1. What was your first Tom Waits song/album, and what did it say to you to coax you into his world?
Joanne Conger: Closing Time was the album that first pulled me into the dark side of the City of
sixty miles away. From the time I was old enough to drive I was one of his
“fly-by-nights from Big City Riverside” – it
was dark, and drunk, and full of failed love long gone. I would drive into to
LA with a cassette of “Closing Time” that I ordered up from my subscription to
the Columbia House music club. Why this gravel-voiced loner was the man for me,
I may not think about too much. He may very well have set me up for a series of
men who may have been a bit sullen. Musicians who would pawn their guitars when
the rent was too-long overdue.
Gabriel Ricard: It was “Big in
which opens the Mule Variations record. I’ll grant that’s a weird one, but I
thought it was one of the funniest fucking songs I had ever heard. I still do.
I always love this absolutely batshit bravado that prevails most of the lines.
“Big in Japan” is definitely minor Waits, but I’d definitely make the argument
that it gives you a good indication of his voice, his sense of humor, and his
endlessly talented, unique musicality. It started me off on an album that’s
still one of my favorites. That connected me to Rain Dogs and Foreign Affairs.
And it goes on like that.
I started listening to Waits because I came across him in a documentary about Charles Bukowski. I was watching that because I had no idea who Bukowski was, and because people kept reading my own stuff, and telling me I must have been a fan. I became one, and I can certainly see how Bukowski influenced Waits. Same with Captain Beefheart. At the same time? I don’t think any writer or performer has the same collection of traits that Waits offers.
2. In what way, if any, has Waits affected your writing style or creative choices?
Joanne Conger: Tom Waits provided the movie soundtrack to my life while I worked in theater, wrote my scripts on spec for the studios, found my odd jobs fixing the writing of other people and working as a domestic servant in
Beverly Hills, Pacific
Palisades, and Santa Monica. His
simple, very human, heart-breaking lyrics of love found, love lost, and dreams
deferred. He did make me think about things I might not have been all that
ready to think about, but as a playwright I wanted to write like him. I wanted
to know brutal honesty. I wanted to jump ahead in my own life and sit at a bar
getting wasted slowly over a long night talking about love and life and where
to get my next fix. All a complete fantasy, to me. As I sit not too far from Seattle,
he will always be the music of my home. His music will always remind me that
men can live hard and love just as hard. He endures because of that honestly.
Raw and pure and lovely.
Gabriel Ricard: I fucking love how one artists gets you to another. I think I’ve found some of the best books, albums, and films of my life that way. Waits definitely works on that level, so I would say he and others have done a formidable job of telling the kinds of stories that I like to hear. In turn, they help to give me an idea of the stories that I would like to tell, in my own way. Tom Waits is also right at the top of the list for artists that have influenced my obsession with great, bizarre opening lines. “
is a great example. He isn’t verbose, and he isn’t annoyingly vague. He hits
that beautiful, essential middle, and he has you hooked.
3. With his gravelly voice, dive-bar eccentricities, and aversion to anything close to a mainstream sound, why do you think Waits has had such a broad and enduring career when he easily could have been a bizarre flash in the pan?
Joanne Conger: When you grow up in
California you either align with Disneyland
or the seedier side of the LA Basin. There are two L.A.’s
– the dreams fulfilled side, and the dreams destroyed side. Since I was about
16 years old I aligned with the dreams lost side and sidled up next to those
who scratched out a living in the shadow of the Hollywood sign by driving cabs,
or walking the streets, or serving fully caffeinated drip coffee during a 12
hour waitressing shift at Ben Franklin’s. Tom Waits documented the flip side of
Hollywood. Some of the first short
stories I ever wrote took characters from his songs and put them in dive bars
or sitting at the counter at Ben Franklin’s – had them going home with each
other – or, alone to think. Hoping to not fall in love with me. Walking Hollywood
Boulevard just off of Vine I would see him in a
phone booth begging Martha to remember him from too long ago, tears flowing.
The strains of a saxophone floating above my head as I went in and out of the
tourist shops on the boulevard or watched the cruisers, diamonds on their
windshield, slow down to see if I was old enough to be interested in good time.
I’d walk by the dive bars on Sunset, smelling old cigarette smoke and booze and
urine – and this was home, to me. A home I wouldn’t be welcome in for another
five years. I would talk to the drunks that came outside to breathe in the Santa
Ana winds when the heat finally broke. And, there was
never a time when I wasn’t given some secret of the universe. Men like Tom Waits – singers like Tom Waits –
minstrels, poets and vagabonds – always seemed to have the secrets of the
universe folded up and tucked inside their eel skin wallets.
Gabriel Ricard: I think it partially helps that he tends to attract the devoted. The people I know who love Tom Waits are people who prove that you can find true diversity amongst the eccentrics. They are also some of the smartest people I know. I’d also say it’s because Waits is truly and sincerely original. At the same time, he’s also a far smarter showman than he sometimes gets credit for. Those aren’t contradictions. He just understands the value of body language, at the same time that he really is captivated by the endlessly weird bits of trivia he has been known to share with reporters through the years. People respond to all of that.
4. Let’s put you into a Down By Law situation and say you busted out of the Orleans Parish Prison with Waits and one other person? Who are you running with, and why?
Joanne Conger: The other person to bust of a NOLA Parish Prison with? Easy. Lucinda Williams. Both of these poet/storytellers gave me a way to think beyond myself as a naïve girl who just wanted to write heart wrenching work for the stage. I can imagine the three of us running the river trying to not get caught, waiting for the darkness so we would have a chance to escape to a freedom none of us could really define. With us looking up to see a grapefruit moon and one star shining.
Gabriel Ricard: Man, you’re gonna have me watching that movie again tonight. Obviously, that’s not a bad thing. I’m having some pretty conflicting ideas in my head right now. I’m pretty fond of Stranger Things right now, as a lot of people are, and I keep Millie Bobby Brown would be a weird contrast for Waits in particular. Is that too in the vein of True Grit? Anyway, I don’t think I could limit this list down to just one person. I keep thinking Jack Nicholson circa One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest would be an amazing third for this group.
You know who else would be good? Paul Dano.
Then again, the question isn’t specific to actors. You can side eye me to death, but I swear to Christ Joe Biden would be a great addition to this Down by Law team. I’m almost willing to fight anyone who disagrees, or thinks I’m thinking with them.
Joanne Conger was a playwright in her earlier life before she left LA and the lucrative career of being a playwright for the lucrative career of being in nonprofit social services. As a fundraiser working to end homelessness, she has raised over $8 million dollars in the last 15 years. Recently, she has returned to writing and you can find her blog here: www.joanneconger.com. Or, find her on Facebook. She is currently working on a one woman show premiering in 2017 about how Facebook saved her life.
Gabriel Ricard writes, edits, and occasionally acts. He is a contributor with Drunk Monkeys, a contributor with Cultured Vultures, and an editor with Kleft Jaw. He is also a writer and performer with Fringe Immersive. His first book Clouds of Hungry Dogs is available now. He lives on