Tom Waits – Our Beat Storyteller, Part One

Tom Waits – Our Beat Storyteller, Part One

Written by WL Woodward

He was born when lightning struck a distillery near Pomona, somewhere between All Saint’s Day and All Fool’s Day. His essence spilled out of a busted bottle of Chivas Regal and puddled on Fremont Street where it began to distill from vinegar to diamonds.

Waits claims in his stage exchanges with his audience that he was born in a taxicab with a three-day beard. The cabbie wouldn’t let him out without paying the fare, which he said was tough because he had no pockets.

He was actually born on Pearl Harbor Day 1949 to schoolteacher parents. There are different stories about how he started playing music. One has him begging his mom for a piano for Christmas. Another story goes he’d learned playing on a neighbor’s piano. Both could be true.

Waits had two uncles, Vernon and Robert. He patterned his vocals after Vernon, who had a rough gravelly voice earned from throat surgery. Robert played the pipe organ at the local church and young Waits was fascinated with the power of the instrument. Apparently, the church used to vibrate to that power until the church had to let Uncle Robert go after complaints from the rats.

When the church failed, Robert bought the pipe organ and had it installed in his house. Some pipes were long enough that they had to go through the roof. Must have been hell in a rainstorm. And speaking of rain, another story has Tom finding an old piano in the back of Robert’s yard that had been left to the elements and only the black keys worked. Waits commandeered the wreck and learned using just the licorice plinkers. That story I would love to believe.

Robert’s housekeeping skills were lacking and Tom once asked his mom why there was always so much clutter and disarray in Uncle Robert’s house. Mom pointed out that Uncle Robert was blind.

Both Vernon and Robert are recurring and evolving characters in Waits’ lyrics. In his 20s, Tom lived for nine years at the Tropicana Motel in Hollywood and he kept the legend of Uncle Robert’s housekeeping habits alive. Waits loved squalor and had no problem with walking across empty hamburger packages and dead cigarette packs strewn through the rooms. Martin Mull, doing an interview on his Fernwood 2 Night show, asked Tom where he grew up and he answered, “The corner of Bedlam and Squalor.”

Waits was and is a very private person and the stories about his life come from his interviews and stories which are notoriously fantastic. His friends are his friends because they don’t talk about him to anyone. I dug up material in a few books, one a book of interviews edited by Paul Maher Jr. called Tom Waits on Tom Waits: Interviews and Encounters, and another by Jay S. Jacobs, Wild Years: the Music and Myth of Tom Waits. The Jacobs book is a sweaty work in which he talked with people who worked with Tom such as Bones Howe, who produced most of Waits’ first six albums, Francis Ford Coppola, who hired Waits to score a movie and became a close friend, Mike Melvoin, who would alternately direct Waits’ band and play piano, and the many interviewers who crossed swaths and swords with Tom over the years. They all contributed to the tattered tapestry that mocks time.

The bottom line about this guy is that he built the stage persona of a disheveled drunk beating the drum of Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski so well that he slipped into the role in life and fell for his own schtick. The reality of his off-stage life was, he did not grow up poor, had a white bread childhood in Whittier and San Diego, and when times got hard he could always hop into his ’57 Cadillac that he loved like a well-worn dog and just drive off.

That does not mean his life on and off the stage was a swag born to sell records. He loved the beat-down people who started with gumdrop promises and ended up cringing on the dark side of life. In a 1976 Newsweek interview he said, “There’s a common loneliness that sprawls from coast to coast. It’s like a common disjointed identity crisis. It’s the dark, warm, narcotic American night.”

For nine years in the 1970s Waits’ home base was at the Tropicana Motel in West Hollywood, a stumble from the Troubadour where he played frequently. Despite the possible high-rent area (the motel was owned by Sandy Koufax in the 1960s) the establishment was frequented by the people Waits loved to spend time with. At $30/night you can imagine the clientele. The maid service was imaginary and no one cared how you lived or spent your nights.

A typical day for Waits at the Tropicana started when he got up around 2 in the afternoon and slid over to Duke’s Coffee Shop next to the motel and drank coffee “too weak to defend itself,” smoked cigarettes and watched the flotsam of Hollywood float through. He said in a Rolling Stone interview he once tried to pick up a woman there and she turned him down, telling him he was so ugly he could “make a freight train take a dirt road.” He gave up after she told him she was a lesbian.

Waits on tour would go into a new town and ask a cabbie to take him to a hotel named after a dead president, knowing he would end up on the seedy side of town. He was just comfortable in places like that. There he could smoke Marlboros and drink cheap whiskey until he had to get to the next gig. The line between the artist and the live angst mobster blurred but he remained incredibly prolific. Waits released his first six albums in every year during this period, and toured after each release.

There is a great story about a producer for The Mike Douglas Show who remembered hearing something like “Grapefruit Moon” by Tom Waits and the memory stuck with him. For one show, he was without an artist for a segment and had heard that Waits was in town. The producer hired him. Somehow the car that was sent to pick up Waits did pick him up, but when the car showed at the studio, no Waits.

Apparently, when Tom showed up security wouldn’t let him in because of his, um, manner. The boys found him asleep in the lobby and brought him in. Cut to showtime. Mike Douglas stormed onto the set yelling, he just went into the green room and there was a ”homeless guy asleep on the couch!” The producer assured Mikey that bum was one of his guests (and began writing his resume in his head).

Waits came out, did a tune and Douglas was floored, walking Waits back with his arm around Tom’s shoulders.

That right there is the story of Tom Waits.

I once read a list of Waits’ “ten most important albums to listen to” and one was In the Wee Small Hours by Frank Sinatra. That album is a melancholy collection of odes to Ava Gardner, who had recently told Frank to get a one-way ticket to AwayFromMe. The result is considered one of the first “concept” albums and is a favorite of mine.

However, also on Tom’s list is Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica which is the worst use of plastic I can imagine. But you listen because Tom told you to.

In his first Letter to the Phylogeny (aka Closing Time, 1973) his poetry showed foam, substances and shenaniganry.  Despite his reputation for hooker and hobo stories, Waits can write beautiful love songs.


From Small Change (1976), an ode to advertising.


It was obvious to any single-celled organism that the boy who shorted the sheets of the parish boys was on a road filled with magi and mayhem.

Over the next few columns we will take a journey using his albums and the stories swirling around them like ships slipping into a whirlpool. Meet me at the corner of Bedlam and Squalor for the first seven albums from his Tropicana smoke screen, then more from after Kathleen found him and introduced him to himself.

Here is another taste. One of Waits’ boyhood chums was a kid confined to a wheelchair named Billy Swed. Tom idolized Billy as they caroused around Kentucky Avenue in San Diego.

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