Eavesdropping on Elvis Costello and Tom Waits
Over on Temple, near the corner of Union, there's a Chinese restaurant with an unusual name. The Red Eight is a chow mein joint just a short ride west of downtown. Inside, the walls are painted a horrible shade of mental-institution yellow. Nobody goes there. That's what Tom Waits likes about it. Waits, who lives in the neighborhood, is hanging around town while devoting his nights to Demon Wine, a play he's appearing in. This afternoon he's got a lunch date with a musician colleague who's in L.A. for the usual round of interviews and gladhandling at his new record company. They've crossed paths on a number of occasions and swapped musicians for their tours and recording dates, cultivating a friendship built on common interests and mutual respect. His friend's name is Declan, but everyone calls him Elvis. Elvis Costello, wearing pointy sideburns, his trademark shades and a black leather car coat, finds his way to the Red Eight first. He's with his wife, Cait O'Riordan. It's an unseasonably warm February day, but the Red Eight is cool inside. Soon, Kathleen Brennan turns up with her husband in tow. Waits is casually eccentric in a too-small suit, his hair colored red for the play. It's grown out and the roots show strands of gray. There's a round of hugs and smiles and greetings, and Kathleen disappears toward home, inviting Cait along. A couple of other hangers-on vanish, and there's nobody in the Red Eight but a waitress, Elvis Costello, and Tom Waits.
ELVIS: I always seem to be watching these nature programs whenever I speak to you...
TOM: I love those nature programs. I would love to do some music for a nature program. It's unfortunate that the nature programs themselves ultimately may be perhaps the only record of nature itself. It's like if the camera shifts just a little bit to the left, you'll pick up the condo, right next to the condor on the beach...
ELVIS: And the nice little wrapper that's been left there by the previous film crew, probably the Kodak wrapper. I did actually see one about bears, polar bears, where they said, "So the polar bears don't have any natural predators. This far north, there are no hunters up here. In fact, the only thing that interrupts them in their natural idyllic habitat is they're possibly harassed by nature film crews" (laughs). I saw this one thing about the sense that animals have. They showed altered pictures of what insects and birds see, and they showed flowers — the flowers are not the colors we see. Now to my way of thinking, that means we're the ones with the optical illusion, because we don't pollinate flowers, except by accident. Whereas the flowers have evolved and presumably evolved giving off these colors to insects. So really, daisies are not yellow and white, they're really purple and orange or something. Once you start taking that into account in music, then you realize that some people can't physically hear things. A kid that listens to Metallica or something can't hear that, because he's filled himself up with this stuff, he physically can't hear a banjo or a harp or something.
TOM: Well men and women have a different range of sounds that they are sensitive to.
ELVIS: And rhythm. Women hear rhythm differently than men. Do you think there's any kind of biological reason why so many girls play bass?
TOM: I don't know. I always go for the low end. Kathleen's always trying to kick my ass up the scale a little bit because I find that if I'm left to my own devices I will discover various shades of brown. And I'm seeing them of course as red and yellow next to each other. She says, what you've just really created here is sludge, dirty water. So I kind of have to be reminded of that. I'm also color-blind, which is kind of interesting. I juggle with brown and green and blue and red, and green looks brown, brown looks green, purple looks blue, blue looks purple. I don't see the world in black and white, but I'll never make the Air Force.
ELVIS: Do you see it like that? Because I see it definitely in color. The last record I made before this one, it was in red and brown, it was blood and chocolate. That was an actual picture of a room in my head all the way through it, and most of the songs took place in it.
TOM: Do you find that with a record... there's a time before it's released when you go through this enormous kind of Lamaze thing with the music, and as soon as you cut it loose you feel like it's grown up and gone to school. Up until the last moment you can change something.
ELVIS: I found with this record I had to really be strong-willed, because in the past I've tended to tinker and add a thing or take a thing away, and nearly always been wrong. That's a neurosis.
TOM: You have to know the difference between neurosis and actual process, 'cause if you're left with it in your hands for too long, you may unravel everything. You may end up with absolutely nothing.
ELVIS: When you're looking further afield than your initial experience for writing, particularly when you consciously narrow your view of the music to create a certain dramatic effect like the last record (Spike), I really did do that thing of pulling it all through this funnel and I was hoping that the good stuff didn't kind of get caught on the edge of it. Really the only thing holding a lot of records together is the personality of the singer, and the will to write all of these different things.
TOM: If you can put them all together on the same disc, though, you can perceive them as a collection, that they ultimately will develop a logic, even if you hadn't endowed them with that. Because it's a group of people that just got off the bus, and they seem to be united on some type of a tour. You assume they have relationships. It's like when you make tapes just for your own pleasure, you put Pakistan music and Bobby Blue Bland next to each other, you do have some type of logic about it. (But) I can't listen to so much music at the same time. I think you really have to have a diet. You're just processing too much, there's no place to put it. If you go a long time without hearing music, then you hear music that nobody else hears.
ELVIS: I read this thing once in Finnair magazine, an article about Jean Sibelius. He couldn't have the window open when he was composing 'cause if he did he would hear birds in the trees and they'd get into the composition. So his family used to go and have to chase the birds (laughs). But it's quite a comical picture, isn't it? The bird song would actually enter his composition. Well, there's that other guy, that guy who's still alive, he's 80, Oliver Messiaen. He's actually an ornithologist, that's the two things he does, he's a composer and ornithologist. And he goes out and records real bird song, and then transcribes it into compositions.
TOM: Wow. Steve Allen used to take the telephone line, and then when different birds would set at different places on the wire, he would write it out and look at the lines of the telephone wires as a staff, and he would put the notes where the birds would be and he would play it. On a TV show...
ELVIS: Can you write scores?
TOM: No. I've developed my memory in order to compensate for my inability to... you end up with your own languages.
ELVIS: Little hieroglyphics and a set of hand symbols. And humming. I find humming is very useful.
TOM: You always lose a few things, but you also open yourself up to some other things.
ELVIS: If you can divide everything up using a computer, like these machines now that will divide the beat up for you and will even...What about these drum machines which can program in mistakes? Program in the human factor? I mean, how human? (laughs) I know plenty of drummers that aren't that human, you know.
TOM: It used to terrify me, the idea of drum machines, and now I've figured it still comes down to who's operating it.
ELVIS: And who programmed it in the first place. That one you showed me? I got one of those to play with and I used it on the next B-side I did, and I just plugged it into an amplifier, which immediately changed it. So there's one thing I've done, I've distorted the natural sound of it...
TOM: Crank up the sound, get some dirt on it, and it sounds a lot different.
ELVIS: I like the sound because it sounds like somebody playing bongos with stainless steel gloves on. It sounds completely unnatural. But what kind of ethos does the person who programmed that chip have, that makes him think that those sounds sound like the little drawings on the machine? (laughs) Some of them are really weird. The little cymbals that are supposed to indicate which is an open hi-hat? Some of them are their own sound.
TOM: I love that thing the Mellotron so much. I just used one yesterday. (Its owner) guards it with his life because it's such an exotic bird, it's a complete dinosaur, and every time you play it it diminishes. It gets old and eventually will die, which makes it actually more human, you're working with a musician that is very old, he's only got a couple more sessions left. It increases the excitement of it. And that great trombone sound...
ELVlS: I used to go to church with my father, and right next door to the church was this big house that Dickens used to live in apparently. It was one of many houses that he lived in, but this was this guy's claim to fame. He wasn't a musician, he was an executive from the company that made Mellotron originally. And one day he got us outside of the church, and he insisted — he used to lie in wait outside of the church for everybody to come out, and sort of capture them on Sunday morning when they couldn't think of any other excuse — and try and sell 'em a Mellotron. That was how difficult it was to get people to consider them when they first came out. They were such a gimmick. It so happened that a few people who went to that church were musicians, so I guess a few people got this treatment. And one Sunday morning, I must have only been about eleven or twelve, we were dragged into this big sitting room of this big old house, and he had this Mellotron that was like Doctor Fife's organ, it was a huge thing, a big wooden contraption. It had foot pedals, as I recall. Maybe I'm embellishing it now with my cloudish memory. When you go to a childhood house or something, it's always much smaller than the size you remember it.
TOM: Those Mellotrons, the first time I actually played one, it really thrilled me. It's like you touched somebody on the shoulder, everytime I touch you on the shoulder I want you to play a note. It was that real.
ELVIS: But this thing did seem big, and I remember my father sat down to play, and he was pushing these buttons on it and engaging different tapes, and saying, "Just listen to that! It's a real trumpet, you know, it's not an imitation like an organ, it's a real trumpet." But the thing about it was, they hadn't really got the mechanism down at that time. It's a prototype we had. The way you hit the key, it engaged like almost a quarter a beat late. So you had to play more than slightly ahead of the beat, you had to lurch. You had to have the lurch technique down. But of course it was dismissed. My father, he said, this will never take over because the tone of the instrument never varies, except it gets shriller when it gets higher. And then the fact that it doesn't even engage in time. Within three years of that, they were absolutely the rage and the revolution. People thought that music was coming to an end.
