For 20 years, I have been punished by inebriated men in questionable hats, the kind who snap their suspenders as they bark jumbled-up Bukowski quotes. They corner me in bars, in stairwells, in dark alleyways under the premise of a cigarette with their annoying (albeit, innocuous) intent. I know what’s coming. But like a child who endures the presence of a clown for the promise of a balloon animal, I hang around just long enough for the payoff:
“Say, you a Tom Waits fan?”
For years and years, my favorite Tom Waits song was the theme track to The Sopranos. I hated it at first, but eventually it grew on me, and nobody could tell me there wasn’t a lyric in there that went “Shave my body.” I was shocked and dismayed to discover that it was not, in fact, a Tom Waits song. That honor belongs to the British band Alabama 3, whose Englishness makes the blues-y romp and Waits-ish vocals even more confounding.
The point is—and I hope it is crystal clear by now—I am not a Tom Waits fan. And that’s putting it lightly. His music is like nails slowly screeching down a chalkboard, or like being strapped down to a chair in one of those CIA acid tests and being forced to watch bad YouTube reenactments of Peaky Blinders episodes while two guys dressed like train conductors bang on pieces of iron next to my face and record the sounds of my suffering. This feeling of disdain extends to his die-hard fans as well. And now, I’m going to figure out why.
Much has been written about the tortured genius of Tom Waits, a specific and unique talent only truly understood and appreciated by his fans. You just don’t get it, kid. To dig Tom Waits, you have to know what it is to be in the underbelly; to be an outcast, a rebel against rebels, a train-hoppin’ hobo, a down-and-out card shark, a bastard orphan left on the puke-stained doorstep of society. Never mind the fact that Tom Waits himself is an extremely regular white man from a middle-class family in San Diego or something. Forget all that. He’s a mystery, a riddle wrapped in a puzzle wrapped in a paper sack so the man can’t know for sure, man.
Tom Waits is a slick car salesman, but I’m not buying it. Oh sure, the pots and the pans clang around in his songs and his murderous poetry is grumbled into a megaphone, and that’s all well and good. It puts the lotion in the basket. Very spooky, much alternative. Once, according to a mythological anecdote spread by his weirdo fans, Waits screamed so loud into a pillow at some point in the ’70s that he shredded his vocal cords, and that’s why he started singing like the ghost of a ’20s Black bluesman. Conveniently, that doesn’t account for the fact that on many tracks, he switches to a relatively clear, soft, and sentimental tone. He’s a performance artist, after all. An actor. He has the right to embody characters. He’s just giving the people what they want, and what they want is bullshit. Mmmmmm-mmmm. Spoon it right up. Big steaming heapfuls of bullshit. He’s smart! A real trickster, this guy! Gotta respect it!
Does Tom Waits know how fucking unbearable his fans are? I mean, really, does he really know? Does he know predominantly enjoyed by washed-up drunks with uncooperative penises who wear top hats in the summer and use 19th-century typewriters as footstools? Did he imagine himself, when he started croaking into those microphones, being forever worshipped by the most annoying MFA dropouts ever encountered at an Irish dive? Is he that guy? I’d love to give him the benefit of the doubt here, but I need answers. I need to read, watch, and listen to as much Tom Waits as possible. I can feel the soul patch growing. God be with me.
Mr. Waits has been infamously dodgy with the press, refusing to give straight answers or personal details about his life. Allegedly, he and his wife once sabotaged a writer’s attempt at an unauthorized biography by telling everyone they knew not to speak with the guy, perhaps under threat of chain-saw recording? Who knows? What I’m attempting is philosophically “investigative” journalism. Pure speculation. I’m following the scent of my master, studying Tom Waits so that I might uncover the man behind the myth.
