San Diego

The Time Tom Waits Saved 100 Chickens in Jacumba

Tom Waits on inspiration and San Diego firefighting

It’s difficult to describe or pinpoint where inspiration -- where “genius” -- comes from. Filmmaker/musician David Lynch describes the process of creativity in terms of catching butterflies in a net. Ideas are floating everywhere, and sometimes your brain catches them, sometimes it doesn’t.

The concept is not new. Since the Greeks and Romans, artists have been explaining the phenomenon of inspiration through some externality, some genius -- a divine spirit that manifests itself in different forms. In Roman art, for example, the genius of creativity is often depicted as a winged child.

For Tom Waits, a Grammy Award-winning, San Diego County native, the same sort of metaphysical unpredictability characterizes his idea of inspiration as well.

In a recent interview in New York Times Style Magazine, Waits described the magical, communal experience of “going out to the meadow,” of somehow transcending the material (or at least making it irrelevant) during the experience or the creation of art.

Similar to Lynch, new ideas seem to just float through some unseen spiritual ether until they happen upon him -- he likes the idea of things flying in through the window, onto the piano and then out the other window, according to his March 1 interview with Wyatt Mason.

Like Lilys’ Kurt Heasley recently told me in an interview, Keith Richards also serves as Waits’ example of a clean and pure conduit “writing pure blues from the radio in the sky.”

Waits has collaborated on a number of songs with Richards, which is how he's come to assess Richards as a divinely receptive lightning rod always prepared for the inevitable.

In typical sage-like fashion, Waits ended his interview with Mason by recounting an experience he had as a firefighter in Jacumba (part of the Mountain Empire in southeastern San Diego County). The anecdote might as well have been a scene from a Lynch movie -- Waits found himself dousing flying, burning chickens with water, watching them fall to the ground.

“‘It was an emergency, and when dealing with emergent behavior there is nothing to do but respond. I was in the moment. And it was not the fire I imagined or dreamed of. It was the fire I got,’” he said.

To read the whole interview, including Kendrick Lamar and Beck’s takes on inspiration and the process of creation, click here. It’s well worth it.

Rutger Rosenborg was almost a Stanford neuroscientist before he formed Ed Ghost Tucker. He now plays in the Lulls and makes music on his own when he's not writing. Follow his updates on Facebook or contact him directly.

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