"Play It Like Your Hair's On Fire": a 2002 Profile of Tom Waits by Elizabeth Gilbert


Along with her TED talk, a must-read.

Perhaps The Most Singular feature about Tom Waits as an artist- the thing that makes him the anti-Picasso- is the way he has braided his creative life into his home life with such wit and grace. This whole idea runs contrary to our every stereotype about how geniuses need to work- about their explosive interpersonal relationships, about the lives (particularly the women’s lives) they must consume in order to feed their inspiration, about all the painful destruction they leave in the wake of invention. But this is not Tom Waits. A collaborator at heart, he has never had to make the difficult choice between creativity and procreativity. At the Waits house, it’s all thrown in there together- spilling out of the kitchen, which is also the office, which is also where the dog is disciplined, where the kids are raised, where the songs are written and where the coffee is poured for the wandering preachers. All of it somehow influences the rest. The kids were certainly never a deterrent to the creativity- just further inspiration for it. He remembers the time his daughter helped him write a song. “We were on a bus coming to L.A. And it was really cold outside. There was this transgender person, to be politically correct, standing on a corner wearing a short little top with a lot of midriff showing, a lot of heavy eye makeup and dyed hair and a really short skirt. And this guy, or girl, was dancing all by himself. And my little girl saw it and said, “It must be really hard to dance like that when you’re so cold and there’s no music.’” Waits took his daughter’s exquisite observation and worked into a ballad called “Hold On”- a song of unspeakably aching hopefulness that was nominated for a Grammy and became the cornerstone of his album Mule Variations. “Children make up the best songs, anyway,” he says. “Better than grown-ups. Kids are always working on songs and throwing them away, like little origami things or paper airplanes. They don’t care if they lose it; they’ll just make another one.” This openness is what every artist needs. Be ready to receive the inspiration when it comes; be ready to let it go when it vanishes. He believes that if a song “really wants to be written down, it’ll stick in my head. If it wasn’t interesting enough for me to remember it, well, it can just move along and go get in someone else’s song.” “Some songs,” he has learned, “don’t want to be recorded.” You can’t wrestle with them or you’ll only scare them off more. Trying to capture them sometimes “is trying to trap birds.” Fortunately, he says, other songs come easy, like “digging potatoes out of the ground.” Others are sticky and weird, like “gum found under an old table.” Clumsy and uncooperative songs may only be useful “to cut up as bait and use ‘em to catch other songs.” Of course, the best songs of all are those that enter you “like dreams taken through a straw.’ In those moments, all you can be, Waits says, is grateful.

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