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In the 1970s, Tom Waits combined a lyrical focus on desperate, low-life characters with a persona that seemed to embody the same lifestyle, which he sang about in a raspy, gravelly voice. From the '80s on, his work became increasingly theatrical as he moved into acting and composing. Growing up in Southern California, Waits attracted the attention of manager Herb Cohen, who also handled Frank Zappa, and was signed by him at the beginning of the 1970s, resulting in the material later released as The Early Years and The Early Years, Vol. 2. His formal recording debut came with Closing Time (1973) on Asylum Records, an album that contained "Ol' 55," which was covered by labelmates the Eagles for their On the Border album. Waits attracted critical acclaim and a cult audience for his subsequent albums, The Heart of Saturday Night (1974), the two-LP live set Nighthawks at the Diner (1975), Small Change (1976), Foreign Affairs (1977), Blue Valentine (1978), and Heart Attack and Vine (1980). His music and persona proved highly cinematic, and, starting in 1978, he launched parallel careers as an actor and as a composer of movie music. He wrote songs for and appeared in Paradise Alley (1978), wrote the title song for On the Nickel (1980), and was hired by director Francis Coppola to write the music for One from the Heart (1982), which earned him an Academy Award nomination. While working on that project, Waits met and married playwright Kathleen Brennan, with whom he later collaborated.
Moving to Island Records, Waits made Swordfishtrombones (1983), which found him experimenting with horns and percussion and using unusual recording techniques. The same year, he appeared in Coppola's Rumble Fish and The Outsiders, and, in 1984, he appeared in the director's The Cotton Club. In 1985, he released Rain Dogs. In 1986, he appeared in Down by Law and made his theatrical debut with Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in Frank's Wild Years, a musical play he had written with Brennan. An album based on the play was released in 1987, the same year Waits appeared in the films Candy Mountain and Ironweed. In 1988, he released a film and soundtrack album depicting one of his concerts, Big Time. In 1989, he appeared in the films Bearskin: An Urban Fairytale, Cold Feet, and Wait Until Spring. His work for the theater continued in 1990 when Waits partnered with opera director Robert Wilson and beat novelist William Burroughs and staged The Black Rider in Hamburg, Germany. In 1991, he appeared in the films Queens' Logic, The Fisher King, and At Play in the Fields of the Lord. In 1992, he scored the film Night on Earth; released the album Bone Machine, which won a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album; appeared in the film Bram Stoker's Dracula; and returned to Hamburg for the staging of his second collaboration with Robert Wilson, Alice. The Black Rider was documented on CD in 1993, the same year Waits appeared in the film Short Cuts.
A long absence from recording resulted in the 1998 release of Beautiful Maladies, a retrospective of his work for Island. In 1999, Waits finally returned with a new album, Mule Variations. The record was a critical success, winning a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk album, and was also his first for the independent Epitaph Records' Anti subsidiary. A small tour followed, but Waits jumped right back into the studio and began working on not one but two new albums. By the time he emerged in the spring of 2002, both Alice and Blood Money were released on Anti Records. Blood Money consisted of the songs from the third Wilson/Waits collaboration that was staged in Denmark in 2000 and won Best Drama of the Year. After limited touring in support of these two endeavors, Waits returned to the recording studio and issued Real Gone in 2004. The album marked a large departure for him in that it contained no keyboards at all, focusing only on stringed and rhythm instruments. Glitter and Doom Live appeared in 2009. Waits didn't release another studio album of new material until 2011, when he issued Bad as Me on Anti in the Fall. He uncharacteristically issued a track listing two months in advance of the release, and the pre-release title track as a digital single. He also took the unusual step of releasing a video in which he allowed bits of all the album's songs to play while he scolded bloggers and peer-to-peer sites for invading his privacy.
Thomas Alan "Tom" Waits (born December 7, 1949) is an American singer-songwriter, composer, and actor. Waits has a distinctive voice, described by critic Daniel Durchholz as sounding "like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car." With this trademark growl, his incorporation of pre-rock music styles such as blues, jazz, and vaudeville, and experimental tendencies verging on industrial music, Waits has built up a distinctive musical persona. He has worked as a composer for movies and musical plays and has acted in supporting roles in films, including Paradise Alley and Bram Stoker's Dracula; he also starred in the 1986 film Down by Law. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his soundtrack work on One from the Heart.