TOM: Yeah, the industrial revolution. This town (Hollywood), which used to have regular, enormous string sessions for films, and now scores are done at home with two fingers. It's essentially done irreparable damage to the whole economics of sessions, of big session players.
ELVIS: I saw a session when we were doing this record where they had a big module outside the studio which must have been like one of those Synclaviers or something like that, like a life support machine. Which in a way I guess it was. I think they just bring the leaders in now, don't they just bring in the leaders now to play the expression over the block? I get suspicious of that sound...it sounded like foam rubber and furniture or something. That is silent and deadly, that foam rubber. It's fine while you're sittin' on it, but if your house catches fire, that's the thing that makes it burst into flames. And that sound is the foam rubber filling of music, it doesn't have any meaning at all. You know those cartoons they used to have of people running inside the head? Some of those synthesizers sound like there's a lot of effort. They wheeze almost in a human way, there's an awful lot of effort (laughs). There's a lot of microchips all going at once to create a rather insubstantial sound.
TOM: It's an ant farm. There's some activity inside of it...
ELVIS: You know that sampling business where they put those records together, I always think: what a great idea. It's just that somebody hasn't found the right context for it yet. They can only think as far as sampling the best-sounding record that you can think of, or the coolest one, and then juxtapose things that by their very juxtaposition diminish them. Like they'll get James Brown's cool snare sound and they'll juxtapose it with a huge rap bass drum, which makes the snare drum sound silly. Not to mention there's often no logical musical relationship between the samples when they actually sample musical phrases.
TOM: I actually like it. I know that it's controversial in terms of publishing and copyrights and all that, but like you say, they always pick the cliches of things that we're all aware of.
ELVIS: But I want to know what happens to the obsolete sounds. They have obsolescence forced upon them in a way that was never intended for them, because they get eaten up by this voracious pop machinery. It's not the first time it's happened. When rock 'n' roll came in I think it was because enough bad swing bands came that rock sounded vital. People weren't listening to Stan Kenton or Count Basie. Some of them were listening to bands that are well and best forgotten.
TOM: Jazz developed nylon socks, it was out by the pool eventually.
ELVIS: Sometimes I write notes that I have difficulty singing. I write them, and when you sing them at home, you're singing them not trying to wake up the neighbors or the kids or something, and you might be, oh, I know I can go to that note, and when it comes to it, and it actually puts you out of breath or something like that well, maybe it's wrong, because I'm gasping for the next line. And you start talking yourself out of the bold melody and start wanting to arrange it in another key or something. Maybe I just never learned my harmony part, because what everybody says sounds odd to them sounds perfectly natural to me. Anyway, it doesn't sound quite so dramatic. I do that all the time, and you sometimes lose the soul a bit of the song by doing that.
TOM: It's like translation. Anything that has to travel all the way down from your cerebellum to your fingertips, there's a lot of things that can happen on the journey. Sometimes I'll listen to records, my own stuff, and I think god, the original idea for this was so much better than the mutation that we arrived at. What I'm trying to do now is get what comes and keep it alive. It's like carrying water in your hands. I want to keep it all, and sometimes by the time you get to the studio you have nothing.
ELVIS: That carrying the water thing is a good description, because when you've got a song and you kind of know how it is, and then you work with certain players — I worked with the same band for ten years, the versatility is different, because of the ability to change it before you've fixed it. I think that's why some bands thrive on the idea of changing instruments. When they're off their real instrument, the ability to go very far from the original idea is reduced. And what if some completely incompetent bands make brilliant records?
TOM: I hate to look at them that way, because there's a certain kind of musical dexterity that you can arrive at that actually punishes a certain point in your development or moves past it. It happens all the time with me. The three-chord syndrome. And then you say, well, if you try to ask a Barney Kessel to cut a simple thing, just a big block brick of chords, just dirty, fat, loud and mean and cryptic — no, he's a handwriter, he's moved and developed to that level. Larry Taylor, this bass player I worked with from Canned Heat, if he can't feel it, he'll put down his bass and walk away and say, that's it, man, I can't get it. And I really respect that. And I said, well, thank you for telling me.
