Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Storyteller's Secret

by Jim Fusilli

Wall Street Journal

October 19, 2011

Tom Waits suggests a Chinese restaurant here as a place to meet. Amid wall fans, a goldfish tank and a zodiac placemat that he later folds and slips into his black flap-over book bag, he says: "There's no such thing as bad Chinese food."

If you know Mr. Waits's work—and his new album, "Bad as Me" (Anti), surely represents it well—you know that he and his songwriting partner, Kathleen Brennan, could make a song out of a line like that. They do as much on the new disc. "Everybody knows umbrellas cost more in the rain" sets up the hard-luck tale of "Talking at the Same Time." "We won't have to say goodbye if we all go" is a line in "Chicago." One song, "Hell Broke Luce," got its title from three words Mr. Waits saw during a visit to Alcatraz—they were knife-carved into a stone wall during a prison riot. "I figured he thought if you spell it 'loose,' that's more letters," Mr. Waits said. "It's during a riot." The 61-year-old keeps memo pads in his back pocket to jot down phrases he's heard.

Though he said a line can pop up at inopportune times ("They're like erotic thoughts in church. Or at a PTA meeting. They're not welcome."), he's reluctant to discuss how the songwriting process begins. "No one really wants you to tell them how it's done any more than you want to know how a card trick is done." When pressed, he added: "If you want a recipe for banana bread, I'll leave three things out."


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