Waits joined Ramblin' Jack Elliott for a recording session in
Cotati this summer, he couldn't help smiling as Elliott got up, walked
across the floor of the studio and went on one of his gandy-dancing
monologues, moving in and out of words with a jostling, sallied ease.
"There was a photograph of a ship hanging on the wall in
the studio and he talked about 40 minutes, in detail,
about the history of the ship, its owners, the battles it
had been in, all that," Waits says. "It was astonishing,
"The thing with Jack, the ramblin' in his name comes as
much from the fact that when he starts a story you don't
know where it's going to end as it does from him traveling
around the country, playing his music."
Elliott spent much of the recording session for his new
album sitting back, talking with Waits about the things
he's seen over the years, the road and the road and the
"I was happy to be there when he told those stories,"
says Waits. "I guess I have a romantic notion of people
like that. The way they live. The way they walk and talk. I
enjoy his company."
Waits will be on Elliot's next album, along with Arlo
Guthrie, Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark and Bob Weir. It was
a labor of love, says Waits.
"We did one song with Guy Clark - 'That Old Time Feeling'
- that came off pretty good, I thought. Jack brings it with
him when he comes, and that's rare these days.
"You could say Jack wears in his songs - they're well used
and well sung," says Waits, adding with a
characteristically raspy chuckle, "Some people would
say he wears 'em in and wears 'em out, but he wears 'em,
that's for sure.
"When he's learning a song he kind of tries it on like a
pair of gloves. I got a chance to watch him do that when he
recorded a song my wife and I wrote. He's got a way of doing
things that's uniquely his own. He makes a song his own.
That's the beauty of it."
Waits has been itching to record with Elliott ever since
he first heard his music getting good play, in the days
when he was working as a doorman at the Heritage Club in
San Diego's Mission Beach.
"I was about 19, and his record was one of the most-played
at this little coffee house. Jack's record was on the
turntable all the time the one where he's on the cover
with his horse and he's roping something.
"It had '912 Greens' on there, spoken out, the song that
so moved me. It had his version of "Tennessee Stud' and
some Woody Guthrie songs," says Waits. He paused, then
added that Elliott "was a real hero of mine - the idea of
meeting him one day and recording with him is pretty
Waits, caught up in American music, did a lot of listening
to Elliott, to Blind Lemon Jefferson, to Sonny Terry and
Brownie McGhee, before stepping onstage at the Heritage
Club to give the music a try himself.
"I think I made more as a doorman than I did playing," he
said. "Eight dollars a night on the door, $6 a night on
stage. A little strange."
Waits laughed at the memory of it, and the laughter was
contagious. He called back easy-going roams with Elliott
when both men were moving through Los Angeles in the
high-water years of California folk.
"We bumped into each other a couple of times," said
Waits, making it matter-of-fact. "Hung with him in clubs
in L.A., him and his dogs and his motorhome."
After listening to the long-sleeve best of Elliott's
stories, Waits is convinced "Jack should sit down
somewhere with a tape recorder and talk all day and they
should put it in the Library of Congress.
"He's got one of those stories that is a novel unto
itself, and I'd like to read it," says Waits. "Because
his story is also the story of the country."