Sixteen sleevenotes and what have you got?
16 New Year's Eve Tom Waits
An extremely belated follow-up, perhaps, to his 1978 Christmas Card From a Hooker In Minneapolis. Or a companion piece to the Pogues’ Fairy Tale of New York. It’s the same low-life, gutter-romance setting. Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski, that kind of thing. A life lived out in betting slips etc. It’s a waltz. It reprises Auld Lang Syne with irony. Or perhaps offers a truth about the particular sadnesses of New Year’s Eve parties:
‘I was leaving in the morning with Charles for Las Vegas
And I didn’t have a plan to come back
I had only a few things
Two hundred dollars
And my records in a brown paper sack.’
Maybe that’s a little obvious, a little heavy-handed. I’m not sure. It’s new in our life. The album it’s from, Bad To Me, only came out in October 2011. It’s the last track, of course. Unless, that is, like me, you have the deluxe edition, with an extra three songs. Then the last is the even more final After You Die. A man with a sense of humour, certainly.
In an interview, he described it as ‘one of those gatherings where things went badly, where we all sing even though the fireworks scared the dog and he's been gone for two hours, and someone lit the sofa on fire, and Marge got food poisoning, and Bill O'Neal called the cops.’ He also ended the interview by saying ‘The truth is overrated. Avoid it all costs.’
So, like many a Tom Waits song, it begs a question: autobiography? Well, I do, as it happens, have some stuff that could be taken into account when thinking about that question.
I’ve broken bread with him twice, for interviews. The first time was in Greenwich Village right before Labor Day weekend, in the mid-1980s. He was promoting Rain Dogs and had come into the city for our meeting, in a cafe. He was staying with his in-laws out in Jersey. His wife was about to give birth to their second child — who is now his drummer. There was a third child a decade or so later.
As he came in, he was Tom Waits. He took his seat. He ordered coffee — black if I remember right — to go with his cigarettes — Pall Mall, my memory tells me. He may have been a little hungover but he didn’t talk about it. We did a little small talk. I started asking my questions.
At the end of our interview, he switched off ‘Tom Waits’ and went back to being Tom Waits. He wanted to make sure that he’d given a good interview. Which he had and which I told he had. He must have sensed some reservation in me, though. Which he was right about. I wasn’t sure I had a take-home line for the piece, the bit that — kind of spuriously but kind of not, too — sums everything up and maybe even gives a final line. In fact, I was fairly sure I didn’t have one. As we shared a cab uptown — I think we were dropping him off at Penn station — he snap-turned into ‘Tom Waits’ and pretty much suddenly announced to me: ‘Champagne for my real friends. Real pain to my sham friends.’ I think he said it was his motto. It was a new line to me. I thought it was great. I knew I had an end to the story — it worked, too. He looked me and knew his job was done. He turned back into Tom Waits. I thanked him. He got out of the cab and went back to his wife and family.
The second time we met over a table was in Paris. Not just any bit of Paris but for lunch at the weekend in the Place des Vosges. If you don’t know it, it’s an old, pre-Haussman bit of Paris, with colonnades and a high-end hotel that was long favoured by the high-end of the music business.
Perhaps because of its pre-revolutionary architecture and history, it’s also popular with the local BCBG crowd. A French equivalent of Sloanes, they have some kind of attachment to the monarchy — real or fantasy, I don’t know. At weekends, young family groups of them would gather in the Place des Vosges. The men’s ‘uniform’ included cord trousers. I was told this was because the word ‘corduroy’ comes from ‘corde du roi’ — the king’s cloth. I liked that idea. I’ve since found out, though, that’s not a true derivation. But maybe they don’t know that. Maybe their choice of trouser was based on false etymology. I like that possibility even more.
Again, I think Tom was hungover. I think I ate lunch while he drank coffee — no cigarettes this time, he’d given up by then. Again, I chatted with Tom Waits and did the interview with ‘Tom Waits’. When we finished, we walked to a cafe on the far side of the square. While I waited for the cab to take me out to the airport, we were joined by his wife, Kathleen Brennan, and his mother-in-law, I think.
Again, we chatted, like adults, about Paris, art, stuff like that. Then, expecting the answer I got, I asked Kathleen if I could ask her about Tom for my piece. She smiled and said: ‘Of course, not, Pete.’ And we went back to talking about Paris, art, stuff like that.
Next The eternal wonder of George Michael's winter solstice experience