To get straight to the heart of Waits fandom, I have to work within false binaries, giving particular consideration to the way that Waits portrays men and women in his songs. Tom Waits himself is all cartoon masculinity, a bulging-eyed, dishonorably discharged Popeye chugging gasoline instead of spinach. His Olive Oyls (i.e., the women in his songs) are his muses but mostly a curse, something to drink over, ghastly little bitches who are always just out of Popeye’s reach. A friend put it to me this way: Tom Waits’ music appeals to men who want to be allowed to feel their feel- ings, but not too much. They want to smell nice, but not too nice. (I’ll take the cologne that smells like I’ve been swimming in whiskey and stale cigars, please.) It’s a kind of permission that these men are seeking, and it has to be granted by another man. You know, someone they can look up to. I get that. And I can see where they get it in Waits’ gruff music; particularly the lyrics, which are often incredibly delicate despite being laced with violence. Take, for example, these lyrics from the song “Black Wings”: “When the moon is a cold chiseled dagger/And it’s sharp enough to draw blood from a stone/He rides through your dreams on a coach and horses/And the fence posts in the moonlight look like bones.” That’s some beautiful, ominous shit right there!
I can feel the soul patch growing. God be with me.
Waits’ musical aesthetic wasn’t always the didgeridoo-infused, floor-stomping, drill-bit freak show he’s come to be known for. At the beginning of his career, in the ’70s, he was basically a strange crooner. Saxophone and piano were his primary accompaniments, allowing him to embody a lounge-lizard sound heavily indebted to Louis Armstrong. Visually, it appeared more “greased-up Hollywood sleaze” than the “avant-garde dusty blues rambler” hard left turn he took in the ’80s. And while his early era still reads “masculine,” it’s more nuanced than his later approach—like some bastard child of Frank Sinatra and an escaped mental patient—and therefore, the ’70s shit commands a different allegiance of fans. The kind I find easier to tolerate.
Whenever I catch myself being sucked into the black hole of a Tom Waits punisher while asserting that I am not a Waits fan, dudes are quick to point to his ’70s era as a possible loophole. It’s not. No matter which way you slice it, to me, the guy just sounds phony, like he’s constantly parodying other types across his career (like the aforementioned Armstrong, but also Howlin’ Wolf, Captain Beefheart, etc.). This is why I prefer Tom Waits as an actor. Visually, I am more likely to believe him. I even believe him when he writes or speaks. I believe him in interviews, especially when he lies. I like him in photographs when there is no goatee, when he’s just smoking a cigarette and walking over some train tracks. But when he sings, it just sounds like a joke.
But, having heard the pro-Waits argument in every bar I’ve ever entered, I can understand why certain types of men drool over this whole shtick. But what about the ladies? Have any of them ever drooled?
Waits managed to date Rickie Lee Jones for several years in the ’70s, that is not lost on me. There are few people in the history of Earth cooler or sexier than Rickie Lee Jones in the ’70s, and there she was—enthralled, foaming at the mouth, absolutely head over heels in love with Tom Waits. By all accounts, he was equally obsessed with her, describing his initial attraction as “primitive,” a.k.a. he wanted to fuck her brains out. His 1978 album Blue Valentine is heavily indebted to her presence and influence; hell, she’s even featured in the artwork.
During their two-year relationship, Jones felt empowered to start performing live, to really give it a go as an artist in her own right. She blew up with her 1979 self-titled debut album, which resulted in her becoming much more famous than he ever did. I’m just speculating here, but it seems like her success may have contributed to their breakup that same year. Another popular theory alleges that Jones’ heroin use, something Waits could never abide, drove the final wedge between the couple, leading Waits to sober up from his own vices (mostly alcohol) in the aftermath.
Anyway, who cares? The point is, there was something alluring enough about Waits to keep this brilliant, sexy woman hooked on him for years, and that lends him at least a little bit of credibility. There’s also the possibility that she stuck around simply because the sex was phenomenal. She might’ve woken up one day, post-Waits pheromone intoxication, wondering what the hell she ever saw in the guy. We’ve all been there. So I’ll keep digging.
In Faithfull: An Autobiography, Marianne Faithfull describes collaborating with Tom Waits on what was originally intended to be a full-length concept album but ended up becoming a single song penned by Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan: 1987’s “Strange Weather.” The LP, as conceptualized by Waits, was going to be written from the perspective of a madam in New Orleans; he believed Faithfull could take on the role perfectly. She felt differently, writing that Waits was just one of the many people who viewed her in a “much more sexual light than I see myself. Much as I’d like to believe the sexpot image of me, I don’t really see myself as an unrepentant hooker belting out blues from the bordello.”
