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Tom Waits makes a life out of fooling people

Tom Waits makes a life out of fooling people

Feb. 2, 1989: Actor Tom Waits: “It’s nice not being the musician for a change.”

Writer Robert Koehler reports in the Feb. 10, 1989, Los Angeles Times Calendar section:

Tom Waits has made a life out of fooling people.

Just when the pop music cognoscenti had him pegged as a singer-songwriter who spent his time lamenting lost loves and dreams over warm glasses of booze, along came his 1983 album “Swordfishtrombones,” which dived into dark maelstroms of fury with weird, sly instrumentation and vocals.

Just when Waits seemed forever stuck as a passionately revered cult figure, along came his brief performances in several Francis Coppola films (“Rumble Fish,” “The Outsiders,” “The Cotton Club”).

And just when it looked as if Waits would follow the flow of pop performers crossing over into film acting (the crowded list includes Sting, Phil Collins, Cyndi Lauper, David Bowie, the Clash’s Joe Strummer), he cut a different path. In 1986, he created and performed in “Frank’s Wild Years” (subsequently an album) as a musical at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. Last year, he joined a sterling cast, including Rene Auberjonois, Bud Cort and Joe Frank, at the Doolittle Theatre for a performance tribute to French playwright Eugene Ionesco.

Those were warm-ups. Starting tonight, Waits appears in the world premiere of playwright Thomas Babe’s “Demon Wine” at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. It is Waits’ first full-length performance in a role written by someone else. (Babe is best known for his works “A Prayer for My Daughter” and “Fathers and Sons.”)

“I feel a little intimidated,” he uttered in a low, almost slurred growl — his natural voice. “There’s this great cast around me: Philip Baker Hall, Carol Kane, Jan Munroe” — plus reunions with his longtime friend Cort and Pullman, who showed Waits the “Demon Wine” script during the filming of “Cold Feet.”

“I kinda feel like I’m surrounded by Jascha Heifetzes, and there’s me coming on with three chords.”

In past interviews, Waits has often talked like the crazy-wise character in his highly theatricalized concerts. When asked in Rolling Stone magazine about shifting from musician to actor, he responded: “It’s like going from bootlegging to watch repair.”

However, as he sat in a Theatre Center office and thought about the task of putting Babe’s blackly comic and poetically styled play on stage, Waits spoke plainly — or as plainly as Tom Waits can. He even became a little tough on himself.

“I’m very undisciplined. The schedule is the hardest thing for me. I’m not used to getting up, working [in rehearsals] for eight hours and then back home to go over the text and prepare the next day’s work. I have my own way of working on my own stuff. This schedule requires a discipline that’s unknown to guys like me.” Then, as if stringing together straight statements was too much to ask, he added, “It [the discipline] is a bone I do not have in my rib cage.”…

This portrait by former Los Angeles Times staff photographer Ellen Jaskol accompanied Koehler’s story in the Feb. 10, 1989 Los Angeles Times.

Robert Koehler’s full article, Tom Waits Tries a Dramatic Voice with ‘Demon Wine,’ is online.

scott.harrison@latimes.com

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2 Comments

  1. April 22, 2014, 5:06 am

    If you believe Tom isn't disciplined—as he is quoted as saying, at the end of this post—he has fooled you again.

    By: thekosherham
  2. April 29, 2014, 7:12 am

    Yawn…

    By: gavros23@live.co.uk

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