Tom Waits Q&A about ‘Heartattack & Vine’
Elektra Records Promo Interview
September 4, 1980
Stephen K. Peeples
The interview that follows took place Thursday afternoon, Sept. 4, 1980, in songwriter-singer-actor Tom Waits’ two-room office on the old Hollywood General movie lot, then part of Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope empire.
Waits was ensconced there while working on original songs for One from the Heart, a film Coppola is directing. He wanted to talk briefly about his seventh album for Asylum Records: Heartattack and Vine.
Notwithstanding his image as participant in and chronicler of urban America’s seamy underbelly, Waits is apparently a changed man in a lot of ways, both inwardly and outwardly, as an artist and as a person.
We met in a Zoetrope hallway a bit less than an hour after the interview was set to begin, and he apologized for being late as he walked to his car — a dusty Monte Carlo — so he could get the keys to his office. He was wearing a skinny-brimmed black hat, white shirt, black pants and black pointed roach-impalers.
Inside his office, through an anteroom where an uncased guitar and a 4’x4′ painting of a butterfly leaned up against separate walls, Waits cleared his inner-office couch of assorted papers, joking about the paneled room’s “David Niven feel” and then sitting down in a chair near one end of the couch.
Opposite our seats, under the shaded windows looking out on a Gulf station that fronts on Santa Monica Boulevard (“makes me feel like I’m at the beach”), a low coffee table was loaded down with a pre-amp, amp, turntable and cassette deck, and speakers were on the floor on either side. In the corner was a grand piano, and a mike and stand were set up in front of the ivories.
The floor was littered only ankle-deep with papers, notebooks, cassettes and album jackets, and over against one wall leaned a battered, splitting-at-the-seams leather briefcase with old Waits albums spilling out of it.
On the back of his inner-office door (which he used only once during the interview, to bolt across the hall to the men’s washroom) was a bulletin board sporting various-sized pieces of paper on which lyrics and song fragments were hand-written.
During the interview, one thing emerged as a probable cause for Waits’ improved spirits and more presentable appearance; it had to do with his forsaking his usual post-album tour to work on the film project with Coppola; it’s a challenge, and one Waits feels compelled to rise to. And he was just as determined to limit his comments about the collaboration until it’s more fully baked.
TW: (apparently checking to see if his interviewer had done his research): What do you like about the new album?
SP: For one thing, your voice sounds like it was in better shape for Heartattack and Vine than it was for your last LP (Blue Valentine, October ’78).
TW: I quit smoking during the recording of the new one. Maybe that had something to do with it. I tried to arrive at some level of personal hygiene. I thought the record deserved that. I just tried to clean myself up a little. I think it helped, you know.
SP: What ’bout your drinking habits?
TW: I just drink wine now. My favorite is Carlo Rossi. Have you tried Carlo Rossi Chablis?
SP: No. You have any around?
TW: Ah, no, not right now. But it’s a remarkable beverage!
SP: Let’s talk about music now that we’ve got the tobacco and wine end covered. Last year, a writer quoted you as saying you’d reached a crossroads, musically speaking. Could you amplify that a bit?
TW: You just go through seasons as a writer. At this point, I’m trying to learn how to write faster. I just used to brood over songs for months and months. The writing for Heartattack and Vine was more spontaneous. And I let a drummer use sticks for the first time, instead of brushes (laughs). I mean I used to hear everything with upright bass, muted trumpet or tenor sax. I just had a sort of limited musical scope, so I wanted to try to stretch out a little bit on the new one. I think I’ve accomplished that to a degree. It’s all part of an ongoing process.
SP: Another writer quoted you as saying you wanted to make more rock ‘n’ roll than most of your past albums.
TW: (officious tone): The subject matter that I was dealing with was caustic enough to require an ensemble that perhaps sounded a little more jagged, so I considered musicians and selected the band with that in mind. It’s not Mahogany Rush, but it’s the best I can do.
SP: After working with Bones Howe on every album since your first, I’d heard you were thinking about connecting with Jack Nitzsche for this one.
TW: Yeah, I had some plans to explore new producers. I’d moved to New York for about five-six months, wanting to challenge myself with an entirely new environment. But my relationship with Bones has been a very close and personal one. That for me is more important than anything when you’re in the studio — to have somebody you can trust and who knows you, knows who you are and doesn’t let you get away with anything. I didn’t really want to disturb that relationship. But at the time I thought I wanted to change everything. Then I decided that the change was something that had to take place inside of me and with my own musical growth. I wanted to take some dangerous chances, and I felt Bones could best accommodate me.