ELVIS: I knew a guy that played drums in a band that if he didn't like the song, he just didn't play it when they came to that number. The rest of the band would play it, and he just wouldn't join in (laughs). I mistrust these people who can be everybody. This is where technology dictates to them, because the boxes, they can be everybody. And the samples and everything, particularly the drummers now — I mistrust that, that in somehow the chips capture the soul of a player, that's patent nonsense. At the other end, you get the idea that a player — I worked that one session with (jazz bassist) Ray Brown, and we had to do bass and voice, first verse of the song, just bass and voice. At first, it was really plain, and I said no, you could really use a little more movement in there. And he played this beautiful series of movements around the melody. It was too much for the record of that song. In the end, he was very patient with me while I sort of outlined what it was I kind of wanted...fortunately, before we'd exhausted the possibility and have it become a forced matter.
TOM: It's like seeing a psychiatrist. There you are trying to explain your problem with it, trying to locate a solution and present as many alternatives as you possibly can, and sometimes you end up with gee, I think I'm talking to the wrong guy.
ELVIS: When you're working with the same band you kind of know their style inside out, and even when you've been working for seven years with the same people, suddenly they'll do something you didn't even think they were capable of. It may be a question of what they don't play as well as what they do. It's not always possible to guess exactly. When you work with new people, I think that it throws all of these matters into relief, because you have to explain yourself every time. It's like crossing a new border. They want to see your documents.
TOM: You get a shorthand with people, which is always faster with musicians, because after a while you can tell them with a nod, or you just get in the mood and they know that it was wrong and you don't even have to tell them why.
ELVIS: Did you ever think, though, that in your choice of musicians, several groups of musicians now, they would ever stop you going past that point, when you start to wander away from your own song? Is it ever something they play that puts up the roadblock?
TOM: Sometimes it puts up a roadblock, but sometimes it opens a door. Like the stuff that people are doing in between takes or something, you have to always be aware of what's happening in the room at all times. Because as soon as the camera's not on and the tape's not rolling... the amount of time it takes to discover something, sometimes you discover it on the first moment, sometimes it takes two weeks to find it.
ELVIS: I find that the thing that's been interesting about this record I've just done (Spike) was the difference between who I thought the musician was and how they would sound. Just 'cause you write their name on a list of people that play on the track doesn't mean that even if I had to see, I cant write charts — even if I was to write the part out note by note, not only would I deny the possible happy accident or spontaneity, but it would also be kind of like preconceiving exactly how they sound. Particularly in relation to Marc Ribot, say, having seen him play with you, I knew one way he could play, several of the different things he's done. Then I'd seen him play with the Lounge Lizards, and then I'd heard that Haitian record [actually a cassette, Haitian Suite, of classical guitar pieces by Frantz Casseus]. That wasn't broadcast all over the world, you know. That opened up something else. I knew he could play delicately, for sure, because I'd heard him play on the records like that. So he really has a lot of scope, but it still didn't prepare me for the reality of him being in the studio playing my songs in the environment that we had already set up for him. We recorded him with a drum machine and maybe there'd be some percussion that Michael Blair had put there. That's back to the thing of the people being slightly different musicians than you'd imagined. Idealizing this kind of combination of players is pretty strange anyway 'cause it's a bit like picking your favorite baseball team. I get a little nervous about that element of it. I've just asked the same musicians I've worked with to conjure up new things in themselves, and sometimes go on a journey even where they don't really trust I've got the map. This time (on Spike), I've just gone out and got the people that I really had in mind. As I said, they sometimes turn out to be slightly different than you imagine, and all the better for it.
TOM: It's music by agreement, to a degree. You look forward to the brilliant mistakes. Most changes in music, most exciting things that happen in music, occur through a miscommunication between people "I thought you said this." Poetry comes out of that too. It's like song lyrics, Kathleen always thought that Creedence Clearwater song "Bad Moon Rising" — she always thought, "There's a bathroom on the right." That's outside, a song about that, because that happens all the time — you go to a club, "there's the bathroom on the right." But I love those mistakes. I salute them and encourage them.
ELVIS: Did you have any bit of a feeling of coincidence that songs might be written in advance of the events? Or songs may be written with people in mind in advance of their hearing them?
TOM: Absolutely. It's like dreams sometimes foretell a particular event.
ELVIS: I've come to believe it in terms of writing songs and having other people who I have no contact with picking them up entirely independently. You know, other singers? Like having (someone) cover songs which I wrote with them in my mind, and I have no way of communicating it to them. Simply because they were out of the picture for that period of time. That's now happened six times to me. You know, I had a very funny experience the other day. This guy from Rolling Stone gave me a tape of Chet Baker singing one of my songs. And I didn't know he'd recorded it. "Almost Blue." It was very weird because you always expect to hear about covers, particularly since it's in that movie [Let's Get Lost, about Baker] that Bruce Weber made. It almost made me cry, it was such a strange feeling. It was such a feeling of mixed emotions about it. 'Cause I remember giving him the record, not so much to encourage him to record it, but just as an acknowledgment of the debt to him.
