TROUBLED MIND. CYNIC. POET. IDIOT SAVANT. DRUNK. PHILOSOPHER. STORYTELLER. CLOWN. INFANT. SAGE. MADMAN. ROMANTIC. VISIONARY…
All of the familiar silhouettes seem to be here in this limited edition book collecting together Anton Corbijn’s mostly black-and-white photographs of Tom Waits, and chronicling an artistic collaboration which stretches back to the late 1970s.
Beef-hearted humour pumps through later pages, but the opening images, taken in Holland in 1977, are rather dry. A serious and closed-in Waits, beat-poet cigarette apparently an extra finger, sits in what looks like a lonely dressing room.
When these stark pictures were taken Waits and Corbijn were – as writer Robert Christgau notes in his excellent preface – “still perfecting their craft”, so it’s unsurprising that they are slightly tentative character studies written in the shorthand of both. By “craft” Christgau seems to mean “understanding relationship”: “I ain’t a bad guy when you get to know me,” Waits sang on I NEVER TALK TO STRANGERS, from that year’s FOREIGN AFFAIRS album.
The photographs spanning the next decade or so, when the musician had ditched his soak-stool at the end of the bar to move through the more three-dimensional territories of SWORDFISHTROMBONES and RAIN DOGS, reveal guards being dropped and ideas developing as photographer and subject engaged: Waits crouched and shrouded in sidewalk steam; sitting in a car with an accordian on his lap, oblivious to the New York skyline behind him; standing blurred in front of a thrift store or Los Angeles wall art.
More recent decades – when Waits’ time is generally perceived to have been spent as an earthy, weather-beaten, rustbowl gargoyle locked away in a yard retooling the American dream from blow-torched pieces of discarded flotsam and spent jet trash and a vat of bubbling crude – are evocatively recorded in Corbijn’s oil and bleach photographs. Yet his skill in sometimes pulling this most iconic figure away from the expected greasy and grizzled tattoos-and-vest territory is the most affecting component of their craft.
“How the hell did I get here so soon? I don’t wanna grow up…” Waits deplored on 1992’s pivotal BONE MACHINE album, at the age of 42. The book reveals Corbijn to be a friend who, in middle age, sometimes calls up Waits to see if his inner child fancies coming out to play with the bagful of absurd he’s just found: the musician high up a tree; on a beaten up old tractor wielding a water pistol; vamping it up in Dracula mask and cape; skipping a railroad track with a drum strapped to his back; live-scarecrowing through a field of scattering cows…
Waits’ own 50-page section adds enormous value to what is, ultimately, a highly entertaining but expensive curio. A bizarre collection of his photographs and typed musings goes under the appropriate title CURIOSITIES: a map made of tomato seeds; extreme close-ups of the mundane (a steering wheel, a pancake, bubbles floating at the top of a coffee cup); a pram welded together from salvaged antique musical instruments; a list of famous suicides; an assortment of micro-junk (matchbox, conker, coins, glove) laid out and titled THINGS THAT I FOUND ON THE GROUND; a warm moon glowing at the end of a dark highway.
A fitting metaphor for the work and friendship of Waits and Corbijn, perhaps?
WAITS / CORBIJN ‘77-‘11
Photographs by Anton Corbijn
Curiosities by Tom Waits
Texts by Jim Jarmusch and Robert Christgau
Limited edition of 6600 w/slipcase
272 pages, 226 color and duotone plates
Published by Schirmer/Mosel