The Tom Waits quote that Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke lives by
Radiohead’s Thom Yorke is an unapologetic fan of Tom Waits and – not just the music. The wisdom that Waits has managed to conjure up throughout his wild career has gifted him with more life experience than most, and there’s one piece of advice that Waits once told artists that helped Yorke when he severely needed it.
The words helped Yorke at his darkest hour from a professional standpoint, following the release of OK! Computer in 1997. The album was lauded by just about everyone on the planet, who were overawed by Radiohead’s greatness for the stellar album. All eyes were on Yorke to follow it up immediately with another faultless effort. The pressure got to him; he struggled to cope with what direction to take next and found himself at a loose end.
Yorke would eventually end up coming up clutch with Kid A, the album that arrived as a staggering left-turn from their previous effort and saw Radiohead prove that they were as versatile as they come. Rather than attempt to replicate OK! Computer, Yorke and the band instead decided to switch it up and keep their creative spirit alive completely. Creating Kid A was the definition of bold, but, it only made Radiohead more of an enigma, and the words of Tom Waits dragged Yorke out of writer’s block to produce the masterful piece of work.
Speaking to Rolling Stone in 2000 about writer’s block, Yorke revealed: “The worst thing was thinking, “Is this it? Is this all I’ve got?” But there will be times when you won’t be able to deal with things, won’t be able to get them out. These things go in cycles. There’s bad times and good times. Things never really die – they just go around.”
He then explained how he wrote ‘Everything In Its Right Place’ and everything else started to fall into place after writing that track. “I bought a piano for my house, a proper nice one – a baby grand. And that was the first thing I wrote on it. And I’m such a shit piano player. I remember this Tom Waits quote from years ago, that what keeps him going as a strong songwriter is his complete ignorance of the instruments he’s using. So everything’s a novelty. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to get into computers and synths because I didn’t understand how the fuck they worked,” Yorke honestly stated.
Once Yorke’s creative juices were back in full flow there was no stopping him, less than a year on from Kid A’s release, Radiohead released Amnesiac which was another unequivocal success for the band. The lead single from the record was, ‘Pyramid Song’, which features a nod and a wink to Tom Waits’ genius as a way of saying thanks for pulling Yorke out of his rut. The song features the line, “We all went to heaven in a little rowboat,” initially features on Waits’ track ‘Clap Hands’ from Rain Dogs.
With the knowledge that Tom Waits had struggled in the same way as he had, gifted Yorke a realisation that it was okay not to be able to produce another OK! Computer at the drop of a hat. It reinvigorated him and allowed Yorke to go into making music with an adventurous attitude once again. He let the music guide him to the destination, with everything else eventually falling into place.