BEST KNOWN since the 1970s for his gravelly baritone and his down-and-out persona, Tom Waits is both a musical chameleon and a sly raconteur. From his 1973 debut recording, "Closing Time," to his 2006 three-CD set, "Orphans," Waits has gone from evoking beat generation poets and bebop jazzmen to creating a lyrical lexicon and forging an avant-garde sound all his own. He's also an accomplished actor, appearing in a couple of dozen films, including, "The Outsiders," "Down By Law," "Ironweed" and "Shortcuts."
It's not his fault that the Eagles had a hit with his forlorn ballad "Ol' '55" or that Rod Stewart ruined the bittersweet reverie of "Downtown Train" or even that Scarlett Johansson just released an album of his songs. Even now that he's nearly 60 years old, and married with three kids, Waits remains the consummate American hipster. And much like Bob Dylan, he's a convoluted product of his own mythologizing.
He told Pitchfork magazine last year: "The fact is most of the things that people know about me are made up. My own life is backstage. So what you 'know' about me is only what I allowed you to know about me."
So who is Tom Waits really? Who knows? We look to this collection of interview snippets and YouTube videos to garner some insight.
From a "self-interview" titled "Tom Waits True Confessions" on www.antilabelblog.com:
What's heaven for you?
Me and my wife on Rte. 66 with a pot of coffee, a cheap guitar, pawnshop tape recorder in a Motel 6, and a car that runs good parked right by the door.
Do you have words to live by?
Jim Jarmusch once told me "Fast, Cheap and Good . . . pick two. If it's fast and cheap it won't be good. If it's cheap and good it won't be fast. If it's fast and good it won't be cheap." Fast, cheap and good . . . pick two words to live by.
What is a gentleman?
A man who can play the accordion, but doesn't.
> In a 1976 appearance on "The Mike Douglas Show," Waits chain-smokes and ducks around Douglas' ham-fisted questions. "I'm an unemployed service station attendant most of the time," Waits proclaims. When Douglas asks him what kind of places he likes to play, Waits says, "An audience full of four-speed automatic transvestites and unemployed shortstops —- that sort of thing."
> A decade later, in 1986, Waits plays the cool but older hipster on the "Late Show with David Letterman" in support of "Raindogs." When asked to describe New York City, Waits offers, "Well, it's like a big ship, you know, and the water's on fire." Asked what his parents were like, Waits answers, "My father was an exhaust manifold and my mother was a tree."
> THE 411: Tom Waits' Glitter and Doom Tour. Sold out. 8 p.m. July 5. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta, 404-817-8700, www.foxtheatre.com.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.