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Waits, Tom

Category: Musician or composer

 

Thomas Alan Waits (born December 7, 1949) is an American singer-songwriter, composer, and actor.

With his trademark growl, his incorporation of pre-rock music styles such as blues, jazz, and vaudeville, and experimental tendencies verging on industrial music, he has developed a cult following, and has influenced numerous other songwriters despite having little radio or music video support.

He has worked as a composer for movies and musicals and has acted in supporting roles in films, including Paradise Alley and Bram Stoker's Dracula. He also starred in Jim Jarmusch's 1986 film Down by Law. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his soundtrack work on One from the Heart.

His songs are often best-known through cover versions by more commercial artists: "Jersey Girl", performed by Bruce Springsteen, "Ol' '55", by the Eagles, and "Downtown Train", by Rod Stewart. Although Waits' albums have met with mixed commercial success in his native United States, they have occasionally achieved gold album sales status in other countries. He has been nominated for a number of major music awards and has won Grammy Awards for two albums, Bone Machine and Mule Variations.

 

In 2011, Waits was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He is also included among the 2010 list of Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Singers and the 2015 list of Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time.

Never judge a book by its cover

Waits has an image.  He is the hard man, the tough, smoking, 'don’t mess with me' type.  His face and the style of beard all help with the image, every photo is designed to project the image, he rarely smiles on any photo. 

Waits also has a distinctive voice, described by critic Daniel Durchholz as sounding 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."  And he has built up a distinctive musical persona too.  His lyrics frequently present atmospheric portraits of grotesque, often seedy characters and places.

The image he projects matches the voice, he projects a haunted hungry look, the look of someone who has been through it all, in a way only America can produce, via every known substance abuse and trauma.  But Waits is as good an actor off the screen as he is on it.  Although he did abuse alcohol at one time, he fairly quickly realised this was not helping his song writing.

Waits
"I tried to resolve a few things as far as this cocktail lounge, maudlin, crying-in-your-beer image that I have. There ain't nothin' funny about a drunk [...] I was really starting to believe that there was something amusing and wonderfully American about being a drunk. I ended up telling myself to cut that shit out."

 

Furthermore he has been happily married for a long time to his partner and musical collaborator Kathleen Brennan. 

He lives peacefully in Sonoma County, California, with his wife and three children.  Waits is not all he seems.

He is well known for his total refusal to let his music be used for advertisements.  Thus he is a moral man, not one to do anything for money.  A man of principles.  And he is prepared to fight for those principles.

He has filed several lawsuits against advertisers who used his material without permission, and said, "Apparently, the highest compliment our culture grants artists nowadays is to be in an ad—ideally, naked and purring on the hood of a new car...I have adamantly and repeatedly refused this dubious honor."  He has filed lawsuits against Frito-Lay, Levi's, Audi, and Adam Opel AG.  In a number of cases Waits has given the money he has won to charity.

Waits has also filed a lawsuit unrelated to music. He was arrested in 1977 outside Duke's Tropicana Coffee Shop in Los Angeles. Waits and a friend were trying to stop some men from bullying other patrons. The men were plainclothes officers, and Waits and his friend were arrested and charged with disturbing the peace. The jury found Waits not guilty and he took the police department to court and was awarded $7,500 compensation.

 

So he is tough, but in the USA you have to be tough, this is the nature of the culture, it takes no prisoners and the innocent and timid sink like stones.  But Tom Waits combines strength with morality.  And he supports and protects those he sees are in need of help.

At one stage Waits left a well known label for ANTI, a tiny label in comparison at the time.  The then president, Andy Kaulkin, said the label was "blown away that Tom would even consider us." Waits himself was full of praise for the label, saying "Epitaph is rare for being owned and operated by musicians. They have good taste and a load of enthusiasm, plus they're nice people “.  His intention of course was to give support for ‘nice people’ – good people. 

And he helps his fellow musicians.  Jazz tenor saxophonist Teddy Edwards:

Tom Waits is the one who got me my contract with PolyGram. He's wonderful, he's America's best lyricist since Johnny Mercer. He came down to the studio on the Mississippi Lad album, that's the first one I did for PolyGram, and he sang two of my songs, wouldn't accept any money, just trying to give me the best boost that he could.

