“Video Profile: Tom Waits”: Songwriter, actor, playwright & authentic American troubadour

By on September 13, 2018

“In the early ’70s, living in the Tropicana Hotel in Los Angeles, [Tom] Waits began writing and singing low-down ballads and about the fringes of society,” says Night Flight’s Pat Prescott in her introduction to our “Video Profile: Tom Waits,” an in-depth and up-close look at the iconic California-based songwriter, actor, playwright, and authentic American troubadour.

Video Profile: Tom Waits” — which arrives about 25-minutes in — features five key deep cut videos and a candid — and quite strange — back seat interview with the man himself, during which Waits describes for the audience the “showbiz” family that raised him and his unique vision of God (“God’s a short guy… he started in the mailroom and worked his way up, invested well”).

Watch our profile of “underground movie star, video innovator and legendary wit” Tom Waits tonight on Night Flight Plus.

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In 1985, Tom Waits told Billboard magazine’s Peter Keepnews “It’s good to know my songs mean something to some people, but I’m not interested in being in a popularity contest. You can get very hung up worrying about what people expect from you.”

At the time, Waits’s had recently released the self-produced album Rain Dogs, which, like its predecessor Swordfishtrombones, released two years earlier, had continued his definitive break from what Keepnews describes as the “wistful, jazz-tinged ballads with which Waits made his initial reputation.”

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Waits had recorded for Asylum Records for close to a decade before moving on to Island Records, which he said he mainly did because label honcho Chris Blackwell gave him “room for growth and development.”

“It was just time to move on,” Waits told Billboard. “I just can’t be satisfied with the same image all the time. And I think I’ve finally found a way to match the instrumentation to the stories.”

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In our profile, Ms. Prescott says “the ‘Downtown Train’ video features Jake La Motta, who inspired Raging Bull, and guitar work by ex-Voidoid Robert Quine.”

Quine does, in fact, play guitar on “Downtown Train,” but it’s actually guitarist G.E. Smith who plays the memorably quirky riff heard throughout the song.

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When Waits spoke to Billboard‘s Peter Keepnews (November 16, 1985), he had just finished working with MTV Award-winning director Jean Baptiste-Mondino, who was red-hot after directing Don Henley‘s “Boys of Summer” video.

Waits was excited to work with Mondino, whose previous work he compared to Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini.

He was also happy he was able to wear a dress in the video.

Read more about “Video Profile: Tom Waits” below.

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Pat Prescott: “[Waits’] 1983 album Swordishtrombones took rock to someplace it had never been, and contained the demented Salvation Army sound of ‘In the Neighborhood.'”

We think it’s somewhat ironic that Ms. Prescott says that Waits’ album took rock “someplace it had never been,” when you consider that the video for “In the Neighborhood” — co-directed by Michael Andreas Russ and the great Haskell Wexler — was filmed someplace he’d certainly been before: the alley behind the house where he was living at the time, in L.A.’s Silverlake neighborhood (which had not yet become the hipster enclave it became over the next few decades).

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“In the Neighborhood” — the waltz-like last song on Swordfishtrombones‘s Side One — does have that “Salvation Army feel” to it, as Waits once said of the arrangement:

“I was trying to bring the music outdoors with tuba, trombone, trumpets, snare, cymbals, accordion. So it had that Felliniesque type of marching band going down the the dirt road. And with the glockenspiel to give it a feeling of a kind of a demented little parade band.”

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Michael Russ, in fact, shot the cover photo for Swordfishtrombones – showing Waits along with a midget named Angelo Rossito and a bald-headed “giant” named Lee Kolima — in an attempt to capture the same “Felliniesque” vibe seen in Waits’ monochromatic, sepia-toned video.

Russ used an optical printer and wide-angle transfer to create the off-kilter effects seen in the video.

Waits appears as a warped P.T. Barnum-ish circus ringleader — not too far off the mark, if you think about it — leading a zany street parade.

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Night Flight’s “Video Profile: Tom Waits” also features the videos for “Blow Wind Blow” and “Cold Cold Ground,” both of which were directed by Chris Blum.

“Blow Wind Blow” is the direct result of Waits’ unwillingness to lip-synch to his album track and “perform” in his videos.

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Instead, Waits had a woman named Val Diamond pose as a life-size mannequin-type doll, with eyeballs drawn on her eyelids. She appears to be mouthing the words to the song for him.

At one point, Waits unscrews the woman’s wooden leg and pulls out a bottle of whisky from it, taking a long swig.

The video was shot onstage at Miss Kiko’s Chi Chi Club in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood.

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Our profile also features his video for “Temptation,” directed by Betzy Bromberg, which features Tom Waits in full Frank’s Wild Years regalia, complete with Ferrari red lipstick and exploding fireworks.

For you more serious Tom Waits fans out there, check out our blog post on Tom Waits: Under Review 1983-2006, which took a closer look at the extraordinary musician and performer’s eccentric career, beginning in the 1980s, and our blog post about Tom Waits: Under the Influence, which “examines, dissects and all but lobotomizes the wealth of music, literature, theater and film that have assisted in creating Waits’ legendary genius,” both titles you’ll find streaming — along with our “Video Profile: Tom Waits” — over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.