Apocryphal stories abound about Tom Waits, though it’s my understanding he likes it that way. He seems to encourage biographical ambiguity; not to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes but because a wild and wooly backstory was part of his schtick. The schtick was art. Performance was, and is, his life: “I was born at a very young age in the backseat of a Yellow Cab in the Murphy Hospital parking lot in Whittier, California.” The first thing he did was, “. . . pay, like, a buck eighty-five on the meter [and go find a job].”
Waits’s career spans five decades. I can only write about the Tom Waits I met briefly and not far from the trailhead of his career, about what I knew around the time my picture came to be, in 1976, when I was assigned to photograph him for Rolling Stone.
I knew who Tom Waits was but I didn’t know his work well enough to be a huge fan. Then I heard his 1975 album, Nighthawks at the Diner and bought a copy. Who wouldn’t want to know more about a guy who drops the dime on his character with a line like this, fiction or not?
Up all night drinking cleaning products / Looking for suggestions . . .
His jazz monologues — that’s how I thought of them — were sophisticated and goofy at the same time. When he got around to — some called it — singing, accompanied by his own fingers tickling the ivories, it was like hearing a Vegas lounge crooner’s perversion of, say, Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” on an LP with the needle navigating sand sprinkled in between the vinyl grooves. It’s become the louche life. Waits’s throat is ransacked by unfiltered Camels and economy hootch. His scat vocalizing evolves into syncopated verse on top of a bass-and-drums combo seasoned with a tenor saxophone, and elbows a tremolo off the end of each phrase; sounds kind of like Sylvester the Cat doin’ a Satchmo. Then, as later, on stage or off, a cigarette dangles from his lower lip above a soul patch, his cheeks bristly with three-day growth. A tattered suit and a skinny black tie worn loose around his neck, like a noose, were topped off by a rumpled gatsby that looks like it had been used to wipe tables. On one track, “Emotional Weather Report,” he riffs hilariously on loneliness without missing a poignant beat, as only a screwball genius could do. It was just too cool for school — crazy, man!
When the thunder storms start increasing over the / Southeast and south central portions of my apartment, I get upset . . .
It’s cold out there / Colder than the ticket taker’s smile at the Ivar Theatre, on Saturday night . . .
Except for kind of a lone gust of wind in the bedroom . . . [there’s a] weak pressure ridge extending from my eyes down to my cheeks . . .
Well, the extended outlook for an indefinite period of time / Until you come back to me, baby, is high tonight, low tomorrow / And precipitation is expected
Crepuscular sightings of Tom Waits were reported regularly along the corridors of West Hollywood, just east of Beverly Hills and south of the Sunset Strip. A transplant from San Diego, he became a fixture in that LA neighborhood where I, too, lived for a while. Scuffing up the pavement between Doheny and San Vicente on Santa Monica Boulevard, or on Crescent Heights or Melrose, with his pointy black roach killers, he looked to anyone like some homeless dude navigating the sidewalk to oblivion.*
Using parking meters as walking sticks . . . With my eyelids propped open at half mast
He was probably just traipsing home from wherever the hell he’d spent a debauched night, ready to crash until 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Or he may have been headed, first, to Duke’s, a late-night greasy spoon tucked into the side of the Tropicana Motel, the West Hollywood flophouse on Santa Monica Boulevard where he holed up for a good long time and became its most legendary denizen. It was a legendary hole. It was Laurel Canyon with maid service and a pool, or the Chelsea in New York with parking spaces. There were palm trees, but rats lived in them. Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax owned the place. Only a few blocks from the equally fabled Troubador nightclub, the Tropicana would come to be inhabited by a motley menagerie of nocturnal transients, rock ’n’ rollers on a rite of passage through purgatory, waiting for a record deal. Waits was a Tropicana pioneer. But long before he could afford a room, even in that dive, he used to stand in line outside the “Troub” hoping to go onstage on open-mic nights. This was called a hootenanny. By 1972, he was finally getting paid to play gigs there.
I sighted Tom three or four times myself on my way home after eggs and OJ at Duke’s with whomever closed this or that club after last call, trying to maintain an even keel until daybreak. Norm’s and Ship’s were also restaurants of last resort on La Cienega (which translates as the swamp). I read somewhere that Tom drove beaters. I only saw him hoofing it. I’d pass him by in my car, and, if I might’ve slowed down, I’d already be half a block away. It seemed totally dumb to turn around and go back. I could have offered him a ride, I suppose. I don’t think anyone ever did. He was the only exponent of Homo sapiens wandering the streets without a car. Nobody walks in LA. He didn’t seem approachable. He looked like he’d just been mugged. Staggering up the step stool of professional recognition, even as his star began to shine, his was an oddball trajectory. Tom Waits was no deadbeat; he just loved deadbeats — really loved them. But hey! It’s been said, Hang around a barbershop long enough, you’ll end up with a haircut.
