye open. I don’t know what you want me to say.
Goldberg: Well, how did you end up writing about these things?
Waits: There’s a lot of money in it. You know what I mean? What do you mean specifically? Pick out something specific that I can talk about. You got a certain image about me already I’m sure that is so far beyond my ability to evaluate anyhow. So, if you’ll just tell me about something specific then I can discuss that. Got a song or a story?
Goldberg: What about “The Heart of Saturday Night”?
Waits: Okay. I was in a car, wrote it in a car driving around Los Angeles about a Saturday. Simple as that.
Goldberg: What’s your highest value? What’s most important to you?
Waits: Right at this moment? Well right now what I’m really most concerned about is 12 hours of sleep. That’s right now, that’s the most valuable to me. Bermuda shorts, recreational vehicles, fried chicken, the Empire State Building, Rodney Dangerfield, pointed shoes.
Goldberg: Does it give you a lot of satisfaction to write songs?
Waits: Yeah!?! Yeah, it gives me a great deal of satisfaction to finish an album, do all the writing for it, it’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever done and also the most rewarding.
Goldberg: Over your four albums you’ve moved from a straight pop song type thing to …
Waits: More stylized …
Goldberg: To the jazz thing you’re doing now with spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness sounding lyrics.
Waits: Puddle of consciousness.
Goldberg: How did that progression occur?
Waits: I compete with myself every time that I write. Try to outdo myself. I’m constantly trying to get closer to the bone I guess. Cut away the gristle. I’m my own worst critic. So, I’m real hard on myself as a writer and subsequently, each album, I’m trying to cover new turf and write better songs for Christ sake.
Goldberg: How do you write your songs?
Waits: First I get entirely naked and then I inject marinated herring and wine sauce right into my jugular vein, and I have to be in Great Neck or Shaker Heights will do but I actually prefer being in Great Neck like in the back of a real estate office at night when they’re closed. And I get under one of those metal desks and all of a sudden, I don’t know, I black out and when I come to I have all these cameras around my neck and a funny hat with dumb slogans on it and the album is under way. That’s how I wrote the last album. This one I’m going to try a new approach.
Goldberg: How do you stay in touch with the street life you sing about?
Waits: It’s very time consuming being out here. And also performing is very insulating, which I don’t like. It puts a lot of governors on my normal itinerary. I have very little time to be out on my own recognizance. There’s always somebody pulling on my coat, phones ringing, or I gotta go here or I gotta go there, I gotta get up for the show, and then afterwards I gotta go back to the hotel and I gotta watch The Rifleman and then Leave It to Beaver, Sunrise Semester, and then Farm Report and Give Us This Day and then I have to get up and I have to get in a cab. I mean my whole day is eaten and I get what’s left over. When I get home it’s different.
Goldberg: How is it different?
Waits: Well, I’m going to have this whole summer off. This whole thing won’t be around me, this pomp and circumcision. I won’t have to do it. Won’t be around me. Press and all that shit.
Goldberg: What’s your nonperforming life like?
Waits: Probably very much like your own. I brush my teeth. I don’t usually even admit that. I have certain things I have to do just like everybody else to get through the day.
Goldberg: I guess what I want to know is, when you have a vacation, what do you do for fun?
Waits: Well, I have a summer home in Monte Carlo, it’s not much, $150,000, and I have a little black jockey out on the lawn, a couple of Chevelles, and uh I play a lot of golf, sailing, I enjoy my leisure time. And so when me and Marge get just away, we figure, why wait until you’re too old to enjoy it? So we dropped everything, said we’re finally going to do it and so we went to Yosemite, and boy did we get some shots, you know what I mean?
When I go home, first of all I’m gonna have to throw out all the bums that have been living in my house since I’ve been gone and then I’ll have the place to myself. I usually spend about a week, and I don’t go out of the house at all, except to use the bathroom.
Goldberg: Do you ever feel like staying in a fancy hotel and putting on an expensive new suit?
Waits: What does fancy hotel and putting on a new suit go together? That’s like, “Do you ever feel like picking your nose and putting on a pair of socks?”
Goldberg: Every story that I’ve ever read about you talks about the shiny black suit and the tie you can’t see through the stains and the pointed ragged shoes that are so—they look like they’ve been in a garbage can for months.
