Writer Sam Wasson on Tom Waits’ ‘thrilling’ music

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“Every time I connect with Tom Waits’ music is thrilling,” says writer Sam Wasson. Photo credit: Gary Copeland

Los Angeles writer Sam Wasson knows a thing or two about Hollywood. Over the years he has chronicled Tinseltown's iconic moments in articles and acclaimed books, including “The Big Goodbye,” and “Fifth Avenue, 5AM.” His most recent book is “Hollywood: The Oral History,” co-written with Jeanine Basinger, and he’s currently working on a biography of Francis Ford Coppola’s studio, American Zoetrope.

A lifelong Angeleno, Wasson has embraced the work of another Los Angeles storyteller, songwriter, musician, and sometimes actor, Tom Waits, whose cinematic songs tend to focus on the underbelly of society. Wasson connects Waits’ music and style to the world making of film and says he finds it “thrilling” every time he connects with Waits’ music. 

Writer Sam Wasson on capturing ‘Hollywood: The Oral History’
Tom Waits: Live from KCRW (1987)

This segment has been edited for length and clarity. 

My favorite thing — if it's a book, or movie or music —  I have to go for the music of Tom Waits. I hear the sound of this city. I hear Raymond Chandler, and I hear heartbreak. I hear the late nights. I hear everything that turns me on about this wonderful, maligned, lonely, silly town that I love so much. 

His ability as a writer, just as a writer of language, his humor and the sound of a heart breaking, the sound of a man’s heartbreak, I particularly love —  that feral, animal desperation and also with the animal, such intelligence and playfulness. 

I love the storytelling also. I love “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis.” The whole story, the troubadour aspect of him, I love. 

“Hey Charlie, I'm pregnant
Living on 9th Street
Right above a dirty bookstore
Off Euclid Avenue
I stopped taking dope
And I quit drinking whiskey
And my old man plays the trombone
And works out at the track”   

- 1st verse from Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis, from Tom Waits’s 1978 album Blue Valentine

It is a world with attention to light and to character and, obviously, story. I'm just thinking about this now for the first time, an atmosphere. I would love to know what movies Waits likes. I'm sure that's available somewhere. That must be written about, but I wonder. I wonder. 

To me he's infinite in all directions and thrilling every time I connect with his music.



Rebecca Mooney