* The word homeless was not in popular use in the 1970s. The less empathetic, more ignorant label of bum was often applied to the down-and-out who were typically shamed by the general public as listless alcoholics and hardly ever associated with either economic inequality or mental illness. They were less dispersed throughout the community, and congregated in a place known as Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles.
As a tunesmith, Tom Waits writes rhapsodically but incongruously. The title of another album says it all: Beautiful Maladies. Think of his tune “Temptation.” But not his version! Not wailing in falsetto like a beatnik Yoko Ono. Listen to jazz chanteuse Diana Krall, Elvis Costello’s better half, or the mens a cappella chorus called Chanticleer who turn it inside out like a sock. There’s also the romance of “Ol’ 55” which everybody knows, covered by the Eagles, and “Jersey Girl,” covered by the Boss. Then again, Waits can grind out some rhythmic and tonal detours that will test anyone’s sensibilities about what constitutes a tune in the first place: Think of “Goin’ Out West” from the Fight Club soundtrack or the maudlin marimba and bass clarinet duet that lurches into a lunatic ditty recited by none other than William S. Burroughs:
Just like those bamboo babies / Down in the South Sea tropic zone
T’ain’t no sin to take off your skin / And dance around in your bones
. . . then to make that rhyme with ice cream cones. You’ll find that and other febrile choruses of derangement on The Black Rider album. It might just as well have been at the intersection of Heart Attack and Vine, another terrific LP and exemplar of lyrics no less worthy than Bob Dylan’s — but funnier. One of my (many) favorite lines shines with cynicism: “The large print giveth, and the small print taketh away.” Oh, yeah. And you’ve got to imagine everything that comes out of his mouth in step with a brush snare drum and a walking upright bass in a slow 4/4 shuffle. Tom Waits had many influences, but he got to the Beats and Bukowski, first, then, Rodney Dangerfield before he got to Cole Porter. His delivery is a kind of lyrical nattering with a palsied stage presence that brings to mind a conflation of Joe Cocker and Jack Kerouac (or Burroughs).
He’s got acting chops too. I met Waits a second time, in 1986, at a screening of Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law at the Directors Guild Theater in LA. We exchanged no more than a few words. I don’t think he remembered me, frankly. It had been ten years. Francis Coppola called him his “Prince of Melancholia” and gave him parts in several films, including The Outsiders and Rumble Fish. Recently, on Netflix, I watched Waits play an old coot digging for gold in the Sierra Nevada who lends new meaning to the word cunning in the Coen Brother’s brilliant 2018 sextych The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
On the day of our photoshoot — where was it anyway? — Waits hadn’t yet moved into the Tropicana. We met at, maybe, the Hollywood Premiere Motel or maybe the Paradise? Those were two more fleabags of familiarity in Tom Waits’s territory, far out on the grimiest eastern stretch of Hollywood Boulevard. Cheesy lighting. Needles and condoms. Transients. Rooms: nine bucks a night; probably not much less by the hour.
I showed up at the appointed hour, late in the afternoon. We spoke, Tom to Tom, for a few minutes. He was quite funny. I’m sure I wasn’t. I felt the pressure of working for a major magazine like Rolling Stone, but thankful for the opportunity. I had a photo to make and I wasn’t ultra confident in 1976. We shot a couple of rolls and that was it. He wasn’t a big star, yet; just another LA up-and-comer with one hit song. This picture would illustrate a blurb about a gig at the Troubador. That’s how I remember it, and I haven’t been able to dig out the article from my archives. It’s not online.
I was able to work quickly with only a Nikon and Tri-X and a tripod. No fancy lighting. In fact, by the time we were ready to shoot it was getting dark. I hadn’t planned to shoot a silhouette. I’d brought a crude incandescent light with an umbrella and a stand. But when I saw Tom stand in front of the bare bulb sticking out from a wall, outside in the motel courtyard, backlighting it would be! I never unpacked my lighting kit. It was evident, to me, that my subject would be readily recognizable, despite the faint light on his face. Who else but Tom Waits would strike a pose like that? In retrospect — perhaps I intuited unconsciously at the time — the silhouette plays to the ambiguity he enjoyed.
I thought I nailed the shot; captured his persona. But, to my chagrin, Rolling Stone hated it. The photograph was reproduced about the size of a postage stamp, deep in the gutter of the magazine. If you didn’t open it flat you might miss it. Well, I suppose, anyone who wants to make the gutter inference with Waits is free to do so. I don’t think Rolling Stone had that in mind. I thought I was in the gutter, though, as far as the magazine was concerned. (I still got work from Rolling Stone after that.)
As they say, Tom Waits for no one. It took time for my portrait of Tom Waits to win acceptance. I have no idea if he liked it, but it has always been one of my favorites. I’m proud of it. I sell prints to photography collectors and Tom Waits fans alike. I also licensed it to be displayed during Waits’s 2011 induction ceremony into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
As far as I know, today at 71, Tom Waits is no longer lonely. He lives in a real house in Marin County, California with his wife. They have two grown children and lots of friends in high places. He may be wearing the same shiny suit, for all I know, but I know he’s given up the gatsby for a trilby.
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