The time Tom Waits dumped his ashtray in my guitar and beat it dead

by juli boggs

Yesterday while talking music with a coworker the dreaded question “What do you like to listen to?” was asked. This question is always difficult for me to answer. How does one pick a single artist that more or less represents the entirety of what they listen to? “Tom Waits,” I told him. “Who’s Tom Waits?” he asked.

Who is Tom Waits? This question proved more difficult than “What do you listen to?” How do you describe it? Tom Waits sounds like an ashtray, like a whiskey-sopped sailor obsessed with the wrong woman, like an angry, drunken piano. It’s experimental, yes, but it’s not rock, is it? It’s pre-rock and post-industrial at the same time. It’s raw, guttural, heavily percussive. It’s weird carnival music, a Victrola seducing you.

“It’s really good,” I told him. “It’s whiskey music.” If only I could have shown him this picture, I think he would have understood at once.

A friend of a friend tells a story of growing up in the north bay years ago and attending a neighborhood BBQ with his parents. Mildly disinterested, he wandered through the house until he found a guitar and took it out on the back steps to fool around. As he’s playing, an older guy comes and sits down. “Cool guitar,” he mumbles. It’s Tom Waits sitting there, equally bored, having been dragged along by his wife who’s acquainted with the guy’s mother through years in the PTA. “Mind if I play that for a minute?” Waits asks. The kid hands him a guitar and Waits exhales a stream of smoke looking out at the party. “Yep, here’s one I think all you kids like,” he said, stubbing out his cigarette and dumping the entire ashtray into the guitar. He begins to shake it back and forth like a rattle, crying out “Heeeey yaaaaaa” in his own liberally reinterpreted rendition of Outkast.

I can’t substantiate this story beyond the fact that it was told to me, but it sounds about right. Plus I like the idea of living in a world where things like this happen.

Feature photo: pulled it from a great Pitchfork interview with Waits. If you know who shot it, let me know.