Waits in April 2007
|Thomas Alan Waits|
|Born||December 7, 1949|
Pomona, California, U.S.
Thomas Alan Waits (born December 7, 1949) is an American singer-songwriter and actor. Waits' music is characterized by his distinctive deep, gravelly singing voice and lyrics focusing on the underside of U.S. society. During the 1970s, he worked primarily in jazz, but since the 1980s his music has reflected greater influence from blues, vaudeville, and experimental genres.
Waits was raised in a middle-class family in Whittier, California and then San Diego. Inspired by Bob Dylan and the Beat Generation, as a teenager he began singing on the San Diego folk music scene. Relocating to Los Angeles, he worked as a songwriter before signing a recording contract with Asylum Records. His first albums, the jazz-oriented Closing Time (1973) and The Heart of Saturday Night (1974), reflected his lyrical interest in nightlife, poverty, and criminality. Repeatedly touring the U.S., Europe, and Japan, he attracted greater critical recognition and commercial success with Small Change (1976), which he followed with Blue Valentine (1978) and Heartattack and Vine (1980). He produced the soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola's 1981 film One from the Heart and subsequently made cameo appearances in several Coppola films.
In the early 1980s, Waits married Kathleen Brennan, broke from his manager and record label, and moved to New York City. Under Brennan's influence, he pursued a new musical aesthetic, reflected in a series of albums released by Island Records: Swordfishtrombones (1983), Rain Dogs (1985), and Franks Wild Years (1987). He continued appearing in film, taking a leading role in Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law (1986). In the 1990s, his albums--Bone Machine (1992), The Black Rider (1993), and Mule Variations (1999)--earned him increasing critical acclaim and various Grammy Awards. In the late 1990s he switched to the record label Anti-, who released Blood Money (2002), Alice (2002), Real Gone (2004), and Bad as Me (2011).
Waits' albums have met with mixed commercial success in the U.S., although have occasionally achieved gold album sales status in other countries. He has a cult following and has influenced subsequent singer-songwriters, despite having little radio or music video support. In 2011, Waits was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was included among the 2010 list of Rolling Stones 100 Greatest Singers, as well as the 2015 list of Rolling Stones 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time.
Thomas Alan Waits was born on 7 December 1949 in Pomona, California. His father, Jesse Frank Waits, was a Texan of Scots-Irish ancestry, while his mother, Alma Fern (Johnson), was an Oregonian of Norwegian heritage. Alma was a conventional housewife and regular church-goer. Jesse taught Spanish at a local school and was an alcoholic; Waits later related that his father was "a tough one, always an outsider". The family lived at 318 North Pickering Avenue in Whittier, Los Angeles County. Waits was the second of three siblings, having both an older and younger sister. Waits described having a "very middle-class" upbringing and "a pretty normal childhood". He attended Jordan Elementary School, where he was bullied. There, he learned to play the bugle and guitar, while his father taught him to play the ukulele. During the summers, he visited maternal relatives in Gridley and Marysville. He later recalled that it was an uncle's raspy, gravelly voice that inspired the manner in which he later sang.
In 1959, his parents separated and his father moved away from the family home; it was a traumatic experience for the ten year old Waits. Alma took her children and relocated to Chula Vista, a middle-class suburb of San Diego. Jesse visited the family there, taking his offspring on trips to Tijuana in Mexico. In Chula Vista, Waits attended O'Farrell Junior High School, where he fronted a school band, the Systems, later describing the group as "white kids trying to get that Motown sound". He developed a love of rhythm and blues and soul singers like Ray Charles, James Brown, and Wilson Pickett, as well as country music and Roy Orbison. Later, Bob Dylan became a strong influence, with Waits placing transcriptions of Dylan's lyrics on his bedroom walls. He was an avid watcher of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and Twilight Zone. By the time he was studying at Hilltop High School, he later related, he was "kind of an amateur juvenile delinquent", interested in "malicious mischief" and breaking the law. He later described himself as a "rebel against the rebels", for he eschewed the hippie subculture then growing in popularity and was instead inspired by the 1950s Beat generation, having a love of Beat writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. In 1968, at age 18, he dropped out of high school.
Waits worked at Napoleone's pizza restaurant in National City, and both there and at a local diner developed an interest in the lives of the patrons, writing down phrases and snippets of dialogue which he overheard. He has also claimed that he worked in the forestry service as a fireman for three years. For a time he also served with the United States Coast Guard. He enrolled at Chula Vista's Southwestern Community College to study photography, for a time considering a career in the field. He continued pursuing his musical interests, taking piano lessons. He began frequenting folk music venues around San Diego, becoming drawn into the city's folk music scene. In 1969, he gained employment as an occasional doorman for the Heritage coffeehouse, which held regular performances from folk musicians. He also began to sing at the Heritage; his set initially consisted largely of covers of Dylan and Red Sovine's "Big Joe and Phantom 309". In time he performed his own material as well, often parodies of country songs or bittersweet ballads influenced by his relationships with girlfriends; these included early songs "Ol' 55" and "I Hope That I Don't Fall in Love With You". As his reputation spread, he played at other San Diego venues, supporting acts like Tim Buckley, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and his friend Jack Tempchin. Aware that San Diego offered little opportunity for career progression, Waits began traveling into Los Angeles to play at the Troubadour in West Hollywood.
