Three hours late for a scheduled interview, Tom Waits finally rolls up at the wheel of a lime green ’52 Chevy pickup, a Chesterfield dangling from his lips and a Mickey’s Big Mouth sloshing in his hand, a midget in a sombrero perched atop a truck bed full of tangled antique implements of indeterminate function. ”Pleasure to make your acquaintance,” he croaks.
Or that’s what you’d expect if you’ve immersed yourself in the carnivalesque demimonde depicted in most of Waits’ 18-plus albums (including the new, simultaneously released Alice and Blood Money). In reality, Waits, 52, is perfectly punctual and navigating a cavernous but conventional Suburban. ”Come on in,” he says, steering toward the China Light restaurant, a favorite haunt in downtown Santa Rosa, Calif., not far from where he lives with his wife and two of his three kids (the third is in college). ”Do you like the new Wu-Tang Clan album?”
It’s soon clear that Waits is a guy who knows things. He knows how to find lodging in a strange town (”I’d ask a taxi driver if they have any hotels named after presidents. ‘We have a Taft…’ I’d say, ‘Well, that’s where I’m going, then. I’m going to the Taft”’). He knows which room in your hotel is haunted and that the night bellhop, Valentin, is a clairvoyant who used to work for Mario Lanza. He knows that if you turn the volume way up at the end of Buddy Holly and the Crickets’ ”I’m Gonna Love You Too,” you’ll hear…chirping crickets.