Soft and Green

Tom Waits on the other side of the world


Wednesday, 1pm. Tom Waits makes his way down South Georges Street, just south of Temple Bar, in Dublin, Ireland. He’s in denim and shades, incognito, and he moves down the narrow sidewalk with deliberate concentration. It’s not the way he usually walks; back home in California, he lumbers calmly, whereas this is a strangely uncomfortable glide. His wife, Kathleen, picks at some takeout wrapped in aluminum foil, and a small cluster of friends attends. Together, they look like any other group of friends roaming the streets of Dublin.

It only takes 10 feet or so before he’s recognized by a fan, who demurs just a second before running and approaching him. “No, no, no,” Waits says, waving the back of his hand in the air to brush off whatever request might be pending. The kid stands there, still more dumbfounded than disappointed, and Waits and his crew disappear down the cobblestone alley.

Wednesday, 11pm. The six-tiered circus tent is dripping fat, heavy raindrops on all sides, and the surrounding overgrowth in Phoenix Park buckles under the torrent. A security guard in standard-issue Polo shirt stays dry beneath a blue-and-yellow vinyl eave, smoking a cigarette, noticeably uninterested in the gales of applause exploding from inside the tent as 3,000 Dubliners beg Waits back to the stage for an encore. The security guard has been like this for the past two hours.

When the show is finally over, and Waits has played his twenty-sixth and final song and has bid farewell by leaning over the front of the footlights to touch the extended hands of hundreds who’ve rushed to the front of the aisles, the security guard stands up and stomps out his cigarette. His face stays blank as he oversees thousands exiting the tent into the downpour—talking, twittering and more than likely headed to the nearest pub to try and explain the unexplainable event they’ve just witnessed. And so it goes for the next three nights.

Thursday, 2:30pm. At the Tara Street station, near downtown Dublin, a city worker uses an ancient, worn-down broom to sweep puddles of rainwater off the platform. The train has just pulled out of the station early, leaving a crowd stranded for the next fifteen minutes. A young girl holding some shopping bags reapplies her lipstick, bored. Across the tracks, two guys are singing “Innocent When You Dream.”

The downtrodden, the obliterated, the incorrigibly sentimental—Dublin is full of these people, these characters immortalized in Waits’ canon. It makes sense that the city has embraced him so much. The streets are dirty here, the weather’s bad, the trains leave you stranded and you’re miles from home.

Friday, 1pm. Back on South Georges Street, at Spindizzy Records in the Market Arcade, the clerk is talking about going to Waits’ third and final show tonight. Customers within earshot turn and join in on the ongoing conversation that the city has been having for the past three days. Where are you sitting? How did you get tickets? What songs did he play? Was it worth the high ticket price? And so on.

A girl in her 30s asks about public transportation to the tent; she’s headed there tonight. An older ruddy-faced fan in a nylon jacket is still recovering from the show the night before. “Best £137 I ever spent,” he says, smiling.

The young clerk, like nearly every other Dubliner, mentions seeing Waits at the Olympia Theater in 1987; this week is the first time Waits has been back since, and the city has been waiting 21 years for his return. More people overhear the discussion and migrate to the counter. Everyone in the store, it turns out, has either gone or is going to the shows this week.

“It was brilliant,” one man says, “the best concert I’ve ever seen.”

“Someone told me he had breakfast at the Bad Ass Cafe with Cait O’Riordan yesterday morning,” someone else offers. “She’s Elvis Costello’s ex-wife, you know.”

“Was the sound good?” someone asks. “It’s in a tent, right?”


“I love him,” says a young girl with a thick accent. “I think I’m going to pass out when I see him.”

The record store, for an interval, has stopped being a record store. “You see how it is?” asks the clerk. “All you have to do is say ‘Tom Waits’ and everyone flocks around! The man, he’s a legend. It’s a real happening here.”