This article originally appeared in the November 1985 issue of SPIN.
Tom Waits has a voice that could guide ships through dense fog. He sings songs that are poetic, hilarious, scary, touching, hallucinatory, and fine. Maybe he’s like John Lee Hooker, Mose Allison, Neville Brand, Francois Villon, Soren Kierkegaard, Lenny Bruce, and Wallace Beery rolled into one. Sometimes his band sounds like a Salvation Army combo covering a Stones tune. But nothing really sounds like Waits. Or writes like. Or looks like. Or talks like.
His new album, Rain Dogs (on Island Records), is his tenth. His songs have also been done by the Eagles, Bette Midler, Jerry Jeff Walker, Lee Hazelwood, Dion, Richie Havens, Manhattan Transfer, Martin Mull, and Barbi Benton. His score for Francis Ford Coppola‘s One From the Heart was nominated for an Oscar. He has also acted in Coppola’s films: The Outsiders, Rumblefish (pool hall owner), and Cotton Club (club manager Herman Stark). In the next year he will star in films directed by Jim Jarmusch and Robert Frank, and, he hopes, bring the musical play he’s been working on for a couple of years now to Broadway.
What’s happening with your musical?
It’s going to be done in Chicago in the late spring by the Steppenwolf Company, which did Balm in Gilead and Orpheus. Terry Kinney is going to direct it. He’s in Orpheus. It’s called Frank’s Wild Years.
That was a song on your Swordfishtrombone album. Are you using songs from that album?
It’s going to be all new, written just for the show.
Are you in it?
Yeah, I’m Frank. I never acted on stage before. I’m studying for it.
What do you have to learn?
I just have to learn honest, truthful behavior, that’s all.
How do you learn that?
Just from practice, like anything else. It’s kind of early on in the production now. We’re going to have a reading of it in a few weeks. We’ll find out what sticks to the wall and what doesn’t. I’d like it to be as unconventional as possible and still have some focus and structure and credibility. It’s going to be stylized. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a musical that I’ve liked, really.
Did you write the book?
I wrote it with Kathleen Brennan.
How did you collaborate?
With great difficulty.
Did you work together or did you send stuff back and forth?
Well, she’s my wife. We sent stuff back and forth. Like dishes, books, frying pans, vases.
Does it start out like the song, with Frank burning his house down?
It actually starts out with Frank at the end of his rope, despondent, penniless, on a park bench in East St. Louis in a snowstorm, having a going-out-of-business sale on the whole last ten years of his life. Like the guys around here on Houston Street with a little towel on the sidewalk, some books, some silverware, a radio that doesn’t work, maybe a Julie London album. Then he falls asleep and dreams his way back home. I’ve been saying that it’s a cross between Eraserhead and It’s a Wonderful Life.
Ever work with your wife before?
No, this is a first. And a last.
Do you think it’s hard to be critical with somebody that you’re close to?
Yeah. Or it’s hard not to be critical.