Santa Cruz artist Bridget Henry with her print 'Murder in the Red Barn,' which was inspired by the Tom Waits song of the same name and will be in the 'Cemetery Polka' exhibit.
The first time renowned Santa Cruz printmaker Bridget Henry heard Tom Waits was in 1992, when a friend put “Tango Til They’re Sore” on an unmarked mixtape.
“There was no info on it,” remembers Henry. “I had no idea who Tom Waits was, and I had no idea who sang that song, but I just kept on playing it over and over again. Even just that line, ‘falling out of a window with confetti in your hair.” Is confetti really coming out of your hair? How are you falling? I kept having all these questions, and images.”
Though Waits’ body of work has been pored over, dissected and subdivided from nearly every possible angle, it is incredibly almost never considered in the proper context of the Northern California landscape—despite the fact that Waits has spent half his career living in Sonoma County, where he relocated from Southern California just as he was moving into his most experimental phase.
There are actually two reasons for this Bay Area snub: first, because Waits so famously came out of the L.A. underground in the early ’70s, and then began making music that seemed removed from space and time. Second, Waits has succeeded where so many artists of his stature have failed in keeping his private life private—many of his fans don’t even know that he lives in Sebastopol, where he is regularly spotted, but rarely bothered.
And yet, that uniquely NorCal brand of boho is exactly what her first Waits experience evokes for Henry to this day.
“That song really kind of encapsulates that time period in my life, which was living on Seabright, hearing the people ride their skateboards home from the Seabright Brewery—chick-a, chick-a, chick-a down the sidewalk. My housemate with her ferret. When I hear that song, all that comes back to life,” she says.
“Tango Til They’re Sore” is a song from 1985’s Rain Dogs, the middle album is what is generally considered a Waits trilogy, starting with 1983’s Swordfishtrombones and concluding in 1987 with Frank’s Wild Years. Waits’ experimentation in that period led to his flat-out most insane outpouring of creativity with his next record. On 1992’s Bone Machine, he bombed rock & roll back to the Stone Age with a series of bizarre tunes that seem to exist in some kind of hallucinatory Philip K. Dick conspiracy theory, in which all eras of music, culture and murder exist at the same time. Despite winning critical acclaim and a Grammy, it remained divisive and dangerous enough to mainstream audiences to legitimately qualify as the most important cult record of the ’90s.
This was the next Waits record Henry discovered, in appropriately odd circumstances. “I actually found the CD,” she says. “It was in a lost and found, and nobody came back to claim it. I started listening to it, it was all scratched up and messed up. It didn’t have the cover on it.”
Once again, she couldn’t get the questions or images it conjured up out of her mind. So much so that two decades later, she has just finished one of her biggest prints ever, a piece inspired by the song “Murder in the Red Barn” off Bone Machine.
The longer one talks to the mild-mannered Henry about the subject, the more it becomes clear that what she’s really been building for the last 20 years is a Tom Waits obsession, one that will culminate this week with opening night of “Cemetery Polka” at the Felix Kulpa Gallery. As curator, she’s rounded up 15 other artists to help her create a multi-media exhibit of works inspired by Waits’ music. All of them are creating original pieces specifically for this show— prints, sculpture, paintings, book art, film and more.
Though she’s been seriously thinking about doing an exhibit like this for at least a couple of years, she got the green light from Felix Kulpa’s gallery director Robbie Schoen last October, and has been coordinating the other contributions as well as creating two pieces herself ever since, with increasing intensity.
“In my mind, it’s been a really quick turnaround,” she says. “I could probably see working on this for a year, just personally. I haven’t stopped thinking about it. For the last month, that’s all I think about.”
Come On Along
Nathan Goodman, a Santa Cruz assemblage artist who’s participating in the show, got to experience firsthand how driven his friend Henry is about this project, quite literally. He was driving down Mission St. on the way to his house on the West Side one day when he realized he was being followed. When he parked at his place, it was Henry who pulled up behind him.
“She said ‘I’ve been looking all over for you. I recognized your car,’” says Goodman. She then proceeded to invite him to be in the show.
Goodman hadn’t listened to Waits for a few years, but he too remembers the first time he heard Waits. He was in his friend’s ’64 Ford Falcon, and they were driving around Davis, where he grew up.
“He had this tape deck that played a little bit faster than it should,” Goodman says. Suddenly, Waits’ dark-carnival anthem “The Black Rider” came on, an already freaky song about drinking blood and using skulls for bowls made even more outlandish by the fact that it was playing at the wrong speed.
“That was my first and most poignant exposure to Tom Waits. I thought ‘This is crazy.’”
When he started thinking about what he’d contribute to the show, he went back and revisited the song. All he’ll say about his 3-D piece for the show is that it’s a “machine-type thing that’s going to make noise and move around,” which sounds about right.
Another artist in the “Cemetery Polka” exhibit who is drawing on “The Black Rider”—and the album of the same name, which was Waits’ 1993 follow-up to Bone Machine and was made up of songs he wrote for a 1990 play—is Rob Reger. Best known for the Emily the Strange character, Reger got his start in Santa Cruz as an artist in the local skateboarding culture, and has stayed connected to the community here though he now lives in Berkeley. When Henry asked him if he wanted to be in the show, he says, “it was a no-brainer. I was like ‘I’m in.’”
Reger has been listening to Waits since he picked up Swordfishtrombones in the ’80s, and in preparation for the project, he went back and submerged himself in the music from all of Waits’ different periods. He was somewhat surprised to find it was The Black Rider that inspired him.
