A couple of years ago I went on a TV game show and made a bunch of money. And for a while after that, I was famous, in a brief and intensely local fashion. I talked to the local papers and the morning broadcast news, did a guest stint on drive-time radio and wrote a firsthand article for a national magazine. I was recognized on the street a couple of times.
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And I told my story, over and over, to family and friends and co-workers. And although this happened years ago, even now whenever I am introduced to someone new I know that soon I will have to tell the story again. And I don’t mind telling it exactly. It’s nice that people are still interested. But it’s not something I do unasked. There’s no joy left in it for me. I’ve simply done it too many times, and I only tell my story now out of a sense of obligation.
Now, I was never as famous as Tom Waits, the uncategorizable American songwriter and character actor. (Not that Waits is even particularly famous, in the grand scheme of things. By his own—possibly apocryphal—account, he is more likely to be recognized at the town dump than in, say, a guitar factory.) Nor have I been at it as long. But I recognize the strategies on display in the new collection Tom Waits on Tom Waits: Interviews and Encounters, edited by Paul Maher Jr. and published this month by Chicago Review Press.
In this compilation of highlights from almost 40 years’ worth of press clippings and interview transcripts, Waits evades, deflects and changes the subject. He will hold forth effusively on certain subjects—his collaborations with Keith Richards, for instance, whom he refers to variously as “a pirate, a killer,” “an animal” and “a real gentleman”—and dance around others. He will give away as little about his personal life as he can, employing a masterful array of stock phrases, segues, whimsy, non sequiturs and outright lies.
He has gotten very good at it. In fact, the art of the interview has become a secondary mode of artistic expression for Waits. Without seeming rude or elusive, he co-opts interviewer after interviewer, steering and directing the conversation and revealing only as much as he wishes. “My main instrument is vocabulary,” he says several times, and it is an instrument as well-deployed in conversation as in song.
This is not a book designed to be read from start to finish. It is a marvelous compendium of Waitsian wit and wisdom, extensively and helpfully indexed so you can find your preferred bits on demand. (He’s a dab hand with an aphorism, my favorite being, “Whatever you absorb you will ultimately secrete.”) But perused front to back, Tom Waits On Tom Waits constitutes a sort of meta-narrative charting Waits’ development as a raconteur.
Indeed, after a while the notoriety becomes a part of the story. Nearly every interview after 1982 or so begins with an obligatory paragraph about Waits’ reputation for lying to the press by way of guarding his privacy, followed by a description of the rundown diner or Chinese restaurant that Waits has designated as a meeting place. Then familiar sets of questions and answers, or non-answers, that take on their own familiarity through repetition. It starts to take on a ritualistic quality, as Waits himself recognizes. In several interviews from the last decade, he owns up to—and takes ownership of—the veil of mythology that has sprung up around him. “Most of the things that people know about me are made up,” he says.
And the very repetition that can be so maddening when reading this book cover-to-cover is, he insists, a vital part of the creation of that mythology. “We’re all making leaner versions of stories. Before there was recording, everything was subject to the folklore process,” he says. “Those songs where it says ‘Traditional’ or ‘Negro spiritual’ or ‘public domain’…Those were songs that were written by all of us.”
In the end, the public persona of “Tom Waits” stands as a testimony to that process, and Tom Waits on Tom Waits shows how much of that persona is a collaborative effort between Waits and the very journalists he professes to distrust. Waits may dislike the press, but he surely owes the profession a debt of thanks. Without it, he could not have created his finest and most enduring work of art—himself.
Jack Feerick was born in an abandoned Black Mariah, lives on the corner of Bedlam and Squalor, and when his typewriter has been drinking acts as Critic-at-Large for Popdose.com.