Waits: Hey, I don’t look that bad do I?
Goldberg: I’m just telling you what they say.
Waits: Well look, you read them, and I don’t, alright? I’m glad I don’t read ’em. My mother read one of those things and just about shit. She thinks I’ve really, I’ve gone over the hill. I ain’t that bad. I’m not exactly what you’d call a trendsetter in fashion. Actually, I’ve kinda cleaned up tonight, frankly. You know, I mean I try to be concerned with personal hygiene and all that. But you know, get out here on the road sometimes and sometimes I have to get up so early, so in order to avoid having to get up and do all those things in the morning, get dressed, I just sleep in my clothes. You know. Really.
Goldberg: What do you think your audience comes for?
Waits: Tonight, they came to hear me. If somebody’s never seen me before they come, maybe, out of curiosity. If they have seen me before—I got a lot of diehard fans. They’re usually 16-year-old kids with drinking problems. I don’t have a young teenage, succulent little pedophile audience. Nor do I have a lot of hardened criminals come either. You’re probably better at figuring that out than me ’cause I don’t really see the audience except my friends who come backstage. I don’t sit in the audience and look around me. You did. So you probably have a better idea. Why don’t you tell me.
Goldberg: Well, this audience was a lot of college kids …
Waits: Hippies? Ex-hippies?
Goldberg: Well, some employed hippies who could afford the tickets—UC Berkeley students.
Waits: There were a lot of students. A lot of English majors?
Goldberg: I wouldn’t know. How old are you?
Waits: I’m 27 years old. Born Pearl Harbor day.
Goldberg: How did you avoid the Jimi Hendrix psychedelic scene?
Waits: I was in a mental institution. I wasn’t allowed to listen to the radio. I was in a straitjacket for 12 years. And they fed me on berries and small rodents. And I wasn’t allowed to listen to music. And I had to get my hair cut every day. And though I wanted to wear bell-bottoms and beads and listen to Blue Cheer my doctor said it wasn’t a good idea.
Goldberg: Do you ever worry about your health?
Waits: Sure, I worry about my health. Just as much as anybody else does.
Goldberg: You smoke a lot, right?
Waits: I try to eat right, and I take Geritol. When you got your health, you got just about everything. [Spits] You know what I mean? I’m relatively healthy, on the outside.
Goldberg: What is success to you? Do you feel you’ve achieved it?
Waits: Uh, different degrees of it. You can be a big fish in a small pond. I mean I think I—it’s expanding a little bit. I’m popular in Belgium and Japan and Philadelphia. [Two decades later Waits would release a song called “Big in Japan.”]
Goldberg: Is that how you rate success? In terms of how many people see you? Is that how you judge success?
Waits: Oh, are you talking about popularity or success?
Goldberg: No, I’m talking about to you personally. Are you successful?
Waits: I’m successful. I guess I would say I’m successful because I’m—I quit my day job, I’m doing exactly what I set out to do. And it’s—so I guess it’s something. I’m experiencing a measure of success. Yeah.
Goldberg: What do you think about Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith?
Waits: Patty Hearst? Patty Hearst, I like. Patti Smith, I don’t like. I’d rather go to a night- club and see Patty Hearst any day than Patti Smith. And I like Bruce; Bruce is cool.
Michael Goldberg was a senior writer at Rolling Stone for a decade and founded the first internet rock magazine, Addicted to Noise. He also wrote for Esquire, the New Musical Express, Creem, Downbeat, the San Francisco Chronicle and numerous other publications. He has published three novels and two non-fiction books. Wicked Game: The True Story of Guitarist James Calvin Wilsey (2022) can be ordered from HoZac Books. A 400-plus page collection of his music journalism, Addicted to Noise: The Music Writings of Michael Goldberg, which contains profiles, features, interviews and essays on Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, James Brown, Sleater-Kinney, Prince, Flipper, Neil Young, Laurie Anderson, John Lee Hooker, Lou Reed and many others, is just published by Backbeat Books.
Reprinted with permission from Addicted to Noise: The Music Writings of Michael Goldberg by Michael Goldberg. Published by ⒸBackbeat Books. All Rights Reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.