It was at the Troubadour that Waits came to the attention of Herb Cohen, who signed him to a publishing contract; that Cohen did not give him a recording contract suggests that he was interested in Waits only as a songwriter rather than a performer. Quitting his job at Napoleone's to concentrate on his songwriting career, in early 1972 Waits moved to an apartment in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, a poor neighbourhood known for its Hispanic and bohemian communities. He continued performing at the Troubadour and there met David Geffen, who gave Waits a recording contract with his Asylum Records.Jerry Yester was chosen to produce his first album, with the recording sessions taking place in Hollywood's Sunset Sound studios. The resulting album, Closing Time, was released in March 1973, although attracted little attention and did not sell well. Biographer Barney Hoskyns noted that Closing Time was "broadly in step with the singer-songwriter school of the early 1970s"; Waits had wanted to create a piano-led jazz album although Yester had pushed its sound in a more folk-oriented direction. An Eagles cover of its opening track, "Ol' 55", on their album On the Border, brought Waits further money and recognition, although he regarded their version as "a little antiseptic".
To promote his debut, Waits and a three-piece band embarked on a U.S. tour, largely on the East Coast, where he was the support act for more established artists. As part of this, he supported Tom Rush at Washington D.C.'s The Cellar Door, Danny O'Keefe at Massachusetts's Club Passim, Charlie Rich at New York City's Max's Kansas City, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas in East Lansing, Michigan, and John P. Hammond in San Francisco. Waits returned to Los Angeles in June, feeling demoralised about his career. That month, he was the cover star of free music magazine, Music World. He began composing songs for his second album, and attended the Venice Poetry Workshop to try out this new material in front of an audience. Although Waits was eager to record this new material, Cohen instead convinced him to take over as a support act for Frank Zappa's the Mothers of Invention after previous support act Kathy Dalton pulled out due to the hostility from Zappa's fans. Waits joined Zappa's tour in Ontario, but like Dalton found the audiences hostile; while on stage he was jeered at and pelted with fruit. Although he liked the Mothers of Invention's band members, he found Zappa himself intimidating.
Waits moved from Silver Lake to Echo Park, spending much of his time in downtown Los Angeles. In early 1974, he continued to perform around the West Coast, getting as far as Denver. For Waits' second album, Geffen wanted a more jazz-oriented producer, selecting Bones Howe for the job. Recording sessions for The Heart of Saturday Night took place at Wally Heider Studio Number 3, Cahuenga Boulevard in April and May, with Waits conceptualising the album as a sequence of songs about U.S. nightlife. The album was far more widely reviewed than Closing Time had been, reflecting Waits' growing notability on the American music scene. Waits himself was later dismissive of the album, describing it as "very ill-formed, but I was trying".
After recording The Heart of Saturday Night, Waits reluctantly agreed to tour with Zappa again, but once more faced strong audience hostility. The kudos of having supported Zappa's tour nevertheless bolstered his image in the music industry and helped his career. In October 1974 he first performed as the headline act before touring the East Coast; in New York City he met and befriended the singer Bette Midler, with whom he had a sporadic affair. Back in Los Angeles, Cohen suggested Waits produce a live album. To this end, he performed two live shows at the Record Plant Studio in front of an audience. Again produced by Howe, the recording was released as Nighthawks at the Diner in October 1975.
He followed this with a week's residency at the Reno Sweeney in New York City, and in December appeared on the PBS concert show Soundstage. From March to May 1976 he toured the U.S., telling interviewers that the experience was tough and that he was drinking too much alcohol. In May, he embarked on his first tour of Europe, performing in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Copenhagen. On his return to Los Angeles, he joined his friend Chuck E. Weiss by moving into the Tropicana motel in West Hollywood, a place that already had an established reputation in rock music circles. Visitors noted that his two-room apartment there was heavily cluttered. He was living in what biographer Hoskyns later called a "pastiche of poverty"; Waits told the LA Times that "You almost have to create situations in order to write about them, so I live in a constant state of self-imposed poverty".
In July 1976 he recorded the album Small Change, again produced by Howe. In later years, he described it as a seminal episode in his development as a songwriter, describing it as the point when he became "completely confident in the craft". On release, the album was critically well received and was his first release to break into the Billboard Top 100 Album List, peaking at number 89. Later biographer Patrick Humphries called Small Change Waits' "masterpiece". He received growing press attention, being profiled in Newsweek, Time, Vogue, and The New Yorker; he had begun to accrue a cult following. He went on tour to promote the new album, backed by the Nocturnal Emissions. In reference to his song "Pasties and a G-String", a female stripper came onstage during his performances. He began 1977 by touring Japan for the first time.
Back in Los Angeles, he encountered various problems. One female fan, recently escaped from a mental health institution in Illinois, began stalking him and lurking outside his Tropicana apartment. In May 1977, Waits and close friend Chuck E. Weiss were arrested for fighting with police officers in a coffee shop. They were charged with two counts of disturbing the peace but were acquitted after the defence produced eight witnesses who refuted the police offers' account of the incident. In response, Wait sued the Los Angeles Police Department and five years later was awarded $7,500 in damages.
In July and August 1977 he recorded his fourth studio album, Foreign Affairs;Bob Alcivar had been employed as its arranger. The album included "I Never Talk to Strangers", a duet with Midler, with whom he was still in an intermittent relationship. She appeared with him at the Troubadour to sing the song; the next day he repaid the favor by performing at a gay rights benefit at the Hollywood Bowl that Midler was involved with.Foreign Affairs was not as well received by critics as its predecessor, and unlike Small Change failed to make the Billboard Top 100 album chart. That year, he began a relationship with the singer-songwriter Rickie Lee Jones; her own work and style was influenced by him. In October 1977 he returned to touring with the Nocturnal Emissions; it was on this tour that he first began using props onstage, in this case a street lamp. Again, he found the tour exhausting. In March 1978, he embarked on his second tour of Japan.
During these years, Waits sought to broaden his career beyond music by involving himself in other projects. Waits became friends with the actor and director Sylvester Stallone and made his first cinematic appearance as a cameo part in Stallone's Paradise Alley (1978); Waits appeared as a drunk piano player. With Paul Hampton Waits also began writing a movie musical, although this project never came to fruition. Another of the projects he began at this time was a book about entertainers of the past whom he admired.
