Tom Waits on Tom Waits: by Paul Maher Jr.

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Tom Waits On Tom Waits brings together a large number of interviews conducted throughout the great man’s storied career. Covering a remarkable 35-year span from 1973 to 2008, this collection employs Waits’ own words to paint a vivid self portrait of a highly original American artist and iconoclast. The book makes for a very intriguing chronology of Waits’ development as a songwriter, recording artist and performer. Fiercely protective of his private life and notoriously reclusive, Waits nonetheless has always been a lively and unpredictable interview subject.

It’s interesting to note that early in his career Waits often spoke about his songs like a technician, a craftsman exploring the logic and construction of songs as compositional architecture. But deeper into his career he turns to surreal similes, bizarre metaphors, and rambling observations likening songs to children, plants, engines, and myriad other comparisons that seem to spring like a shower of sparks from his fertile imagination.

This development as documented here in a vast record of personal interviews makes sense as it coincides with Waits’ own evolution from his beginning as a fairly straightforward Folk singer who morphs through a series of peculiar poses like so many colorful wardrobe changes. Waits has an uncanny ability to create bizarre character studies with words and music and then totally inhabit them like a singing character actor. His first brush with fame hand fed the record-buying public a drunken beatnik piano player persona that would dog the artist for years after he himself discarded it like a threadbare gorilla suit.

In early interviews Waits is sometimes surly and reluctant to speak about his music and often seems more interested in spouting an ongoing commentary about passers-by, food, fashion, travel, anything to avoid trotting out the same old answers to the same tired old FAQs. In later interviews he seems more open but less truthful. Perhaps more willing to talk, but often spinning spontaneous tales or making huge leaps outside any sort of linear narrative, straying at will and at length from the interviewer’s query. But it’s a highly enjoyable little chase, trying to keep up with what he’s going on about. One gets the impression that upon repeated readings this book would feel like a totally different adventure each time. It’s almost as if somewhere along the line Waits realized that his life was one big work of art, his every public utterance an opportunity to perform a little of his singular ramshackle mystic theater.

Ever elusive, slippery and cryptic in his responses, Waits nevertheless never fails to entertain. That’s his job. He’s an entertainer. Absolutely nothing about his personal life should ever enter the equation unless he himself wishes to introduce it. Late in the book he relents, but only a little, and happily concedes that his wife Kathleen Brennan saved his life at a time when he himself was busily digging his own grave. Other than a few observations about fatherhood, that’s all you get. But it’s more than you need.

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