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Tom Waits says some songs just demand to be sung in a particular way

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey, in for Terry Gross. Tom Waits is one of the true eccentrics of pop music. The New York Times once described him as the poet of outcasts. There's always been an element of mystery surrounding his life. The people he usually sings about are loners, losers, hobos, outlaws and drunks. The darkness of his lyrics is accentuated by the rumble and rasp of his voice, a voice that sounded old even when he was young. Waits has been recording since 1973. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. His songs have been used on the soundtracks of several films, and he's acted in the movies "Down By Law," "Short Cuts," Francis Ford Coppola's "Dracula," "The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs" and "The Old Man & The Gun."

We're going to listen back to two of our interviews with Tom Waits. When Terry spoke with him in 2002, he'd just released two lyrical concept albums, "Blood Money" and "Alice," which are now considered some of his finest work. This month, on the 20th anniversary of their release, those albums are being reissued on vinyl with new, formerly unreleased live versions of some songs. Waits wrote those songs with his wife, Kathleen Brennan. Let's start with a song from "Blood Money." This is "Misery Is The River Of The World."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISERY IS THE RIVER OF THE WORLD")

TOM WAITS: (Singing) The higher that the monkey can climb, the more he shows his tail. Call no man happy till he dies. There's no milk at the bottom of the pail. God builds a church. The devil builds a chapel, like the thistles that are growing round the trunk of a tree. All the good in the world, you can put inside a thimble and still have room for you and me. If there's one thing you can say about mankind, there's nothing kind about man. You can drive out nature with a pitchfork, but it always comes roaring back again. Misery's the river of the world. Misery's the river of the world. Misery's the river of the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Tom Waits, welcome to FRESH AIR.

WAITS: Oh, thanks. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Now, this music started as a music theater piece?

WAITS: Oh, yeah, originally. This was a project done with Robert Wilson, the avant garde theater director. So this is the third thing that we've done with him. And the production was called "Woyzeck," and this is the - these are the songs from that.

GROSS: Some of your music writing seems influenced by the German songs of Kurt Weill. Have you listened a lot to him? Do you feel like he's influenced your writing?

WAITS: Well, you know, I hadn't really listened to him until I had people tell me that I sounded somewhat like him or had some influence in there. So I said, well, I better start listening to this stuff. And...

GROSS: What'd you think?

WAITS: Yeah, I liked it. It's really - a lot of it's really angry. And I guess I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things. And...

GROSS: (Laughter) That's well put. Yeah.

WAITS: So it works for me. Yeah.

GROSS: The arrangements for your songs are really good. Do you do the arrangements yourself?

WAITS: Well, I collaborate with my wife on the songs and every aspect of it, really, from composing and arranging, recording, all that business. So, you know, we have a rhythm and a way of working. It's kind of like borrowing the same 10 bucks from somebody over and over again, you know?

GROSS: (Laughter).

WAITS: But, you know, when you live together, you know, it makes a lot easier, the payback, you know?

GROSS: What came first to you - for you, being married or being song collaborators?

WAITS: Oh, I guess - I don't know. See my - you know, we started working together after we got married, I think. And we got - actually, my wife had $50 on her, and I had 20, when we got married, and it was a $70 wedding. So I actually thought, this is not a good way to start. But...

(LAUGHTER)

WAITS: We got married about 1 o'clock in the morning out in Watts. And it was a kind of a whirlwind thing. And the preacher was on a beeper and - but, you know, it worked out.

GROSS: What was the music that you grew up listening to because your parents were listening to it? I mean, before you were old enough to choose music yourself, what was the music in your house?