TOM: He's got a great singing voice.
ELVIS: He does it great. He sings in a very low register for him. And he doesn't get all the words, he sings the same bridge twice. But the spirit of it's just right. Another guy told me today about it. This guy I know in Paris is doing a book of photographs I think you're in it as well — - of all the people he's taken pictures of over the years, and he's getting all these musicians to write little comments about the other people in it. There's a very tragic picture of Chet Baker in it. I tried to find something that was the opposite of sentimental and sad about it.
ELVIS: You worked with some of the same people all along, but I suppose when you actually have a group, which I have, you don't sort of notice (your own musical) development. Somebody brings along a record they like, and it all becomes a fairly natural growth for a while, particularly when you're working at such a pace that time goes by and you go on little journeys and you go on detours around places. Particularly when you're traveling, you get a tourist kind of... You know that shirt that you buy when you're on holiday, you get home and you look in the mirror and go, god, did lever wear that? You have music like that, I think. I used to buy tapes of music which I was convinced was the greatest thing ever, and it would even have some effect on me. And then I'd get it home and listen to it in a different atmosphere.
TOM: I think it's like when you listen to opera in Texas, it's a very different world. In Rome, you almost ignore it. I've done the same thing, gone out and bought music from Pakistan, Balinese stuff, Nigerian folk songs and all this, and I find that if I bring it with me to unusual places, the place itself is as much a part of the music. Because the music itself was born and nurtured in a particular environment, and came from that environment. It's the same thing with fashion or anything else.
ELVIS: Is there a fallacy in this notion of world music? Is that just a trend, you think? I mean, it would be very sad to be people who developed and refined and nurtured this beautiful thing, and they're invited to display it. You know that Bulgarian group, Balkana? They came and gave a talk. I didn't get to see their concert, the only thing I saw was at the National Sound Archive, which is like something... it's the way I imagine when they had Livingstone come back (from Africa), I imagine it was a bit like the talk he gave. It was that alien, slightly stilted, and more than a little embarrassing. Not so much for them, because I think — well, they might have been a little amused by it. But I felt there was a sense of embarrassment, and not a little shame, in some people's minds, at least in my own. What a terrible tragedy if next year these people are invited and nobody comes, not even there to be embarrassed, because (fans) have moved on to something else they've been told to like, and leave these people who are from a real tradition high and dry, without anything. It's like inviting somebody to your house and then moving.
TOM: It almost seems like what is happening in terms of the industrial pop machinery that it, like any business, ultimately feels compelled to go out into the field. It's the Marco Polo effect, it brings home the spices and incorporates them into their own world.
ELVIS: Recently, I've looked to some places which I have some natural connection with, albeit very tenuous. Other places that I can't explain...
TOM: Well, your whole molecular structure and what's in your bones and genetically in you also contains musical information. Because the first time I really started listening to Irish music, I had a very strong connection. Strangely enough, there's a great many Japanese melodies and vocal styles that sound very much like Hungarian music. You start seeing all these cross-references and comparative, independent musical cultures...
ELVIS: Like when I first heard the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, it was like waking up from a dream where you'd heard the music in your dream, and you woke up to find that it was a reality. It was almost a frightening experience, 'cause it was as if I had known it for a long time. The Dirty Dozen record, the new one, I want to hear that one, 'cause I think this is hopefully a new style for them, with a big label. I think a group like that really needs somebody who can put it on shops everywhere you can find it because inevitably a lot of that stuff is word of mouth. Sir Kirk (Joseph), the sousaphone player, is such an obvious star cause it's so unusual to have somebody so fluent on an instrument which almost by definition is not fluent, really. He's a one-in-a-million player.
TOM: I love that sousaphone. It's really like dancing with a fat lady, you really have to know what you're doing.
ELVIS: Yeah. I mean you can get stepped on, but it's much more dangerous, because it doesn't ever stop in the same place. It goes out in the air and just stops short, but a little bit more carries on. It's the most wonderful sound, it's everything it should be. It's proper sex music.
Elvis Costello, TV Personality
TOM: The pre-play music for this Demon Wine is all Tony Bennett music. It's really nice. It serves as kind of a music for the main title of the play. Then out of nowhere I got a call from Tony Bennett, who's doing an album. He wants a song. His son called. I thought, that was great. I've always loved Tony Bennett. That record he did with Bill Evans with just piano and voice, and all those things.