In July 1978, Waits began the recording sessions for his album Blue Valentine. Part way through the sessions, he replaced his musicians in order to create a less jazz-oriented sound; for the album, he switched from a piano to an electric guitar as his main instrument. For the album cover, Waits used a picture of him and Jones in his car, a 1964 Ford Thunderbird, taken by Elliot Gilbert. From the album, Waits' first single was released, a cover of "Somewhere", but it failed to chart. For his Blue Valentine tour, Waits assembled a new band; he also had a gas station built for use as a set during his performances. His support act on the tour was Leon Redbone. In April, he embarked on a European tour, there making television appearances and press interviews; in Austria he was the subject of a short documentary. From there he flew to Australia for his first tour of that country before returning to Los Angeles in May.
Waits was unsatisfied with Elektra-Asylum, whom he felt had lost interest in him as an artist in favor of their more commercially successful acts like the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Carly Simon, and Queen. Jones' musical career was taking off; after an appearance on Saturday Night Live her single "Chuck E.'s In Love" reached number 4 in the singles chart, straining her relationship with Waits. Their relationship was further damaged by Jones' heroin addiction. Waits joined Jones for the first leg of her European tour, but then ended his relationship with her. Her grief at the breakup was channelled into the 1981 album Pirates. In September, Waits moved to Crenshaw Boulevard to be closer to his father, before deciding to relocate to New York City. He initially lived in the Chelsea Hotel before renting an apartment on West 26th Street. On arriving in the city, he told a reporter that he "just needed a new urban landscape. I've always wanted to live here. It's a good working atmosphere for me". In the city, he contemplated writing a Broadway musical to be based on Thornton Wilder's Our Town.
The film director Francis Ford Coppola then asked Waits to return to Los Angeles to write a soundtrack for his forthcoming film, One from the Heart, which was to be set in Las Vegas. Waits was excited, but conflicted, by the prospect; Coppola wanted him to create music akin to his early work, a genre that he was trying to leave behind, and thus he characterised the project as an artistic "step backwards" for him. He nevertheless returned to Los Angeles to work on the soundtrack in a room set aside for the purpose in Coppola's Hollywood studios. This style of working was new to Waits; he later recalled that he was "so insecure when I started... I was sweating buckets".
Waits still contractually owed Elektra-Asylum a further album, so took a break from Coppola's project to write an album that he initially called White Spades. He recorded the album in June; it was released in September as Heartattack and Vine. The album was more guitar-based and had--according to Humphries--"a harder, R&B edge"--than any of its predecessors. It again broke into the Top 100 Album Chart, peaking at number 96. Reviews were generally good. Hoskyns called it "one of Waits' pinnacle achievements" as an album. One of its tracks, "Jersey Girl", was subsequently covered by Bruce Springsteen. Waits was grateful, both for the revenue it brought him and because he felt appreciated by a songwriter whom he admired.
An assistant story editor on the film was Kathleen Brennan, a young Irish-American woman; Waits had met her before, at a party he attended before his move to New York, and later described encountering her as "love at first sight". They entered a relationship and were engaged to be married within a week. In August, they married at a 24 hour wedding chapel on the Manchester Boulevard in Watts before honeymooning in Tralee, a town in County Kerry, Ireland, where Brennan had family. Returning to Los Angeles, the couple moved into an apartment in a 19th century building along Union Avenue. Hoskyns noted that with Brennan, "Waits had found the stabilizing, nurturing companion he'd always wanted", and that she brought him "a sense of emotional security he had never known" before. At the same time, many of his old friends felt cut off after his marriage.
Recording of Waits' One from the Heart soundtrack began in October 1980 and continued until September 1981. A number of the tracks were recorded as duets with Crystal Gayle; Waits had initially planned to duet with Midler, although she had not been available. The film itself was released in 1982; it was poorly received and failed to recoup production costs. Waits makes a small cameo in it as a man playing a trumpet in a crowd scene. Waits' soundtrack album, also titled One from the Heart, was released by Columbia Records in 1982. Waits had misgivings about the album, thinking it over-produced. Humphries thought that working with Coppola was an important move in Waits' career: it "led directly to Waits moving from cult (i.e. largely unknown) artiste to center-stage."
Newly married and with his Elektra-Asylum contract completed, Waits decided that it was time to artistically reinvent himself. He wanted to move away from using Howe as his producer, although the two parted on good terms. With Brennan's help, he also began the process of firing Cohen as his manager, with he and Brennan taking on managerial responsibilities themselves. He came to believe that Cohen had been swindling him out of much of his earnings, later relating that "I thought I was a millionaire and it turned out I had, like, twenty bucks." Waits credited Brennan with introducing him with much new music, most notably the word of Captain Beefheart, a key influence on the direction in which he wanted to take his music. He later noted that "once you've heard Beefheart it's hard to wash him out of your clothes. It stains, like coffee or blood." He also came under the influence of Harry Partch, a singer-songwriter who created his own instruments out of everyday materials. Waits began to use images rather than moods or characters as the basis for his songs.
Waits wrote the songs which would be included on Swordfishtrombones during a two-week trip to Ireland. He recorded the album at Sunset Sound studios and produced the album himself; Brennan often attended the sessions and gave him advice.Swordfishtrombones abandoned the jazz sound characteristic of his earlier work; it was for instance his first album not to feature a saxophone. When the album was finished, he took it to Asylum, but they declined to release it. Waits wanted to leave the label; in his view, "They liked dropping my name in terms of me being a 'prestige' artist, but when it came down to it they didn't invest a whole lot in me in terms of faith".Chris Blackwell of Island Records learned of Waits' dissatisfaction and approached him, offering to release Swordfishtrombones; Island had a reputation for signing more experimental acts, such as King Crimson, Roxy Music, and Sparks. Waits did not tour to promote the album, partly because Brennan was pregnant. Although not enthusiastic regarding the new trend for music videos, he appeared in one for the song "In the Neighbourhood", co-directed by Haskell Wexler and Michael A. Russ. Russ also designed the Swordfishtrombones album cover, featuring an image of Waits with Lee Kolima, a circus strongman, and Angelo Rossito, a dwarf. According to David Smay, Swordfishtrombones was "the record where Tom Waits radically reinvented himself and reshaped the musical landscape." The New Musical Express named Swordfishtrombones its album of the year.
