CRAWLING DOWN CAHUENGA: AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID SMAY

David Smay, co-editor of Bubblegum Music Is the Naked Truth, and Lost In the Grooves (both in collaboration with Kim Cooper), and author of Swordfishtrombones (Bloomsbury, 33 1/3 series), discusses Tom Waits and the changing nature of Los Angeles with Sr. Associate Editor Emma Kemp.

David is a regular contributor to the website HiLobrow, and has published in such magazines as Oxford American.  He lives in San Francisco with his wife and two children. Read his work at:http://hilobrow.com/author/dsmay/.

EMMA E. KEMP: Hi David. We recently met on Esotouric’s Crawling Down Cahuenga: Tom Waits’ L.A – an alternative bus tour revealing the hidden secrets of Los Angeles through the lore of Tom Waits. I’d like to start at the beginning and work our way back to the bus…

Can you talk about your relationship to Tom Waits? Do you remember your introduction to Tom’s music?

DAVID SMAY: I became an obsessed Tom Waits fan when Frank’s Wild Years came out. I remember standing in my friend’s bedroom as he played “Hang On St. Christopher” and I could tell something very different and distinctive was happening.  It didn’t exactly appeal to me at first, so much as it challenged me.  There was something there to explore and discover.

I went back and completely immersed myself in the previous two albums in the Frank Trilogy (Swordfistrombonesand Rain Dogs) and then desperately looked for anything that sounded remotely like that. (There wasn’t much at the time.)  I had heard some earlier albums through a friend who was a big fan of Blue Valentine, and, in fact, I remembered seeing Tom on the Mike Douglas Show back in the 70s when I was just a kid.  But I wasn’t converted until I heard his albums on Island Records.

EEK: You’re the author of Swordfishtrombones published by Bloomsbury as part of their 33 1/3 series, can you talk a little about the experience of writing this book? How did you become involved with the series, and how did you approach long-form criticism?

DS: My friend and co-editor, Kim Cooper, had written a book for the 33⅓ series on Neutral Milk Hotel and encouraged me when Continuum Press had their open call for proposal. It’s an opportunity to work in long-form criticism, which is increasingly rare.  This series provides a platform to dig deeper into a work than market driven reviews can allow.

EEK: Did you have a clear agenda when you set out? Did this change as the book progressed?

DS: I knew I wasn’t planning on doing a standard critical book. I’d done plenty of record reviews in my day, and I wanted to use the longer form of a full book to explore Swordfishtrombones in a different way. As I noted in my introduction, it would have been exceedingly perverse to “explain” an album like Swordfishtrombones, an album which works best because of its provocations and mysteries. I had to find a structure which would allow entrance into the work without spelling everything out.

EEK: How did you go about researching and writing this project?

DS: There’s a huge amount of Tom Waits material available online. I spent two years researching everything about his career, reading literally hundreds of interviews. Spending time and taking lots of notes on all of his albums – not just Swordfishtrombones. Since it’s such a fulcrum in his career I really needed to understand what lead up to it, and what followed. With Swordfishtrombones, Tom Waits began to transition from a culture figure to an icon. Somebody whose work influenced so many artists who came after, often in subtle ways.  So many younger artists tap into that sonic palette that he developed, the exotic instruments, the distorted vocals, the bang-on-a-can aesthetic.  And his lyrics changed too, though they’ve proven harder to imitate without parody. The lyrics became very concrete, specific and detailed but at the same time he left space between them, a very controlled ambiguity.  It’s a very masterful way to approach songwriting but it allows him to build depth and mystery into his songs.

EEK: How did the book impact your relationship to Waits? I’m interested in how this relationship may have evolved, moving from fan, to aficionado, to scholar…? Has the book influenced how you listen to the music now?

DS: When you spend so much time and research on one artist it’s easy to become burned out on them. That never happened with Tom Waits – he’s created such a rich and varied musical legacy that I still love it. However, the process of writing the book did exhaust my questions about him. I understood his personal history, his creative methods, his favorite themes and sonic palette.  In a way, when you answer so many questions about an artist you lose some of the magnetic draw towards them.  In comparison, I’m a huge Kinks fan but because I haven’t studied Ray Davies so exhaustively I still have things to discover about him and his work. 

EEK: Were there difficulties in writing about an infamous figure in such an intimate way? Is the “cult of celebrity” difficult to transcend in a project like this?

DS: All of my critical writing tends to burrow under the perceived notion or narrative of an artist or their work. There is a tendency for critical assessments to become calcified and rigid over time and they can distort more than they reveal.  So getting past Tom’s persona and into his work was my standard strategy.  I did have a couple of pangs when I found buried little biographical details which he had obviously wanted kept hidden, or were painful to him.  But they were relevant to discussing his work so I wrote about them anyway.

EEK: During our first meeting, you were at the helm of a passenger coach pointing out choice spots in the underbelly of L.A significant to the Tom Waits chronology; how important is this particular city to the story of Tom Waits? What is it about L.A that lends itself to this kind of figure? Or did the figure create the city? How significant is geography in the construction of artistic identity? You’re obviously extremely familiar with Los Angeles, but you live in San Francisco, which has its own unique counter-cultural/literary history… how does this shape your own thinking/writing?

