Riding in Cars With Tom Waits (And His Stuff)

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The patron saint of grizzle has a new record out, and his own unique approach to self-promotion.

Let's look in as Tom Waits chauffeurs Jon Pareles of The New York Times around Petaluma, Calif.

Mr. Waits’s black Suburban was cluttered. On the passenger seat was a yellowing newspaper announcing the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. A large bottle of Valencia Mexican hot sauce rolled on the floor. Atop a pile covering the back seat were a bowler hat and a glittery sequined jacket. “I have the pants to match,” he said.

Under the clothing were LPs akin to Mr. Waits’s own music: Captain Beefheart, Willy DeVille and an album by the blues harmonica virtuoso Charlie Musselwhite, who also plays on the album. Digging further, Mr. Waits came up with an old sarsaparilla bottle, discovered, he said, while scavenging the truck stop’s parking lot.

Pareles uncovers some trade secrets, too. Your assumption that a Tom Waits album, because it's a Tom Waits album, was recorded in the after-after-hours would be mistaken. He records first thing in the morning, when some of the band "haven't had breakfast, so this is breakfast." The title to his new "Hell Broke Luce" is a phrase knifed into the wall at Alcatraz after a riot. And he overflows with advice for the sidemen. Adopt at your own risk:

"I want you to play like you’re 7 years old at a recital. I want you to play like your mom’s in the room. I want you to play like you’re miles from home, and your legs are dangling from a boxcar. Or play like your hair’s on fire. Play like you have no pants on."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.