Tag Archives: Tom Waits

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

Follow me on Twitter: @You_Total_Cult.

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,


BLOG: YTC_Hollyweird: Episode XIV: Tom Waits For No Man

Follow me on Twitter: @You_Total_Cult.

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…



Today’s entry was supposed to about a somewhat obscure Anime. But then something mysterious happened. Or, more accurately as of this time of writing, something mysterious is still happening. Musician of madness, Tom Waits has announced a ‘surprise’ will be revealed on the 7th August 2012.

Tom Waits probably dresses like this when he buys milk

Internet rumours are rife that it will be a world tour, but for all we actually know he will in fact just chose to return to his home planet on that date. Whatever Waits’ revelation is, I’ve personally been on quite a Waits-kick lately, so the news made me re-think this entry.

Now it would be simple enough to write about Waits own film career. He’s acted for years- subtly and believably in Short Cuts, over the top and cartoon-ish in Mystery Men, camp and crazy in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and many, many more. In fact I could write a whole entry just about his work with Jim Jarmusch, where he served as as both an actor and as a composer. But do you know what is even weirder than Tom Waits? What is downright Hollyweird?

Well, how about a modern sex-symbol using a low-octave voice on nu-folk cover album of Tom Waits material?

Well in 2008 Scarlett Johansson did just that.


File:Scar jo anywhere album cover.jpg

Scarlett has been on my radar for sometime- and no not because of the boobs. (Though to be fair she probably stayed on my radar due to the boobs). I took notice of her before her sex-kitten phase, back in 2001 when she was cast in Ghost World. ThisDaniel Clowes comic- adaptation by Terry Zwigoff is one of my favourite films. Johansson’s snarky performance in it, opposite a never-better Thora Birch, certainly displayed that she could be an actress to watch out for.

Daniel Clowes signed my DVD. By why he did it coming out of her breast is his business.


Even though it can certainly be claimed that she has coasted through a lot of bad films on a lot of bad performances since then, I always suspected that there may have been something deeper to Scarlett in order for her to work so well in Ghost World. Even so, I was certainly a little gob smacked to walk into a record Shaftesbury Avenue’s Fopp four years ago and see her on a Tom Waits tribute CD starring back at me.

Naturally, I bought it curious how much of a car wreck it may be.

I was then in for an even bigger shock than finding the album existed; it’s shockingly a really solid album. Even the one original song by herself fits in nicely. Unexpected to say the least.

What Johansson manages to do is actually put her own stamp on all of the songs. Some tracks work better than others, for sure. But anyone familiar with Tom Waits songs will know that both his compositions and his voice really can’t be imitated nor matched. So the only option for a cover artist is to try something new. This of course is rarely a good idea since the cover will then be put up against the original-genius of Waits’ own versions, so it’s almost certainly a no-win scenario. The fact Johansson manages to be the exception to the rule here and to successfully find her own feet is really quite remarkable.

Dear/Deer in the headlights

The key to this success seems to be that Scarlett adopts the role of a story-teller, much like Waits himself does. All those years acting have most likely helped hone this ability, or at least I am telling myself to justify the fact I once paid to sit through like The Spirit. Adopting a husky-raconteur position allows her to just tell the tales via the lyrics, which are then meshed with key-collaborator Dave Sitek’s own work. Sitek’s main push is on Louisiana folk music and heavy electronic production techniques to wash all over all of Johansson’s voice. In truth, I suspect the production is so thick to disguise the fact she can’t exactly hit notes. However the ultimate effect is a complimentary one; The music is like a dense suit of armour that fragile lyrics float on through revealing the core of her/Waits’ Id.

Nick Zinner

This extra- thick production work also feature David Bowie and the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Nick Zinner. Not too shabby as guest appearance go. Here’s Sc-Jo’s comments on this, displaying a keen awareness of the ‘otherness’ that Waits material requires;

It was like a fantasy. In the beginning, when I first conceived of the album as Waits covers, I wanted to do this song “Never Talk to Strangers”, which is a duet that Tom does with Bette Midler. And I thought “God, it would be great if Bowie could sing Bette’s part and I could do the Waits part.”

This album is not going to be for everyone. It does take a combination of liking folk arrangements, Waits lyrics and a Nico-esque voice. But for myself it was a most pleasant surprise. During my research for this entry, I found a review that sums it up rather well. Allmusic reviewer Stephen Thomas Erlewine, gave the album 2 ½ out of 5. he commented that Johansson was “surprisingly deep and brittle as a singer… it doesn’t quite work, but it can’t quite be dismissed, either: unlike so many actor-turned-singer records, there’s not a hint of vanity to this project and it’s hard not to marvel at its ambition even as it fails.”

Meh, judge for yourselves:

So in short; the astoundingly beautiful Scarlett Johansson loves Tom Waits, portrays a Marvel character, stars in one of my favourite films and is now divorced. Does anyone know where I can get a cheap engagement ring?!?!?


Next time really will be about an Anime. Probably. (Possibly).


Thanks for reading.