Lyrically, Waits' songs frequently present atmospheric portrayals of grotesque, often seedy characters and places—although he has also shown a penchant for more conventional ballads. He has a cult following and has influenced subsequent songwriters despite having little radio or music video support. His songs are best-known through cover versions by more commercial artists: "Jersey Girl", performed by Bruce Springsteen, "Ol' '55", performed by the Eagles, and "Downtown Train", performed by Rod Stewart. Although Waits' albums have met with mixed commercial success in his native United States, they have occasionally achieved gold album sales status in other countries. He has been nominated for a number of major music awards and has won Grammy Awards for two albums, Bone Machine and Mule Variations. In 2011, Waits was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Waits lives in Sonoma County, California with his wife, Kathleen Brennan, and three children.
Origins and musical beginnings 
Waits was born at Park Avenue Hospital in Pomona, California, the son of Alma Fern (née Johnson) McMurray and Jesse Frank Waits, both schoolteachers. His father was of Scots-Irish descent and his mother was of Norwegian ancestry. After Waits' parents divorced in 1960, he lived with his mother in Whittier, and then moved to National City, in San Diego County, near the Mexico–United States border. Waits, who taught himself how to play the piano on a neighbor's instrument, often took trips to Mexico with his father, who taught Spanish; he would later say that he found his love of music during these trips through a Mexican ballad that was "probably a Ranchera, you know, on the car radio with my dad."
By 1965, while attending Hilltop High School within the Sweetwater Union High School District, Chula Vista, Waits was playing in an R&B/soul band called The Systems and had begun his first job at Napoleone Pizza House in National City (about which he would later sing on "I Can't Wait to Get Off Work (And See My Baby on Montgomery Avenue)" from Small Change and "The Ghosts of Saturday Night (After Hours at Napoleone's Pizza House)" on The Heart of Saturday Night). He later admitted that he was not a fan of the 1960s music scene, stating, "I wasn't thrilled by Blue Cheer, so I found an alternative, even if it was Bing Crosby." Five years later, he was working as a doorman at the Heritage nightclub in San Diego—where artists of every genre performed—when he did his first paid gig for $6. A fan of Bob Dylan, Lord Buckley, Jack Kerouac, Louis Armstrong, Howlin' Wolf, and Charles Bukowski, Waits began developing his own idiosyncratic musical style.
After serving with the United States Coast Guard, he took his newly formed act to Monday nights at The Troubadour in Los Angeles, where musicians would line up all day for the opportunity to perform on stage that night. In 1971, Waits moved to the Echo Park neighborhood of L.A. (at the time, also home to musicians Glenn Frey of the Eagles, J. D. Souther, Jackson Browne, and Frank Zappa) and signed with Herb Cohen at the age of 21. From August to December 1971, Waits made a series of demo recordings for Cohen's Bizarre/Straight label, including many songs for which he would later become known. These early tracks were released twenty years later on The Early Years, Volume One and Volume Two.
Waits signed to Asylum Records in 1972, and after numerous abortive recording sessions, his first record—the jazzy, folk-tinged Closing Time—was released in 1973. The album, which was produced and arranged by former Lovin' Spoonful member Jerry Yester, received positive reviews, but Waits did not gain widespread attention until a number of the album's tracks were covered by more prominent artists. Later in 1973, Tim Buckley released the album Sefronia, which contained a cover version of Waits' song "Martha" from Closing Time, the first-ever cover of a Tom Waits song by a known artist. This cover later appeared in the 1995 compilation Step Right Up: The Songs of Tom Waits. The album's opening track, "Ol' '55", was recorded by the Eagles in 1974 for their On the Border album.
He began touring and opening for such artists as Charlie Rich, Martha and the Vandellas, and Frank Zappa. Waits received increasing critical acclaim and gathered a loyal cult following with his subsequent albums. The Heart of Saturday Night (1974), featuring the song "(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night", revealed Waits's roots as a nightclub performer, with half-spoken and half-crooned ballads often accompanied by a jazz backup band. Waits described the album as:
...a comprehensive study of a number of aspects of this search for the center of Saturday night, which Jack Kerouac relentlessly chased from one end of this country to the other, and I've attempted to scoop up a few diamonds of this magic that I see.
In 1975, Waits moved to the Tropicana Motel on Santa Monica Boulevard and released the double album Nighthawks at the Diner, recorded in a studio with a small audience in order to capture the ambience of a live show. The record exemplifies this phase of his career, including the lengthy spoken interludes between songs that punctuated his live act. That year, he also contributed backing vocals to Bonnie Raitt's "Your Sweet and Shiny Eyes", from her album Home Plate.
