Tom Waits has spent so much time exploring the gutter that it’s hard to imagine him relishing in anything that isn’t subterranean. The man is so entrenched in the begrimed underground that he even once eulogised moles, declaring his admiration for “constructing the most elaborate system of catacombs beneath Stonehenge.” But even heroes have a hero and when Tom Waits is gazing up at the celestial heights from the comfort of his own whisky-washed catacomb, it’s the face of Keith Richards that he sees cast in the firmament.
“There’s nobody in the world like him,” Waits says of his friend and collaborator, Richards. Speaking to NPR’s Fresh Air, he spoke of their time working on Waits’ iconic Rain Dogs together stating: “We wrote songs together for a while and that was fun [but] he doesn’t really remember anything or write anything down. So, you play for an hour and he would yell across the room, ‘Scribe!’ And I looked around. ‘Scribe? Who’s the scribe?’ And he’d say it again, now pointing at me.”
“I was supposed to have written down everything we said and dreamt of and played,” Waits continues. “And I realised we needed an adult in the room. I’ve never been the one that one would consider the adult. It was an interesting dynamic.” It was indeed an interesting dynamic and it is one that produced not only a scintillating album but also formed the bonds of a friendship that would flourish forevermore.
Following 1985’s Rain Dogs, Waits teamed up his buddy and human riff engine once more for the song ‘That Feel’ from Waits’ 1992 record Bone Machine, which gives Richards a co-writing credit for his part. Back in 2013, they paired their salt of the earth, monolithic personas for a Sea Chantey as part of a collaborative record and in 2015 Waits even penned his devotion in a wondrous poem dedicated to his friend, which you can read below (via Rolling Stone):
It is an enduring friendship that spawned from very unlikely beginnings. As Tom Waits explains they were brought together when he flippantly responded to a question from producers about who he’d like to work with for Rain Dogs: “I said, ‘What about Keith Richards?’ I was just joking, but somebody went ahead and called him. And then he said, ‘Yeah.’ And I said, ‘Now we’re really in trouble,'” he recalled to Pitchfork.
Before adding: “I was really nervous. He came with about 600 guitars in a semitruck. And a butler. We were in these huge studios in New York, like The Poseidon Adventure. Huge, high ceilings in these rooms like football fields. They’d fill these things up with orchestras and we were in there with five guys. It felt a little weird. He killed me. I was really knocked out that he played on all those things.”
Later adding that his old pal is like “a frying pan made from one piece of metal. He can heat it up really high and it won’t crack, it just changes colour”.
Although Keith Richards looks more like some weathered captain of the high seas and Tom Waits looks like a man who’s been poured out from a cocktail shaker of the underworld, both of them share a kinship of kooky otherworldly wisdom and a profound sense of having lived for a thousand years. It would seem it was the confluence of these factors that made their friendship a fated destination once they were paired in the studio. As fellow Waits six-string collaborator, Marc Ribot declared, in the studio Waits would compose his songs by hollering berserk instructions like, “Play it like a midget’s bar mitzvah,” in an attempt to create some sort of atmosphere. And yet, there was something about this instruction that Richards understood and relished under. Ribot describes the pair as simply sharing the same “animal instinct.”
Richards has also made it clear that this love is mutual. In a video on his YouTube channel he declares, “Tom, blessings, it was great to work with him. It was only found out later that he never writes with anybody else, he only writes with his wife, Kathleen. So, I realized that was an extra honour, to work with a guy that who’s not a collaborator.” And in his book he writes, “[Waits is] “a one-off lovely guy and one of the most original writers.”
And as far we fans go, we can only hope that the gravelly, weather-beaten, mutant pair of ten-thousand-year-old men have got a couple more collaborations under their well-travelled belts to come.