Review: Innocent when you dream

Innocent When You Dream: Tom Waits: The Collected Interviews, edited by Mac Montandon, Orion Books, €21.90.
(By Alex Meehan, Published Sunday, February 26, 2006 in The Sunday Business Post)

Listening to Tom Waits’ music has the ability to make you feel cooler than you actually are. Innocent When You Dream, a selection of the many interviews that Waits has given over the years, sees Mac Montandon take us inside the world of one of America’s most enigmatic songwriters.

Waits’ music is keenly observed and often bizarre, but never boring. He is best known for his distinctive baritone foghorn voice and for his penchant for utilising debris he’s found in junkyards as percussive instruments on his records. He’s a rarity in the modern musical mix: a clever man who plays interesting music, isn’t afraid to use his intellect and is genuinely amusing.

This is the same guy who, when questioned about his on-air drinking, retorted to a disapproving TV interviewer: ‘‘I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” In 1977, he remarked: ‘‘I’ve never met anyone who made it with a chick because they own a Tom Waits album. I’ve got all three, and it’s never helped me.”

His eventful career has spanned three decades, and Innocent When You Dream is a record of that time, albeit through the filtered pages of his collected interviews. With a foreword from Pixies frontman Frank Black and contributions culled from the pages of Newsweek, Zig Zag, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone and the NME, this is what life looks like from the other side of the interviewer’s notebook.

The book is split into three parts with interviews covering different sections of his career, interspersed with the odd poetic contribution from Charles Bukowski and contributions from famous fans like Elvis Costello.

Part One covers the 1970s and the first stage of Waits’ career. This Waits is heavily influenced by the Beat movement and Jack Kerouac and his music shares the limelight with his swaggering, hard-drinkin’, hard-smokin’ crooner persona.

In Part Two, Waits’ marriage to songwriting partner Kathleen Brennan – a script editor he met while working on his acting career – takes centre stage, along with three of his most significant albums: Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs and Frank’s Wild Years. Waits has now calmed down somewhat, to the extent that he has even given up the booze.

By Part Three, the interviews become increasingly entertaining, if less revealing, as Waits has adopted the media management technique of answering interviewers’ questions with interesting facts he has amassed in his notebook about the natural world.

A book like Innocent When You Dream is aimed at the fanatical Waits fan, but arguably there isn’t any other kind. You either love the guy, haven’t heard of him or just don’t get it. Waits is an enigmatic figure, the Hunter S Thompson of music, and he’s purposefully constructed an impenetrable persona about himself.

While we don’t get to find out too much about him in the book – Brennan, his songwriting partner and muse, remains hidden throughout – we do get to trace the development of Tom Waits’ thought processes as he grows older.

In the first interview, he’s a 24-year-old wild man, a barely housetrained musical hobo sitting nervously in the corner, but by the end of the book, he’s a settled fifty-something with a wife and kids.

Intriguingly, he has retained his dangerous edge for all this time. As a book, Innocent When You Dream is a middling effort, but that largely couldn’t be helped. Waits is an entertaining subject, with a well known penchant for lying through his teeth in interviews.

He is incredibly witty, but has a tendency to repeat his bons mots to sequential interviewers. So, combine the entertaining falsehoods with witty comebacks and the ubiquitous background material, and soon you start feeling like you might have read this bit before.

That said, in some ways, this is the book’s strongest point. No official autobiography of Waits exists, so this is as close as you’ll get to one. The interviews collected in Innocent When You Dream form a record of his career, music and personal life from 1974 through to 2004.

If nothing else, it’s an illuminating record of what it must be like to have to deal with the media from Waits’ perspective, or, as he puts it: ‘‘I deal with the media exactly the same way I deal with the cops – nervously.”

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