By this time, Waits was drinking heavily, and life on the road was starting to take its toll. Waits, looking back at the period, has said,
I was sick through that whole period [...] It was starting to wear on me, all the touring. I'd been traveling quite a bit, living in hotels, eating bad food, drinking a lot — too much. There's a lifestyle that's there before you arrive and you're introduced to it. It's unavoidable.
In reaction to these hardships, Waits recorded Small Change (1976), which finds him in a much more cynical and pessimistic mood, lyrically, with many songs such as "The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) (An Evening with Pete King)" and "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart (In Lowell)". With the album, Waits asserted that he "tried to resolve a few things as far as this cocktail lounge, maudlin, crying-in-your-beer image that I have. There ain't nothin' funny about a drunk [...] I was really starting to believe that there was something amusing and wonderfully American about being a drunk. I ended up telling myself to cut that shit out." The album, which also included long-time fan favorite "Tom Traubert's Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)", featured jazz drummer Shelly Manne and was, like his previous albums, heavily influenced by jazz.
Small Change, which was accompanied by the double A-side single "Step Right Up"/"The Piano Has Been Drinking", was a critical and commercial success and far outsold any of Waits's previous albums. With it, Waits broke onto Billboard's Top 100 Albums chart for the first time in his career (a feat Waits would not repeat until 1999 with the release of Mule Variations). This resulted in a much higher public profile, which brought with it interviews and articles in Time, Newsweek, and Vogue. Waits put together a regular touring band, The Nocturnal Emissions, which featured Frank Vicari on tenor saxophone, Fitzgerald Jenkins on bass guitar, and Chip White on drums and vibraphone. Tom Waits and the Nocturnal Emissions toured the United States and Europe extensively from October 1976 until May 1977, including a performance of "The Piano Has Been Drinking" on cult BBC2 television music show the Old Grey Whistle Test in May 1976.
Foreign Affairs (1977) was musically in a similar vein to Small Change, but showed further artistic refinement and exploration into jazz and blues styles. Particularly noteworthy is the long cinematic spoken-word piece, "Potter's Field", set to an orchestral score. The album also features Bette Midler singing a duet with Waits on "I Never Talk to Strangers." The album Blue Valentine (1978) displayed Waits's biggest musical departure to date, with much more focus on electric guitar and keyboards than on previous albums and hardly any strings (with the exception of album-opener "Somewhere" — a cover of Leonard Bernstein's song from West Side Story — and "Kentucky Avenue") for a darker, more blues-oriented sound. The song "Blue Valentines" was also unique for Waits in that it featured a desolate arrangement of solo electric guitar played by Ray Crawford, accompanied by Waits' vocal. Around this time, Waits had a relationship with Rickie Lee Jones (who appears on the sleeve art of the Blue Valentine album). In 1978, Waits also appeared in his first film role, in Paradise Alley as Mumbles the pianist, and contributed the original compositions "(Meet Me in) Paradise Alley" and "Annie's Back in Town" to the film's soundtrack.
Heartattack and Vine, Waits's last studio album for Asylum, was released in 1980, featuring a developing sound that included both ballads ("Jersey Girl") and rougher-edged rhythm and blues. The same year, he began a long working relationship with Francis Ford Coppola, who asked Waits to provide music for his film One from the Heart. For Coppola's film, Waits originally wanted to work with Bette Midler; she was unavailable due to prior engagements, however. Waits ended up working with singer/songwriter Crystal Gayle as his vocal foil for the album.
In August 1980, Waits married Kathleen Brennan, a screenwriter, whom he had met while working on the set of the Francis Ford Coppola movie One from the Heart. Brennan is regularly credited as co-author of many songs in his later albums, and Waits often cites her as a major influence on his work. She introduced him to the music of Captain Beefheart. Despite having shared a manager with Beefheart in the 1970s, Waits says, "I became more acquainted with him when I got married." Waits would later describe his relationship with Brennan as a paradigm shift in his musical development. After leaving Asylum, the label released the first Tom Waits "Best of" album in 1981, a collection called Bounced Checks, notable for including an alternate, stripped down version of "Jersey Girl" and the otherwise unreleased "Mr. Henry", as well as an alternate master of "Whistlin' Past the Graveyard" and a live performance of "The Piano Has Been Drinking". During this period, Waits appeared in a series of minor movie roles, including a cameo role in Wolfen (1981) as an inebriated piano player, and his song "Jitterbug Boy" also appeared on the movie's soundtrack. One from the Heart received its official theatrical release in 1982, with Waits appearing in a cameo as a trumpet player as well as receiving an Oscar nomination for Original Song Score (eventually losing out to Victor Victoria, by Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse). This marked the first in a series of collaborations between Waits and Coppola, with Waits appearing in cameos in Coppola's movies The Outsiders (1983), Rumble Fish (1983), and The Cotton Club (1984), and a major role in Bram Stoker's Dracula. Waits also contributed two songs to the documentary Streetwise (1984), "Rat's Theme" and "Take Care of All My Children".