Faithfull’s memoir is just one example, but there are many Madonna-whore-complex bread crumbs easily picked up along the trail of Waits’ body of work. (Songs like “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis,” “Dead and Lovely,” and “Warm Beer and Cold Women” come to mind.) I’ve always held the impression that Waits is incapable of imagining a female character as anything other than a sex fiend with bruises on her legs and a drug problem. Sure, his work has dramatically improved in this department since his wife began collaborating with him in the early ’80s, but that is to her credit and not necessarily his.
In fact, Kathleen Brennan has been his most involved and steadfast collaborator since they were married in 1980. The union has impacted his work in myriad ways, and I can certainly see how his writing and life in general have improved since Brennan entered the picture: He cleaned up his act, sobered up, and left his dirty L.A. ways behind him. This was all for his own good, but I can’t help but reject the idea of Brennan as Waits’ “saving grace.” The narrative is too neat: She’s the good and pure maternal figure, the one who could set him straight and bear his children. The Madonna.
Listen, these are obviously generalizations, conveniently observed in order to validate my own bias. But I’m friends with a lot of Tom Waits fans, and a few of them have even managed to get me to have sex with them. It’s not like I find everything in the Waits universe unappealing. Like Waits, I’m a fan of hard drinking and cigarettes. I’ve been to jail numerous times. I know what fresh blood smells like. I’ve lived in my car. I am often approached in the streets by the mentally ill, because I am, myself, mentally ill. I’ve climbed out of windows and found myself walking along train tracks under the moonlight, with a six-pack and a thirst for vengeance. Maybe that’s why Tom Waits and his fans don’t impress me, because I’m not exactly impressed with myself, either. It’s all kind of cliché. When one has actually lived in a swamp, they are less inclined to be wowed by a guy from California who’s never been, singing about being born on the fuckin’ bayou (yeah, Fogerty, I’m lookin’ at you).
Tom Waits fans, I’ve found from my personal experience with them, can’t actually relate to the tall tales their hero weaves. But it all sounds so very exotic compared with whatever milquetoast background they hail from, so they try it on for size and decide the stupid hat fits. BOOM, an identity is formed: Tom Waits guy. Nobody ever told them that liking Tom Waits is not a personality.
In his defense, Waits sees no benefit to being his fan, especially when it comes to impressing women. In one of his more infamous quotes from the ’70s, he says that he’s “never met anyone who made it with a chick because they owned a Tom Waits album. I’ve got all three, and it’s never helped me.”
Touché, bud. I’m living for that self-awareness, the ability to not get so puffed up on your own mythology that you actually start to believe it. Y’know, the more I think about it, the more Waits seems like somebody who might be in on the joke. He’s just minding his business, making his weird little records and collecting checks as they miraculously roll in. There’s no way he could’ve predicted he would spawn a league of old-timey barbers with rosacea who’ve collectively tortured over 100,000 women by forcing them to sit on a piss-soaked couch and listen to Swordfishtrombones. Right? Right?
Wait. Could it be...is Tom Waits cringe but free?
I thInk tOm wAIts And I cOuld be frIends
For days on end, I have been rolling in the proverbial mud of Waits-land, really lapping it up like a rabid dog. I’ve been listening to every godforsaken Waits album, reading unauthorized Waits biographies, and watching Waits YouTube videos. I let a Gen X man in a newsboy cap give me advice about how to write this story for a solid 15 minutes without committing any acts of terror. I’ve quit vaping and taken up cigarettes again. Now my head is really spinning. It could be because of the cigs, but I think it’s because I’ve just experienced divine inspiration: I think I might get Tom Waits now. In fact, I think Tom Waits and I could be friends. I still hate 90 percent of his music and his fans, but something in me has changed. A barrier that existed previously has been shattered, and in its place now stands...relatability?
I’m walking in the rain, cranked out on three to four cups of coffee, sweating toxins into my heavy wool overcoat and thumbing the hole in the pocket. Goddamn it, I can relate to Tom Waits, because he’s a clown and he knows it. I’m a clown and I know it. Simple as that. We are both people who are in on the joke, who answer questions with other questions and then sit back and laugh when people are confused. Nothing I say makes sense, and isn’t that so profound, man? Where do the roosters go when they’ve had their crows and their chicken’s feet? Do they sit down for dinner with the rest of the hens and cluck the night away? Have I been recording the sound of my own skull bashing into steel manhole covers again? I’ll never tell. And neither will he.