In Terry Gilliam’s latest escapade into the bizarre and surreal, The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, lurks an unexpected and unconventional figure in the character cast: clad in black suit and top hat, darkly witty and coolly sardonic appears the Devil himself, played by no other than cult musician Tom Waits. He has aged befittingly since his musical heyday in the 1970s, his face now haggard with the mischievous and ironical humour that characterises the extreme versatility of his music. Whether growling, caterwauling, drawling or (rarely) singing his distinctive, often seedy anecdotes over thumping jazz rhythms ‘(Underground’), eerie saxophone licks (‘Small Change’) or deliberately out-of-tune piano melodies (‘The Piano Has Been Drinking (not me)’), the performer communicates a persona that is strikingly befitting to such a sarcastic and blackly comical figure as Terry Gilliam’s creation. He even appears as the lunatic Renfield in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
In fact, wherever Waits happens to turn up he is a surprising figure. His deep howling voice is reminiscent of the rawness of the early Delta Blues singers; I imagine more than one mouth was open in surprise when he appeared on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1977: a young, slim pale American with a full head of combed hair and characterful features. Dressed in a dark suit he sits alone at a grand piano with only a drummer, double-bassist and saxophonist – half-hidden and semi-audible – for company in the atmospheric semi-darkness of the small studio. At the piano he draws out the beautiful melody of ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’, while his gruff voice strains into the microphone. It is not a musical voice, but it is passionate, touching and unmistakable. Perhaps lacking is some of the eccentricity of his cabaret-like performances caught on live DVDs – such as ‘Burma Shave’, in which he hangs around a stage lamppost clutching a continual cigarette, and the audience howl with laughter at his seemingly semi-inebriated version of ‘Silent Night’ – yet he has not lost even an inch of conviction, and shows himself to be just as passionate as he is theatrical. To illustrate: my father attended a Sheffield concert in the late seventies. The lights went down, and in the pitch blackness Waits simply howled like a wolf – a haunting welcome, and endearingly bizarre.