“It’s not my favorite album,” he admits. “It’s way down there. But I particularly like doing these collages with messed-up human figures.”
Since The Black Rider represents Waits at the height of his sideshow grotesquery, it was a perfect match.
There’s no question in Reger’s mind that he’s been inspired by Waits in his artistic career.
“I don’t know who couldn’t be,” he says.
Reger has kept in touch with Henry through the intriguing little self-contained coastal neighborhood where she’s lived since 1996. Five miles north of Santa Cruz off Highway 1, its official name is Camp Green, though residents call it Campo Verde. The property, probably a square acre or so in size, was once home to a migrant worker’s mess hall. Now it’s several rental houses with no fences between them, each just a short walk to the ocean, or a Brussels sprouts field, or the railroad tracks, or the communal fire pit.
“I’ve been a good friend of the compound for a long time,” says Reger.
Many of the residents at Campo Verde are artists, and Henry recruited a handful of them, plus a former neighbor there, Dave Gardner, for the show.
It’s fitting, because Campo Verde is in many ways responsible for this exhibit in the first place.
“A lot of us listen to Tom Waits, so he was kind of on all the time,” says Henry. “I brought up this idea and a lot of the people I live around are artists, and they all got excited about it. That started a conversation that made me think ‘I’ve got to do this.’”
But as in most of Waits songs, there’s so much more to it than there first appears. In fact, it’s fair to say that Campo Verde has been haunted by Tom Waits, starting with the annual neighborhood talent show. Somebody always seems to do something related to his music, whether it’s a cover song, or a piece of performance art, or in the background of a movie clip.
“‘Talent’ is loose. It’s not a real talent show, it’s just fun. There is real talent, and then there’s just goofy things. But one year we were just like, ‘What the hell? Can we have another Tom Waits song?’ It was a little too much that year,” says Henry.
He even came up six years ago when Campo Verde held a sculpture festival and (due to heavy rains and a lot of washed up wood) driftwood art became the central theme.
“Someone said, ‘I just read an interview with Tom Waits, and he said he hates driftwood sculptures.’ We were like, ‘What if we have our Tom Waits show and somebody does a driftwood sculpture? If he comes, he’s going to be so disappointed,’” says Henry, who suddenly realizes the idea for this show stretches back even farther than she thought.
“I guess it must have been floating around back then.”
Another recurring link in “Cemetery Polka” is artist and musician Paul Rangel, who is not only contributing work to the show, but has had at least two-thirds of the participating artists as students, including Henry, in his 30 years of teaching at UCSC.
Rangel is taking a different approach from many of the artists in that he’s not focusing on any particular album or song, but on Waits’ work as a whole. He says he once considered Waits roughly on par with Bob Dylan and Randy Newman as a musical icon, but no more.
“Tom Waits has surpassed both of them, I think, in the way in which he’s dramatically evolved, and gone into sonic dimensions of his music that are so original,” says Rangel. “His risk-taking really sets him apart.”
He also sees an authenticity in Waits’ songwriting that grounds the theatricality of his delivery.
“There’s real life in his tales,” he says.
And like Henry, he’s drawn to the many questions left unanswered in Waits’ songs, the relentless ambiguity created not just by lyrics, but by an intersection of narrative and mood.
“There’s this floating reasoning in his songs,” says Rangel.
That’s precisely what led Henry to put 50 hours of carving into “Murder in the Red Barn,” of which she’s making seven prints. (Her other print for the show was inspired by “16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought-Six” from Swordfishtrombones.)
Though there seem to be about a dozen subplots in Waits’ “Murder in the Red Barn,” all of which may or may not be linked, Henry zeroed in on the central question it never answers: What exactly happened in the red barn? Whatever it was, it sounds pretty sinister. But Henry saw another question inside that question.
“At the same time,” she says, “there’s the line ‘there’s always some killing you got to do around the farm,’ something like that. You live on a farm, you have chickens, you eat your chickens. You have cows, you milk your cows—you might kill your cows. There’s always a little blood on the ax, and is that something nefarious, or is it just day-to-day life?”
Despite the dense lyrics, she was determined to capture the essence of Waits’ storytelling.
“Other artists will take a different approach, I know, but my approach is I’m interested in the story, I’m interested in the narrative. But it’s like trying to re-tell a dream. You can’t capture everything, so you have to find the elements that work,” she says.
The interpretative quality of the process is part of what drew her to the idea in the first place. “I’m interested in how you can pass inspiration through different art media,” she says. “I’d read about that with jazz, that a lot of painters during the time of the Harlem Renaissance were inspired by jazz, and the music would inspire their paintings. And then Langston Hughes was inspired by the paintings. It just kept going, there was this circuitous inspiration that would happen.”
It’s the things that are most complicated about Waits—the ambiguity, the dark and sometimes socially unacceptable subject matter, the not-always-easy human truths in the chaos—that make his work the ideal basis for the exhibit.
“For me, that was the perfect fit,” she says. “If someone told me go and do a bunch of artwork based on music that inspires you, some of it would be a struggle, and some of it would be easy. I feel like with him, it’s almost too easy. Like he did all the work, and it’s like reading a book, and all the images are just pouring in.”
‘Cemetery Polka’ runs Feb. 1-24 at Felix Kulpa Gallery, 107 Elm St. in Santa Cruz. Opening reception is Friday, Feb. 1 from 5-9pm.