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Tom Waits in a pensive mood.
Tom Waits in a pensive mood.

Tom Waits: a man of many words

Tom Waits rarely grants interviews but when he does, he's well worth a listen. Even if it is never clear if he is telling the truth or not.

Take it or leave it, this is the deal you get when you interview Tom Waits. Hunched in the corner of a plush London hotel suite, a mischievous grin playing around his pinched mouth, rust-coloured hair swept skywards by some wild inner electricity, the grand chronicler of America's poetically seedy underbelly is already in performance mode. Waits is a past master of the evasive non-interview, where surreal fabrication and comic flights of fancy take precedence over humdrum reality. Truth is often the first casualty. But at least he has the good grace to admit it.

"Hurg hurg," Waits laughs in that famously guttural, smoke-damaged growl. "First off, the truth is really highly overrated." Always more storyteller than songwriter, Waits remains his own most exotic literary creation. Certainly the puckish, playful, gravel-voiced caricature he has come to inhabit over the decades seems to have stepped out of that old, weird America of carnival conjurors and snake-oil salesmen. The hobo bluesman we see on stage is, he concedes, a kind of ventriloquist act.

"Oh yeah," Waits shrugs. "Most people don't care whether you're telling them the truth, as long as you're amusing them. Most people are a combination of truth and fiction. I guess that's what it all comes down to. We're all inventing ourselves in some form or another." Many artists would take offence at being accused of role-playing fakery. But not Waits, who claims a theatrical disguise is essential to any performer's dressing-up box.

"If you went to a doctor's office and there were cigarette butts on the floor, the MD was wearing a baseball cap off to the side, and he was unshaven, you'd be suspicious," Waits explains with a laugh. "The same is true of artists who want to look a certain way. If you believe it, you go on the ride. If you went to the carnival and no one was missing a tooth, you'd want your money back." This much we know is true, at least. Thomas Alan Waits turns 60 next week. Born and raised in California, his parents were schoolteachers, not circus acrobats as he once claimed. He lives in Sonoma County, near San Francisco, with his wife, Kathleen Brennan. They have three children. Brennan, a sometime screenwriter, is a frequent lyrical collaborator, lending extra literary layers to her husband's carnivalesque cast of characters.

Above all else, Waits is a wordsmith. Indeed, he might well be the last of the beat generation, still scat-rapping his way through the bittersweet jazz age Americana of Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver. He certainly credits Bukowski and Kerouac for introducing him to "the great American loneliness" and "the idea that America is a big facade". Last month, Waits released a new album, Glitter and Doom Live, recorded during his summer tour last year. The songs it contains span the singer's range from antique bluesman to junk-shop noise sculptor, vaudeville showman to grunting human beatbox. Typically, Waits is wary of giving his album the "huckster" hard sell in our interview.

"Most people won't listen to a live album because they figure it's just a re-imagining of material they are already familiar with," he says with a shrug. "But I think the songs are done differently enough. There's enough to eat. Enough nutrition. Plus there's an extra disc- now I really feel like a huckster, but there's an extra disc in there which is just my quixotic ruminations between songs, at the piano. It's added value, as they say. Hurg hurg!"

Indeed so. The extra CD features the singer in comic raconteur mode, spinning out shaggy dog tales and stretching ancient jokes to snapping point. It's a very Waits-ian mix, somewhere between avant-garde spoken-word jazz and cheesy cabaret turn. The audience is also strongly evident, adding to the record's carnival atmosphere with a background chorus of laughter, shouts and groans. "They're the other 50 per cent of the equation," Waits says. "What you bring in terms of your own memories, your own conflicts, your own experiences is the other half of it. It's like a book. A book is really nothing without its reader."

Besides making music, Waits has been acting on stage and screen for more than 30 years. During that time he has formed long and fruitful relationships with maverick directors including Francis Ford Coppola, Jim Jarmusch and Robert Altman. In fact, it was while working on the Oscar-nominated soundtrack for Coppola's 1982 musical One From the Heart that he met his wife. In his latest film role, Waits plays the Devil as a kind of slippery circus ringmaster in the director Terry Gilliam's visually dazzling fantasy The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. The singer has worked with Gilliam before, briefly appearing in his 1991 drama The Fisher King, but this is a much more substantial and tailor-made part.

