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God, Texas and Tom Waits

Houston's long and crooked streets hold a lot of charm for Tom Waits.
Anton Corbijn

Although he was raised in and around Los Angeles and San Diego, few musicians have as much love for the music of the Lone Star State as Tom Waits. It's in his blood; his father Jesse Frank Waits was from the northeast Texas town of Sulphur Springs.

This Tex-o-philia is apparent after even a cursory reading of the multitude of interviews anthologized online at the Tom Waits library, www.tomwaitslibrary.com, especially in the "Childhood" and "Influences" categories. To paraphrase Lyle Lovett, he may not be from Texas but he loves Texas anyway.

Not blindly, however. This Houston show will be only his second in Texas since 1999, when the vicious beating of one of his friends by bouncers at Austin's La Zona Rosa caused Waits to declare a permanent boycott of the state. He seems to have amended that to a boycott of Austin only, as in addition to Sunday's sold-out Houston show, El Paso(!) and Dallas are also on the Glitter and Doom Tour. But not Austin. Hah.

At any rate, here are a few of the things Tom Waits digs about the Lone Star State.

Sulphur Springs, Texas Hometown of Tom's father, Jesse Frank Waits. Named after the James brothers, the elder Waits moved to California and went by Frank because it did not have the rustic Dust Bowl connotation of Jesse. Frank Waits worked a series of jobs including orange picker and Spanish teacher and left his family when Tom was about ten, because, as Tom once explained, he wanted to hang out in dark bars sipping Glenlivet. The younger Waits said this abandonment left him with a void that caused him to hang out with many of his friends' fathers, through whom he picked up his enduring affection for older music. Before he left, however, Frank filled Waits with a love of Mexican music, which crops up from time to time, as on his Los Lobos collaboration "Kitate."

"Abilene" and "El Paso" Two Texas towns spawned tunes that were among Waits's favorite songs as a child. "When I heard 'Abilene' on the radio it really moved me. And then I heard, you know: 'Abilene, Abilene, prettiest town I ever have seen. Women there don't treat you mean. [In] Abilene..." I just thought that was the greatest lyric you know 'Women there don't treat you mean.'"

Elsewhere, Waits has spoken of his affection for Marty Robbins's "El Paso," which he recalls learning first in Spanish, because of his Spanish teacher father's love of Mexican radio. (He has also said that his family lived in El Paso briefly, though whether he based his decision to play in El Paso on his former residence there or because of the song is anybody's guess.)

But in speaking of his admiration for and the formative effects of songs like "El Paso," "Abilene" and also "Detroit City," Waits once told Terry Gross on National Public Radio's Fresh Air the following: "I liked songs with the names of towns in them, and I liked songs with weather in them and something to eat (laughs). So I feel like there's a certain anatomical aspect to a song that I respond to. I think: 'Oh yeah, I can go into that world. There's something to eat, there's the name of a street, there's a saloon, okay.' So probably that's why I put things like that in my songs."

You can hear that approach in action on "Fannin Street," Waits's hard-luck tale about a formerly seedy and colorful and now utterly sterile downtown Houston thoroughfare.

Lightnin' Hopkins Waits once said that seeing the Third Ward bluesman perform in California was a pivotal moment in his life. As he put it to Australian newspaper The Age six years ago: "I saw Lightning Hopkins when I was about 15, and he was doing, I don't know, 'Black Snake Moan' or something, and I just thought, 'Wow, this is something I could do.' I don't mean I could play guitar like him, I just mean that this could be a possible career opportunity for me. Perhaps I could train at home and keep my present job."

Larry McMurtry The Archer City-bred former Houstonian was often cited as a favorite in Waits's 1970s interviews, although over the course of a few years, Waits's praise went from unqualified to qualified.

Leadbelly Texas/Louisiana songster with whom Waits feels a mystical connection. Leadbelly died the day after Waits was born, and Waits likes to say that the two of them "passed in the hall."

In 2005, the London Observer asked Waits to list his top 20 recordings of all time. Waits over-obliged with 28, one of which was Leadbelly's Last Sessions. "Leadbelly was a river, was a tree. His 12-string guitar rang like a piano in a church basement. The Rosetta stone for much of what was to follow, he died in '49. Excellent to listen to when driving across Texas. Contains all that is necessary to sustain life, a true force of nature."

Waits has also recorded Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene."

John A. and Alan Lomax I wouldn't force this if it weren't a salient fact, but Waits is a huge fan of my Meridian-raised great-grandfather and my Austinite great-uncle.

Another entry on his Observer list was the Alan Lomax Collection CD Prison Songs, Volume 1: Murderous Home. "Without spirituals and the Baptist church and the whole African-American experience in this country, I don't know what we would consider music, I don't know what we'd all be drinking from," he said. "It's in the water. The impact the whole black experience continues to have on all musicians is immeasurable. Lomax recorded everything. From the sounds of the junkyard, or he would go into a market and just record the cash register — disappearing machinery that we would no longer be hearing."

Speaking about the song "Pony" from Mule Variations, Waits told the Austin Chronicle that he wanted the song to be "bare and by itself, like those Lomax recordings, those Library of Congress recordings that I love so much."

Bill Hicks In Waits's view, Hicks, a grad of Stratford High School in west Houston, was the spiritual descendant of Waits's childhood hero Lenny Bruce. Rant in E Minor was the third Texan entry on Waits's Observer list of faves. Here is what he had to say about it: "Bill Hicks, blowtorch, excavator, truthsayer and brain specialist, like a reverend waving a gun around. Pay attention to Rant in E Minor, it is a major work, as important as Lenny Bruce's. He will correct your vision. His life was cut short by cancer, though he did leave his tools here. Others will drive on the road he built. Long may his records rant even though he can't."

On another list of favorites, Waits cited Hicks's Flying Saucer Tour. "Bill was trying to get free of the nagging hunger for mainstream acceptance. These gems were recorded in towns barely on the map, and he sometimes had to make a mad dash for the car, outrunning an angry mob. Hicks was our Lenny Bruce. R.I.P."

Daniel Johnston Waits recorded the Waller resident's "King Kong" on the 2004 tribute album The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered.

Praha, Texas All right, maybe Waits doesn't love this little Fayette County hamlet literally, but he does deeply enjoy the music from thereabouts.

The fourth Texan entry on his Observer list was the Arhoolie/Folklyric compilation Texas-Czech: Bohemian Moravian Bands, which featured selections of music recorded between 1928 and 1953 by Bacova's Ceska Kapela, Frank Hermanek's Band, Adolph Pavlas and his Bohemians, Julius Dietert's Band, crossover country star Adolph Hofner, and the orchestras of Joe Patek, Ray Krenek, Benny Brosh, John R. Baca, and Houston's own Bill Mraz.

Here's what Waits had to say about the album: "I love these Czech-Bavarian bands that landed in Texas of all places. The seminal river for mariachi came from that migration to that part of the United States, bringing the accordion over, just like the drum and fife music of post-slavery, they picked up the revolutionary war instruments and played blues on them. This music is both sour and bitter, and picante, and floating above itself like steam over the kettle. There's a piece [By Baca] called the 'Circling Pigeons Waltz', it's the most beautiful thing — kind of sour, like a wheel about to go off the road all the time. It's the most lilting little waltz. It's accordion, soprano sax, clarinet, bass, banjo and ­percussion."


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