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BLOG: YTC_Hollyweird: Episode XXVIII: Tom Waits For No Man (Part 2)

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In the short term, the YTC podcast can currently be found at http://www.chrisandphilpresent.co.uk/blogs/youtotalcult/


The blog below was under an older name of Hollyweird. I have kept the numbering the same so that I could keep track of my posts, but this is where it all begin back in the heyday of 2012…



Recently I found myself wandering around much of Japan. Whilst wondering the impeccably clean streets there, I noticed that I was taller than a reasonable amount of people. Of course there is another chap who is known to be big in Japan. No, not Godzilla, but rather Mr. Thomas Waits.

Why, here’s some proof of it!

Now if all that sounds like a weak segue that links this blog and Tom Waits, then that is because it is. Deal with it.

For quite some time I have been planning on writing about Mr. Waits’ acting career. This is in part to the fact that not only do Tom Waits albums take up much of my shelf space, but so too do his films. Sometimes I feel surrounded by Tom Waits like a barman does with their patrons shattered dreams.

Tom Waits is predominantly known for his long and varied musical career. With 17 full albums, 2 soundtracks and dog knows how many bootlegs to his name, the man’s music covers a lot of ground. Yet this musical career can be split- broadly- into two distinct halves.

To begin with, Waits started out as a Lounge pianist-cum-raconteur. Recounting tales blue collar tales of work, wine and women, his songs were slow croaks of desperation mixed with whimsical asides to his audience. Check out the incredible live album Nighthawks At The Diner for a great example of this.


However the second stage of Waits musical output could be described- I think fairly accurately- as ‘bugnuts insane’.

Using anything and everything to make his sounds, his voice has become an instrument of inanity all in itself. Across various latter-day albums Waits still croons, but now he croaks, squawks, screams and mumbles. His voice is no longer just soaked in bourbon and nicotine, but is now further dowsed in absinthe and LSD. Once combined, both stages of Tom Waits musical career is akin to the Rat Pack getting bored after a few decades and deciding to give some John Zorn songs a go.

It was whilst deciding which Tom Waits performance to discuss in Hollyweird that I realized that Waits’ acting career somewhat resembles his musical journey. His film appearances could be seen to be on a similar duel- trajectory to his albums.

Rather impressively for a ‘full time musician, part time actor’, so far Tom Waits has acted in over 30 films. Sometimes these are just as cameos, but a good portion of his parts tend to be in smaller, highly distinctive supporting roles. There are even some instances where Waits gets a main part. Examples of all of these will be coming up in this blog.

Regardless of the size of any of these film parts though it is very interesting to note just how Waits’ collection of roles seemed to develop over time. As with Waits’ music, these acting roles tend to range from more downbeat, realistic films into more fantastical, unpredictable parts over the decades.


Stay golden, Ponyboy.

We can begin this comparison with some of Wait’s better known, earliest cinematic appearances. In 1983 Francis Ford Coppola’s made a double header of teenage dramas set in the 1950’s. Both Coppola’s Rumble Fish and The Outsiders feature a young Tom Waits. Interestingly, since Waits was born in 1949 this means he would have been a teen himself not far removed from the setting of both of these movies.



Given these are amongst his first film roles they seem to be more in line with his 80’s music- straightforward and sentimental. A year later, he appears in 1984’s The Cotton Club. This is a film detailing the live Rag Time and Jazz music scene, clearly something that must be linked to his own experiences as a traveling musician.

Just within this handful of early roles, it is possible that Waits was picking films that matched aspects of his own life. These aspects could be adolescent wistfulness from eras around his childhood all the way to films that tread upon his professional, adult lifestyle.

Band On the Run
Band On The Run

By 1986 Waits can be seen to still be playing realistic parts, but beginning to branch out just a little into more fantastical areas. Cast as one of the leads of Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law Waits shines as a low life. Down By Law is by no means a ‘normal’ film. It mostly takes place in a prison cell with three extremely different characters trying to get along, before they escape into a surrealistic swamp- oh, and one character speaks no English. However despite this being an unusual film though, Wait’s actual character is something that is once again familiar to home. Waits plays Lee ‘Baby’ Simms, a Radio DJ who is also a scuzzy Junkie falsely arrested for murder. In fact Lee baby Simms could practically be a persona from one of Waits early albums!


Down By Law.. And They Know Their Way Around!

If these early roles paved a solid foundation for Tom Waits playing roles akin to his own reality, things changed up a notch by the middle of his acting career. By the 1990’s Waits started to appear in bigger films with more outré elements. Perhaps the best known two are Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King in 1991 and Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula a year later.

tom waits / fisher king

In The Fisher King, Waits is a philosophical beggar with his own moral code. First he bemoans the fate of a fellow Vagrant who had no right to piss on a bookstore, and then he justifies his own existence as a warning beacon for the rest of society. Waits is only on screen for approximately two minutes, but in this time he holds his own around Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges portraying a relaxed man on a mental precipice.