SP: The press really made a big deal out of your move to New York. Why’d you return to L.A. so fast?
TW: Being there was more like a prison sentence (laughs). Hard time. When I moved there I stayed at the Chelsea and then got an apartment nearby and joined the McBurney Y.M.C.A….actually, I just went to New York to have a drink. It was a very expensive drink.
SP: A long one, too, evidently…
TW: Yeah, it was a tall one (laughs).
SP: So what prompted your return? Did they give you your release papers?
TW: Yeah, I’m on parole. I came to work on the film for Francis (Coppola) and to do this album. I’m now living in the Greater Los Angeles area.
SP: How did you put the Heartattack and Vine band together?
TW: I used my drummer from the road, “Big John” Thomassie, who’s from New Orleans. He used to play with Freddie King, Dr. John and Bonnie Bramlett. He’s been with me on the road for two years now, and this is the first record he’s done with me. Then there’s Ronnie Baron on piano, who’s also from New Orleans and is someone I’ve admired for many years. It was a real pleasure working with him. He played (Hammond) B-3 (organ) and piano. Larry Taylor, who’s from Canned Heat, is on bass. On guitar we had Roland Bautista, who grew up on Slauson Avenue (in Los Angeles), and that was good enough for me. But he’s played with George Duke and the Crusaders before and does a lot of session work in L.A. In addition to the quartet, I had Jerry Yester (producer of Waits’ first LP, Closing Time, in ’73 and frequent string arranger on subsequent albums) write two arrangements, and had Bob Alcivar do another two. Bob worked on Foreign Affairs (September ’77) and wrote “Potter’s Field” with me. He’s done some other arrangements and things for me, too. He’s also working as orchestrator and arranger on the Coppola project. He’s had experience as a film composer himself.
SP: So once you had Bones and the player’s lined up, it’s my understanding you moved into the studio for the duration of the sessions.
TW: Yeah, we worked in the RCA building on Ivar and Sunset, and I moved in there and lived there while we recorded. Everybody thought I was crazy (chuckles in a “so what else is new?” tone of voice), but it seemed to help me a lot.
SP: I understand also that little if any material was written until you went into the studio. I wonder whether you had the band there all the time so that when you hit on an idea, you’d all be able to get it on tape quickly…
TW: No, it wasn’t like that. Our recording schedule was to begin about two every afternoon. I just wanted to stay there because I was writing about one tune ahead of Bones every day. I was writing each night and every day so when the band got there, I’d have something new for everybody. So it was valuable for me to be writing in the same environment I was recording in.
I’d never tried to do it that way before. It’s a lot of work, it’s not a party. I don’t invite anyone that’s not directly involved in the sessions. I sweat bullets for a month and a half, but my relationship with Bones was very healthy during the whole procedure. He had a lot of faith in me, that I’d be able to work under those conditions. It would make a lot of producers very nervous to be working against a deadline like that with all that gold riding on it.
SP: Forgetting deadlines for a moment, would you do another album the same way?
TW: Yeah, I think so. I’d like to try it again maybe on the next record. Maybe force the entire ensemble to stay in the studio. Chain ’em up like dogs! (laughs).
SP: Were there any particularly funny moments during your stay at the studio, like did the night maintenance man whack your boot soles with his broomstick while you were racked out on the couch?
TW: No, the funniest thing was that that didn’t happen (laughs).
SP: Okay, let’s talk about the tunes, starting with the title track. How’d that one come about?
TW: I was in a bar one night on Hollywood Boulevard near Vine Street, and this lady came in with a dead animal over her arm, looking like she’d obviously been sleeping outdoors. She walked up to the bartender and said, “I’m gonna have a heart attack,” and he says, “Yeah, right, you can have it outside.” I thought that was pretty chilly. So I re-named Hollywood Blvd. “heartattack.”
SP: On to “In shades.”
TW: I always wanted to put out just a little straight R&B instrumental. Originally, it was titled “Breakfast in Jail.” But we changed it.
SP: How about “Saving All My Love For You?”
TW: That’s an old song, about four years old. It was scratched off of another album, I think Foreign Affairs.
SP: There’s a line in that tune about a prostitute with too much makeup and a broken shoe. On your last LP, Blue Valentine, the tune “$29.00” talks about another lady of the night who had a broken shoe…
TW: (laughs) Same girl!
SP: Then we go “Downtown”…
TW: That’s a first take. I was just running it down to the band just to learn it, but it became the record. We tried several other versions of it but this take seemed to be the one that took. I love Ronnie’s organ solo. It’s real amphetamine. The tune’s just a fast story, like a fast news update.
SP: Who is Montclaire de Havelin?
