1. singer of Richmond, VA -based heavy metal four-time Grammy losers lamb of god. 2. 42-year-old skateboarding, fly fishing, and bullwhipping enthusiast. 3. amateur photographer currently writing his first photo-essay book. 4. author of currently untitled memoir to be published by Da Capo/Perseus (U.S.) and Random House (everywhere else), spring 2014. 5. proud husband, son, grandson, and brother. 6. fairly righteous dude.
Due to my job as a professional musician, I’m quite used to being the focus of a photographer’s lens. I have stood there staring, making the same damn “metal face” over and over, into more cameras than I can remember. According to the unwritten rules of metal, bands like mine aren’t really supposed to look like we’re having fun in photographs, so most of the time photo shoots are an absolute drag. In real life, I walk around with a goofy coffee-and-cigarette-stained grin plastered on my ugly mug, not some pseudo-tough-guy scowl, but most photographers who shoot for the kind of press outlets that cover bands like mine want furrowed brows, crossed arms, bared teeth, and at least one guy to reach out in the timeless gesture I call “holding the invisible orange,” aka “the claw.” I always feel completely ridiculous, because it is completely ridiculous.
But there are exceptions, times when we work with a few cherished photographers, ones we’ve developed a relationship with, people who seem to somehow effortlessly capture us, not just as a band, but as human beings. We’re comfortable with them — they’re friends, they have our trust as artists, and we always look forward to working with them. Those shoots are actually fun, and the pictures are inevitably phenomenal. A good photographer/subject relationship always, always, always produces the best work.
Which brings us to Waits/Corbijn ’77-’11, a massive and beautiful book filled with photographs of the legendary Tom Waits, taken over the course of 34 years by the renowned Dutch photographer, video director and filmmaker Anton Corbijn. Like Waits’ best songs and the art of photography itself, this book is magic. It is a photographic document capturing the progression of a long-term relationship between two great artists, and that relationship’s growth shines through on every page. I can plainly see this, both as a musician and as a photographer. It is a work of art.
Tom Waits’s musical gift as a minstrel, a storyteller, and a (now sober for years) gravel-throated barstool mystic spinning moody and fantastical tales of the beautiful low life is unparalleled. His songs simply take you places. I challenge anyone to give my personal favorite Tom Waits record, 1978’s Blue Valentine, an attentive, thorough listen from start to finish and not get lost in the smokey neon pictures he paints with words and instruments. It’s impossible. “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis”? You’re done.
Really good musicians like Waits work very hard at their craft, and by presenting it to the world the way they wish, in part they present themselves to the world the way they want to be perceived. This book is a natural visual extension of Waits’ carefully constructed musical persona. Whether or not the face Tom Waits presents to the world through his musical work is anything close to resembling Tom Waits the human being is not important, and certainly not the point of this particular work.
Or as Robert Christgau puts it in his introduction, “So if you think this art book will provide a key to the ‘real’ Tom Waits, think some more. This art book is about Tom Waits the artist, a trait it shares with just about every one of his public manifestations.” And so in Waits/Corbijn ’77-’11, you will not get a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the private life of Tom Waits. You will not find out what brand of cereal Waits eats, what the contents of his bedroom closet are, or what his hair looks like in the morning before he brushes his teeth and takes his morning leak. And although Waits himself contributes a self-portrait in the smaller section of his own photography, writing, and artwork that finishes the book, there are no selfies of Waits making duck lips. Tom Waits does not do duck lips — he’s Tom Waits for chrissake, not some talking shaved ape. This will disappoint folks wanting a book of candid photos of Tom Waits “the regular guy” — perhaps to see if they can somehow identify with him as a fellow human being, to “know him better.” Since I am not an idiot, I am already well aware that Tom Waits is a human being, just like the other seven billion of us. I neither need nor desire a candid photograph of him reading Men’s Health on the john to confirm that fact. Who cares? That’s not extraordinary in the least. Waits’s art, however, most definitely is extraordinary. That’s all we, as fans, can and should ask of a musician: great music, and nothing else. (Although, Tom, if you ever read this and we bump into each other, the coffee is on me. I promise I won’t ask too many questions.)
The first photographs in the book, taken in Holland in 1977, are probably the ones in the book that come closest to accurately portraying the “real” Tom Waits — at least Tom Waits as he was in 1977, a much younger man just beginning to feel his oats as a performer. Though his nervousness at being in front of a camera cuts through his studied cool and sideways glances in the photos, his weary posture and ever-present cigarette, tilted at just the right angle, lets you know that Waits is very consciously presenting Corbijn with the hobo-noir image he wishes to him to capture. And capture it Corbijn does, brilliantly so, his young photographer’s eye already naturally framing well-balanced compositions. It works.
As the book progresses through the years, any trace of nervousness in Waits’s demeanor noticeably disappears. Photos taken in London, Paris, New York City, Los Angeles, and northern California show how the photographer and subject have grown accustomed to each other, how natural their relationship has become, and how their working state is one of seemingly effortless normalcy. That’s not to say that Corbijn is just following Waits around as he goes on his merry way, unobtrusively snapping photos with the invisibility that familiarity breeds. On the contrary, Waits is always very conscious of the camera in the vast majority of the pictures, but his physical bearing, the poses he strikes, are confident and relaxed. (By the way, Waits is a physically dynamic subject and quite nimble for a man in his 60s. Even in the later photos he leaps high into the air, climbs trees, and in the last photo of Corbijn’s, even balancing on a steeply-pitched roof, an open umbrella held aloft.)
Corbijn shot the vast majority of the photos in this book in black-and-white, and that aesthetic fits Waits’ piano lounge-bizarro-noir catalogue quite well. Another testament to the effectiveness of Waits’ and Corbijn’s artistic relationship is the use of more and more props as the years and photos forge on. Props are not the trappings of slice-of-life street photography, but premeditated items that can make a photograph look very unnatural, imposing a severe point at the cost of smooth visuals. Props can be very hard to pull off, but the photos in this book give you the feeling that Corbijn just had a bunch of weird crap laying around and said, “Hey Tom, take this. Go nuts.” There’s Waits with a baseball mitt, Waits with a squirt gun, Waits with an old air conditioner. There’s Waits in a freakin’ Dracula cape and a cheap party mask. Because Waits trusts Corbijn, he does go nuts, and it just looks cool.
It’s really hard to look cool on command. I know this because I have spent hours in front of cameras, trying unsuccessfully to fit into some uncomfortable box that various photographers have tried to cram me into with the dreaded phrase “Hey, try this — I think it might look cool!” I get scared by “creative” types who have “ideas.” (Sometimes, literally scared — once a British photographer tried to get me to clamp a pair of jumper cables onto my body because he thought it would look “cool” — the cables happened to be connected to a fully functional portable car battery charger.) Most of the time these ideas are ridiculous — hence the standard scowling “metal face” — it works, plus I’m just not that cool to begin with. But Tom Waits is, and during the 34-year journey this book takes, as the two grow more familiar with each other and Corbijn develops not only his technique but his style, you see the photographer making excellent creative choices and the subject executing a lot of those good ideas — together. It’s a slow burn, but it was started with quality firewood, so from the beginning the images are there — they just get more and more refined as the years go by. It’s a pleasure to watch the relationship reflected in the work progress.
Waits/Corbijn ’77-’11 is a large, beautifully built tome of substantial heft (both physical and artistic), and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It’s exactly what it should be — a piece of art deserving of two fine artists. Save your pennies, kids — it doesn’t come cheap, but something this good that took thirty years to make shouldn’t come cheap. It makes me say “They care, it shows, so I care too.” Good music and good art does that, you know?