"How to name Tom Waits, Thusly..."

Written by Daniel Pettus.

It is no longer
heaviness sometimes
sunken with you in
the hour. It is
a different one.

It is the weight that holds back the vacuum
that would
go with you.
It has, like you, no name. Perhaps
you are both one. Perhaps
some day you too will name me

Tom Waits is the Socratic musician and always already much more. Waits is an elusive character and his ever evolving acts prove that his ear is excellent at translating the ordinary events of life in-to harmonious mantras to be revered for centuries to come. Like Plato, Waits’ oeuvre provides a mystique worth more than mere investigation. Unlike Plato, we know Waits exists as a real historical person. For example, Waits is documented as being scared by at least thirteen different things, one of which is “going around a sharp curve on the Pacific Coast Highway and the driver of your car has had a heart attack and died, and you’re in the backseat.”2

Tom Waits by Vincenzo Cosenza, (Vincos images 2008.)

Waits has given the world music to live with: on chaotic car rides down Hollywood boulevard, serene road trips amongst wooded pines, sex at midnight in rat infested motels smelling of jasmine, reminiscent of any and many love relationships, particularly his.
During his acceptance speech celebrating his inauguration in-to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame he said a lot of things, but as they relate to love and one of the reasons he deserves such a nomination he said: “…I would like to thank my family, they know me and love me anyway…my wife and her incandescent light that has guided me and kept me alive and breathing and sparkling since we met…”3

tom waits

Tom Waits impression, Ebi Kagbala.

Kathleen Brennan, Waits’ wife and writing partner since “Swordfishtrombones” (produced in 1983,) has and continues to help diversify and expand Waits’ sound. Initially, when they first met, it was her record collection that provided Waits with new music he had yet to be acquainted with.

Accordingly, if it was not for Brennan’s influence, Waits’ first feature film “Big Time” would have never occurred. Regarding these matters, Waits says, “Kathleen was the only one who really pushed to have a film done…I’d get home from the road, and I wouldn’t have any pictures of the band or anything. We’d talk about it like something that didn’t really happen.” 4

The happening within Waits’ music is his genius. Speaking about his lyrics in particular he says: “…I like talking bits. I don’t call ‘em poetry, ‘cause there’s too many poets I admire; but they’re in an oral tradition. I call ‘em ‘metropolitan double-talk…improvisational adventure, or an inebriational travelogue.” 5 Waits emulates the aporetic explication reminiscent of nothing less than the infinite possibility available via the mechanism we understand as sound.


Yet, there is nothing mechanistic about Waits. Far from it…he destroys typical mechanistic functionality. His sound thrives and originates anti-archeologically by taking its first beat from the overarching Platonic question: does Socrates become a martyr for un-conventionality? Either way, it allows Waits to write lyrics that read: “I’ve got the whole damn nation on their knees.”

However, Waits is not arrogant. He has been described as “gentle, intelligent, open, bright, helpful, humorous, brave, audacious, loquacious, clean and reverent. A Boy Scout, really (and a giant of a man).”6 In relation to songs he says: “songs are just very interesting things to be doing with the air.”7

                                    Tom Waits,  Anton Corbijn (Copyright.)

…Thusly, the beauty of Waits, outside of his attractive figure, is his rigid refusal to be squeezed in-to easy characterizations. However, we can place him within an infinite and borderless box characterized by his unending commitment to the wandering and wondering aspect of human nature. Waits never looks for answers. He thrives off of the process of reveling in thinking.


                                “Fellows” Tom Waits and Jim Jarmusch.


Daniel Pettus is a contributing writer for by such and such.


1.Paul Celan, Speech-Grille and Selected Poems. translated by Joachim Neugroschel (E. P. Dutton & Co.: New York, 1971) 191.

2.Paul Maher Jr., editor. Tom Waits On Tom Waits: Interviews and Encounters (Chicago Review Press: Chicago, 2011), 451.


4.Waits on Waits, 203-204.

5.Waits on Waits, 46.

6.Waits on Waits, 442.