ELVIS: He has the chops, still, that he could do whatever record he wants. I did that show with him, which is basically buried in the vaults of NBC.
TOM: With Count Basie?
ELVIS: Yeah. He was the guy I had to sing with. I'd done three rock 'n' roll shows and had no voice. I was down to that extent and had to go in, and I croaked my way through a ballad, which is fine until the bridge, till it gets into the solo; I was doing fine until I got to that. It was about six months before Count Basic died. He said to me, just at the point when I was about to admit that not only could I not do it even in full voice, I certainly couldn't do it in no voice. And he said, "Listen, son, I'm 75 years old and I can't get my arm above here. And you can do it." He just hexed me into doing it. I had to stand about three feet away from him when we went into the finale and watch him take a solo from as close as I am from you, and then guess what happened next? The TV people said, sorry, the cameras weren't rolling, we'll have to take it again. It was actually physically painful for him to play. But that's all in a vault somewhere. I think that is just a question of self- confidence. I don't believe anybody hasn't got a voice, for instance. I just think they haven't found it yet. I believe everybody can write songs in the same way.
TOM: You can discover something out of that, too.
ELVIS: I did. But then I get to say, I sang with Count Basie. And nobody believes me, everybody thinks I'm hallucinating when I say that. Never take on shows just on the basis of being able to tell your great grandchildren is what I discovered. But we had to do this finale number with Tony Bennett and me, "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing." I mean, his voice is eight feet wide. So you gonna write him a song?
TOM: I'm gonna, when I get some time. I was thinking of maybe trying to do something kind of strange, a subject matter unlike Tony Bennett's.
ELVIS: I'd be very suspicious of anybody that seems to have to move to the next level of expression. I distrust that: now I'm writing a book, now I'm being an actor. It should be a natural thing. I think it's a natural thing for you to act. But I think that people that feel that, because they've written one maybe quite beautiful love song that equips them to play Romeo, is probably misguided. I don't think that necessarily follows at all, it's an uneven equation.
TOM: You would trust that type of a diversion from somebody with more discipline than you would from somebody who has a complete lack of discipline, has gone into those worlds without a ticket or a passport.
ELVIS: Have you written music in this play?
TOM: No, but there is a great score. It's like an Alex North score. He did a lot of the film noir stuff, he did the music to East of Eden. This is really like Pacific jazz stuff, two-track, upright bass, sax, or baritone sax, trumpet, snare drums, real meaty noir stuff that really works. But you're right about the passage, I sometimes think that with music, particularly with pop, you have to put it all in perspective as to what you can sincerely contribute. But you also get a jones about it, and you think well, I'm not doing enough, I'm not challenging myself. I think those are good things.
ELVIS: I went on this television show in Italy. I recommend this one when you're there next time. This is the most extraordinary idea they have a whole TV studio sort of decked out like a club with layer upon layer of images of musicians. And you've got a picture of Louis Armstrong right next to a picture of somebody from some group in Italy you've never heard of. A picture of Maria Callas next to Mick Jagger, Prince next to Arturo Toscanini. And they've got one of those mechanical balls in the middle of it. I looked at the audience and I thought, this is very strange. This audience is incredibly glamorous. They had these girls with manes of hair and long legs and short skirts, very elegant fellows in suede jackets, striking all kinds of fantastically attractive poses. So when the show starts, there's this young fellow that sings a little bit like Sting, and I go well, this is a happy-go-lucky show, they seem to be enjoying it. What are they gonna make of me? I didn't think I was really fair for this audience. And they go wildly happy the minute I come out. And then Buckwheat Zydeco is the next thing on there. There's Buckwheat and his band completely horrified because the audience is digging them so much, they can't understand why they haven't come to live in Italy before! 'Cause they've never seen girls like this at their shows. Then I said. what's the scene of this, that all these young people in Italy dig R&B and Zydeco and music like I play, whatever that's called? And they said no, they pay them 25 pounds a day each to be on this show. Really genius. He's presenting R&B and jazz. They go [he rants in excited pidgin Italian] and you think they're going to introduce the new George Michael video, and you know what it was? A clip of Ben Webster (giggles).
TOM: That's the beauty of show business. It's the only business you can have a career in when you're dead.
ELVIS: What I think is amazing is this guy's discovered that if you present all this music that he obviously loves, if you present it like it's very hip, not hip as we know it but hip as the kids in Italy know it, then they believe you.
TOM: If you tell them that they're falling down over this 3000 miles from here, you're unhip for not being hip to it. They'll start wearing Ben Webster T-shirts.
