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What Tom Waits's Movies Taught Me About Style

Is there really anyone cooler?

by Davo McConville
May 29 2014, 3:45pm

If a gross of advertisers had decided to create a personification of the American 20th century, an avatar of both popular culture and of the sputtering engine of manifest destiny, Tom Waits might be the grizzled outcome. Wheezing like a burst water main, growling for all the stray dogs, sun-faded pickup trucks, and broken Coke bottles drunk in pursuit of the dream, his music scratches away at the backdoor of a house with the porch and the white picket fence. His vocal style tends to have a divisive effect: you’re either hooked, as I am, by the sound of a man screaming and balladeering his guts out, or alternatively you find him as appealing as a bawling toddler screeching their guts out as they drag their tiny fingernails over a blackboard.

Either way, Waits’s music is viscerally evocative of a particular slice of Americana, to a degree only matched by Springsteen, his East Coast counterpart. When you listen to either you can practically touch the blue denim, feel the leather seats, and smell the spilt gas on the asphalt. You’re never far from a gas station. But today we’re focusing not on Waits the musician, but on Waits as a style icon, with movies as our mood board because over the last 30 plus years he’s amassed a pretty impressive filmography, from The Outsiders to Dracula to Seven Psychopaths to Wristcutters.

The first thing you notice when you spy Tom Waits creeping into shot in a movie is that it’s definitely Tom Waits, the character from the songs, as much if not more so than the character he's scripted to embody.

You can imagine the legions of stylists, hairdressers, and make-up persons gazing at the rickety, threadbare shadow Waits casts and deciding that he’s perfect just as he is for the barfly, ne’er-do-well, or gentleman hobo. Because whoever casts Tom Waits in a movie is casting Tom Waits, and knows that he’ll show up on set, dressed either like this:

Waits apparently flying a helicopter in At Play In The Fields Of The Lord.

Or this:

You’re booking an artfully disheveled, missing adult member of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. Or perhaps a down-on-his-luck elf that’s taken to dumpster diving and snoozing under the freeway underpass.

In short, he’s not so much a character actor, but rather a character whose performance has so far lasted a lifetime—from whisky-embalmed bar crooner to desiccated desert rat. A man who spends his time, if you’ll believe his tall tales and vertiginous legends,speeding between junkyards in his wood-paneled station wagon. (I did meet Waits once, and I'm saddened to report that a gleaming black 2010 Lexus SUV was his ride of choice.)

The closest he’s ever come to respectability was in 90s film, The Two Jakes, Jack Nicholson’s muddled sequel to Polanski’s awesome man-movie Chinatown (lead actors directing movies, not, by and large a great idea methinks), where he looked like this: a slightly less bedraggled than usual movie police detective.

When I say respectable, maybe I mean looks-like-one-of-the ’toons from Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” (Props to the cigar-puffing man in a dinner suit photobombing the shot.)

Every other Waits role is an unhinged, anti-establishment figure, either actively railing against the system (see Mystery Men, Dracula, Domino), or those who have already fallen through the cracks of social disinterest (Queens Logic, Wristcutters, The Fisher King). So I guess Tom’s movies gave me a style education the same way his music taught me about grilled cheese: I haven’t learned much but I’ve had a hell of a time spectating.

So let’s review the range of Waits on offer. He comes in several flavors of archetype.

Tom lives this part, he goes off-piste like a man who uses ski poles as hunting devices, throwing himself, ill-advisedly into the craziness full-tilt. In a cast of seriously skewed people, Short Cuts’ Earl Piggot isn’t the craziest. He’s just a depressive, alcoholic limousine driver. Shown here with his wife, Lily Tomlin, who in the film plays a murderer. Look at that murderous lei.

Earl is happy here because he is drunk. Earl is only happy when he drinks. Drunk makes happy, kids.

Earl’s costume changes in this movie depending on whether he’s happy and drunk. Happy equals Hawaii, complete with board shorts and tank showing his tattoos. If he’s depressed and morose, he’s dressed supposedly respectably. When he’s a chauffeur he often accessorizes with sunglasses to hide the puffy eyes. Here the lesson is clearly more lei = more happy.

Then there’s The Fisher King, in which his Vietnam vet vents bile and conspiracy from his wheelchair. Here I learned that headbands and cut-off sleeves can actually look pretty classy when the alternative is Jeff Bridges’ ultra-yuppie black suit ensemble. (Check out that topknot/man-pony, a style which “sources” tell me is “back.” Shudder.)