WAITS: Really young, mariachi music, I guess. My dad only played a Mexican radio station. And then, you know, Frank Sinatra and, later, Harry Belafonte. And then, you know, I would go over to my friends' houses, and I'd go into the den with their dad and find out what they were listening to. And that's what I was really - I couldn't wait to be an old man.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WAITS: I was about 13. Yeah, it's - I didn't really identify with my - the music of my own generation. But I was very curious about the music of others. And I think I responded to the song forms themselves - you know, cakewalks and waltzes and bar crawls (ph) and parlor songs and all that stuff. I think I - which they're just really nothing more than jello molds for music, you know? But I seem to like the old stuff - Cole Porter and, you know, Oscars and Hammerstein (ph) and Gershwin, all that stuff. I like the melody.

GROSS: Now, you said your father listened mostly to the Mexican station and to mariachi music.

WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: Was your father Mexican?

WAITS: No. My dad's from Texas. He grew up in a place called Sulphur Springs, Texas. And my mom's from Oregon. She listened to church music, you know, all that. Brother Springer (laughter) - she used to send money into all the preachers, you know? And - but the early songs I remember was "Abilene." When I heard "Abilene" on the radio, it really moved me. And then I heard - you know, Abilene, Abilene, prettiest town I've ever 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. And then, you know, "Detroit City." Last night, I went to sleep in Detroit, (singing) and I dreamed about the cotton fields back home.

I liked songs with the names of towns in them. And I think I like songs with weather in them.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WAITS: And something to eat (laughter). So I feel like - 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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WAITS: There's a - oh, OK. There's a saloon, OK. So I think probably, yeah, that's why I put things like that in my songs.

GROSS: I want to play another track from "Blood Money," and this is called "A Good Man Is Hard To Find."

WAITS: Sure.

GROSS: This is Tom Waits.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND")

WAITS: (Singing) Well, I always play Russian Roulette in my head. It's 17 black and 29 red. How far from the gutter. How far from the pew. I will always remember to forget about you. A good man is hard to find. Only strangers sleep in my bed. And my favorite words are goodbye. And my favorite color is red.

GROSS: That's "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" from the new Tom Waits CD, "Blood Money." He also has another new CD called "Alice." And we'll hear some of that a little bit later. Now, I want to ask you about your voice. You have a very raspy singing voice. Was that a sound that you strove for, you know, that you worked on having? Or is it naturally developed?

WAITS: It's that old man thing. I couldn't wait to be an old man...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WAITS: ...Old man with a deep voice. Yeah, I scream into a pillow, you know?

GROSS: (Laughter) Was, say, Louis Armstrong an influence on you?

WAITS: Oh, yeah, yeah. Sure. You know, you can't ignore the influence of someone like Louis Armstrong. It's - but this one, this - "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," you know, was an attempt to kind of tip my hat somewhat to that.

GROSS: Right.

WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, you actually sing in different kinds of voices on your new CDs. I mean, you have, like...

WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Your very deep, growly voice and then a lighter voice that you use.

WAITS: You know, well, it's just - like, it's just a musical vocabulary, really, you know? You find the appropriate sound for the correct tune and match them up. Yeah. You know, I like to scream. And, you know - and I can croon, you know, all that stuff.

GROSS: Have you ever worried about hurting your voice by...

WAITS: Oh, I've hurt it. Yeah, I have hurt it. But I have a voice doctor in New York who used to treat Frank Sinatra and various people. He said, oh, you're doing fine. Don't worry about it.

GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, that's good.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: Tom Waits speaking with Terry Gross in 2002. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOM WAITS SONG, "PAY ME")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to Terry's 2002 interview with Tom Waits. This year is the 20th anniversary of his lyrical concept albums "Blood Money" and "Alice," which are being reissued on vinyl with new, formerly unreleased tracks.

GROSS: Now, you once said that you wish you could have been a part of the Brill Building era, in which people like Carole King and Leiber and Stoller and Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry were writing songs for singers and for vocal groups. What do you think you would have liked about that?