In 1981, Waits provided a voice-over for a television advert for Butcher's Blend dog food. In 1983, Waits appeared in three more Coppola films; in Rumble Fish he played Benny, an idiot running a billboard store, in The Outsiders he was Buck Merrill, a one-line role, and in The Cotton Club he again made a cameo appearance. He later stated that "Coppola is actually the only film director in Hollywood that has a conscience... most or them are egomaniacs and money-grabbing bastards". In September, Brennan gave birth to their daughter, Kellesimone. Waits was determined to keep his family life separate from his public image and to spend as much time possible with his daughter. With Brennan and their child, Waits moved to New York City to be closer to Brennan's parents and Island's U.S. office. They settled into a loft apartment in Little Spain, near to Union Square. Waits found New York City life frustrating, although it allowed him to meet many new musicians and artists. He befriended John Lurie of The Lounge Lizards, and the duo began sharing a music studio in the Westbeth artist-community building in Greenwich Village. He began networking in the city's arts scene, and at a party Jean-Michel Basquiat held for Lurie he met the filmmaker Jim Jarmusch.
Waits began work on his next album, Rain Dogs, before recording it over the course of two and a half months at the RCA Studios in mid 1985.Keith Richards played on some of the tracks; he later acknowledged Waits' encouragement of his first solo album, Talk is Cheap. One of the tracks on the album, "Downtown Train", was subsequently covered by Rod Stewart, when it reached the top five in 1990. In 1985, Rolling Stone magazine named Waits its "Songwriter of the Year". In September, his son Casey was born. Waits assembled a band and went on tour, kicking it off in Scotland in October before proceeding around Europe and then the US. He changed the setlist for each performance; most of the songs chosen were from his two Island albums.
Returning to the U.S., he travelled to New Orleans to appear in Jarmusch's film, Down by Law. Jarmusch wrote Down by Law with Waits and Lurie in mind; they played two of the three main roles, with Roberto Benigni as the third. The film opened and closed with Waits' songs. Jarmusch noted that "Tom and I have a kindred aesthetic. An interest in unambitious people, marginal people." The pair developed a friendship; Waits called Jarmusch "Dr Sullen", while Jarmusch called Waits "The Prince of Melancholy".
Waits had devised the idea of a musical play, Franks Wild Years, which would be loosely based on the eponymous song from Swordfishtrombones. In late 1985, he reached an agreement that the play would be performed by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago's Briar Street Theatre for a three-month stretch. During the show, Waits starred as the eponymous character, Frank. Reviews were generally positive. He had initially considered a run in New York City, but decided against it. He then recorded the songs from the show as the album Franks Wild Years, recorded at Universal Recording Studios and released a year later, in 1987, by Island. After its release, Waits toured North America and then Europe. Two of these performances were recorded and used as the basis for a concert film directed by Chris Blum, Big Time. He also joined other singers like Springsteen, Elvis Costello, and k. d. lang by appearing in a "Black and White Night" at Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel to celebrate the life of singer-songwriter Roy Orbison, of whom Waits was a fan.
In autumn 1986, he took a small part in Candy Mountain, a film by Robert Frank and Rudy Wurlitzer, as millionaire golf enthusiast Al Silk. He then starred in Hector Babenco's Ironweed, as Rudy the Kraut, a more substantial role, where he starred alongside Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. Hoskyns noted that Babenco's film put Waits "on the mainstream Hollywood map as a character actor". In autumn 1987, Waits and his family left New York and returned to Los Angeles, setting on Union Avenue. In summer 1988, he appeared as a hitman in Robert Dornhelm's film Cold Feet, filmed in Gallatin National Forest.
Waits hated when musicians allowed companies to use their songs in advertising; he said that "artists who take money for ads poison and pervert their songs". In November 1988 he brought a lawsuit against Frito-Lay for using an actor imitating his voice to advertise their Salsa Rio Doritos; it came to court in April 1990 and in 1992 Waits won. He received a $2.6 million settlement, a larger sum than he had earned from all of his earlier albums.
In 1989, Waits appeared in his final theatrical stage role to date, appearing as Curly in Thomas Babe's Demon Wine, alongside Bill Pullman, Philip Baker Hall, Carol Kane, and Bud Cort. The play opened at the Los Angeles Theater Center in February 1989 to mixed reviews, although Waits' performance was singled out by a number of critics, including John C. Mahoney, who described it as "mesmerizing." Waits finished the decade with appearances in three movies: as the voice of a radio DJ in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train; as Kenny the Hitman in Robert Dornhelm's Cold Feet; and the lead role of Punch & Judy man Silva in Bearskin: An Urban Fairytale. His only musical output of the year consisted of contributing his cover of Phil Phillips' "Sea of Love" to the soundtrack of the Al Pacino movie of the same name and contributing vocals to the Replacements song "Date to Church", which appeared as a B-side to their single "I'll Be You".
The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets--a theatrical collaboration of Waits, director Robert Wilson, and writer William S. Burroughs--premiered at Hamburg's Thalia Theatre on March 31, 1990. The project was based on a German folktale called Der Freischütz, with Wilson responsible for the design and direction, Burroughs for writing the book, and Waits for music and lyrics, which were heavily influenced by the works of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. In the same year, Waits contributed a cover of Cole Porter's "It's All Right with Me" to Red Hot + Blue, the first in the series of compilation albums from the Red Hot Organization - one of the first major AIDS benefits in the music business--which sold over a million copies worldwide. Jim Jarmusch directed a promotional music video for the song. Waits also collaborated with photographer Sylvia Plachy in the same year; her book Sylvia Plachy's Unguided Tour includes a short Waits record to accompany the photographs and text.
