Discover the great stories & images behind a classic Tom Waits photoshoot
Posted on 28th April 2020 by Clare Guise
Tom Waits photographed by Jill Furmanovsky in Santa Rosa, 1999
We are delighted to launch our exclusive news article collaboration with our great friends at Rock's Backpages, the definitive online archive of music journalism.
Fittingly, our first joint feature focuses on the shared experiences of our founder Jill Furmanovsky and writer/RBP editorial director Barney Hoskyns when they travelled to California in January 1999 to interview and photograph Tom Waits for MOJO. The resulting piece was published in the magazine's April issue, while a version of the interview (excerpted below) was published in The Independent.
Below, we share some previously unseen photos and writings from that trip plus a recently recorded podcast in which Barney and Jill discuss this and other key moments from Jill's career.
"I woke early in Santa Rosa, headed down to breakfast, and stumbled on Anton Corbijn. He'd shot Waits the day before and was heading back to San Francisco to shoot Sean Penn. After my breakfast burrito, Rob Partridge [Waits' UK PR] breezed in, looking oddly camp and slightly sinister – shaved head, dark rims under his eyes, a big mulberry-coloured shirt flapping over his stomach – and issued instructions and directions for the interview. The absolutely adorable Jill Furmanovsky then appeared.
"Two hours later, we were sat with Waits in a funky Chinese diner called the China Light. The interview went fine but was something of a coitus interruptus. After an hour and a quarter, Jill and I took off with Tom in his 1970 Coupe de Ville, driving out of town in search of photo locations. I'm promised more time on the phone on Monday."
Barney writing for The Independent, May 1999 (Courtesy of Rock's Backpages):
"Few of the patrons of the China Light diner in Santa Rosa look up when Tom Waits shuffles through the door. Attired in coarse indigo denim and clutching a bulky leather briefcase, to them he's merely another street eccentric. Just as he blended effortlessly into the barfly demi-monde of sleazoid Hollywood in the days when he was bellowing songs like 'The Piano Has Been Drinking', so now – despite living in domesticated rural bliss with a wife and three children – Waits can wander into a Chinese Diner in northern California without causing a commotion.
"Then again, when you're sat down with the man and he's yanked a battered paperback called The Ultimate Book of Oddities out of the briefcase, Thomas Alan Waits hardly looks like your average Joe. Perhaps it's the little swatch of white-grey hair beneath his lower lip, or the nest of dark red locks scrunched under his old fedora. Maybe it's the deep, growling voice – somewhere between Lord Buckley and Leonard Cohen – in which he speaks of upcoming local attractions like the Banana Slug Festival. 'They're gelatinous gastropods ten inches long, and people cook with them,' he says. 'They're indigenous to this area, so much so that a nephew of mine asked me to capture and send him one. We did, and it was a big hit.'
"The truth is, Waits doesn't much care for the interview ritual, even if this one is designed to promote a terrific new Tom Waits record called Mule Variations. It might be different if he could talk all day about banana slugs, but the realities of the modern music industry behoove him to address the many ramifications of a career that stretches out over three decades. It's probably a good thing that he only releases an album every six years or so."
Jill Furmanovsky recalls from the Santa Rosa trip:
"Tom Waits was well prepared for doing press and photoshoots to promote his album. He arrived at the diner with props in the boot of the car – different things for each photographer. In my case he had a book called Oddities, a battered trumpet and gardening gloves. His hands looked somewhat battered so perhaps he had been doing some DIY or gardening work at home.
"He generously offered to drive me around Santa Rosa in his beat-up car to interesting locations, like the old railway line. He really put himself out to help me get a variety of pictures. It surprised me because I'd heard he didn't like doing press. Mind you, if you do some research you can see that just about every picture of Tom Waits ever taken is great, so clearly he knows the power of visual language."
Listen to Jill and Barney discuss more recollections from this and other moments from Jill's career in the Rock's Backpages podcast www.rocksbackpages.com/Podcast
In his bestselling book Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits, Barney further recalls of their time in California:
"When I spent my afternoon with Waits in Santa Rosa, I remarked on the irony of a 49-year-old man making grittier music than he'd made at half his age. 'I always start at the wrong end of everything,' he said. 'I don't know, maybe I'm raging against the dying light. What do they say? Youth is wasted on the young?'
"He stopped and for a second became more philosophical. What he said made it clear that, for him, midlife had been far from a crisis. "Time is not a line, or a road where you get further away from things," he said, "It's exponential. Everything that you experienced when you were eighteen is still with you".
Interesting the front cover of Barney's book features one of Jill photos that was taken just round the corner from the restaurant. Copies of Barney's book are available from Amazon
Discover more interviews and features on Tom Waits and other rock music history at Rock's Backpages
Cover of Barney Hoskyn's book Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits