Tabletop Janes and Joes: The characters in Tom Waits' songs walk the boards for 'Inside a Broken Clock.'
Peeping at Tom
Traveling circus 'Inside a Broken Clock' brings Tom Waits songs to life on Don Quixote's stage
By Richard von Busack
You know how those wine-bibbers do go on: "Traces of tannin, cigars, hints of quince, candy bars and fried chicken." Try summing up the 57-year-old Tom Waits' voice(s): Caesar Romero's Joker, a Latin horror clown ("We're all as mad as hatters here," on the tune "Singapore"); Fats Waller's buttery chortle and gargle; Howlin' Wolf's gravel-pit rasp; some Irish drunk trying to croak out "The Rose of Tralee" before being handed the dreaded 86 by the bartender.
"I'm not an original, I'm a bad imitation of other people," Waits once told San Francisco Chronicle critic Joel Selvin. In even more self-abnegating moments, in trying to throw pursuers off the scent, Waits describes himself as a vent act: the voices from Elsewhere coming through a wooden body. And yet Waits' landscape is so definitive it almost paints itself. A perceptive critic such as Amanda Petrusich, on Pitchforkmedia.com, talks about imagining the man living in surroundings of "freight trains and barmaids, rodeo clowns and shortwave radios."
And I know where Tom Waits lives; well, I don't, but I know what I think it looks like: that installation in the permanent collection at the Oakland Museum of California, with the miniature Airstream trailer in the Mojave, surrounded with pipes, scrap and haywire electrical apparatuses. Out of that trailer, or something like it, he lives with wife, Kathleen Brennan, and children nearby, and he issues recordings: take last November's monumental Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards.
"I'm better off here in the sticks where I can't hurt myself," said Waits to Petrusich. In truth, the musician lives somewhere north of San Pablo Bay. And a pair of Austin entertainers and company are about to take their Waits tribute into his bailiwick, with stops in Santa Rosa, San Francisco and Felton (on June 30 at Don Quixote's).
Rick McNulty is the creator and creative director of the No Salvation Army Band; with "girlfriend/partner/whatever you want to call her" Ellen Stader as choreographer and dancer, they're touring a depraved-circus version of Waits' works titled Inside a Broken Clock.
McNulty guitared for the Chicago combo Doghouse before moving to Austin. While driving to gigs around Texas, McNulty and Stader would listen to Waits tapes. Says McNulty, "Any road trip in Texas is at least six hours to get anywhere. We were listening to Rain Dogs and imagining cartoon images to it. Our vision was something like a kids' show, and as we got closer to the destination, we realized it was unfit for kids."
Stader was a dancer since her girlhood in Pendleton, Ind., who turned choreographer. She and McNulty began figuring out routines to go along with Waits' music, from Swordfishtrombones to beyond. With 30 people involved, "a lot of moving parts" and a budget in "the low three figures," McNulty and Ellen took the show with its puppets, bear-suit performer, burlesque dancers and scary clowns to the Victory Grill in Austin in fall 2005.
"It's a historical dive in the black side of town, named after VE day," explains McNulty. "Billie Holiday played there--still lots of dust and original furniture and Christmas lights 365 days a year. We got a lot of goodwill and decided to do it again the next year, paring down the cast to 18."
The Inside a Broken Clock show is essentially a cycle of songs about a girl who wants to get into the stage act. Performers include a half-man dancer for the number "Tabletop Joe," in memory of Mr. Johnny Eck of Baltimore. Numbers staged to Waits' newest recordings include "Bottom of the World" and "Altar Boy."
Though the performers have legal approval to do the songs, they have more concerns than just the audience reception. What they're really worried about is Waits being pissed at what they've done with his work. Stader says that taking the show to Northern California is "playing with fire."
"I don't want Tom Waits cross with me," McNulty adds. "He can sometimes be unnerved by his fans."
I tell him not to worry, that Waits will probably be off tending his garden or reading Schopenhauer or something. "He has minions, though, like Elvis ... ," McNulty suggests.
Fair enough, but they won't be kill-trained like the Memphis Mafia, able to rip out your heart and throw it at you like a rock.
"I'd rather have him do that than be cross about this," McNulty declares.
And yet everything in Waits' music career suggests the beauty side of imitation and reinvention.
Inside a Broken Clock: A Tom Waits Peepshow takes place Saturday, June 30, at 8pm at Don Quixote's, 6275 Highway 9, Felton. Tickets are $13/$15. (831.603.2294)
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