A Strange, Hot Trip to See Tom Waits Live in Phoenix

Ugly Beauty, Universal Truth
Funny things happen when you drive through the desert to see Tom Waits

It's easy to forget that the desert hovers over Orange County, ready to swallow it up given the chance. Traveling to Phoenix to crawl around the Mojave Desert and beyond in 115-degree heat in order to witness the June 17 and 18 Tom Waits concerts, however, it's hard to forget.

Phoenix's Orpheum Theatre is surprisingly small. The stage is decorated with finds from a whore's garage sale and an ice-cream-truck junkyard. It's sparse yet gaudy, postmodern yet vaudeville. Guys dressed like they're ready to deal blackjack to cowboys bump into tattooed Bettie Page look-alikes and your dad's hip bachelor buddy. The world's longest soul patch is also in attendance, attached to the face of a man in a guayabera shirt and fedora. A fellow spectator reads my mind as she remarks to her companion, “It's like a . . . weird mix.”

With the lights down, Waits' band mates enter the stage like specters. Their leader takes his place on a platform at the front of the stage with arms outstretched, a scarecrow in silhouette with a Christ complex. Waits mines his carnival-barker/revivalist-preacher/corner-madman persona for maximum impact. The primal beat starts, and a low-hanging cloud of fog hovers at Waits' feet. He stomps in time, sending up little puffs. The man knows theater.

The majority of the show is played with roughly the standard rock setup—guitar, bass, drums, keys, horns—even though Waits has never been standard or rock. It's a formation that allows for Waits' fractured takes on modern music, but the band is neither too thin nor cluttered. Eventually, Waits strips it all down to basics: his calloused voice and a piano, with a little upright bass for good measure.

At one point, Waits discusses the topic of everyone's obsession the past few days. “It's about 111 out there,” he says. “Fortunately, that's my lucky number.” Later, Waits claims to have purchased (via eBay) Henry Ford's dying breath as preserved in a soda bottle. He told us he keeps it in the trunk of his car, a Ford.

Waits could sing almost anything with conviction and sell it as fact. Since he sings ugly beauty and universal truth, at times his set is transcendent. He delivers with style abhorrent absolutes such as “Misery's the river of the world” and “We're all gonna be dirt in the ground.” It's simple but true: You really are innocent when you dream. It's sentimental and poignant, but not maudlin. That tough trick is a big part of Waits' appeal. The place erupts into a sing-along, and it isn't cheesy. The Howlin' Wolf-gargling-gravel voice just adds to the spectacle. After nearly two hours, the catharsis is over.

For sale in the lobby is a chapbook, True Confessions, in which Waits interviews himself. “Mostly I straddle reality and the imagination,” he writes. “My reality needs imagination like a bulb needs a socket. My imagination needs reality like a blind man needs a cane.”

On the way home, we stop at the General George S. Patton Museum at Chiriaco Summit. “Waits, you magnificent bastard, I read your book,” I shout, paraphrasing the hero of Franklin J. Schaffner's film Patton.

Inside the museum, a madman raves at the desk clerk. “You need to get these tanks to the Rose Parade,” he says. “It's international. Mention that. It might get you some points with your boss.”

The desert does strange things to a man. The exchange happens beneath a sign that describes the area: “18,000 square miles of nothing, in a desert designed for Hell.”

As we drive away, the distant desert mountains look painted on the horizon. Reality and imagination—or has the extremity of this place softened the head? Maybe Sherman tanks in the Rose Parade is genius. An 11th-hour decision is made to hunt for the hotel where Gram Parsons died. We spot the Joshua Tree Inn, a “cosmic American hotel.”

Room 8 is vacant. Inside the cozy unit, we're told that the bed and most of the furniture are the same as were there the day Gram died. In the peaceful courtyard engulfed by barren wilderness, the desert seems less menacing. All that empty space can be filled with whatever you want. The heat and strange creatures aren't threatening. They're just seeking their own level. As we leave, we spot the sign declaring the place “the home of Gram Parsons' spirit.” Yeah. Maybe.

There's a feeling of connection to this bizarre place. The unrelated combo of Tom Waits, General Patton and Gram Parsons seems connected, like an ostrich burrito and a Xanax chaser served at gunpoint (very American), component parts brought together by setting and cross-pollination. Synthesized improbability. It's a lot like the music of Tom Waits that way: pre-rock blues, post-rock noise and theatricality underpinning a lot of howling and poignant melodrama.

On the way back, we spot the desert dinosaurs, a billboard on which a clown sells real estate, and the crashed alien spaceship S.S. Casino Morongo. We pass through Pomona, Waits' birthplace and the edge of the desert. We descend into OC from the northeastern edge, aware of the miles of desert that surround Southern California. Maybe the desert isn't such a threat anymore.

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