Between 1991 and 1993, much of Waits' early work was assembled and released as Tom Waits: The Early Years. Waits was angered at this, describing many of his early demos as "baby pictures" that he would not want released.
The following year, Waits was extremely busy working on movie soundtracks, acting, and contributing to a number of music projects by other artists. First, Waits appeared on the Primus album Sailing the Seas of Cheese as the voice of "Tommy the Cat", which exposed him to a new audience in alternative rock. This was the first of several collaborations between Waits and the group; Frontman Les Claypool would appear on several subsequent Waits releases. The same year saw Waits provide spoken word contributions to Devout Catalyst, an album by one of Waits' greatest influences, Ken Nordine, on the songs "A Thousand Bing Bangs" and "The Movie." Waits also contributed vocals to a duet with singer Bob Forrest on the song "Adios Lounge" on the Thelonious Monster album Beautiful Mess. He also contributed vocals to two songs ("Little Man" and "I'm Not Your Fool Anymore") on jazz tenor saxophonist Teddy Edwards' album Mississippi Lad. Edwards was extremely complimentary of Waits' contributions, saying:
Tom Waits is the one who got me my contract [sic] with PolyGram. He's wonderful, he's America's best lyricist since Johnny Mercer. He came down to the studio on the Mississippi Lad album, that's the first one I did for PolyGram, and he sang two of my songs, wouldn't accept any money, just trying to give me the best boost that he could.
The only collection of exclusively Waits-performed material of 1991 appeared when Waits composed and conducted the almost exclusively instrumental music for Jim Jarmusch's 1991 film Night on Earth, which was released as an album the following year. In July 1991, Screamin' Jay Hawkins released the album Black Music for White People, which features covers of two Waits compositions: "Heartattack & Vine" (which later that year was used in a European Levi's advertisement without Waits' permission, resulting in a lawsuit) and "Ice Cream Man". Waits continued to appear in movie acting roles, the most significant of which was his uncredited cameo as a disabled veteran in Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King. He also appeared alongside Kevin Bacon, John Malkovich, and Jamie Lee Curtis in Steve Rash's Queens Logic, and opposite Tom Berenger and Kathy Bates in Hector Babenco's film At Play in the Fields of the Lord, adapted from Peter Matthiessen's 1965 novel.
Bone Machine, Waits's first studio album in five years, was released in 1992. The stark record featured a great deal of percussion and guitar (with little piano or sax), marking another change in Waits' sound. Critic Steve Huey calls it "perhaps Tom Waits's most cohesive album... a morbid, sinister nightmare, one that applied the quirks of his experimental '80s classics to stunningly evocative--and often harrowing--effect... Waits' most affecting and powerful recording, even if it isn't his most accessible."Bone Machine was awarded a Grammy in the Best Alternative Album category. On December 19, 1992 Alice, Waits's second theatrical project with Robert Wilson, premiered at the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg. Paul Schmidt adapted the text from the works of Lewis Carroll (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, in particular), with songs by Waits and Kathleen Brennan presented as intersections with the text rather than as expansions of the story, as would be the case in conventional musical theater. These songs would be recorded by Waits as a studio album 10 years later on Alice. 1992 also saw Waits featuring in Francis Ford Coppola's film Bram Stoker's Dracula, as the possessed lunatic Renfield.
Waits has steadfastly refused to allow the use of his songs in commercials and has joked about other artists who do (once commenting "If Michael Jackson wants to work for Pepsi, why doesn't he just get himself a suit and an office in their headquarters and be done with it?"). He has filed several lawsuits against advertisers who used his material without permission, and said, "Apparently, the highest compliment our culture grants artists nowadays is to be in an ad--ideally, naked and purring on the hood of a new car...I have adamantly and repeatedly refused this dubious honor."
In 1993, Levi's used Screamin' Jay Hawkins' version of Waits' "Heartattack and Vine" in a commercial. Waits sued, and Levi's agreed to cease all use of the song and published a full page apology in Billboard.
In 1993, he released The Black Rider, which contained studio versions of the songs that Waits had written for the musical of the same name three years previously, with the exceptions of "Chase the Clouds Away" and "In the Morning", which appeared in the theatrical production but not on the studio album. William S. Burroughs also guests on vocals on "'Tain't No Sin". In the same year, Waits lent his vocals to Gavin Bryars' 75-minute reworking of his 1971 classical music piece Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet; appeared in Robert Altman's film version of Raymond Carver's stories Short Cuts and Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes: Somewhere in California, a short black-and-white movie with Iggy Pop; and his third child, Sullivan, was born. In 1997, Waits and Brennan wrote and performed the music for Bunny the animated short film by 20th Century Fox's Blue Sky Studios, which was awarded Best Animated Short Film by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Popular American punk rock group Ramones covered "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" on their final studio album, 1995's ¡Adios Amigos!. Waits would later return the favor by covering the Ramones' songs "Danny Says" and "The Return of Jackie and Judy", releasing them in his 2006 studio album.
In 1998, after Island Records released the compilation Beautiful Maladies: The Island Years, Waits left the label for ANTI-, whose president, Andy Kaulkin, said the label was "blown away that Tom would even consider us. We are huge fans." Waits himself was full of praise for the label, saying "Epitaph is rare for being owned and operated by musicians. They have good taste and a load of enthusiasm, plus they're nice people. And they gave me a brand-new Cadillac, of course."