ELVIS: The BBC is sort of like, [dryly] "Now we have the only existing clip of the Negro saxophone player, Charles Parker." They make it sound like something really dull. This genius in Italy has really worked out the trick to get people to listen to this music and find hat they'd like about it themselves. On this other show in Sweden, that was even wilder in its own way. It didn't have so much to offer, necessarily. I was far and away the most normal thing on the bill. They had the guy that's made millions out of self-assembly furniture, and they had him come on and they said, if you're so damn clever, you assemble your own furniture by the end of the show. Otherwise you'll be denounced.
TOM: And he did it?
ELVIS: Oh yeah, of course he did it. He had a little black designer knife and fork to do it with, or whatever it was not a knife and fork, a screwdriver. Then they had an interview with the queen of Denmark, who turns out to be this pissed old bat with yellow teeth who chain-smokes. She had this dachshund on her lap who kept looking in her face, and at the end of the interview she said "oh shit" in Swedish, of course a big sensation. And then the star of the show was this enormous guy you know those Swedish beards that don't have moustaches that come with them, just on the chin? This guy had these little beady eyes that darted around, and I noticed he was next to two equally strange-looking people who looked like they were up to no good. One of them had handcuffs on his wrist. I thought, he's an escapologist. This is all going on in Swedish, I don't know what they're saying. He was an actual prisoner! He was being interviewed on Swedish television about this massive credit card fraud which he perpetrated. So they brought him out of prison to have him on television to be interviewed 'cause they're all reasonable in Sweden. And better still, he brought his guitar with him and he sang a song about it. Then they handcuffed him again and took him away. He was the star.
"Play it like a midget's bar-mitsvah"
Guitarist Marc Ribot has such an extensive and rigorous resume, it's a bit of a challenge even for him to keep track of everything. There's the obvious stuff, like his stints with Tom Waits (Ribot played on and toured behind Rain Dogs and Frank's Wild Years, and appeared in both the film and album versions of Waits' Big Time) and Elvis Costello (Ribot's fretwork graces Spike, and he is scheduled to tour with Costello this August). Ribot was also, until recently, a member of the Lounge Lizards ("Touring with the Lizards," he says drily, "was a little like being in a special Boy Scout troop for psychotics"), and remains a force in Curtis Fowlkes and Roy Nathanson's so-called Lizards spinoff group the Jazz Passengers, with whom he's recorded two albums, Deranged and Decomposed and Broken Night Red Light.
Ribot has also played with Lizard Evan Lane's tango band. And he contributed to Allen Ginsberg's new record, and Syd Straw's solo debut, and if you listen real hard, you can unearth a little of his noise guitar on Waits' "Heigh Ho" track on the Hal Willner-produced Disney tribute album. Oh, and by the way, did he mention his upcoming solo record for the Antilles label? His first solo album, a Music of the World cassette from 1987, is called Haitian Suite. It's a collection of pieces for classical guitar by the Haitian composer Frantz Casseus. Ribot says you can find it in the world music sections of record stores under Haitian classical guitar: "It's the only entry."
Ironically, much of Ribot's early influence comes from a source not especially known for its stylistic sophistication or breadth: rock 'n' roll. "I played in the usual high school garage bands," he says. "We used to do covers of '50s tunes mixed with MC5. We were always on LSD when we played." After spending a few years in transit contemplating not being a musician, he moved to New York City around 1987 and began by playing "a lot of horrible gigs." Soon, however, he hit a groove backing Stax and R&B acts such as Carla and Rufus Thomas, and landed in a band called the Real Tones (whose horn section would later mutate into the Uptown Horns). It was in the Real Tones that Ribot first came into contact with Waits. "Tom was living in New York making the Rain Dogs album, and I think he did a little research by going out and hearing a lot of bands," says Ribot. "Tom heard the Real Tones a couple of times, but I think he probably forgot I was the turkey playing guitar — there were so many of us, and we were all dressed in black." Nevertheless, the two eventually hooked up, and Ribot went into the studio with Waits to help lay down some basic tracks for Rain Dogs.
To this day Ribot is impressed by Waits' unusual studio presence, although he admits he didn't really notice it at the time. "Rain Dogs was my first major label-type recording, and I thought everybody made records the way Tom makes records," he says. "I've learned since that it's a very original and individual way of producing. As producer — apart from himself as writer and singer and guitar player — he brings in his ideas, but he's very open to sounds that suddenly and accidentally occur in the studio. I remember one verbal instruction being, 'Play it like a midget's bar-mitzvah.'" Ribot says he somehow understood exactly what Waits was after, but when asked how he knew, he replies, "I don't know. Listen to Rain Dogs and find out."