WAITS: Oh, I guess writing at gunpoint sounds really exciting to me, those kinds of deadlines. I went to a rehearsal building on Time Square in New York one afternoon in a really tiny, little room. In fact, it was probably smaller than the room I'm in right now, which is a little larger than a phone booth. There was just enough room for an old spinet piano. And then you could just barely close the door. And there you were. And you could hear every kind of music coming to you through the walls and through the windows, underneath the door. And, you know, you heard African bands. And you heard, like, you know, comedians. And you'd hear applause every now and then. And you'd hear tap dancers. And I think I just like the whole melange of it, you know, how it all kind of mixes together. I like turning on two radios at the same time and listening to them. I like hearing things incorrectly. I think that's how I get a lot of ideas is by mishearing something.

GROSS: Tom Waits, you have two new CDs. We heard part of "Blood Money." You have another new CD called "Alice," which I believe, like "Blood Money," also has its origins as a Robert Wilson music theater piece.

WAITS: Right. Yeah. Yeah. It was down in Hamburg quite a while ago - in '93, something like that

GROSS: And what is Alice about?

WAITS: It's a hypothetical situation, kind of imagining the obsession that Lewis Carroll had for this young girl, Alice, and...

GROSS: Oh.

WAITS: ...You know what it might have been like inside of his mind in Victorian England and all that stuff. The beginning of photography, and he's - you know, a young gal and, you know, it's kind of like a, you know, fever dream or whatever, kind of a virus of the mind.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear the title track? This is called "Alice." And if there's something you want to say to introduce it, that's great. And if not, we'll just hear it.

WAITS: Yeah. This is "Alice." This is kind of, like, the opening tune. And it's, like, a private moment. And it's, like, sitting in a chair by yourself, thinking about someone.

GROSS: OK. Here's "Alice," the title track from the new Tom Waits CD.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALICE")

WAITS: (Singing) It's dreamy weather we're on. You waved your crooked wand. Along an icy pond with a frozen moon, a murder of silhouette. Crows I saw and the tears on my face and the skates on the pond, they spell Alice. I disappear in your name. But you must wait for me somewhere across the sea. There's a wreck of a ship. Your hair is like meadow grass on the tide and the raindrops on my window and the ice in my drink. Baby, all I can think of is Alice.

GROSS: That's the title track of Tom Waits' new CD, "Alice," one of two new CDs that he has. Did you even as a kid like, you know, murder ballads and stories of depravity like you do now?

WAITS: Oh, yeah. Everybody loves that.

GROSS: What are some of the things that scared you as a kid, either that scared you in real life or movies or music that you found frightening - interesting but frightening?

WAITS: Oh, I don't know. I guess, like, the the plastic covers on sofas always scares me. The sound that makes when you sit down on sofas covered with plastic, it crinkles. And I don't know. I used to watch Alfred Hitchcock and "The Twilight Zone." Those captivated me, those little tales.

GROSS: Monster movies.

WAITS: And monster movies, yeah, sure. But, you know, things that really scared me - I don't know. I guess, you know, I could conjure up just about anything and scare myself, you know, if I heard a sound at night, you know, and then it would get larger and larger and stranger and stranger and I would get, you know, afraid to get out of bed. And I think I had some kind of a disorder, the way I heard things. If I moved my hand across in the air, I heard like (imitating whooshing sound), you know.

GROSS: Wow. Really?

WAITS: And cars going by sounded like planes. And, yeah, very small sounds in the house got enormous. And - but I think it was just a temporary condition.

GROSS: Did you ever see a doctor about it?

WAITS: (Laughter) They said they couldn't help me.

GROSS: Now, you dropped out of high school. Why did you drop out? Is there something that you want to do instead, or did you just hate going?

WAITS: I wanted to go into the world - enough of this. I didn't like the ceiling in the rooms. I didn't like the holes in the ceiling, the little tiny holes and the corkboard and the little - the long stick used for opening the windows.

GROSS: Oh, God. Yeah. We had one of those in my elementary school, yeah.

WAITS: I just hated all that stuff. I was real sensitive to my visual surroundings. And I just wanted to get out of there.

GROSS: Did any adults try to stop you, either your parents or teachers?

