TOM WAITS, bard of the down-and-out, has had a busy year. His album of new songs, the recently released "Bone Machine," is arguably his most experimental and fully realized work ever.
An actor regularly cast as off-kilter or just plain bizarre characters, he currently appears in "Bram Stoker's Dracula" as the doomed Renfield. A theatrical collaborator, he has written the words and music for a new Robert Wilson opera, "Alice in Wonderland," which premieres in Hamburg Dec. 19.
An Oscar-nominated film composer, he scored the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch's quirky, critically acclaimed "Night on Earth."
Waits's career has taken twists and turns since he started as a Beatnik-inspired singer-songwriter, crafting tales of city life that have been covered by Bruce Springsteen ("Jersey Girl"), Rod Stewart ("Downtown Train"), Marianne Faithfull, The Eagles, and others.
Now, he lives in a rural area of Northern California with his children and his wife and collaborator, Kathleen Brennan. He has become one of a handful of musicians who can shift mediums without losing the essence of himself as an artist.
"I don't know if you can completely metamorphosize as an artist, no matter what you're doing," Waits says in his well-known rasp of a voice. "Your handwriting stays pretty much the same. There's a corner of the world where I feel comfortable and that's where I tend to gravitate."
In the case of "Bone Machine," that corner is full of terror, death, and spiritual decay. These themes run from the opening song, "Earth Died Screaming," to the final cut, "That Feel," co-written with Keith Richards. Even when a song starts from what could be a light-hearted premise, as in "I Don't Wanna Grow Up," the result is a confrontation with the human condition.
Waits's mind works in mysterious ways. One reason could be his new home, which he says is far from the idyllic life one might imagine in Northern California.
"Quiet? Oh, yeah, it's quiet here," Waits deadpans. "Except for the sounds of chain saws and 20-gauge shotguns, screeching tires, mysterious screams, and the sound of animals being slaughtered.
"But the most disconcerting thing is the vultures. It you stop, if you sit down under a tree, there's six vultures above you. If you cough, a vulture will find you. But then I prefer vultures over certain people I know."
His environment shaped "Bone Machine" musically as well. The album draws stylistically from blues, jazz, New Orleans funeral marches, Tin Pan Alley, Latin rhythms and random influences. The songs are performed on a homemade percussion contraption of crowbars and metal objects that Waits calls the "conundrum," as well as on conventional instruments. He avoided recording in a soundproof studio, preferring an ordinary room.
"The real music is out there, somewhere else other than the recording studio. Great music is stuff you've never heard on a record, because it's afraid of machinery," he says.
Waits had the same feeling when he began acting. "The camera felt like a firehose. I literally kept ducking it, putting my head inside my collar, I hated it so much."
Waits acted in "Ironweed," "The Fisher King" and "At Play in the Fields of the Lord." The roles, he says, "usually found me." But when he heard that Francis Ford Coppola was directing "Bram Stoker's Dracula," he asked to play Renfield.
"It's always interesting to work with Francis," Waits says. "He has a grand view. He understands the collective unconscious."
The process of writing a soundtrack - Waits wrote one for the film "One From the Heart" that was nominated for an Oscar in 1990 - is another experience altogether.
"Soundtracks are usually done very quickly. They come at the end of the movie, at the end of the money, and at the end of everyone's patience. There's a lot of phone calls, a lot of shouting, and a lot of coffee."
So why do it?
"If you work with the right people it can be very satisfying," he says.
Waits has found theater rewarding. Besides writing words and music to Robert Wilson's "The Black Rider," in 1989, Waits produced and starred in his own show "Franks Wild Years," at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre.
"A theatrical production is like a big puzzle, with everyone in it owning a secret part. And if all the parts don't show up, it won't work right," he says.
Waits expects his focus will continue to be music.
"I think all art aspires to the condition of music," Waits says. "Music is the experience of when you go out to the meadow and you vanish into the scenery. It's when you go to sleep, dream of the ocean, and wake up with sand in your hair. It's when you do a rain dance and it starts to rain. It's then that you realize the power of what you do."