Back in September 1988, British journalist Chris Roberts of Rock’s Back Pages interviewed gravelly-voiced bohemian songster, hat wearer, and occasional actor Tom Waits, who had just completed a concert film entitled Big Time. This entertaining tête-à-tête, captured on old-fashioned analog tape in a London studio more than a quarter of a century ago, has now become an installment in PBS’ ongoing Blank On Blank series, which takes “lost interviews” with “famous faces” and turns them in to gently trippy cartoons with lovingly hand-drawn animation by Patrick Smith. Blank On Blank has previously presented episodes about such cultural notables as Ray Bradbury, Lou Reed, Maurice Sendak, and James Brown. PBS is calling this episode “Tom Waits On Everything & Nothing,” which provides a hint to its tone.
So what was on Tom Waits’ mind during the waning months of the Reagan era? Moles, for one thing, specifically the ones tunneling underneath Stonehenge. “There are more moles beneath Stonehenge,” the singer alleges, “than anywhere in the world.” He goes on to detail the complex system of rewards and punishments within the mole community. Waits talks amiably enough on other topics, too, including his predilection for laughing at funerals and a “wild shirt” he received at the beginning of his showbiz career from his well-meaning stepfather. But the singer is at his free-associative, subway-station-philosopher best when talking about New York City. In this monologue, Waits sounds as if he is improvising lyrics on the spot for Roberts’ benefit:
New York forces you to be in endless surreal situations where the $50,000 Mercedes, gun metal Mercedes, pulls up into a puddle of blood. And out steps the 25-karat blond transvestite with the $2 wristwatch. It’s, like, always setting you off balance. A nightclub in a church. You know, smoking reefer under a stained glass window.
Indeed. Smith’s animation, it should be pointed out, manages to keep up with Waits’ conversational detours every step of the way. And does Roberts have any advice for those interviewing Tom Waits? “Get out of the way and let him do his thing.”