All aboard the Tom Waits bus tour!
By Leonie Cooper
Monday 23 April 2012
You can’t get more than 10ft down the main drag of Hollywood Boulevard without being offered a Los Angeles bus tour. But the Tom Waits tour, Crawling Down Cahuengua (named after a line from the 1980 song Heartattack and Vine), doesn’t pimp for custom on the side of the road. Run by Esotouric, it’s been an annual event for the last five years. This year’s tour was held the weekend before the elusive Waits had planned to perform songs from last year’s Bad As Me album live on US TV for the first time. However, with his Letterman and Jimmy Fallon appearances now postponed, a trawl around his 70s and 80s stomping grounds is probably as close as any fan will get to Waits this week.
“He’s really entwined with the city in a way that few musicians are,” explains tour guide and San Francisco-based writer David Smay. “Obviously a lot of musicians came to LA and started their careers here. Not that many wrote about Los Angeles the way he wrote about it and the not the parts of Los Angeles he’s writing about.” It’s true that sightseeing trips taking in the careers of Frank Zappa, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell would be set primarily among the bucolic, middle-class lushness of the Topanga and Laurel Canyons. A Tom Waits tour, however, is a grittier affair, covering the sleazy side streets and grimier parts of town, which, says Smay with a heavy heart, are “getting cleaned up and disappearing now”.
The tour starts at the King Eddie Saloon, the last of the Skid Row dive bars, which just a few days ago changed its long-standing 6am opening time to 11am, much to the concern of our Esotouric hosts. From downtown LA, the bus carries passengers up into Hollywood. Here still stands the Ivar theatre, a former “burlesk” house near a long-gone drag bar called the Sewers of Paris, both of which were establishments favoured and namedropped by Waits when recording around the corner at Sunset Sound. When we step off the bus, a passenger who performed at the theatre in its improv days breaks into a Waits’-worthy piece of beatnik poetry before Smay and fellow guide Kim Cooper fill us in on the history of the Ivar and its legendary slogan: “Gentlemen, pitch your tents!” allegedly said to the clientele of the no-frills girlie show at the start of the night.
Other Waits haunts include the site of the newsstand owned by Angelo Rossitto (the dwarf actor on the cover of Swordfishtrombones), the single occupancy hotel rooms that litter the lyrics of his bar-hopping bachelor days, the site of the Tropicana Motel in West Hollywood, where Waits lived in the late 70s, and the Troubadour, where he was spotted at the beginning of the decade by Zappa and Captain Beefheart’s manager Herb Cohen as well as David Geffen.
Meanwhile, Smay and Cooper regale passengers with fannish anecdotes such as punk rocker Alice Bag’s story of Waits hitting on her at Canter’s ”“ the Fairfax district deli where we stop for coffee and knishes ”“ and her boyfriend taking offence, leading to an almighty, chair-chucking fight at the Troubadour. We also hear about Waits’ courtship with his wife Kathleen Brennan, his relationships with singers Rickie Lee Jones and Bette Midler, and how a 12-year-old Cooper arranged a private Waits concert for her schoolmates when the singer was working on the soundtrack to Francis Ford Coppola‘s One from the Heart.
The tour attendees span in age from their teens to their 60s and as we walk to Canter’s, Smay says he isn’t surprised by Waits’ growing legions of young fans. “People discover him in a different way than they do other musicians ”“ he’s not in the cycle of marketing,” he says. “He’s handed down ”“ you have an ex-girlfriend that loved him, and that’s how you get it. That friend, that cool older brother had it.”
The bus then heads over to the east side, to Waits’ spruced up former residences in Silverlake and Echo Park and what was the Travellers Cafe, a rundown spot used by Waits for interviews in the 80s, now a vegan restaurant.
Smay tells the group that the tour used to finish at Clifton’s Cafeteria, a 30s woodland-themed restaurant on Broadway, which is currently boarded up owing to lengthy renovation work. It’s further proof that Waits’ LA is vanishing, but with their stories and enthusiasm Esotouric is doing its best to keep it alive.
For more photos of Bette and Tom: Click Here