"I just couldn't think of a better Devil," Gilliam explains. "Tom's music encompasses all the seduction, all the temptation, all the darkness, all the punishment that the Devil should be familiar with. This is a man who writes songs for the angels, then sings them in the voice of Beelzebub." The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was also, of course, Heath Ledger's final film. Although Waits did not share any scenes with the young star, they briefly crossed paths during the London shoot.

"All his scenes were completed by the time I came in," Waits recalls. "But we met at a dinner and that night my wife sat across from him. She said he reminded him of our son, who's 24 and impetuous, and scary, and skating towards the edge, and completely spontaneous and highly imaginative. She had wonderful things to say about him. Just full of life, you know? And full of contradictions. That's what makes people interesting to look at on screen."

Blessed with a critical reputation much greater than his relatively modest album sales, Waits remains essentially a cult artist and a musician's musician. He may earn Grammy awards and rave reviews, but his gnarly voice and metal-bashing tunes are rarely heard on the radio. Indeed, his best-known songs have been those covered by other artists: notably Bruce Springsteen's Jersey Girl, Rod Stewart's Downtown Train, and the versions of Way Down in the Hole used as the theme tune to the highly regarded TV crime drama The Wire.

Dozens of Waits songs have graced film and television soundtracks, but he is notoriously against allowing his music to appear in commercials. Strangely, this has not deterred advertisers from repeatedly trying to hire him, then unwisely resorting to sound-alike singers instead. Since 1988, Waits has successfully pursued legal action against a string of companies for using unauthorised songs and even, in several cases, vocal copycats.

"I don't write jingles," he says disdainfully. "Listening to songs, there's a certain kind of dream logic that takes place. But with advertising you're kind of laying eggs in people's brains, using all these Freudian concepts. It's very devious." Ironically, it was the unhappy experience of providing the voice-over for a Purina dog food commercial in 1981 that turned Waits so fervently against doing any more adverts. It was a mistake he vowed never to repeat.

"I was getting married," he explains apologetically. "I thought I had to be start being practical, you know? This was easy money, it was maybe 30 minutes in the studio - they show it in Canada. A lot of people, even Woody Allen, do commercials that they show in Japan. So that's what I thought. But afterwards I was filled with so much shame because I'd let myself down. I'd betrayed myself. That's when I became so zealous about not doing commercials."

This commendably purist stance is increasingly rare in the current economic climate, as many major musicians now make more money from promotional tie-in deals than CD sales. Even Bob Dylan, an early hero to Waits, has leased several songs to TV commercials. "Yeah," Waits frowns, "but somehow with Bob Dylan I think he's just trying to make sure that, whatever you think he is, he's determined not to be that- even to a fault."

Although never an explicitly political artist, Waits broke with his usual guarded ambivalence in 2006 with Road to Peace, an angry protest song about Palestine, Israel and US foreign policy in the Middle East. Like a lot of artists, he was moved to make direct statements by the administration of George W Bush. Living in Bush's America, Waits recalls, was hair-raising. "It felt like the person driving the truck has one eye and one arm, and his head is turned all the way around," he says with a dry laugh. "He's mashing down on the accelerator, getting closer and closer to the cliff, and we have tape over our mouths and our hands are tied. It was a scary time."

Warming to his theme, Waits insists the former president went astray after he missed his true calling in life. "I think the real problem was that Bush really wanted to be the commissioner of baseball, and the job was not available," he says. "Because we all have a thousand parallel lives that could have been our lives had we made different decisions along the way. We're at a crossroads every day. I could jump out of that window right now instead of just looking out of it."

Waits does not jump out of the hotel window, of course. Instead, we shake hands and say goodbye in a normal manner. But in the print-the-legend spirit of the man himself, let us just agree that our interview ends with a dramatic crash as America's last Beat poet flings himself through the glass and plunges into the London street below. "Make something up!" Waits says and grins. "Like I said, the truth is highly overrated. Hurg hurg!"

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