An Animated Tom Waits Talks About Laughing at Funerals & the Moles Under Stonehenge (1988)

Pop­u­lar music has a rich tra­di­tion of lit­er­ary song­writ­ers, including—to name but a few—Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Pat­ti Smith, Kate Bush, and even Alan Par­sons, who released not one, but two con­cept albums based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe. And then there’s the inim­itable Tom Waits, who does­n’t just work in a lit­er­ary vein, but is a suc­ces­sion of pulpy char­ac­ters, each one with the abil­i­ty to light up a stage. Waits proved as much in 1988 when he toured his album Big Time, as alter-ego Frank O’Brien, a char­ac­ter he described as “a com­bi­na­tion of Will Rogers and Mark Twain, play­ing accordion—but with­out the wis­dom they pos­sessed.” The Big Time tour, writes Dan­ger­ous Minds, was “like enter­ing a sideshow tent in Tom Wait’s brain.”

In a review of the con­cert film of the same name, also released that year, the New York Times described Waits as a “gang of over­lap­ping per­sonas, a bunch of derelict philoso­pher-kings who rasp out roman­tic metaphors between wise­cracks,” inhab­it­ing “a seedy urban world of pawn­shops and tat­toos, of cig­a­rette butts and poly­ester and triple‑X movies.” It’s hard to know, lis­ten­ing to Waits in the inter­view above from the year of Big Time the album, tour, and film, how many of his per­son­ae emerge from the wood­shed and how many spring from griz­zled voic­es in that sideshow brain, which must sound like a cacoph­o­ny of old-time waltzes and scur­rilous rag­times; boozy big-band num­bers carous­ing in louche cabarets; pianos drunk­en­ly falling down stairs. Waits can tell sto­ries beau­ti­ful and ter­ri­ble, in talk­ing blues, bro­ken bal­lads, and sprechge­sang, rival­ing the best com­po­si­tions of the Delta, the beats, and sailors and hoboes.

Or he can tell stories—as he does above—about moles, build­ing under Stone­henge “the most elab­o­rate sys­tem of mole cat­a­combs,” being reward­ed for “hav­ing the courage to tun­nel under great rivers,” stag­ing exe­cu­tions. Then he shifts the scene to New York, and a Mer­cedes pulls up in a pud­dle of blood. “I think you just write,” says Waits, “and you don’t try to make sense of it. You just put it down the way you got it.” Waits gets it in vivid, sur­re­al­ist images, one bizarre and sor­did detail after anoth­er. To hear him speak is to hear him com­pose. You can read the tran­script of the short inter­view, record­ed in Lon­don by Chris Roberts, but the effect of Waits-the-per­former is entire­ly lost. Bet­ter to hear his cracked inflec­tion, his dri­est of com­ic tim­ing, and watch the excel­lent ani­ma­tion of PBS’s Blank on Blank team, who have pre­vi­ous­ly brought us amus­ing car­toon accom­pa­ni­ments for inter­views with B.B. King, Ray Charles, the Beast­ie Boys, and even Fidel Cas­tro. Tom Waits, I think, has giv­en them their best mate­r­i­al yet.

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

Tom Waits, Play­ing the Down-and-Out Barfly, Appears in Clas­sic 1978 TV Per­for­mance

Tom Waits Reads Two Charles Bukows­ki Poems, “The Laugh­ing Heart” and “Nir­vana”

Watch Tom Waits’ Clas­sic Appear­ance on Aus­tralian TV, 1979

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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