TW: It’s a name I came up with when I was on the road. I used to check into hotels and use my real name on the registration form. I had some unfortunate experiences because of that (clears throat and smiles), so I decided to change my name, at least on the road, so I wouldn’t have people I didn’t want to associate with trying to get in touch with me.
SP: And side one closes with “Jersey Girl”…
TW: I never thought I would catch myself saying “sha la la” in a song. This is my first experiment with “sha la la.” It has one of them kinda Drifters feels. I didn’t wanna say “muscular dystrophy” in it or anything, ’cause I didn’t think it fit in with the feel of the number. So lyrically I tried to do it straight ahead, a guy walking down the street to see his girl.
SP: Flipping over to side two, you open with “‘Til The Money Runs Out”…
TW: It’s an old mambo-type beat.
SP: Do you know any of the Chinamen on Telegraph Road?
TW: It’s just a line about some Chinamen on Telegraph Road. Got outta that one pretty good, huh?
SP: Okay. Just curious. Then comes “On the Nickel”…
TW: That was written for the Ralph Waites motion picture of the same name. I don’t think it’s still showing anywhere. It was released about the time I got back from New York, in April sometime. It was a wonderful picture, I mean it, but it didn’t make it. It wasn’t no Towering Inferno, just a small picture with a lot of feeling. It was set on skid row in Los Angeles, Fifth Street, downtown. The locals call it “the nickel.” The film was about a couple of old friends who were reunited after some years. One had cleaned up and moved off the nickel and the other was still there, and dying from it. The one who’d cleaned up went back to find his old pal. It’s a wonderful story.
SP: What happened at the end?
TW: You’ll have to see it.
SP: Is the subject of the next tune titled “Mr. Siegal,” anyone in particular?
TW: I’m trying to kind of refer to Bugsy Siegal.
SP: Several people who’ve heard this tune already think the line “how do the angels get to sleep/when the devil leaves his porch light on” was pretty good.
TW: I like it too.
SP: And the album closes with “Ruby’s Arms”…
TW: I love Jerry’s arrangement on it. He used a brass choir and made it sound like a Salvation Army band at the top of the tune. It really got me. It’s a little bit like that Matt Monro thing, “I Will Leave You Softly” (sings a verse). I was trying to visualize this guy getting up in the morning before dawn and leaving on the train, with the clothesline outside. I just closed my eyes and saw this scene and wrote about it.
SP: I found it extremely touching, if you’ll pardon the expression.
TW: Thank you.
SP: The room you recorded in, Filmway/Heider’ Studio B there in the RCA building, has a pretty healthy rock ‘n’ roll reputation. Did you know or find out anything about past sessions there?
TW: I dunno, to be honest. Yeah, the Stones worked there. I heard The Monkees did, too (laughs). Oh, yeah, Ray Charles and Cleo Laine recorded an album in that room with Frank de Vol. They did excerpts from “Porgy and Bess” about ’75-’76. Martin Mull cut his last Elektra LP, the live one, there, too.
SP: Previously, when you’ve finished an album, you’ve hit the road. How about this year?
TW: I came right off of the album back into this office. This is a whole other world for me. Up until this point I’ve done an album and gone out of the studio and put together a band and rehearsed for three or four weeks and hit the road for four months. It’s just an old hustle that I’ve done for the last seven years.
SP: It get old, doesn’t it?
TW: Yeah, it does. So I came off the record and into a whole other project, writing for somebody else’s approval rather than my own. It’s important, I think, to be able to write that way.
SP: You were billing your last tour, late last year through earlier this year, as your “break-even tour.” Did you?
TW: Just barely. But this year I’m doing this project for Coppola.
SP: How’d that one come about?
TW: I was still living in New York and he arranged a meeting with me. Later, I went to Zoetrope and discussed it further with him and made a commitment to begin work on it. So he gave me this office and piano. I took a month and a half off to write and record the album.
SP: One more question about the album. On the front cover, at the top right, the name “David ‘Doc’ Feuer” is printed along with a New York phone number. Whoever he is, he’s going to get a lot of phone calls…
TW: That’s not his real number. I’ll give you his real one if you need it. He’s a psychiatrist who needs the work. Actually, I put my phone number on the back of a record once and got lots of phone calls from people with real clinical problems. I never really knew what to say to them. So I told Doc I’d put his number on there and he could handle ’em.
SP: Are you getting any kind of kickback from those referrals?
TW: Well, not really (laughs). But he’s a frustrated musician and actually I’ve been considering a possible career in medicine. So we’re gonna trade skills instead of money. It’ll give me something to fall back on…