In 1999 Waits performed at the Hummingbird Centre in Toronto His first album on his new label, Mule Variations, was issued that year. Billboard described the album as musically melding "backwoods blues, skewed gospel, and unruly art stomp into a sublime piece of junkyard sound sculpture." The album was Waits' first release to feature a turntablist. The album won a Grammy in 2000; as an indicator of how difficult it is to classify Waits's music, he was nominated simultaneously for Best Contemporary Folk Album (which he won) and Best Male Rock Vocal Performance (for the song "Hold On"), both different from the genre for which he won his previous Grammy. The album was also his highest-charting album in the U.S. to date, reaching no. 30.
The same year, Waits made a foray into producing music for other artists, teaming up with his old friend Chuck E. Weiss to coproduce (with his wife, Kathleen Brennan) Extremely Cool, as well as appearing on the record as a guest vocalist and guitarist. He also contributed a cover of Skip Spence's "Books of Moses" to More Oar: A Tribute to the Skip Spence Album, a collection of covers of the singer's songs on Birdman Records. The same year, Waits appeared in the superhero film spoof Mystery Men, portraying a mad scientist as part of the ensemble cast that included actors such as Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, and Geoffrey Rush.
John Hammond's Wicked Grin, a collection of Waits cover songs, was released in 2001. Waits appears on most songs, playing guitar, piano, and/or offering backing vocals. The album also includes the traditional hymn "I Know I've Been Changed", performed as a duet by Hammond and Waits.
In 2002, Waits simultaneously released two albums, Alice and Blood Money. Both collections had been written almost 10 years previously and were based on theatrical collaborations with Robert Wilson; the former a musical play about Lewis Carroll, and the latter an interpretation of Georg Büchner's play fragment Woyzeck. Both albums revisit the tango, Tin Pan Alley, and spoken-word influences of Swordfishtrombones, while the lyrics are both profoundly cynical and melancholic, exemplified by "Misery is the River of the World" and "Everything Goes to Hell." "Diamond in Your Mind", which Waits wrote for Wilson's Woyzeck, did not appear on Blood Money; however, it did emerge on Solomon Burke's album Don't Give Up on Me of the same year. While Waits has played the song live a number of times, an official version would not be released until 2007.
Waits contributed a version of "The Return of Jackie and Judy" by the Ramones to the compilation album We're a Happy Family: A Tribute to Ramones, which was released in 2003 on Columbia Records. That same year, Waits was a judge for the 2nd annual Independent Music Awards to support independent artists' careers, and he also appeared in Born into This, a documentary about Charles Bukowski, reading a poem called 'The Laughing Heart'.
Waits released Real Gone, his first nontheatrical studio album since Mule Variations, in 2004. It is Waits's only album to date to feature absolutely no piano on any of its tracks. Waits beatboxes on the opening track, "Top of the Hill", and most of the album's songs begin with Waits's "vocal percussion" improvisations. It is also more rock-oriented, with less blues influence than he has previously demonstrated. The same year, Waits contributed backing vocals to the track "Go Tell It on the Mountain" on the Grammy Award (Best Traditional Gospel Album)-winning album of the same name by the Blind Boys of Alabama. He also contributed a version of Daniel Johnston's "King Kong" to the tribute album The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered, released on Gammon Records.
At this time, Waits made a return to acting after a five-year break, marked at first by the re-release of his 1993 Jim Jarmusch-directed short Coffee and Cigarettes: Somewhere in California, costarring Iggy Pop, compiled in Coffee and Cigarettes. In 2005, Waits appeared in the Tony Scott film Domino as a soothsayer. In the same year, Waits appeared as himself in Roberto Benigni's romantic comedy La Tigre e la Neve, set in occupied Baghdad during the Iraq War. In the movie, Waits appears in a dream scene as himself, singing the ballad "You Can Never Hold Back Spring" and accompanying himself at the piano.
A 54-song three-disc box set of rarities, unreleased tracks, and brand-new compositions called Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards was released in November 2006. The three discs are subdivided relating to their content: "Brawlers" features Waits's more upbeat rock and blues songs; "Bawlers", his ballads and love songs; and "Bastards", songs that fit in neither category, including a number of spoken-word tracks. A video for the song "Lie to Me" was produced as a promotion for the collection. Orphans also continues Waits's newfound interest in politics with "Road to Peace", a song about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The album is also notable for containing a number of covers of songs by other artists, including the Ramones ("The Return of Jackie and Judy" and "Danny Says"), Daniel Johnston ("King Kong"), Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht ("What Keeps Mankind Alive"), and Lead Belly ("Ain't Goin' Down to the Well" and "Goodnight Irene"), as well as renditions of works by poets and authors admired by Waits, such as Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac and a previously released duet with Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse entitled "Dog Door". Waits' albums Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards and Alice are both included in metacritic.com's list of the "Top 200: Best-Reviewed Albums" since 2000 at No. 10 and No. 20, respectively (as of November 2009). The same year, Waits appeared on Sparklehorse's album Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain, playing piano on the track "Morning Hollow."
Five different versions of Waits's song "Way Down in the Hole" have been used as the opening theme songs for the HBO television show The Wire. Waits's own version, from Frank's Wild Years, was used for season two. The other versions used for the series were performed by, in season order, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Neville Brothers, "DoMaJe" and Steve Earle.
Waits made a number of high-profile television and concert appearances between 2006 and 2010. In November 2006, Waits appeared on The Daily Show and performed "The Day After Tomorrow." This was significant for his having been only the third performing guest on the show, the first being Tenacious D and the second the White Stripes. On May 4, 2007, Waits performed "Lucinda" and "Ain't Goin' Down to the Well" from Orphans on the last show of a week Late Night with Conan O'Brien spent in San Francisco. There was a short interview after the last performance. Waits also played in the Bridge School Benefit on October 27-28, 2007 with Kronos Quartet.