Amazingly this is the least hammy performance in Dracula

After a prolonged absence for most of the 90’s, Waits certainly gave the world one more memorable turn upon his return to the Silver Screen. In 1999’s Mystery Men Waits plays Doc Heller. Heller is a mad scientist who tries to romance grannies by day and supplies Z-List Superheroes with weaponry by night. The entire cast of Mystery Men are all solid (Eddie Izzard aside). Impressively though, Waits more than holds his own in a film populated with professional comedians Ben Stiller and Janeane Garofalo and also Oscar winners like Greg Kinnear, William H Macy and Geoffrey Rush. The key to Waits success in Mystery Men is that he just embraces the silliness of it all. Given some of his music, Waits seems perfectly at home as a mad scientist as he would be as a mad composer.


It is perhaps telling that Wait’s more anarchic music began to take more of a centre stage with much of 2000’s Mule Variations album. Some of his other songs had been unusual to be sure (see some of Frank’s Wild Years for good examples, although the liner notes do explain away some of this as an attempt at reviving musical hall).

Mule Variations is where a fully formed album of oddness and darkness could be said to become much more prominent, but to still blend the traditional general notions of rhythm and melody. For instance Big In Japan has a catchy hook, and What’s He Building In There? tells a clear story, but both songs have eerie atmospherics. Gone is the straightforward bar songs of his youth, but there is still a grounding of familiar structure.

Mmm… Chocolate Jesus

If the 1990- 2000 period found a stylistic crossover happening to Tom Waits music, then it certainly seemed to for his acting too. Despite the flashier show in ‘Dracula, Waits still found time to maintain some more grounded character portrayals, too. 1993’s Short Cuts Waits playing a lowlife alcoholic. When looked at during the same time frame that also gave the world Renfield and Doc Heller, the net result is of an actor slowly segueing from blue collar parts into stranger realms.

Moving up to the last decade or so, Wait’s most recent film parts continue to mirror the insanity of his latter day musical career. Thepost-2000 Tom Waits albums are like a pack of red glitter dropped into a bottomless pit- a strange thing to witness whilst seeing glints of light in the darkness.

All that glitters…

By 2002’s Alice and Blood Money releases, Waits was starting to get much more avant garde in his songwriting and performing. Similarly Waits’ post-Millennial film parts tend to once more show that his film work tended to fit in with his music.

I f’n love this photo

The first example of modern lunacy is Tom Waits just being, well, Tom Waits. Frankly, that is pretty much a lunacy purely in its own right.

2003’s Coffee & Cigarettes finds Tom opposite Iggy Pop in a diner. Playing (presumably) heightened versions of one another, the two just hilariously shoot the breeze in the best segment of the film. It’s an odd thing to lampoon himself but what is even odder is the fact it is all too believable.


By 2006 Tom appears in Wristcutters: A Love Story. This underrated little black comedy is about characters living in Hell. Hell is, brilliantly, just the same as the real world but everything is crapper. People still have jobs but they get paid less. There is still pizza but it tastes worse. Nobody can smile. (All a bit like Milton Keynes, really).

Waits plays Kneller, a mysterious leader of a commune. He has found ways to perform minor miracles and people flock to this strange camp. A character performing supernatural deeds in a theological dead end- how very Waits.

That was still to be topped once more by his turn as Mr. Nick in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Waits is the devil who has a perchance for Steampunk machinery. Although the film is a bit flabby in places, Waits steals all of his scenes. In fact Waits as Satan is so obviously brilliant that it is amazing that it took nearly 30 years for a casting agent to make it happen.


Mr. Nick

Now obviously I have skimped over a great deal of Tom Waits music and many of his other film roles. In addition to this, the very fact that I am comparing parts taken by Tom Waits to music originated by Tom Waits means the two paths of acting and singing are always going to have inconsistencies. In all fairness, Waits performances could be simply a reflection on the sort of roles that he is offered.

Yet even if the typecasting of a spate of blue collar roles followed by oddball roles the sole truth behind his varied filmography, there still exists a clear line in the sand that roughly aligns Waits’ performances with the journey of his musicianship.

To my mind Waits is not necessarily a great actor, but he is an ideal character actor. None of his performances are individually powerful, but every single one of them suits the cinematic worlds that he is a part of.

The very essence that Waits brings to the roles through simply being Tom Waits imbues them with a sense of required fun and oddness. Be it as a hypnotized Renfield or a mad weapons designer or even Lucifer Morningstar, Waits being Waits on film is a remarkably malleable thing- just as wit his songs.


At any rate, here’s a reward for reading this far you lovely people!


Next time things will be shaken up a tad. Hollyweird will be no more… well, this blog will still be here. But at a friend’s suggestion this too shall henceforth be known as… You Total Cult! That’s synergy with our podcast that is, which can be found on iTunes or here http://www.chrisandphilpresent.co.uk/blogs/youtotalcult/. Oh, and it matches out Twitter handle, @You_Total_Cult.

See, the new name is practically advertising itself!

Thanks for reading,