How much do you know about Tom Waits?
He writes songs and sings them.
He has Grammys and is a Hall-of-Famer. He has a loyal cult-following, and a voice that sounds like “it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.”
Waits himself drives a 1960 four-door Cadillac Coup deVille and uses it to travel to various dumps and salvage yards. Junk shops. He’ll have a rummage around, a look-see, at least once a week, hunting for what, he doesn’t know until he sees it, claims it. He likes doors, for example. He has a thing for them: barn doors, French doors, doors with windows. He’ll throw them in the back of his Caddy, bring them home.
His car is a honking gas guzzler of a thing, and it smells bad inside, and the radio doesn’t work, but it’s roomy and he likes that about it. “I’m down with the field trips. I got the big car,” he says. “So I’m always looking for a nine-passenger opportunity.”
Elizabeth Gilbert interviewed Waits for GQ magazine about fourteen years ago. You have to read this thing. It’s the most extraordinary piece, filled with the craziest anecdotes and details, like the bit about dumpster-diving.
At one point in the interview, Waits leans in close to Gilbert, and starts talking about spiders. “The male spider,” he says, “after he strings four strands of his web, he steps off to the side, lifts one leg, and strums them. The chord that this makes? This attracts the female spider. I’m curious about that chord.”
He seems to be curious about a lot of things. Waits carries around a slim notebook that he uses to scribble notes in, stuff about spiders. Music, of course. “I like my music,” he says, “with the pulp and skin and seeds.”
It’s when he starts talking about his music — his creative process, more specifically — that things get really interesting.
Waits says he hates routine. Habits. Blocks. Anything familiar.
“He stopped playing the piano for a while,” writes Gilbert, “because his hands had become like old dogs, always returning to the same place.”
So he did other stuff instead. Super weird stuff. Like he recorded a song where the main instrument was a creaking door (again with the doors!). Then he recorded another where an instrument called a calliope, an “ungodly pneumatic organ, best known for providing music for merry-go-rounds” had the main solo.
“I tell you,” says Waits, “playing a calliope is an experience. There’s an old expression, ‘Never let your daughter marry a calliope player.’ Because they’re all out of their minds.”
Waits has a daughter, and two sons. His wife is the ethereal Kathleen Brennan: screenwriter, composer, songstress. Waits’ long-time collaborator. The two of them seem to have it figured out, this creative life-thing. Making babies. Birthing whole records-worth of experimental, blow-your-mind music.
Living in a house with, presumably, a lot of really cool doors.
Waits says kids are the best songwriters. “Better than grown-ups,” he insists. “Kids are always working on songs and throwing them away, like little origami things or paper airplanes. They don’t care if they lose it; they’ll just make another one.”
In her latest book, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert revisits her time with Tom Waits, telling us more about that GQ interview. She says Waits told her he had once been very unsure of himself; that he’d “struggled deeply with his creativity in his youth because — like many serious young men — he wanted to be regarded as important, meaningful, heavy.”
So there was struggle. There was the drinking, the drugs, the “dark nights of the soul.” Waits thought, for a long time, that this was par for the course. Gilbert calls it being “lost in the cult of artistic suffering.”
Except it wasn’t seen as suffering.
It was just seen as being committed to your work, dedicated to your craft. The price you pay.
It wasn’t until Waits saw how cheerfully and casually his own children were creating things, that he was able to shift his own approach. Gilbert calls this Waits’ “epiphany.”
“I realized,” Waits told Gilbert, “that as a songwriter, the only thing I really do is make jewelry for the inside of other people’s minds.”
And that was it.
A single, simple, freeing thought: the idea that this whole thing? It’s not such a big deal. He can relax. We can relax about it already: about writing. Music. Art.
It is possible to be an artist and not be tortured. In fact, it seems the more unburdened, the lighter we are, the more we’re able to access parts of ourselves that are this way, too; the more playful and unencumbered we can be about the whole enterprise of artistic creation.
The more we can make stuff that’s actually worthwhile.
As John Lennon once said about the Beatles: “We were just a band.”
Some of their best work, Lennon said, was never recorded.
So the Beatles were just a band. And we are all, writers and painters, entrepreneurs and artists, just dream-chasers, trying to make the world a little more beautiful.
It’s really no big deal.
*If you liked this piece, consider reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. Good tings, good vibes.