After leaving Asylum for Island Records, Waits released Swordfishtrombones in 1983, a record that marked a sharp turn in his musical direction. While Waits had before played either piano or guitar, he now gravitated towards less common instruments, saying, "Your hands are like dogs, going to the same places they've been. You have to be careful when playing is no longer in the mind but in the fingers, going to happy places. You have to break them of their habits or you don't explore; you only play what is confident and pleasing. I'm learning to break those habits by playing instruments I know absolutely nothing about, like a bassoon or a waterphone." Swordfishtrombones also introduced instruments such as bagpipes ("Town with No Cheer") and marimba ("Shore Leave") to Waits' repertoire, as well as pump organs, percussion (sometimes reminiscent of the music of Harry Partch), horn sections (often featuring Ralph Carney playing in the style of brass bands or soul music), experimental guitar, and obsolete instruments (many of Waits' albums have featured a damaged, unpredictable Chamberlin, and more recent albums have included the little-used Stroh violin).
His songwriting shifted as well, moving away from the traditional piano-and-strings ballad sound of his 1970s output towards a number of styles largely ignored in pop music, including primal blues, cabaret stylings, rumbas, theatrical approaches in the style of Kurt Weill, tango music, early country music and European folk music as well as the Tin Pan Alley-era songs that influenced his early output. He also recorded a spoken word piece, "Frank's Wild Years", influenced by Ken Nordine's "word jazz" records of the 1950s. Apart from Captain Beefheart and some of Dr. John's early output, there was little precedent in popular music.
Waits's new emphasis on experimenting with various styles and instrumentation continued on 1985's Rain Dogs, a sprawling, 19-song collection which received glowing reviews (the album was ranked #21 on Rolling Stone's list of the 100 greatest albums of the 1980s. In 2003, the album was ranked number 397 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.) Contributions from guitarists Marc Ribot, Robert Quine, and Keith Richards accompanied Waits' move away from piano-based songs, in juxtaposition with an increased emphasis on instruments such as marimba, accordion, double bass, trombone, and banjo. The album also spawned the 12" single "Downtown Train/Tango Till They're Sore/Jockey Full of Bourbon", with Jean Baptiste Mondino filming a promotional music video for "Downtown Train" (which would later become a hit for Rod Stewart), featuring a cameo from boxing legend Jake LaMotta. The album peaked at #188 on Billboard's Top 200 albums chart; however, its reputation has come to far outshine low initial sales.
Franks Wild Years, a musical play by Waits and Brennan, was staged as an Off-Broadway musical in 1986, directed by Gary Sinise, in a successful run at Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theater. Waits himself played the lead role. Waits developed his acting career with several supporting roles and a lead role in Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law in 1986, which also featured two of Waits's songs from Rain Dogs in the soundtrack. In the same year, Waits also contributed vocals to the song "Harlem Shuffle" on The Rolling Stones' album Dirty Work.
In 1987, he released Franks Wild Years (subtitled "Un Operachi Romantico in Two Acts"), which included studio versions from Waits' play of the same name. Rolling Stone summed up the album's myriad styles this way: "Everything from sleazy strip-show blues to cheesy waltzes to supercilious lounge lizardry is given spare, jarring arrangements using various combinations of squawking horns, bashed drums, plucked banjo, snaky double bass, carnival organ and jaunty accordion." Waits also continued to further his acting career with a supporting role as Rudy the Kraut in Ironweed (an adaptation of William Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel) alongside Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, in which Waits performed the song "Big Rock Candy Mountain", as well as a part in Robert Frank's Candy Mountain, in which Waits also performed "Once More Before I Go." In 1988, Waits performed in Big Time, a surreal concert movie and soundtrack which he cowrote with his wife.
In 1989, Waits appeared in his final theatrical stage role to date, appearing as Curly in Thomas Babe's Demon Wine, alongside Bill Pullman, Philip Baker Hall, Carol Kane, and Bud Cort. The play opened at the Los Angeles Theater Center in February 1989 to mixed reviews, although Waits' performance was singled out by a number of critics, including John C. Mahoney, who described it as "mesmerizing." Waits finished the decade with appearances in three movies: as the voice of a radio DJ in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train; as Kenny the Hitman in Robert Dornhelm's Cold Feet; and the lead role of Punch & Judy man Silva in Bearskin: An Urban Fairytale. His only musical output of the year consisted of contributing his cover of Phil Phillips' "Sea of Love" to the soundtrack of the Al Pacino movie of the same name and contributing vocals to The Replacements song "Date to Church", which appeared as a B-side to their single "I'll Be You".
