It’s fitting to speak of Tom Waits in milestones, especially now that the gravel-throated luminary closes in on a new decade. Waits, who turns 70 today, arrives at a milestone that caps off a year that featured the 20th anniversary of Mule Variations and a key part in Jim Jarmusch’s latest film The Dead Don’t Die.
Waits is one of those rare renaissance figures that, regardless of the time period or the story he’s stepping into, he brings heart, honesty, and truth to it. To casual fans and aficionados, it always feels like Waits is just playing himself, but that wasn’t always the case: “I guess I’ve always lived upside down… I want things I can’t have,” Waits once said in a 2011 NPR interview. “My wife thinks I have a syndrome called Reality Distortion Field. It’s kind of like drugs only you can’t come back from it. When I was a kid, I did want to be an old-timer. They were the ones with the big stories and the cool clothes and the great hats. I wanted to go there.”
Waits has certainly gone there and he’s taken us with him for the ride. He’s donned several hats along the way, too, as a musician and poet, performance artist, playwright, and actor. He was 29 when he took his first role as Mumbles, a lowlife barfly piano player in Paradise Alley (Stallone, 1978) and the film presents him in full underworld form as a man beyond his years, wrapping booze-riddled rhymes and slurred wisdom from behind the barroom baby grand piano.
Waits would later say that the experience was an interesting look inside the bowels of the film industry. He’d return to it, working with Jim Jarmusch and Francis Ford Coppola on multiple occasions, revising and revamping the twisted characters that lurk in the shadows. More recent roles bring him to the centre of the frame. His role as The Prospector in Joel and Ethan Cohen’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Hermit Bob in Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, play to the myth of a man stuck in time, a myth he more than helped fashion.
Waits’ early recording years were spent shining a light in and onto the underworld, spinning low-life stories into grandiose picaresque tales. He broke from his early folk roots, slipping into the sounds, styles, and stories that inspired him. From rock to jazz and R&B, Waits used his vaudevillian persona to break free from convention. Researching the roots of his genius takes you down a rabbit hole of fans trying to dissect the anatomy of Waits’ soundscapes. There’s even an online library dedicated to the craft.
Waits dismisses his craft in his 2011 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech, saying that “songs are just interesting things to be done with the air.” While technically sound, Waits cleverly eludes the honour of the award with such a statement—but Waits will be the first to speak more poetically of music.
In an interview for The Guardian, he gestures towards the jukebox, waxing about music’s transcendental nature: ‘The studio is torn down, all the people who played on it are dead, the instruments have been sold off. But you are listening to a moment that happened in time 60 years ago and you are hearing it just as sharp as when it was made. That remains an amazing thing to me.’”
After a six-year hiatus from music, Mule Variations ushered Waits back onto the scene. The album marks a period of stark reflection for the battered, soulful voice that gave us The Heart of Saturday Night (1974), Swordfishtrombones (1983), and Rain Dogs (1985). Since then he’s released a flurry of music, including the 2002 one-two punch Blood Money and Alice, and the staggeringly good Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards compilation in 2006.
Though Waits’ childhood was far from destitute (he was raised middle-class and grew up in a suburban community), he’s been open about the impact his parents’ divorce had on him. He looked to artists like Howlin’ Wolf and Ray Charles for guidance and inspiration, and to the fathers of his friends to fill the void. That void, Waits suggests in a 2006 interview for Harp Magazine, inspired the song, album, and stage play Frank’s Wild Years.
“My dad’s name is Jesse Frank. It’s just a name. It’s just a guy I half made up. My dad left the family when I was young, so you know, that’s pretty eventful,” he said. “I may have been telling some of that story – ‘He got on the Hollywood Freeway and headed north/Never could stand that dog’- it was probably a reaction to that. I was rewriting the story and putting it in my own language.”
In honour of Waits’s 70th birthday, the compilation Come Up to the House: Women Sing Waits was just released. The album features artists like Allison Moorer, Aimee Mann, Patty Griffin, and Roseanne Cash. Allison Moorer says that Waits “is what we all wanna be, a fully integrated artist who seemingly sees the whole picture at once and knows how to present it so that we do, too.”
When asked by NPR’s Scott Simon what it is about Waits’s music that invites women in particular to sing, Moorer simply responded, “Heart”.
It’s the perfect summation of his work and its impact.
What’s next for Waits? Fans can only hope that he’s got a few more tricks in his bag. Looking back to Paradise Alley provides an optimistic take. Placed opposite Cosmo Carboni, played by Sylvester Stallone, Mumbles reveals he hasn’t been with a woman since The Depression. Carboni asks, “What are you waiting for?”
Mumbles takes a drag of his half-spent cigarette and replies, “I dunno, maybe a big finish.”
Here’s to that big finish.