The Waits-ing Game

To hear gravel-voiced beatnik troubadour Tom Waits tell it, the process by which he and his longtime friend, the photographer, designer, and director Anton Corbijn, have collaborated over the years has been pretty simple. “Anton brings the camera,” Waits says. “I’ll bring a tuba, wear black, not shave, and take us to a burned-down Chinese restaurant.” Their new book, Waits/Corbijn ’77-’11, out this month from Schirmer/Mosel, comprises dozens of photographs that Corbijn has taken of Waits over the past three and a half decades, offering an intimate glimpse into the evolution of both men as creative co-conspirators and highly individual artists. The book also includes 51 pages of material contributed by Waits himself, including curiosities such as photos of oil stains, birds, and chalkboard menus; lists of famous suicides, train stations, and potential band names; and notes that read like poems. We sent Waits an e-mail asking about how he and Corbijn compiled the material for the book. We weren’t expecting such a wide-ranging reply—but coming from Tom Waits, it didn’t surprise us, either.

ON HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH CORBIJN: We are very different men. He’s, like, 6’5″, Dutch, quiet, studious, controlled—almost like a doctor—and I’m jerky, impatient, corny, curious, spraying in all directions. But we are both trying to discover something we have not seen before. Anton pulls hats out of rabbits. He will draw all the color from your face, put you against a gray sky, and presto: you look like a gravedigger. We are no longer in Miami. We are in Siberia.

ON CURATING HIS PERSONAL EPHEMERA: When we first started talking about the book, Anton told me I had to have my own contribution, so I started sending him pictures of things from my collection of things:

1. All my sound-effects records on vinyl

2. A chili recipe given to me by Tammy Wynette

3. An ad for cigars from a 100-year-old newspaper

4. Directions to a party at Dean Martin’s house

5. A box filled with bird skeletons

6. A headline in an old Texas newspaper that reads “Whiskey Flasks Found on Pastor’s Lawn”

7. A button off Frank Sinatra’s sport coat

8. A painting of Fat Joe by our son Casey

9. Huddie Ledbetter’s phone bill

I really hit my stride, I think, when I got the Band Names, Saved and ‘Named’ Seeds (Heirloom Tomato), and Things That I Found on the Ground.

ON THE MOOD OF THE PHOTOGRAPHS: When I’m out making pictures with Anton, we look for places that look mythic, filmic, tragic, operatic, and places that, if you frame out that new car dealership, could feel like a place from an old-fashioned book or a battlefield, a dying town . . . or an alley that could be hiding the Boston Strangler. Or we look for long shadows and dead trees, so you feel like you are in Odd Man Out or The Ox-Bow Incident.

ON OIL STAINS: The thing about oil stains is that if you go back in the next few days and try to find them, they will be gone. So the photos, for me, are profound because they have such short lives. They are more like fingerprints, dead leaves, rain puddles, or the corpses of flies.