The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets—a theatrical collaboration of Waits, director Robert Wilson, and writer William S. Burroughs—premiered at Hamburg's Thalia Theatre on March 31, 1990. The project was based on a German folktale called Der Freischütz, with Wilson responsible for the design and direction, Burroughs for writing the book, and Waits for music and lyrics, which were heavily influenced by the works of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. In the same year, Waits contributed a cover of Cole Porter's "It's All Right with Me" to Red Hot + Blue, the first in the series of compilation albums from the Red Hot Organization — one of the first major AIDS benefits in the music business—which sold over a million copies worldwide. Jim Jarmusch directed a promotional music video for the song. Waits also collaborated with photographer Sylvia Plachy in the same year; her book Sylvia Plachy's Unguided Tour includes a short Waits record to accompany the photographs and text.
The following year, Waits was extremely busy working on movie soundtracks, acting, and contributing to a number of music projects by other artists. First, Waits appeared on the Primus album Sailing the Seas of Cheese as the voice of "Tommy the Cat", which exposed him to a new audience in alternative rock. This was the first of several collaborations between Waits and the group; Frontman Les Claypool would appear on several subsequent Waits releases. The same year saw Waits provide spoken word contributions to Devout Catalyst, an album by one of Waits' greatest influences, Ken Nordine, on the songs "A Thousand Bing Bangs" and "The Movie." Waits also contributed vocals to a duet with singer Bob Forrest on the song "Adios Lounge" on the Thelonious Monster album Beautiful Mess. He also contributed vocals to two songs ("Little Man" and "I'm Not Your Fool Anymore") on jazz tenor saxophonist Teddy Edwards' album Mississippi Lad. Edwards was extremely complimentary of Waits' contributions, saying:
Tom Waits is the one who got me my contract [sic] with PolyGram. He's wonderful, he's America's best lyricist since Johnny Mercer. He came down to the studio on the Mississippi Lad album, that's the first one I did for PolyGram, and he sang two of my songs, wouldn't accept any money, just trying to give me the best boost that he could.
The only collection of exclusively Waits-performed material of 1991 appeared when Waits composed and conducted the almost exclusively instrumental music for Jim Jarmusch's 1991 film Night on Earth, which was released as an album the following year. In July 1991, Screamin' Jay Hawkins released the album Black Music for White People, which features covers of two Waits compositions: "Heartattack & Vine" (which later that year was used in a European Levi's advertisement without Waits' permission, resulting in a lawsuit) and "Ice Cream Man". Waits continued to appear in movie acting roles, the most significant of which was his uncredited cameo as a disabled veteran in Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King. He also appeared alongside Kevin Bacon, John Malkovich, and Jamie Lee Curtis in Steve Rash's Queens Logic, and opposite Tom Berenger and Kathy Bates in Hector Babenco's film At Play in the Fields of the Lord, adapted from Peter Matthiessen's 1965 novel.
Bone Machine, Waits's first studio album in five years, was released in 1992. The stark record featured a great deal of percussion and guitar (with little piano or sax), marking another change in Waits' sound. Critic Steve Huey calls it "perhaps Tom Waits's most cohesive album... a morbid, sinister nightmare, one that applied the quirks of his experimental '80s classics to stunningly evocative—and often harrowing—effect... Waits' most affecting and powerful recording, even if it isn't his most accessible." Bone Machine was awarded a Grammy in the Best Alternative Album category. On December 19, 1992 Alice, Waits's second theatrical project with Robert Wilson, premiered at the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg. Paul Schmidt adapted the text from the works of Lewis Carroll (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, in particular), with songs by Waits and Kathleen Brennan presented as intersections with the text rather than as expansions of the story, as would be the case in conventional musical theater. These songs would be recorded by Waits as a studio album 10 years later on Alice. 1992 also saw Waits featuring in Francis Ford Coppola's film Bram Stoker's Dracula, as the possessed lunatic Renfield.