On July 10, 2007, Waits released the download-only digital single "Diamond in Your Mind". The version of the song was recorded with Kronos Quartet, with Greg Cohen, Philip Glass, and The Dalai Lama at the benefit concert "Healing The Divide: A Concert for Peace and Reconciliation" at Avery Fisher Hall, recorded on September 21, 2003.
Waits's song "Trampled Rose" (from Real Gone) appeared on the critically acclaimed album Raising Sand, a collaboration between Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. Waits also provided guest vocals on the song "Pray" by fellow ANTI- artists the Book of Knots on their album Traineater.
He played the role of Kneller in the film Wristcutters: A Love Story, which opened in November 2007.
On May 7, 2008, Waits announced the Glitter and Doom Tour starting in June 2008, touring cities in the southern United States and subsequently announced a series of dates in the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe. Waits was awarded the key to the city of El Paso, Texas during a concert on June 20, 2008. In his generally positive review of the opening show of the tour, The Wall Street Journal critic Jim Fusilli described Waits' music thus:
The 58-year-old Mr. Waits ... has composed a body of work that's at least comparable to any songwriter's in pop today. A keen, sensitive and sympathetic chronicler of the adrift and downtrodden, Mr. Waits creates three-dimensional characters who, even in their confusion and despair, are capable of insight and startling points of view. Their stories are accompanied by music that's unlike any other in pop history.
On May 20, 2008, Scarlett Johansson's debut album, entitled Anywhere I Lay My Head, featured covers of ten Tom Waits songs. Waits made an appearance on the album The Spirit of Apollo by alternative hip hop project NASA, on the track "Spacious Thoughts."
Waits wrote the following introduction for the Tompkins Square compilation People Take Warning - Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913-1938:
In the late 1920's and early 1930's, the Depression gripped the Nation. It was a time when songs were tools for living. A whole community would turn out to mourn the loss of a member and to sow their songs like seeds. This collection is a wild garden grown from those seeds.
Terry Gilliam's film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was released in late 2009, with Waits in the role of Mr. Nick. Production began in December 2007 in London. Star Heath Ledger's death in January 2008 cast doubt on the film's future, but the production was salvaged with the addition of new actors playing his character in scenes he did not complete.
Waits found himself in a situation similar to his earlier one with Frito Lay in 2000 when Audi approached him, asking to use "Innocent When You Dream" (from Franks Wild Years) for a commercial broadcast in Spain. Waits declined, but the commercial ultimately featured music very similar to that song. Waits undertook legal action, and a Spanish court recognized that there had been a violation of Waits' moral rights in addition to the infringement of copyright. The production company, Tandem Campany Guasch, was ordered to pay compensation to Waits through his Spanish publisher. Waits later joked that they got the name of the song wrong, thinking it was called "Innocent When You Scheme".
In 2005, Waits sued Adam Opel AG, claiming that, after having failed to sign him to sing in their Scandinavian commercials, they had hired a sound-alike singer. In 2007, the suit was settled, and Waits gave the sum to charity.
In 2016 Waits embarked upon litigation against French artist Bartabas who had used several of Waits' songs as a backdrop to a theatrical performance that in many ways paid homage to Waits' work. Claims and counterclaims were made, with Bartabas claiming to have sought and been granted permission to use the material (and to have paid $400,000 for the privilege) but with Waits seemingly of the view that his identity had been stolen. The case in the French courts was lost and the circus performance was allowed to continue, although the threat of further litigation meant that it was not performed outside France and the resulting DVD release does not contain Waits' material.
In early 2011, Tom Waits completed a set of 23 poems entitled Seeds on Hard Ground, which were inspired by Michael O'Brien's portraits of the homeless in his upcoming book, Hard Ground, which will include the poems alongside the portraits. In anticipation of the book release, Waits and ANTI- printed limited edition chapbooks of the poems to raise money for Redwood Empire Food Bank, a homeless referral and family support service in Sonoma County, California. As of January 26, 2011, four editions, each limited to a thousand copies costing $24.99US each, sold out, raising $90,000 for the food bank.
It was announced on February 9, 2011, that Waits was to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Neil Young. The ceremony was held at the Waldorf-Astoria on Monday, March 14, 2011, at 8:30 pm EST. Waits accepted the award with his customary humor, stating, "They say I have no hits and that I'm difficult to work with... like it's a bad thing."
On February 24, 2011, it was announced via Waits' official website that he has begun work on his next studio album. Waits said through his website that on August 23 he would "set the record straight" in regards to rumors of a new release. On August 23, the title of the new album was revealed to be Bad as Me, and a new single, also titled "Bad as Me," started being offered via Amazon.com and other sites. The album was released on October 24.
In 2013, the song "Shenandoah," recorded with Keith Richards, was included on the compilation album Son of Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys. The album was released February 19 on ANTI-. On May 5, 2013, Waits joined the Rolling Stones on stage at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, California to duet with Mick Jagger on the song "Little Red Rooster". The same year, the songs "Hold On" and "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" were sung by the character Beth Greene (Emily Kinney) in The Walking Dead episodes "I Ain't a Judas" and "Infected." On October 27, 2013, Tom Waits performed at the 27th annual Bridge School Benefit concert in Mountain View California. Rolling Stone called it a "triumph".
On May 19, 2015, Waits appeared on one of the final broadcasts of Late Show with David Letterman to sing a song called "Take One Last Look". He was accompanied by Larry Taylor on upright bass and Gabriel Donohue on piano accordion, with the horn section of the CBS Orchestra. In the fall of 2015, Waits's work was featured in several songs adapted for stage performance in Chicago Shakespeare theater's production of Shakespeare's The Tempest.
In 2018, Waits starred in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a western anthology film by the Coen Brothers released on Netflix. Waits plays the role of The Prospector in the "All Gold Canyon" story, who digs for gold in a valley in the old west.
