Sources of Inspiration #2: Tom Waits

I fell in love with Tom Waits when I heard him (for the first time) on the album Red Hot and Blue, singing the Cole Porter song ‘It’s Alright with Me.’ That was enough to make me rush out and buy an album. Unfortunately I chose Closing Time. It was a sore disappointment. Not because it’s a bad album, it’s great, but because it sounded nothing like the crazy guy I’d hoped to get to know a little better. It sounded like a talented but, frankly, ordinary crooner, and I didn’t need to know another of those. So it took a further ten years for our affair to begin in earnest, and this was thanks to my son brining home Frank’s Wild Years. That was more like it, now to the best of my knowledge I have all Waits’s albums. Each of which has been a revelation.

Tom Waits illustration from Mojo 2012

The thing that makes him a personal inspiration is his willingness, nay determination, to try anything in pursuit of the song. The story. He stops at nothing to communicate his ideas. He chooses the best musicians, and then makes them swap instruments; he takes a length of pipe and gets someone to beat the life out of a chest of drawers; he virtually tortures his vocal chords to turn himself into an instrument. He sacrifices everything to the music, none of his songs are mere vehicles for either his talents or those of the many brilliant musicians he employs. No one is privileged. And, crucially, he doesn’t stick to one art form: he acts, he plays multiple instruments (voice included), he writes and performs drama. Even within music he’s tried everything from jazz to country blues. By doing all this, and doing it well, he shows snowflakes like me that it’s fine to cross boundaries. We won’t melt.

Our culture tends to diminish people who don’t stick to one thing. We’re big on commitment, and we often seem to view form (genre, call it what you will) as the important thing here. As an artist you have to commit to your art form, even within disciplines: ‘what are you, a novelist, a short story writer, a poet, which ONE?!’ We like to label. So as someone who swings between writing (all of the above) and working with a camera I often feel like a fraud: ‘what are you?!’ I can be heard to wail at the ghost woman in the mirror, and remembering Tom Waits’s output helps me answer that question: I’m someone with something to say. It’s fine to move between disciplines and styles, because the important thing is the message.

Over to Tom

Here’s my current favourite Waits song, it’s a perfect marriage of social commentary and divine (ho ho) sound:

And now for some quotations (I could give hundreds!):

Tom Waits on Technology

“When somebody says their phone is also a camera, I hate that. What’s wrong with having something that’s just what it is? It makes me want to say: ‘My sunglasses are also a tricycle.'”

Tom Waits on Sex

“Every time in the world there’s an ejaculation, it releases 250 million sperm… now only one of those sperm can actually fertilise the egg… so if you’re here, you’re already a winner.”

Tom Waits on Bob Dylan (and music)

I like my music with the rinds and the seeds and pulp left in – so the bootlegs I obtained in the Sixties and Seventies, where the noise and grit of the tapes became inseparable from the music, are essential to me.

So, Tom Waits, possibly one of my biggest influences and inspirations, regardless music isn’t one of the art forms I practice.


7 thoughts on “Sources of Inspiration #2: Tom Waits

  1. I never warmed to Tom Waits, despite all the adulation. But I’m with you about art forms. Why should anyone have to stick to one thing? What’s wrong with versatility? As for technology, I think the less we need the better. Everywhere I go, there are people glued to their smartphones totally oblivious to what’s going on around them. I don’t get it.


  2. I’m a fan, too. I used to listen to an obscure soundtrack he did for a Francis Coppola movie (musical!) called ‘One From the Heart.’ He did duets with country singer Crystal Gayle, of all people. In a break-up song, he tells her I’ll be living on chicken and wine after we’re through, which is a pure Tom line to write.

    He’s a hell of an actor. Tragic/funny figures in ‘Ironweed’ and ‘Down By Law.’


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