What’s wrong with Tom Waits? | The North American Route | Culture

There are silences that sound deafening. One of them is the musical absence of Tom Waits (74 years old), who has disappeared from the scene for too long now. The data is conclusive: 16 years without publishing new material and 13 without offering a concert, although he has made occasional and brief public musical appearances. What is happening to Waits? Has he retired from music? Because the author of Downtown Train has not disappeared completely: his face continues to appear in films or series.

The cinema has not left the artist’s life. Unlike the stage and the recording studio, Waits seems to have acquired a taste for the screen. The latest news that has come out about him is that his name appears on the list of protagonists of the new film by his colleague Jim Jarmusch. In this way, he joins the already announced Adam Driver, Cate Blanchett, Charlotte Rampling and Mayim Bialik. The film, Father Mother Sister Brothersrepresents a new step in the professional relationship that director and musician began in 1986 with Under the weight of the law. The news comes after he has recently been seen in roles in other Paul Thomas Anderson films (Licorice Pizza), the Coen brothers (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), David Lowery (The Old Man & the Gun) and Jarmusch himself (The dead do not die).

Waits, on the other hand, is far from music. His last album with new songs was Bad as Me and dates back to 2011. Until then, the musician had been publishing albums more or less regularly and always with a seal of quality that was more than notable. In fact, his musical production in the 21st century has left very good albums to date: before Bad as Me, public Real Gone (2004)Alice (2002) and Blood Money (2002). In retrospect, it is as if his compositional inspiration had been fading away. And it was doing so as he also offered a delightful catalogue of songbooks that had been left in the back room with the outstanding box of alternative takes and unpublished material. Orphans (2006) or direct as Glitter and Doom Live (2009). One of his agents, Irishman Paul Charles, said in his memoirs, Adventures In Wonderland, published in 2023, which Tom Waits had rewritten. Nothing more has been heard of it since.

Kevin J. O’Connor and Tom Waits (right), in a moment from ‘Candy Mountain’, by Robert Frank.Film library

There was only one good news in all this time: when in 2018 he rescued Hello there!. His interpretation of this Italian partisan anthem was highly acclaimed. It was part of his collaboration in Songs of Resistance 1948-2018, album by guitarist Marc Ribot, Waits’ right-hand man on tour. It was an album that included collaborations with Steve Earle, Tift Merrit and Justin Vivian Bond singing civil rights anthems or Mexican protest ballads in order to challenge Donald Trump’s policies.

One thing is clear from all this: Waits prefers not to publish anything, rather than to do so by inertia or on autopilot, as if to fulfill his record deadline. It would honor him. However, something is also more worrying: he has been moving away from the stage to the point that he has not given a concert for more than a decade. He could have been giving performances in which to review his abundant and fascinating songbook, even if he had no new material to defend. Judging by the results, he is not in the mood for that either. Tow Waits’ tours have disappeared from the world maps, even from those in California, where he lives with his wife, Kathleen Brennan, co-producer and co-author of part of his work.

American singer Tom Waits, during his concert at the Kursaal in San Sebastian, in 2008.
American singer Tom Waits, during his concert at the Kursaal in San Sebastian, in 2008.JAVIER HERNANDEZ

Waits’ last public appearance was last December to honor actor Nicolas Cage, with whom he shares a friendship. Before that, he could be seen in some Show charity, on David Letterman’s show or in tributes, such as the one to producer Hal Willner, one of his main artistic references, where he was accompanied by Elvis Costello, Bono and Michael Stipe.

Today, after so many years of silence, only the cinema seems to motivate Tom Waits, the howling wolf, one of the most important musicians in the history of American music, a character who always knew how to be different and a reference. An extraordinary musician who is missed and perhaps, at this rate, we will never again be able to enjoy new music, not even on stage.

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