Ribot went into the sessions for both Rain Dogs and Frank's Wild Years virtually cold; during the former, he says, Waits would teach him songs in the studio on acoustic guitar. "He had this ratty old hollow body, and he would spell out the grooves. It wasn't a mechanical kind of recording at all. He has a very individual guitar style — he sort of slaps the strings with his thumb." For Frank's Wild Years, Ribot came in for one intense ten-hour session of overdubs. "He let me do what I heard," Ribot says. "There was a lot of freedom. If it wasn't going in a direction he liked, he'd make suggestions. But there's damn few ideas I've had which haven't happened on the first or second take."
Through Waits, Ribot became acquainted with Elvis Costello, who invited Ribot to play on Spike after seeing him perform with Waits in Europe. Although Ribot had already met Costello "backstage or in various airports," when he walked into the Spike sessions he confesses, "I was a bit starstruck. Elvis was singing, and Roger McGninn was sitting there listening back to a track he had just played, and they both sounded just like themselves!" Ribot's work on Spike ranges from "alligator guitar" on "Pads, Paws and Claws" to "distant sound" on "Tramp the Dirt Down" and Spanish guitar and banjo on "God's Comic." "We were able to take our time and work things at a good pace," says Ribot. "On 'God's Comic' I think we tried a couple of things before we settled on nylon strings. Elvis is also someone who has an open carte happy accidents."
In terms of his work with both Waits and Costello, Ribot says, "Basically, I like the lyrics, so it's good to support them. I very much base things on the lyric. Sometimes the parts that a drummer or guitarist plays can change the meaning of the lyrics. Sometimes it strengthens the meaning that's already there. But in the end the parts that work — really work — have relevance to the lyrics. I mean, this is so obvious it doesn't need to be said, but they're both writers who think a hell of a lot about their lyrics. I always liked their material."
Despite his preeminence as a sideman, Ribot is excited to record with his own group, the Rootless Cosmopolitans, for an upcoming album which will consist mostly of his own compositions. In the meantime, there's plenty of Ribot available, both live and on disc. Between his various interconnected ensembles, he plays regularly at New York City's Knitting Factory, and is also involved with a theater project scored by another Waits sideman, Greg Cohen.
One of many testaments to Ribot's versatility and virtuosity is that his style on his various lace and "rock" projects doesn't necessarily align with the context. "On the last Jazz Passengers album, Curtis Fowlkes wanted to do a gospel tune," he says. "I wound up playing a very distorted sort of hardcore solo, some of which was played with a housekey. What I like to think is, rather than simply having a scattered style, I try to play things that are unified by the desire to make the lyric they're underneath make sense. Not to make some sense, but to make them make a sense I like."
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band
"Y'all shouldn't do that"
The Dirty Dozen graduated from the funeral/picnic circuit and took their high energy show to nightclubs and conventions, and finally to vinyl. Called My Feet Can't Fail Me Now, their 1984 debut on Concord Jazz) brought the band widespread attention, especially from other musicians. One of them was Phil Alvin, who used the group on his solo debut; another was Elvis Costello, who took his mother to see the group at Sweet Basil's in New York.
"After the gig Elvis introduced himself," remembers Davis. "I had heard of him and had heard some of the stuff that he had done, bull didn't really know that much about him." Costello suggested that he and the Dozen collaborate on a project but, says Davis, such proposals rarely lead to anything, so he didn't expect to hear from the British rocker again. But he did, and last year Costello and the Dirty Dozen spent a week together in New Orleans.
"When (Costello) came to the studio he was ready to work," says Davis. "He knew what he wanted to do. He'd already made some tracks and he wanted us to create the horn parts and melodies that were to go with his music. So it wasn't like he came in and said, 'I want you to play this.' We got to work as musicians instead of just sidemen. We worked 12 to 15 hour days for about six or seven days." The result of what Davis describes as an enjoyable recording session: four of the best songs on Costello's Spike LP, including an instrumental played solely by the Dirty Dozen.
The Dirty Dozen have also worked with fellow New Orleanians. They created the horn lines for a few songs on the Neville Brothers' Yellow Moon LP. On their recent Columbia debut, Voodoo, the Dirty Dozen is joined by Branford Marsalis, who ploys tenor sax on Charlie Parker's "Moose the Mooche," and Dr. John, who plays the piano and sings on Bobby Womack's "It's All Over Now." The band also shares a new Rounder LP with three other brass bands.
Photos by Dennis Keeley.
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