In 1993, he released The Black Rider, which contained studio versions of the songs that Waits had written for the musical of the same name three years previously, with the exceptions of "Chase the Clouds Away" and "In the Morning", which appeared in the theatrical production but not on the studio album. William S. Burroughs also guests on vocals on "'Tain't No Sin". In the same year, Waits lent his vocals to Gavin Bryars' 75-minute reworking of his 1971 classical music piece Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet; appeared in Robert Altman's film version of Raymond Carver's stories Short Cuts and Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes: Somewhere in California, a short black-and-white movie with Iggy Pop; and his third child, Sullivan, was born. In 1997, Waits and Brennan wrote and performed the music for Bunny the animated short film by 20th Century Fox's Blue Sky Studios, which was awarded Best Animated Short Film by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
In 1995, Holly Cole released Temptation, a tribute album consisting entirely of Waits covers.
Another Waits cover was released in 1996, as Meat Loaf covered Martha for his concept album Welcome to the Neighborhood.
In 1998, after Island Records released the compilation Beautiful Maladies: The Island Years, Waits left the label for Epitaph, whose president, Andy Kaulkin, said the label was "...blown away that Tom would even consider us. We are huge fans." Waits himself was full of praise for the label, saying "Epitaph is rare for being owned and operated by musicians. They have good taste and a load of enthusiasm, plus they're nice people. And they gave me a brand-new Cadillac, of course."
Waits's first album on his new label, Mule Variations, was issued in 1999. Billboard described the album as musically melding "backwoods blues, skewed gospel, and unruly art stomp into a sublime piece of junkyard sound sculpture." The album was Waits' first release to feature a turntablist. The album won a Grammy in 2000; as an indicator of how difficult it is to classify Waits's music, he was nominated simultaneously for Best Contemporary Folk Album (which he won) and Best Male Rock Vocal Performance (for the song "Hold On"), both different from the genre for which he won his previous Grammy. The album was also his highest-charting album in the U.S. to date, reaching #30.
The same year, Waits made a foray into producing music for other artists, teaming up with his old friend Chuck E. Weiss to coproduce (with his wife, Kathleen Brennan) Extremely Cool, as well as appearing on the record as a guest vocalist and guitarist. He also contributed a cover of Skip Spence's "Books of Moses" to More Oar: A Tribute to the Skip Spence Album, a collection of covers of the singer's songs on Birdman Records. The same year, Waits appeared in the comedy Mystery Men.
John Hammond's Wicked Grin, a collection of Waits cover songs, was released in 2001. Waits appears on most songs, playing guitar, piano, and/or offering backing vocals. The album also includes the traditional hymn "I Know I've Been Changed", performed as a duet by Hammond and Waits.
Tori Amos included a cover of the song "Time", from Rain Dogs on her 2001 album Strange Little Girls.
In 2002, Waits simultaneously released two albums, Alice and Blood Money. Both collections had been written almost 10 years previously and were based on theatrical collaborations with Robert Wilson; the former a musical play about Lewis Carroll, and the latter an interpretation of Georg Büchner's play fragment Woyzeck. Both albums revisit the tango, Tin Pan Alley, and spoken-word influences of Swordfishtrombones, while the lyrics are both profoundly cynical and melancholic, exemplified by "Misery is the River of the World" and "Everything Goes to Hell." "Diamond in Your Mind", which Waits wrote for Wilson's Woyzeck, did not appear on Blood Money; however, it did emerge on Solomon Burke's album Don't Give Up on Me of the same year. While Waits has played the song live a number of times, an official version would not be released until 2007. The same year, Waits contributed a version of "The Return of Jackie and Judy" by The Ramones to the compilation album We're a Happy Family: A Tribute to Ramones, which was released in 2003 on Columbia Records. That same year, Waits was also a judge for the 2nd annual Independent Music Awards to support independent artists' careers. Waits was also a judge for the 10th annual Independent Music Awards.
Waits released Real Gone, his first nontheatrical studio album since Mule Variations, in 2004. It is Waits's only album to date to feature absolutely no piano on any of its tracks. Waits beatboxes on the opening track, "Top of the Hill", and most of the album's songs begin with Waits's "vocal percussion" improvisations. It is also more rock-oriented, with less blues influence than he has previously demonstrated. The same year, Waits contributed backing vocals to the track "Go Tell It on the Mountain" on the Grammy Award (Best Traditional Gospel Album)-winning album of the same name by The Blind Boys of Alabama. He also contributed a version of Daniel Johnston's "King Kong" to the tribute album The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered, released on Gammon Records.
At this time, Waits made a return to acting after a five-year break, marked at first by the re-release of his 1993 Jim Jarmusch-directed short Coffee and Cigarettes: Somewhere in California, costarring Iggy Pop, compiled in Coffee and Cigarettes. In 2005, Waits appeared in the Tony Scott film Domino as a soothsayer. In the same year, Waits appeared as himself in Roberto Benigni's romantic comedy La Tigre e la Neve, set in occupied Baghdad during the Iraq War. In the movie, Waits appears in a dream scene as himself, singing the ballad "You Can Never Hold Back Spring" and accompanying himself at the piano.