WAITS: I had good teachers. I had some - my folks broke up when I was about 11. And so I had teachers that I liked a lot, I kind of looked up to. But then they seemed like they couldn't wait to get out into the world themselves and do some, you know, banging around and learning and growing. And so I thought maybe they were encouraging me to leave.

GROSS: So did you succeed in kind of getting out into the world, so to speak?

WAITS: Pretty much, yeah.

GROSS: What'd you do?

WAITS: I hitchhiked all over the place and - I don't know.

GROSS: What's the craziest ride that you got when you were hitchhiking that you would shudder to think about now?

WAITS: Well, actually I had some good things that happened to me hitchhiking because I did wind up on New Year's Eve in front of a Pentecostal church. And an old woman named Mrs. Anderson came out to the - I was stuck in a town with, like, seven people in this town and trying to get out, you know. And my buddy and I were out there for hours and hours and hours getting colder and colder. It was getting darker and darker. And finally, she came over, and she says, come on into the church here. It's warm and there's music and you can sit in the back row. And we did. And they were singing and, you know, they had a tambourine and electric guitar and a drummer, and they were, you know, talking in tongues. And then they kept gesturing to me and my friend, Sam. They said, these are our wayfaring strangers here. And so we felt kind of important. And they took up a collection, they gave us some money, bought us a hotel room and a meal. And we got out the next morning, and we hit the first ride, 7 in the morning, and we were gone. It was really nice. I still remember all that. And it was - gave me a good feeling about traveling.

GROSS: Tom Waits, thank you so much. It's really been great to talk with you. Thank you.

WAITS: Oh, we're all done.

GROSS: Yeah.

WAITS: Oh, OK. Well, nice to talk to you, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Tom Waits, recorded in 2002. Twentieth anniversary vinyl versions of his albums "Blood Money" and "Alice" have just been released. Coming up, we feature another interview with Tom Waits, this time from 2011. And Justin Chang reviews "Tar," the new Todd Field movie starring Cate Blanchett. I'm David Bianculli. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STARVING IN THE BELLY OF A WHALE")

WAITS: (Singing) Life is whittled. Life's a riddle. Man's a fiddle that life plays on. When the day breaks and the earth quakes, life's a mistake all day long.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Today, we're listening back to Terry's interviews with Tom Waits. It's the 20th anniversary of his two albums, "Alice" and "Blood Money." Both albums are being reissued on vinyl. We just heard Terry's 2002 interview with him. Now we're going to listen to their interview from 2011. That year, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and had released his album, "Bad As Me." It features guitarists Marc Ribot, David Hidalgo and Keith Richards, who also sings on one track.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Now, the last time you were on FRESH AIR, which was back in 2002, you said that one of the reasons you wanted a kind of raspy voice when you sang was that when you were a young man, you couldn't wait to be an old man.

WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: And, you know, you mentioned, like, Louis Armstrong and how when you were, I guess, a teenager, you walked with a cane for a while to effect a certain look.

WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: And I'm wondering, that desire to, like, be an old man, how's that feeling now (laughter) - now that, like, you're in your early 60s?

WAITS: Now that I'm an old man.

GROSS: Well, you're not an old man, but you're closer than you were when you were in your teens, that's for sure.

WAITS: (Laughter) Well, I don't know. I guess I've always lived upside down. I want things I can't have. My wife actually thinks that I have a syndrome. It's called reality distortion field. You know, it's kind of like drugs, only you can't come back from it, you know? Reality distortion is almost a permanent condition. So I guess, to a certain degree, I did that with myself. When I was a kid, I did want to be an old-timer. I thought they were the ones with the big stories and the cool clothes, you know, and the great hats and the - you know, I wanted to go there, you know?

GROSS: You have a couple of songs about death on the new album and...

WAITS: Oh, about death. Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. And, you know, like, one is explicitly about death, and one of them is kind of a metaphor for death called "Last Leaf."

WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: And...

