An interview here with one of my music idols Tom Waits, about his alcoholism, his fear that the muse was the drink and his relief it wasn’t and also his subsequent recovery via AA.
Alcohol it seems from this interview and from my own extensive collection of Tom Waits’ music was drowning his talent and not fueling it.
“For years, Tom Waits was the booze-soaked bard of the barstool, the keeper of ‘a bad liver and a broken heart’. But Tom was saved by his wife Kathleen. He hasn’t had a drink for more than 20 years and, at 65, is making the best music of his life.
In the early ’70s, every Tom Waits song seemed to be about drinking and losing your way in the fog. His first record was even calledClosing Time, but it sounded more like a lock-in at the loneliest bar in the world. Just Tom in the corner slumped over the piano serenading the last few nighthawks with his slurred songs about heartaches and hangovers, and the girl that got away.
His persona had already been perfected by the time he started living in the Tropicana Motel in Los Angeles in 1975, a faded establishment that also housed a couple of aristocratic junkies and several call girls who worked Sunset Strip. For six albums on Asylum Records, from his aforementioned debut in 1973 to 1980’sHeartattack and Vine, Waits was the gravel-voiced, beer-stained bard of the barstool, a latter-day beatnik with a bad liver and a broken heart.
As wonderful as many of those early albums are, the act was wearing thin. So, too, was his ambition, and his spirit. In 1977, he fell for the singer Rickie Lee Jones, whose wayward life echoed his own, and whose most famous song, ‘Chuck E’s in Love’, paid homage to their mutual friend Chuck E Weiss. Waits and Weiss were arrested that same year for disturbing the peace in Duke’s Tropicana Coffee Shop. His life was unraveling. ‘I had a problem,’ he says, matter-of-factly. ‘An alcohol problem, which a lot of people consider an occupational hazard. My wife saved my life.’
In 1978, when Waits met Kathleen Brennan, everything changed. Kathleen was the catalyst for the dramatic sea-change in Waits’s music that occurred with the release ofSwordfishtrombones in 1983. ‘I didn’t just marry a beautiful woman,’ he says, ‘I married a record collection.’
She has been his songwriting collaborator for almost 35 years now. When Waits was once asked what his wife brought to the table, he replied, ‘Blood and liquor and guilt.’ Which is handy, because Waits himself hasn’t had a drink for 23 years. When he says that Kathleen saved his life, he means it literally.
‘Oh yeah, for sure,’ he continues, ‘But I had something in me, too. I knew I would not go down the drain, I would not light my hair on fire, I would not put a gun in my mouth. I had something abiding in me that was moving me forward. I was probably drawn to her because I saw that there was a lot of hope there.’
Given that his early songs, his voice and his persona, were so drenched in drink, how hard was it for him to give up? ‘Oh, you know, it was tough. I went to AA. I’m in the program. I’m clean and sober. Hooray. But, it was a struggle.’
Does he miss the odd night-cap? ‘Miss drinking?’ he says, sounding genuinely surprised. ‘Nah. Not the way I was drinking. No, I’m happy to be sober. Happy to be alive. I found myself in some places I can’t believe I made it out of alive. Oh yeah. People with guns. People with gunshot wounds. People with heavy drug problems. People who carried guns everywhere they went, always had a gun. You live like that,’ he says, without a trace of irony, ‘you attract lower company.’
Did he write a different kind of song when he was drinking? Tom thinks about this for an instant, ‘No. I don’t think so. I mean, one is never completely certain when you drink and do drugs whether the spirits that are moving through you are the spirits from the bottle or your own. And, at a certain point, you become afraid of the answer. That’s one of the biggest things that keeps people from getting sober, they’re afraid to find out that it was the liquor talking all along.’
For a while, Waits had that fear himself, the fear that when he finally dried out, the songs would dry up too. He worked through it, though. ‘I was trying to prove something to myself, too,’ he says, revealingly. ‘It was like, “Am I genuinely eccentric? Or am I just wearing a funny hat?” All the big questions come up when you get sober. “What am I made of? What’s left when you drain the pool?”‘
When asked about his ‘First sober album’ he says, ‘Well, if it matters to anybody other than me …I don’t know if I want to answer that. That’s a kind of personal thing.’
When he talks about songs and songwriting, the essential mystery of it all. You can tell he respects his gift, nurtures it, and doesn’t ever take it for granted; that he has a faith in the song that is almost spiritual.
‘Leadbelly died the day after I was born – 8 December 1949,’ says Waits. ‘I always felt like I connected with him somehow. He was going out and I was coming in. And, maybe we passed in the hall. I would love to have seen Leadbelly play, but that’s the great thing about records, you put them on and those guys are right there in the room. They’re back.’
‘I think about that sometimes. Some day I’m gonna be gone and people will be listening to my songs and conjuring me up…”