Tom Waits' Variations

Forever cryptic, a musical drifter finds solace in Liberace, Rodney Dangerfield, and one-armed pianists

Everything you are about to read is a lie. Well, perhaps that is an exaggeration, as is much of what comes out of Tom Waits' mouth. It's not as though Waits doesn't know the truth; it's just less fun to tell it. Every interview, and he has given only a handful in conjunction with the release of Mule Variations, reads as though it had been granted by a stand-up trying out new material, throwing out anything with the hope that at least some of it would shtick. Ask him what took so long between the release of 1992's Bone Machine and Mule Variations, and he's likely to respond that he's been in traffic school or breaking in other people's shoes. Today's response?

"Sheetrock, plumbing, and electrical."
Waits' publicist had hinted that there's no need to try to, ya know, interview the man. He will do and say as he pleases -- ramble at length about something he's making up on the spot, filter "the truth" through a dozen fictions, even reuse his old tried-and-true jokes when all else fails. Interviewing him seems at first excruciating and useless; it's only when listening to the conversation again on tape that it all begins to make sense. It's not what Waits says; it's what he almost says, what he almost discloses. It's the pauses, the shifts in tone, the revelations that blur into one-liners -- the straight man who steps aside and lets the stand-up do his talking for him.

Only a few minutes into the interview, Waits is discussing why, during a performance in March in Austin, he decided to perform so many of his older, better-known songs along with those from Mule Variations. Myriad times before, he'd insisted he hated hauling out those old numbers ("The Heart of Saturday Night," "Jockey Full of Bourbon," and "Downtown Train" among them), and dusting them off for the ravenous crowd. He didn't want to become a lounge act doing his best-of monkey dance for tips.

That night was different: Waits sat at the piano or stood behind the microphone stand (which he gripped so tightly, it looked as though he would bend the metal) and performed each song, old and new, as though he had just discovered it. He didn't merely play the old songs; he laid into them, turned dormant memories into flesh and blood. Waits explains that there was something about staying at the historic Driskill Hotel that made him want to go bravely into the past. That, and the fact that he'd gone so long without playing them that the songs felt brand-new in a way -- maybe, he shrugs, because they are.

"Sometimes it seems appropriate," he says in a voice that sounds remarkably warm and inviting, like an old friend's handshake. "I mean, that's what songs do ideally -- underscore something that's happening or allow you to revisit something."

He says songs begin to mean something different 10 or 15 years after they're first written. "Well, sometimes they start out like prayers, you know? Your own ... wish," he explains. "And sometimes, in a very ironic way, I guess they end up fulfilled and sometimes unfulfilled. Sometimes all you've got is the song." Asked if the song, nothing more or less, is enough, he answers, "Gee, we're getting metaphysical here." Waits laughs, a quick and hoarse henh-henh-henh-henh. "Is that enough? That's one of those questions that doesn't have an answer. Ask Susan Hayward. She'll know the answer to that. Ask Sylvia Miles. Ask Warren Oates. He's out in the corral." He laughs again.

But all you need to know about Tom Waits is right there on each of his albums, beginning with 1973's Closing Time, on which a 24-year-old kid from Southern California with a notebook full of Cole Porter melodies and Jack Kerouac lyrics introduced himself with songs about old cars and lost, long-distance loves. All you need to know is there on The Heart of Saturday Night, Small Change, Foreign Affairs, Blue Valentine, and Heartattack and Vine -- the blue-note, jazzbo, boozy, bloozy records he made for Elektra/Asylum in the 1970s. All you need to know is there on Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, Frank's Wild Years, Bone Machine -- the salvage-yard symphonies made by the guy who wanted to see how out there "out there" really was and found what he was looking for when he started pounding on brake drums with Howlin' Wolf's bones.

And all you need to know is right there on Mule Variations, the record made by a 49-year-old husband and father of three who ends the disc with the most beautiful, hopeful song of his entire career: "Take It With Me." For the first time in forever, Waits unabashedly sings. There is no growl to hide behind, only these simple, heartfelt words: "Children are playing at the end of the day/ Strangers are singing on our lawn ... All that you've loved is all you own/ I'm gonna take it with me when I go."

They approached him as though he were a freak-show attraction. They were curious, amused, delighted at the sight of their hero sitting near the bar in the cozy confines of the venerable Driskill Hotel in downtown Austin, Texas. Hidden beneath his dusty brown hat, swathed in black denim, Waits looked as though he didn't want to be bothered.

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