WAITS: Well, I don't know. You could say it's a metaphor for death. Or you could say it's really a song about the last leaf on a tree - you know? - 'cause I did see a tree out in my yard that had one tree - one leaf left on it.

GROSS: Oh, really?

WAITS: And I looked at that leaf, and I said, hang on, buddy.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WAITS: If you hang on, you can make it to the next season. If you can make it to the next one, you might be here next year greeting all the new ones. Hang on. But I remember saying that to myself like I was talking to a cat, you know?

GROSS: Yeah.

WAITS: But, you know, my wife said, oh, get Keith to sing on that, and...

GROSS: Yeah. This is Keith Richards...

WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Who's featured on guitar on several tracks and on vocals...

WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Vocal backup on this.

WAITS: Oh, yeah. And we didn't even send it to him. We sent him another one called "I'm Waiting For My Good Luck To Come." And when we got together, he said, you know, put that one on. Put on "My Good Luck To Come" (ph). And I said, no, listen to this one, you know? And we put on "Last Leaf," and he dug it. He even brought a guitar that I had given him a few years back that he thought maybe I'd want to hear it - that - hear him play that guitar, you know? And - but it was great working with him as a - like they say, with recording, it's either really easy, or it's impossible. And with him, it's easy.

GROSS: So let's hear "Last leaf." This is from Tom Waits' new album. "Bad As Me," and features Keith Richards on guitar and backup vocals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST LEAF")

WAITS: (Singing) When the autumn wind blows, they're already gone. They flutter to the ground 'cause they can't hang on. There's nothing in the world that I ain't seen. I greet all the new ones that are coming in green. I'm the last leaf on the tree. The autumn took the rest, but they won't take me. I'm the last leaf on the tree. They say I've got staying power here on the tree. But I've been here since Eisenhower, and I outlived even he. I'm the last leaf on the tree. The autumn took the rest, but they won't take me.

GROSS: That's Tom Waits with Keith Richards singing backup from Tom Waits' new album "Bad As Me." How do you and Keith Richards even know each other?

WAITS: Back in '84, '85 - I don't know - New York, we were doing "Rain Dogs." And my wife said, get Keith to play on this. I said, oh, God, no. I can't. I'm not worthy. And she said, no, get him. And then, one thing led to the other. And so, you know, he was called, and I was mortified and embarrassed. And they sent him a record. And he liked it. And he came down with a semitruck full of instruments and a musical butler and - you know? It was really hilarious. And we played till very late, you know? And he played only four or five songs. And so I've stayed in touch and known him since then.

And nobody in the world like him. We wrote songs together for a while, and that was fun. I had never really written with anybody except my wife, so it was unique and a little scary at first 'cause he doesn't really remember anything or write anything down. So you play for an hour, and then, he would yell across the room, scribe.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WAITS: And I looked around - scribe? Who's the scribe? And he'd said it again, and now pointing at me - scribe. And I was supposed to have written down everything we said and dreamt of and played. And I realized that we needed an adult in the room. And I have never been the one that one would consider the adult. So it was an interesting dynamic, and I learned to be a scribe.

GROSS: So there's another great ballad on your album called "New Year's Eve."

WAITS: Oh, yeah. OK.

GROSS: And the song uses a line that you actually said in our previous interview.

WAITS: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: And what you said in the previous interview was that sometimes you used to listen to two radios at the same time...

WAITS: Oh, right, yeah.

GROSS: ...Because you like hearing things incorrectly. And you got a lot of ideas by mishearing something. And..

WAITS: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: And in the song, you use the line, all the noise was disturbing, and I couldn't find Irving. It was like two stations at the same time.

WAITS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: And, I guess, is that an image you've been carrying around for many years, and it finally made its way into a song?

WAITS: That happens. So, yeah, I'm sure I've been carrying it around. The other line in there that I wanted to get into a song was - you know, you ever said to somebody, just keep talking, but don't use any names?

GROSS: Mmm hmm.