A 54-song three-disc box set of rarities, unreleased tracks, and brand-new compositions called Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards was released in November 2006. The three discs are subdivided relating to their content: "Brawlers" features Waits's more upbeat rock and blues songs; "Bawlers", his ballads and love songs; and "Bastards", songs that fit in neither category, including a number of spoken-word tracks. A video for the song "Lie to Me" was produced as a promotion for the collection. Orphans also continues Waits's newfound interest in politics with "Road to Peace", a song about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. The album is also notable for containing a number of covers of songs by other artists, including The Ramones ("The Return of Jackie and Judy" and "Danny Says"), Daniel Johnston ("King Kong"), Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht ("What Keeps Mankind Alive"), and Lead Belly ("Ain't Goin' Down to the Well" and "Goodnight Irene"), as well as renditions of works by poets and authors admired by Waits, such as Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac and a previously released duet with Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse entitled "Dog Door". Waits' albums Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards and Alice are both included in metacritic.com's list of the "Top 200: Best-Reviewed Albums" since 2000 at #10 and #20, respectively (as of November 2009). The same year, Waits appeared on Sparklehorse's album Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain, playing piano on the track "Morning Hollow."
Five different versions of Waits's song "Way Down in the Hole" have been used as the opening theme songs for the HBO television show The Wire. Waits's own version, from Frank's Wild Years, was used for season two. The other versions used for the series were performed by, in season order, The Blind Boys of Alabama, The Neville Brothers, "DoMaJe" and Steve Earle.
Waits made a number of high-profile television and concert appearances between 2006 and 2010. In November 2006, Waits appeared on The Daily Show and performed "The Day After Tomorrow." This was significant for his having been only the third performing guest on the show, the first being Tenacious D and the second The White Stripes. On May 4, 2007, Waits performed "Lucinda" and "Ain't Goin' Down to the Well" from Orphans on the last show of a week Late Night with Conan O'Brien spent in San Francisco. There was a short interview after the last performance. Waits also played in the Bridge School Benefit on October 27–28, 2007 with Kronos Quartet.
On July 10, 2007, Waits released the download-only digital single "Diamond In Your Mind". The version of the song was recorded with Kronos Quartet, with Greg Cohen, Philip Glass, and The Dalai Lama at the benefit concert "Healing The Divide: A Concert for Peace and Reconciliation" at Avery Fisher Hall, recorded on September 21, 2003.
Waits's song "Trampled Rose" (from Real Gone) appeared on the critically acclaimed album Raising Sand, a collaboration between Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. Waits also provided guest vocals on the song "Pray" by fellow ANTI- artists The Book of Knots on their album Traineater.
He played the role of Kneller in the film Wristcutters: A Love Story, which opened in November 2007.
On January 22, 2008, Waits made a rare live appearance in Los Angeles, performing at a benefit for Bet Tzedek Legal Services—The House of Justice, a nonprofit poverty law center.
On May 7, 2008, Waits announced the Glitter and Doom Tour starting in June 2008, touring cities in the southern United States and subsequently announced a series of dates in the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe. Waits was awarded the key to the city of El Paso, Texas during a concert on June 20, 2008. In his generally positive review of the opening show of the tour, The Wall Street Journal critic Jim Fusilli described Waits' music thus:The 58-year-old Mr. Waits ... has composed a body of work that's at least comparable to any songwriter's in pop today. A keen, sensitive and sympathetic chronicler of the adrift and downtrodden, Mr. Waits creates three-dimensional characters who, even in their confusion and despair, are capable of insight and startling points of view. Their stories are accompanied by music that's unlike any other in pop history.
On May 20, 2008, Scarlett Johansson's debut album, entitled Anywhere I Lay My Head, featured covers of ten Tom Waits songs. Waits made an appearance on the album The Spirit of Apollo by alternative hip hop project N.A.S.A., on the track "Spacious Thoughts."
Waits wrote the following introduction for the Tompkins Square compilation People Take Warning – Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913–1938:In the late 1920's and early 1930's, the Depression gripped the Nation. It was a time when songs were tools for living. A whole community would turn out to mourn the loss of a member and to sow their songs like seeds. This collection is a wild garden grown from those seeds.
In late 2009, Terry Gilliam's film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was released, with Waits in the role of Mr. Nick. Production began in December 2007 in London. Star Heath Ledger's death in January 2008 cast doubt on the film's future, but the production was salvaged with the addition of new actors playing his character in scenes he did not complete.
