Most of my Songs are Contraptions

“Some songs need work; some write themselves. “Came out of the ground like a potato, always the best ones,” Waits says. “Most of my songs are contraptions. Take the head off that doll and screw it onto the side of that washing machine. But the best ones come out just like a litter. I usually […]

“Some songs need work; some write themselves. “Came out of the ground like a potato, always the best ones,” Waits says. “Most of my songs are contraptions. Take the head off that doll and screw it onto the side of that washing machine. But the best ones come out just like a litter. I usually start with two tunes, put them in a room together and they have kids. There are usually two songs that are the parents of the rest. That’s my theory.”

My mother, actually, just pointed out this interview to me.

SFGate’s Joel Selvin, who used to be a terrible pop music critic back in the, what, seventies, eighties, whenever he started, but has turned into a pretty good writer these days, interviewing Tom Waits.

That’s a really good interview. He mostly lets Waits, a somewhat reclusive man, speak for himself, but the writing manages to keep the vaguely surreal, vaguely poetic tone of Waits work. Not an easy thing to do and Selvin pulls it off.

I met Waits once, in Hawaii.


A low key gilligan’s island sort place that had sort of the look of the place I stayed in Fiji. I was walking though the open patio area where breakfast was served and absent-mindedly looking at a tattoo on a man’s arm. Some ordinary tattoo, small and faded. I can’t even remember what it was of, but I liked it. I love old sailor tattoos, the older and more fucked up and faded they get, the better. So I was looking at the tattoo, not the man. I usually don’t do this, it’s sort of rude to stare at someone’s tattoo but I was spacey. So then I looked up and realized he was looking back at me with an intense pair of eyes.

“Good Morning,” I said. He nodded back but didn’t say much. And I walked away thinking, damn, I know that guy. He must know me, way he was looking at me.

It was maybe a half-hour later when I realized who I’d been looking at. Fuck me, that was Tom Waits.

I’m not a star-struck type. Quite a few of my friends are now in hugely popular bands who are recording songs for the likes of PDI/Dreamworks movies. I don’t get goofy with famous people. But there are a few artists out there I really really respect, people who impress the hell out of me. Waits is on this list. He’s simply brilliant.

Read the above article. I met his wife, his kids; people mentioned in that article. Saw ’em every day, said hello, talked about the weather, the food, fish in the lagoon. Helped Waits get into a kayak and watched him paddle like a madman around the lagoon.

I never made mention of knowing who he was. When he looked at me that first day he was thinking “Oh, great, I’m getting recognized.” But though I knew, I never said it; some instinct told me this was a guy who wanted to be just a guy when he was with family. And damn, they’re a nice family. Great kids.

I need to go buy Waits last couple albums. I’ve lost track of his recent work. But now when I think of him I don’t just hear his songs. I hear that same deep gravel voice talking to his kids; “Don’t ask me about what kind of fish that is, I don’t know about fish.”

That article captures the odd, ordinary man as well as the incredible, extrodinary mind. Go read it. Meanwhile I’m gonna go add some Tom Waits albums to my amazon wish list.

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