WAITS: You know, like, two spies talking, you know? Or you're talking about drugs, or you're talking about a woman or- you know? And I - that's how the song kind of began, with just that line. And then we expanded it to a litany of trouble on New Year's. And then it all - then we all end up singing together in the middle of an evening filled with, you know, a burnt sofa and a runaway dog and a broken window, and someone got arrested.

GROSS: Well, let's hear "New Year's Eve."

WAITS: OK.

GROSS: OK. Well, this is "New Year's Eve" from Tom Waits' new album "Bad As Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW YEAR'S EVE")

WAITS: (Singing) It felt like 4 in the morning. What sounded like fireworks turned out to be just what it was. The stars looked like diamonds, and then came the sirens, and everyone started to cuss. All the noise was disturbing, and I couldn't find Irving. It was like two stations on at the same time. And then I hid your car keys, and I made black coffee, and I dumped out the rest of the rum. Hmm. Hmm. Nick and Socorro broke up...

GROSS: That's "New Year's Eve" from Tom Waits' new album "Bad As Me." Back in the days when you were living in a hotel or living on the road...

WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Did you ever imagine that one day you would be married for 30 years and the father of three?

WAITS: (Laughter) No. No, I didn't. I admit I do remember disciplining imaginary children in the back seat of my car.

GROSS: (Laughter) Why?

WAITS: Hold your horses, Bill. It's enough out of you. I don't know why.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WAITS: Maybe I was anticipating their arrival, and I was rehearsing. I don't know. But no, you know, I couldn't have seen that one coming. I don't know how much of our lives we can actually see coming.

BIANCULLI: Tom Waits, recorded in 2011. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOM WAITS SONG, "MISERY IS THE RIVER OF THE WORLD")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2011 interview with Tom Waits. It's the 20th anniversary of his albums "Alice" and "Blood Money," which are being reissued for the occasion on vinyl with formerly unreleased tracks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: I was such a big fan of "The Wire." I have to...

WAITS: Oh, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: It used your song, down - "Way Down In The Hole"...

WAITS: "Down In The Hole," yeah.

GROSS: ...As the theme.

WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: And there were, like, you know, different versions of it. You had a version, Steve Earle...

WAITS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...The Blind Boys of Alabama.

WAITS: Bunch of people.

GROSS: And then this group of Baltimore teenagers.

WAITS: Oh, right, yeah.

GROSS: DoMaJe. So can you tell the story behind writing the song? It's a song about keeping the devil down in the hole.

WAITS: Down in the hole, yeah. I don't know what the origin of the song came, but it was very fast. And needing - we needed a gospel song for this collection of tunes that we'd written for "Franks Wild Years," for a show, you know, that eventually was done by Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago and then became a record. I don't know. We had background vocalists on it, which I dug. But the song happened fast. It was like - I was probably thinking about Ray Charles trying to find one of those grooves that he lives in. And once I had the groove, then everything else just kind of fell together, you know?

GROSS: So I want to play two versions, back to back, of "Way Down In The Hole."

WAITS: OK.

GROSS: Your version and then also the version that was used for Season 4 of "The Wire"...

WAITS: OK.

GROSS: ...Which is this season set, in part...

WAITS: OK.

GROSS: ...In a junior high. So when these - this group from Baltimore - and like I say, all I know about them is that it's a group of teenagers from Baltimore. I don't know whether they assembled just for this recording or whether they're preexisting group. But did you work with them at all on this?

WAITS: No, I didn't. No, I - they kept the song as a theme, and they kept offering it to different groups to rearrange for their own purposes. And I didn't have TV, so I didn't really experience "The Wire" until it was over, and I got tapes of it, you know? And I became a huge fan...

GROSS: Yeah.

WAITS: ...Of the show and all of the people involved and - after it was over. And I was really flattered to be a part of it, frankly, you know?