Waits played the role of "The Engineer" in the film The Book of Eli, opposite Denzel Washington, which opened in January 2010.
He is working on a new stage musical with director and long-time collaborator Robert Wilson and playwright Martin McDonagh.
In early 2011, Tom Waits completed a set of 23 poems entitled Seeds on Hard Ground, which were inspired by Michael O'Brien's portraits of the homeless in his upcoming book, Hard Ground, which will include the poems alongside the portraits. In anticipation of the book release, Waits and Anti- printed limited edition chapbooks of the poems to raise money for Redwood Empire Food Bank, a homeless referral and family support service in Sonoma County, California. As of January 26, 2011, four editions, each limited to a thousand copies costing $24.99US each, sold out, raising $90,000 for the food bank.
It was announced on February 9, 2011, that Waits was to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Neil Young. The ceremony was held at the Waldorf-Astoria on Monday, March 14, 2011, at 8:30pm EST. Waits accepted the award with his customary humor, stating, "They say I have no hits and that I'm difficult to work with... like it's a bad thing."
On February 24, 2011, it was announced via Waits' official website that he has begun work on his next studio album. Waits said through his website that on August 23 he would "set the record straight" in regards to rumors of a new release. On August 23, the title of the new album was revealed to be Bad as Me, and a new single, also titled "Bad as Me," started being offered via Amazon.com and other sites. The album was released on October 24.
Waits appears on the songs "Fadin' Moon" and "Ghost to a Ghost" on Hank Williams III's 2011 album Ghost to a Ghost/Gutter Town.
In 2012, Waits appeared in the movie Seven Psychopaths as part of an ensemble cast which included Colin Farrell and Christopher Walken. In 2013, the song "Shenandoah," which Waits recorded with Keith Richards, was included on the compilation album Son Of Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys. The album will be released February 19 on the ANTI- label.
On May 5, 2013, Waits joined The Rolling Stones on stage at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, California to duet with Mick Jagger on the song "Little Red Rooster".
Waits has steadfastly refused to allow the use of his songs in commercials and has joked about other artists who do (commenting "If Michael Jackson wants to work for Pepsi, why doesn't he just get himself a suit and an office in their headquarters and be done with it?"). He has filed several lawsuits against advertisers who used his material without permission. He has been quoted as saying, "Apparently, the highest compliment our culture grants artists nowadays is to be in an ad — ideally, naked and purring on the hood of a new car", he said in a statement, referring to the Mercury Cougar. "I have adamantly and repeatedly refused this dubious honor."
Waits filed his first lawsuit in 1988 against Frito-Lay. The company had approached Waits to use one of his songs in an advertisement, which Waits declined. Frito-Lay hired a Waits soundalike to sing a jingle similar to the song "Step Right Up" from the album Small Change', which is a song Waits has called "an indictment of advertising". Waits won the lawsuit, becoming one of the first artists to successfully sue a company for using an impersonator without permission. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed an award of $2.375 million in his favor (Waits v. Frito-Lay, 978 F. 2d 1093 (9th Cir. 1992)).
In 1993, Levi's used Screamin' Jay Hawkins' version of Waits' "Heartattack and Vine" in a commercial. Waits sued, and Levi's agreed to cease all use of the song and offered a full page apology in Billboard.
Waits found himself in a situation similar to his earlier one with Frito Lay in 2000 when Audi approached him, asking to use "Innocent When You Dream" (from Franks Wild Years) for a commercial broadcast in Spain. Waits declined, but the commercial ultimately featured music very similar to that song. Waits undertook legal action, and a Spanish court recognized that there had been a violation of Waits's moral rights in addition to the infringement of copyright. The production company, Tandem Campany Guasch, was ordered to pay compensation to Waits through his Spanish publisher. Waits was later quoted as jokingly saying the company got the name of the song wrong, thinking it was called "Innocent When You Scheme".
In 2005, Waits sued Adam Opel AG, claiming that, after having failed to sign him to sing in their Scandinavian commercials, they had hired a sound-alike singer. In 2007, the suit was settled, and Waits gave the sum to charity.
Waits has also filed a lawsuit unrelated to music. He was arrested in 1977 outside Duke's Tropicana Coffee Shop in Los Angeles. Waits and a friend were trying to stop some men from bullying other patrons. The men were plainclothes officers, and Waits and his friend were arrested and charged with disturbing the peace. The jury found Waits not guilty; he took the police department to court and was awarded $7,500 compensation.