Finally, continuing a long partnership with Francis Ford Coppola, Tom came onboard his beautiful, opulent, quixotic take on the Dracula myth. Coppola’s Dracula took many audacious leaps. We saw Dracula (played by the ever reliably villainous Gary Oldman) lolling around in direct sunlight wearing SPF 15. We saw lesbian siren vampresses, which included a bodacious Monica Bellucci. We enjoyed over-the-top Van Helsingisms from Antony Hopkins. And, most ridiculously, we saw Keanu Reeves trying to make out with Winona Ryder, deploying his best cod-English accent while bearing the emotionless face of a dead fish. But all the frothing was supplied by Waits as Renfield, a pestilent asylum incarceree; a rat-eating, insect-consuming, straightjacketed ward of the dread Dracula.

In Dracula, he took the only reasonable step left for the Wild-Eyed Crazyman. Straightjackets.

Now I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to go clubbing wearing a straightjacket, but it’s not cool. Your dance moves are extremely limited. How are you going to reach your drink? And there’s no chance of fondling a passing stranger.

Tom also got to wear a bunch of great accessories, like these scissor-hands. I can’t remember why he needed scissor-hands. Maybe he made tailored straightjackets.

Key style tips for crazy-Waits:

Rag and bones (human, if you can get them)


Prison uniforms

Hawaiian leis

Straggly beards


Alternatively, you might want to add danger to your attire and in this case Tom suggests clutching a spirit animal at all times.

Tom’s menacing growl and blank stare have ruffled the feathers of many a leading man or lady. The Quiet Psychopath can be an expert, like Mystery Men’s inventor of benevolent weapons of mass warfare. Also, TQP is good at color blocking:

Yellow hat, yellow blazer, tartan trousers. Chat up lines.

Which brings me to a general style tip from Tom Waits: men in hats.

I’m no hat-lover. When I see a man topped off with headgear, I wonder, “What’s he hiding under there?” But there’s certainly something to be said for the decorous orthodoxy of every man having to wear a hat, as it was throughout the first half of the 20th century. Brief history fact: before John Fitzgerald Kennedy, most men wore a hat of some kind, whether flat cap or bowler. But legend has it that JFK's ditching of the hat is the reason people realized they needn’t hide the top of their head.

Then there’s Waits as the awesome 50s diner owner Benny in Rumble Fish, who kicks it for maximum black and white impact with a polka dot blouse-thing and sweet half-rimmed glasses. Although it’s a little unfair to call Benny a psychopath without empirical evidence.

Benny: not actually a psychopath.

Mr. Nick from The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, however, is straight-up devil territory.

Sorry, I mean that he’s straight up the Devil. Parnassus, a really old monk, has made all kinds of bets and deals with Old Nick, and it’s come time to collect, and boy he’s collecting in some style. Tom’s outfit as the Devil includes a hat (naturally), a waistcoat (not abnormal), a cigarette holder (kinda stylish) and a pencil-thin moustache.

Which is awesome.

Consider his fellows in this endeavor.

Vincent Price, Little Richard, John Waters.

To know the public image of Tom Waits is to know a combination of these archetypes, of course, and to see a mercurial mythmaker hard at work. But this is probably the closest to his actual self, a grifter who loves sifting through yard sales, and dispensing advice to the protagonists in movies.

Tom’s style, shown here in Tony Scott’s “Insano-o-vision 3000.” Look how the color cross-processing is anxiously dialed up to 11. Horrid. In Domino, Waits drops by to tell the characters to buck up and give the money back to the murderous fiends they stole from. He does this in a pretty regular suit, kind of like he’s on his way to a funeral or a bank loan meeting.

Then in Wristcutters, he’s pretty normal (except for being a dead guy). Again, classic American western clothing.

Wristcutters (right), House of Eli (left).

In one of his recent films, House of Eli, he shows up as a classic Waits Wise Trader—literally a wise trader—old enough to remember the world before the apocalypse when it had things like Bibles, playing cards and Zippos in it.

He seems to be wearing a tracksuit throughout and given that he never runs track once, this is definitely just a fashion choice and one that I definitely do not endorse.

Finally, I will leave you on Coffee and Cigarettes, in which Tom Waits plays a character called Tom Waits. He definitely picked his own clothes here.

Bear in mind that Iggy’s actually two years older than Tom, so the hair he’s rocking here—hair a 12 year old girl from 1976 would kill for—is all the more impressive.

So what am I saying here? What can be drawn from the style of Tom Waits via his movies characters? The lesson I’ve learned here is crucial—style can be internalised: if you consistently dress like a refugee from an alternate past/future, refusing to let current trends buffet you, you can do no wrong. Tom Waits’s style is at once considered and throwaway, a nuanced lesson in ephemeral eternality. And if you dress the part long enough, reality will fall in step right behind you.

Tom Waits once accidentally stepped on Davo's toes. Actually on his toes. He's on Twitter - @battery_licker

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