GROSS: Oh, it's such a - it works so great as a theme. So let's hear your version and the DoMaJe - if I'm pronouncing that correctly - version back to back.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAY DOWN IN THE HOLE")

WAITS: (Singing) When you walk through the garden, you got to watch your back. Well, I beg your pardon. Walk the straight and narrow track. If you walk with Jesus, he is going to save your soul. You got to keep the devil way down in the hole.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAY DOWN IN THE HOLE")

DOMAJE: (Singing) He's got fire and the fury at his command. Well, you don't got to worry. Hold onto Jesus' hand. We'll be safe from Satan when the thunder rolls. But you got to keep the devil down in the hole. (Rapping) Keep him down in the gutter, all right? Let's do it, yo. (Singing) Oh, yeah.

GROSS: That's Tom Waits' version of his song "Way Down In The Hole" and then the version that was used in Season 4 of "The Wire." And that theme was used throughout "The Wire," and it worked perfectly, I have to say.

WAITS: Oh, cool.

GROSS: So I just want to quote something that you told The Guardian, the British newspaper, a few years ago, in 2006. And you said when - that when you stopped drinking, you wondered, am I genuinely eccentric? Or am I just wearing a funny hat? What am I made of? What's left when you drain the pool? So I think it was, like, years ago, many years ago, that you gave up drinking. What did you learn about yourself when the alcohol wasn't there anymore?

WAITS: I didn't know what to do with my hands.

GROSS: Oh, like when you stop smoking.

WAITS: Yeah. Well, yeah. I was smoking in one hand and drinking in the other. What did I learn? Boy, that's a big question, Terry. I...

GROSS: If it's too big, don't feel like you need to answer it.

WAITS: I think it's probably like the - what my wife said about the reality distortion field that I live in, which is kind of a place that you don't necessarily come back from, you know? Maybe drugs and alcohol and more of a vacation from reality, you know?

GROSS: Mmm-hmm.

WAITS: They say that life itself is really just the dead on vacation, yeah.

GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, gosh, I hadn't heard that.

WAITS: Isn't that terrible? I don't know. Yeah, am I just wearing a funny hat? Am I just trying to say weird stuff? Or am I really peculiar, and genuinely?

GROSS: Did you want to be peculiar?

WAITS: Well, I wanted - I've always wanted to be curious and provocative, I guess, and interesting and interested in this kind of sparkling, you know, sapphire we all call home, you know? I've always wanted to be mystified by it all and rather fascinated with life itself. And I don't know. When - you know, I think maybe when you drink, you are probably robbing yourself of that genuine experience. Even though what it appears that you're doing is getting more of it, you're getting less of it. And it takes a while when you've had a rock on the hose like that for so long. It takes a while for the hose to be a hose again, you know, and for things to start flowing.

Like with songs, if you don't play for a while, if you stop playing for, like, even, like, a year, sometimes it all builds up in a really great way that there's no such thing as not playing. You know, there's just - you know, music has rests in it. So you're on a rest right now, and the music will begin shortly. You know, it's like an orchestra tuning up. I used to try and get myself started. I would take a tape recorder, and I would put it in the trash can. And I - the ones that are on wheels, you know? And I'd turn it on, and then, I'd roll around in the yard with it and then play it back and see if I could hear any interesting rhythms, you know, that were just part of nature, you know?

Or - I tell you, the best snare drum on earth is a trampoline in, like, November, when all the branches have landed and they're heavy and they're wet. And when you jump on the trampoline, they all lift up and come down at the same time. It's like, wow. It's the...

GROSS: Have you used those sounds on recordings?

WAITS: I haven't, but I intend to.

GROSS: It was so great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

WAITS: Yeah, good talking with you, too, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Tom Waits, recorded in 2011. It's the 20th anniversary of his two albums, "Blood Money" and "Alice," which are being reissued on vinyl with new live versions of some songs.

Coming up, Justin Chang reviews "Tar," the new Todd Field film starring Cate Blanchett. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DON BYRON'S "SOMEBODY LOVES ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.