25 things you might not know about Tom Waits

Tom Waits

The chance to see Tom Waits, one of the planet’s true music raconteurs, is worth £100 of anyone’s money. But did you know he once worked for the coastguard? If not, Jonny Ensall suggests you read on…

  1. He was born Thomas Alan Waits on 7 December 1949, one day after Blues legend Leadbelly died in New York. His parents were teachers who divorced when he was 10.
  2. He had a band in the early 70s called The Nocturnal Emmissions.
  3. The first of Waits’ 25 appearances as a screen actor was in the 1978 movie Paradise Alley, written by and starring Sylvester Stallone. Waits played a drunken piano player named Mumbles.
  4. He was nominated for an Oscar for his soundtrack to the 1980 Francis Ford Coppola film One From the Heart.
  5. Waits met his future wife, Kathleen Brennan, on the set of One From the Heart. She was working as a script analyst at the movie studio. They married in August 1980 and now have three children, Casey, Kelly and Sullivan, the oldest of whom, Casey Waits (21), is the drummer on his father’s current tour.
  6. He keeps a notebook full of interesting facts, including gems such as the fact that the average cockroach can live up to two weeks after decapitation.
  7. In 1982, Asylum Records refused to release his seventh album, the now legendary Swordfishtrombones. Label President Joe Smith warned, ‘with this record you will lose all your old fans and gain no new ones’. Waits was subsequently dropped by Asylum and the album had to wait a year until 1983 to get its release on Waits’ new independent label, Island. The album is regarded by many as his finest record.
  8. The Eagles made his song ‘Ol’ 55’ a hit in 1974. He described their version as ‘antiseptic’.
  9. His favourite contemporary artist is Missy Elliot.
  10. During the Asylum years Waits toured hard as a support act for various bands including Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention and Martha and the Vandellas. The crowds didn’t take to him and he was frequently jeered and spat at.
  11. Aged 19, Waits was a doorman at a San Diego music hole called the Heritage Coffeehouse. He eventually took to its stage as a performer. but he made less money: $8 an hour on the door, $6 on stage.
  12. After Island Records were taken over by multinational Polygram, Waits jumped ship to the smaller Anti Records, releasing his label debut, Mule Variations, in 1999. He signed the contract with Anti’s parent company, Epitaph, after, he claims, they bought him a brand new Cadillac.
  13. He has won two Grammy awards – for Bone Machine (1992) and Mule Variations (1999).
  14. ‘There ain’t nothin’ funny about a drunk.’ Despite an early career built on his persona of the world-beaten, cocktail-lounge boozehound, Waits has been sober for the past 16 years. In 1977 he told Rolling Stone journalist David McGee ‘You know, I was really starting to believe that there was something amusing and wonderfully American about a drunk. I ended up telling myself to cut that shit out.’
  15. Five different versions of the Waits song ‘Way Down The Whole’ have been used in the opening credits of each of the seasons of hit US TV show The Wire. Performers include Waits himself, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Steve Earle and a group of Baltimore middle-school students.
  16. He has worked as a club doorman, in a pizza restaurant, for the US Coastguard and has driven an ice cream truck. ‘The hardest thing about driving an ice cream truck’ he once said of his teenage job ‘is getting the little bell out of your head at night.’
  17. A recording of France’s premier mime artist entitled The Best of Marcel Marceau is Waits’ favourite dinner party soundtrack. It features 40 minutes of silence followed by two of thunderous applause. He gets annoyed when people talk across it.
  18. Bookmakers put him at 10-1 to be Christmas number one in Ireland last year when an Irish blog site launched a campaign to make the 1978 Waits track ‘Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis’ top of the charts. The attempt fell short, but the song did reach 28 in the singles sales chart and 11 on iTunes, ahead of ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’ by Wizzard.
  19. In 1992 Waits won $2.37m in a lawsuit against the potato chip company Frito Lay, (who make Doritos and Walkers crisps in the UK) when, after Waits refused permission to use the song ‘Step Right Up’ in an advert, the company recorded and used a jingle with a sound-alike.
  20. It is widely reported that Waits cried when he first saw This is Spinal Tap, finding it a little too familiar for comfort.
  21. Of the many rare instruments used on his recordings through the years including the calliope (or steam piano) and a bow-played, water-filled, tubular creation known as the waterphone. Waits’ favourite is the Chamberlain Music Master 600; an early analog synthesizer that contains inbuilt samples of everything from galloping horses to owls hooting.
  22. There have been 13 outings of the Tom Waits festival, Waitstock, held on a farm in Poughkeepsie near New York. Highlights from 2003 included a potato cannon, ‘Tom Waits Gong Show’ and the release of several black cats during ‘Mystery Hour’.
  23. In 1988 Waits reworked ‘Heigh Ho’ from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves for a film song compilation album.
  24. In a press conference video released in May this year, Waits claimed the tour route of his 12 US performances was planned to follow the shape of the constellation Hydra.
  25. His favourite sound is bacon frying in a pan.

Tom Waits plays Playhouse, Edinburgh, Sun 27 & Mon 28 Jul.

Tom Waits

Twice in a life-time chance to see the growly-voiced genius.


1. TW Fan17 Jul 2008, 2:33am Report

Fact #5 - Don't want to nitpick, but for accuracy's sake ... his daughter, Kellisimone is the oldest of Tom's children, Casey is the middle child, and Sullivan is the youngest.

2. bunk22 Jul 2008, 5:03pm Report

come on-the name of the |Tom Waits song used as the theme to The Wire is called "way down in the hole" and it's on "frank's wild years".
the kids version from series four is rubbish.
the film compilation albumw as called "stay awake" and it featured the likes of the roches, natalie merchant, michael stipe, bonnie raitt and ringo starr, too.

3. Kara|9 Nov 2011, 6:46pm Report

Fact 21 - The Chamberlin Music Master 600, which he bought from two surfers in Westwood, Cali in 1985, answering an ad in The Recycler. The Chamberlin is commonly misspelled (as above) as 'Chamberlain,' which is quite incorrect.

4. TJK Haywood8 May 2013, 1:28am Report

About #22 : The Highlights Of the TW Festival were The confession both , Cocktail Hour at 2 AM in the basement (Formal dress) , Out door billiards, and outdoor bowling, Tom Waits music awash through out the property via on location radio transmission , a bonfire, drunken arts and crafts, fried catfish, and yes, the potato cannon .
The thing about the black cats must be a metaphor , for what I don't know.
We did not use the name "Waitstock" We were careful not to use Tom's name in the title of the event even though the event charged no admission.Waitstock was a name given to it by and for the internet. It was just called the TW festival.
There were actually 12 festivals, not 13, we called The last one TW 13 even though there was no TW 11 (2001) ( September 11 2001 had just happened, too close in timing). When we resumed the party we just called it TW 12 as if to pick up where we left off!.
There was a large school bus that pulled up right in front of the house every year filled with party goers from the big city . This bus would also leave filled with those same Waits loving party people at the end of the weekend and we would all stand on the porch applauding each vehicle as they drove away.
One year there was a "Span Carving contest" the dining room became the impromptu art gallery . Morning saw people sleeping in strange places , Lot's of beer ,poker playing, smoking, Tom Waits movies and TV appearances on VCR , The Hungry Marching band, (That's right, I said Marching Band !) Great Times , Great Friends.

5. TJK Haywood8 May 2013, 1:33am Report

That's "Spam carving contest", as in the lunch "meat". not Span.

6. Eric Larson8 Jan 2017, 11:58pm Report

Nighthawks at the Diner, absolutely the best!

7. Jennifer Boyle7 Dec 2017, 4:46pm Report

Happy BirthdAY

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