Paul Maher Jnr, journalist and kind of fanboy, has collated Tom Waits on Tom Waits – Interviews and Encounters to present a chronology of the artist in his own words. The man is a poet and a singer and a player and a composer and a troubadour and a reinventor. Waits has gained a reputation of someone you can’t quite look at straight: he tells the same rehearsed stories in interview after interview, sometimes contradicting earlier stories, and then changing them again in the future. There is no clear image here. Maher does well by presenting his own short introduction then stepping back to let Waits draw his own confusing, entertaining, interesting picture.
Tom Waits’ output is prodigious, and it is interesting art. Even his earliest stuff feels like it comes from an old soul at a different time, but every album builds and reinvents and recreates. However Maher’s careful curation of interviews and press releases shows a real development towards artistic maturity, and even while Waits resists it, tells the story of what the artist discovers along the way.
The story drawn is patchy though, and contradictory. It’s a flaw in our main character, not our writer however. This is Waits in his own words, and he has no one else to blame for the deliberate obfuscations, contradictory stories, half-made pictures. But what a ride it is along the way.
“He’s slick as deer guts on a doorknob. He’s the cat’s meow and I haven’t had so much fun since Granny put her tits in a wringer.”
It feels like there is a Waits album for almost every one of my moods. The man has explored so many genres, subverting them and adding noise and adding jazz and turning it all upside down, always with his wry, dry humour. He is an incredible musician, with a career spanning decades, outliving and moving past generations of contemporaries. At the same time, Waits is intensely private and uncomfortable with public interest in his life. Perhaps this is not surprising from a singer storyteller: that he would invent even further stories outside of his art to hide his life and keep the people happy.
And, perhaps against Waits’ will, Maher does show the evolution of Waits’ story. Revealing without comment or judgement, Waits’ early years were infused with the darkness of his artistic stories into his personal life, living out the tales of madness he sung on stage; that Waits’ true awakening and innovation started when he met his artistic collaborator, soul mate and wife Kathleen Brennan. There are these small nuggets of learning, that add depth and detail to this madcap poet.
“The blur drizzle down the plate glass and a neon swizzle stick stirs up the night air, as a cue ball Maverick of a moon rolls across an obsidian sky and the busses groaning and wheezing at the corner of restless Blvd. and midnight road, across the trucks from easy street and window shoppers beat the cement stroll and I sit scowling over this week’s special Norm’s pancakes and eggs $.69 trying to stretch out in the bowels of this metropolitan area.”
I suspect this book is a passion project for Maher and, consequently, perhaps only those already with a passion for Tom Waits will enjoy it. But for that group Maher has done an excellent job of collating the words of Waits from obscure places and lost recordings, laying them out in a chronological narrative, and stepping back to allow Waits to talk himself into a hole, and for the reader just to enjoy the ride.