DS: Los Angeles is by far the most important city in Tom’s work and his relationship with L.A. is intimate and profound.  While the rest of the music industry was tucked away in Laurel Canyon in the Seventies, Tom Waits was the first musician to write about the Los Angeles of the streets.   He’s so specific about neighborhoods and intersections and bars and hotels and that kind of creative attention lends them a kind of myth.  He created a certain idea of Los Angeles which still has currency.  You have to look at movies like Cassavetes The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, or Barfly or Altman’s The Long Goodbye to see that Los Angeles. 

I lived in L.A. before I moved to San Francisco, so I’m familiar with both cities and their cultures.  There were times during the Beat era, and also during the punk era when LA/SF were more united than at odds with each other.  All those bands bombing up and down I-5 in their beat up vans to play at the Mab or the Whiskey.  Rebecca Solnit’s book The Secret Exhibition gave me a lot of insight into Wallace Berman’s circle and the artists associated with the Beat era and that’s a lens I bring to seeing Tom’s work.  More even than the actual writers like Kerouac and Bukowski who directly influenced Tom Waits.

EEK: You lead the Tom Waits bus tour once a year, how does this reenergise your relationship to Tom, and to your book? Did you spend a lot of time exploring these places during your research, or did the relationship between the music and the city come after, when you had the opportunity to do the tour?

DS: Every year I go back and revisit my book and my research before I do the tour. I try to change around the AV portion of the tour from year to year so that gives me something different to extemporize from.  Obviously we used his Letterman appearance before this year’s tour.  And, yes, I do learn something new from the passengers every tour. Tom’s had such a long career and I’ve met more than a few people who saw his legendary Steppenwolf production of Frank’s Wild Years in Chicago in the 80s, or locals who saw him perform in a play called Demon Wine.  I’ve met people who did lighting and sound on the Big Time movie. It all adds to the picture. 

When we first did the tour, I gave Kim and Richard a list of specific places I’d like to visit and they figure out how that could work as a tour, but it’s really over time that I’ve come to really grasp what you might call the psychogeography of his work.  There’s always more historical context to fill out, more layers of history, more interesting stories to discuss. Kim and Richard do an incredible job of explicating what was going on in Los Angeles politically, culturally, scandalously in any era so you can see how it all fits together.

EEK: I love that the tour connects you to such a diverse range of Tom Waits fans, how has this experience enhanced your relationship with Tom and the city?

DS: I love it! My favorite part is talking to the people on the tour when we stop at Canter’s.  Get to find out their discovery of Tom, what they’ve seen and heard.  Oftentimes people travel a long way just to do the tour, and that’s always an honor.  By the very nature of his work, Tom Waits attracts intelligent, interesting, creative people.

EEK: Can you talk a little about the changes sweeping DTLA? What’s your prognosis for the types of artists that can/will inhabit this new L.A?

DS: Downtown has changed so much in just 8 years (or so) we’ve been doing this tour.  It really had been frozen in amber since the Freeways went in, and when we started you still had many skid row bars and amazing cultural institutions like Clifton’s Cafeteria (where we used to end the tour).  But finally the desire for urban density has landed in Los Angeles, that most spread out and car-defined of cities, and it’s remaking downtown.  Certainly there are things I love about the changes – the Last Bookstore is exactly the kind of thing which can sustain and create its own cultural energy.  But if it just follows the standard gentrification of upper middle class and wealthy white people razing and developing indiscriminately, displacing long running locally owned business (as is happening at the Grand Central Market), we’re going to lose so much.  Los Angeles has not generally done a great job of preserving its incredible legacy (despite the heroic efforts of people like Kim and Richard, and many other preservationists).  The people of Los Angeles need to wake up to the fact that they are on the cusp of losing so much of their cultural history.  It’s in the balance right now.

EEK: What are you working on right now?

DS: I write for the website HiLobrow most recently doing a piece on the great fantasy and horror writer, Fritz Leiber (another creator with strong ties to both LA and SF).  I did a critical/analytical series for them on Early Sixties Horror movies which fascinated me (The Haunting, The Innocents, Blood and Roses, Eyes Without a Face, et al).  It’s a great outlet for the range of my interests which allows me to write about everything from Jack Kirby’s comics to Anna Ahkmatova’s poetry.

EEK: Do you have any advice for folks who may be putting together a 33 1/3 proposal for this year’s open call?

DS: Every correspondence is an advertisement for your writing, so sweat your emails and be cognizant of every word you’re putting down. The proposal is intended to present your depth of interest and give a hint of how the book is going work. I think giving substantial insight of what book will look like, while showcasing your technical ability, makes for a successful proposal across the board. For this series, you have to pitch a work you’re not going to get bored of. I was able to write about the breadth of Tom’s career, what went into it and what came out of it, so be creative in how you approach the topic, because there are many ways to do it. Take a chance, and don’t fuck it up!

Catch David in Pasadena on July 23rd at the Pasadena Central Library as he and co-presenters Kim Cooper, Gene Sculatti and Becky Ebenkamp discuss the history of Bubblegum Music. For more details visit http://www.lavatransforms.org/bubblegum.

Originally published on BlackClock.org

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