 

And the hard man look he projects is also a front – a very good front because Tom Waits is a gentle man with a very kind heart. 

For example, on January 22, 2008, Waits made a rare live appearance in Los Angeles, performing at a benefit for Bet Tzedek Legal Services—The House of Justice, a nonprofit poverty law center.  He joined the Dalai Lama at the benefit concert "Healing The Divide: A Concert for Peace and Reconciliation" at Avery Fisher Hall, recorded on September 21, 2003.

And in early 2011, Tom Waits completed a set of 23 poems entitled Seeds on Hard Ground, which were inspired by Michael O'Brien's portraits of the homeless in the book, Hard Ground.  Waits and ANTI- printed limited edition chapbooks of the poems to raise money for Redwood Empire Food Bank, a homeless referral and family support service in Sonoma County, California. As of January 26, 2011, four editions, each limited to a thousand copies costing $24.99US each, sold out, raising $90,000 for the food bank.

From where cometh the inspiration?

It cometh – and he knows this – from his inner daemon, his Higher spirit, and he works to cultivate this rapport he has with this part of him that helps him:

Elizabeth Gilbert- from a TEDtalk Your elusive creative genius

And for me, the best contemporary example that I have ….. is the musician Tom Waits, who I got to interview several years ago on a magazine assignment. And we were talking .. and you know, Tom, for most of his life, he was pretty much the embodiment of the tormented contemporary modern artist, trying to control and manage and dominate these sort of uncontrollable creative impulses that were totally internalized.

12:52 But then he got older, he got calmer, and one day he was driving down the freeway in Los Angeles, and this is when it all changed for him. And he's speeding along, and all of a sudden he hears this little fragment of melody, that comes into his head as inspiration often comes, elusive and tantalizing, and he wants it, it's gorgeous, and he longs for it, but he has no way to get it. He doesn't have a piece of paper, or a pencil, or a tape recorder.

13:16 So he starts to feel all of that old anxiety start to rise in him like, "I'm going to lose this thing, and I'll be haunted by this song forever. I'm not good enough, and I can't do it." And instead of panicking, he just stopped. He just stopped that whole mental process and he did something completely novel. He just looked up at the sky, and he said, "Excuse me, can you not see that I'm driving?"

13:37 (Laughter)

13:41 "Do I look like I can write down a song right now? If you really want to exist, come back at a more opportune moment when I can take care of you. Otherwise, go bother somebody else today. Go bother Leonard Cohen."

13:55 And his whole work process changed after that. Not the work, the work was still oftentimes as dark as ever. But the process, and the heavy anxiety around it was released when he took the genie, the genius out of him where it was causing nothing but trouble, and released it back where it came from, and realized that this didn't have to be this internalized, tormented thing. It could be this peculiar, wondrous, bizarre collaboration, kind of conversation between Tom and the strange, external thing that was not quite Tom.

 

In his positive review of the opening show of the tour, The Wall Street Journal critic Jim Fusilli described Waits' music thus:

The 58-year-old Mr. Waits ... has composed a body of work that's at least comparable to any songwriter's in pop today. A keen, sensitive and sympathetic chronicler of the adrift and downtrodden, Mr. Waits creates three-dimensional characters who, even in their confusion and despair, are capable of insight and startling points of view. Their stories are accompanied by music that's unlike any other in pop history.

 

Discography

  • Closing Time (1973)
  • The Heart of Saturday Night (1974)
  • Small Change (1976)
  • Foreign Affairs (1977)
  • Blue Valentine (1978)
  • Heartattack and Vine (1980)
  • Swordfishtrombones (1983)
  • Rain Dogs (1985)
  • Franks Wild Years (1987)
  • Bone Machine (1992)
  • The Black Rider (1993)
  • Mule Variations (1999)
  • Blood Money (2002)
  • Alice (2002)
  • Real Gone (2004)
  • Bad as Me (2011)

 

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