Hoskyns described the "core sound" of Waits' early work as being that of a "Beat verse/jazz-trio". There were jazz elements in Waits' early work. During his Blue Valentine tour, Waits began experimenting more with sounds derived from the blues.
He modelled some of his early vocal mannerisms after Richard Buckley. Waits' work was influenced by his voracious reading and by conversations that he overheard in diners. A major influence was the Beat writer Kerouac, although other writers who inspired him included Charles Bukowski, Nelson Algren, John Rechy, and Hubert Selby Jr. He was also inspired by the comedian Lenny Bruce. Musically, he was influenced by Randy Newman, and Dr. John. He regarded James Brown as one of his musical heroes, and was also a great fan of the Rolling Stones. He has praised Dylan, noting that "for a songwriter, Dylan is as essential as a hammer and nails and saw are to a carpenter".
As of 1982, Waits' musical style shifted; Hoskyns noted that this new style "was fashioned out of diverse and disparate ingredients". This new style was influenced by Captain Beefheart and Harry Partch. Noting that he had a "gravelly timbre" to his voice, Humphries characterized Waits' voice as one that "sounds like it was hauled through Hades in a dredger". His distinctive deep gravelly voice was described by critic Daniel Durchholz as sounding as though "it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car". One of Waits' own favorite descriptions of his vocal style was that of "Louis Armstrong and Ethel Merman meeting in Hell!" Humphries cited him alongside Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, and Randy Newman as a number of U.S. singers who, following Dylan, broke away from conventional styles of popular music singing with their "distinctive" voices.
Humphries described "Waitsworld" as a place of "the ricocheted romantics bent out of shape by a broad who should have known better; the twisted psychotics; the loners; the losers". By Blue Valentine, violent death had become a recurrent lyrical theme in his work; the song "Sweet Little Bullet" from that album for instance was written about a 15 year old girl who committed suicide by jumping from a high window along the Hollywood Bowl. In his later work, orphanhood also became a recurring theme. Many of his songs make reference to fictional locations that Waits has invented, such as the eponymous term in his song "Burma Shave".
Waits tended to wear all-black. Humphries noted that "on stage, Waits is a consummate performer, a raconteur of the recherché, and a genuine wit." Waits has stated that a performance should be "a spectacle and entertaining". It was on his 1977 tour for Foreign Affairs that he started employing props as part of his routine.
Waits lives in Sonoma County, California with his wife and frequent collaborator, Kathleen Brennan. They have three children. During the 1970s he had a brief relationship with the comedienne Elayne Boosler, as well as an intermittent relationship with Bette Midler. After he married and had children, Waits became increasingly elusive. During interviews, he deflected questions about his personal life. Waits refused to sanction any biography of him. When Hoskyns was researching for a biography on Waits, Waits and his wife asked people not to talk to him. Hoskyns believed that it was Brennan who was responsible for the "wall of inaccessibility" surrounding Waits.
According to Hoskyns, Waits hid behind his persona, noting that "Tom Waits is as much of a character created for his fans as it is a real man." In Hoskyns' view, Waits' self-image was in part "a self-protective device, a screen to deflect attention". Among music journalists, there was much suggestion that Waits was a poseur or a phoney. Hoskyns regarded Waits' "persona of the skid-row boho/hobo, a young man out of time and place" as an "ongoing experiment in performance art." He added that Waits had adopted a "self-appointed role as the bard of the streets." Mick Brown, a music journalist from Sounds who interviewed Waits in the mid-1970s, noted that "he had immersed himself in this character to the point where it wasn't an act and had become an identity." Louie Lista, a friend of Waits' during the 1970s, stated that the singer's general attitude was that: "I'm an outsider, but I'll revel in being an outsider."
Another friend from the period, Troubadour-manager Robert Marchese, related that Waits cultivated "the whole mystique of this really funky dude and all that Charles Bukowski crap" to give "his impression of how funky poor folk really are," whereas in reality Waits was "basically a middle-class, San Diego mom-and-pop-schoolteacher kid." Humphries thought that there was a "conservative element" to Waits' persona, stating that behind his public image, "Waits has always been more of a white-picket-fence kind of guy than you might imagine".
Jarmusch described Waits as "a very contradictory character. He's potentially violent if he thinks someone is screwing with him, but he's gentle and kind too."Herbert Hardesty, who worked with Waits on Blue Valentine, called him "a very pleasant human being, a very nice person". Humphries referred to him as "an essentially reticent man... reflective and surprisingly shy". He had a sense of humour and enjoyed jokes. Hoskyns described Waits as "unequivocally--some would say almost gruffly--heterosexual".
Hoskyns suggested that Waits had an "on-off affair with alcohol, never quite able to shake it off". During the 1970s, he was known as a heavy drinker and a smoker but avoided any drugs harder than cocaine. He told one interviewer that "I discovered alcohol at an early age, and that guided me a lot." He made reference to alcohol consumption while on stage, for instance using the line: "I don't have a drink problem, 'cept when I can't get a drink." Humphries suggested that Waits' use of alcohol as opposed to illicit drugs marked him out as being different from many of his contemporaries on the 1970s U.S. music scene. Hoskyns also noted that Waits took a "grumpy attitude" towards touring, but added that he had "a strong work ethic".
Hoskyns referred to him as being "as important an American artist as anyone the twentieth century has produced", while Humphries described him as "one of America's finest post-Dylan singer-songwriters". Humphries noted that at the time of his emergence to public fame, Waits represented "a unique voice on the late Seventies pop radar". He thought that Waits was, along with the painter Edward Hopper, "one of the two great depicters of American isolation". Among the celebrities who have described themselves as Waits fans are Johnny Depp, John Oliver, and Jerry Hall. Musicians who noted their admiration for Waits' work included Joe Strummer.