Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now


Classic Tracks: Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”

“That’s a song that you can sing in the car. Those are the best ones. They come fast."

Tom Waits has recorded more sonically adventurous songs than this, and he’s made plenty of songs more affecting for their heartbreaking stories and terrible beauty. But maybe no Waits song has resonated with other musicians more than this relatively simple tune from his dark and gorgeous album Bone Machine (Island, 1992): “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.”

At least for a moment, Waits apparently thought this relatively straightforward tune was too simple for the adventurous album he was making. In an audio account of the Bone Machine songs—called the “Operator’s Manual”—that Waits released to the public after the album came out, he said:

“That’s a song that you can sing in the car. Those are the best ones. They come fast. You hear it and you think to yourself, ‘Yeah, I could write something like that. Does this guy make money? Anybody can write a song like that.’ But those are the hardest ones to write. I was going to throw it out. I said, ‘This is just silly.’ Then Kathleen, my wife, said, ‘No, keep it. Let’s finish that.’”

Waits, along with his wife and constant collaborator Kathleen Brennan (co-writer and co-producer of the album), bass player Larry Taylor, and engineer Biff Dawes, recorded “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” during the Bone Machine sessions at Prairie Sun Recording, a multistudio facility built into a former chicken hatchery in rural Cotati, Calif. Waits’ first dedicated studio album since Frank’s Wild Years (1987), Bone Machine was the second project that he made at Prairie Sun; he’d recorded the soundtrack for the Jim Jarmusch film Night on Earth there the previous year.

“Tom moved to Sonoma County because he loves his privacy,” observes Prairie Sun owner Mark “Mooka” Rennick. “He loves the rural vibe. I just happened to be here, a 15-minute drive away from his place.”

Prairie Sun at that time also happened to have a storied Trident TSM console that came from A&M Studios, a new bevy of Neve mic pre’s, an extensive mic collection, and—most important—atmosphere.

“Tom wasn’t happy with the regular studio portions connected to the control room,” Dawes recalls. “But we found another room that had been used as an office, with a high ceiling, a cement floor, redwood paneling, some old water heaters and metalwork in the corner. It was connected with tielines to the control room up the hill because there was also an echo chamber there. We were able to put preamps in that room, and we recorded everything in there.”

“Sonically speaking, that room has a low-mid color with a very short decay time, so you can do acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, vocals, and you’re not washing it out,” Rennick says of the studio that forever after became known as the “Waits Room.”

“Tom was learning more about the recording process at that time, because he and Kathleen had started producing all of his albums. And he was leaving no stone unturned. Every day was a sonic mission. He was always looking for new sounds, different ways to record things, using unconventional instruments,” Dawes says.

“He had a menagerie of instruments at home and he’d bring various things to the studio. He’d beat on anything, if it sounded good we’d mike it and and see if it could be used. We were always recording things in different places and from different distances in the room, to get natural ambient sounds.”

“I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” differs from other Bone Machine tracks in that it was not driven by the beat of found instruments, but rather by the rhythm of Taylor’s upright bass and Waits’ strumming guitar attack on a vintage Gretsch New York Guitar. The entire arrangement is simply guitar, bass and vocal. So the room sounds that Dawes captured serve the song on more than one level: Those near and far mics not only realize Waits’ desire for complex, reverberant sounds, but they also help to seat the spare arrangement of “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” alongside other album tracks that have more unusual instrumentation. In a way, the room became the glue.

Dawes describes what he recalls about placing those mics in 1992: “Usually I would take Tom’s guitar direct and I would close mike his amp [either a Princeton Tweed or a Fender Deluxe Reverb],” he says. “Sometimes I would tape mics to the guitar, and then we would add in the more distant mics from the room. Prairie Sun has a wide selection, so we used a lot of Neumanns: U 67s, U 87s, M 49s, that kind of thing.

“The same thing with Larry’s upright bass: I think I took an old Shure lavalier and wrapped foam around and put it in the bridge of his upright bass, and also used his pickup, plus a large-diaphragm condenser in front of him.

The album was recorded on a Studer A80 24-track machine, with Dolby SR selectively used on certain tracks. “Tom liked the ambient room sound and did not want to polish things during the mix with echo and digital reverb,” Dawes says. “He preferred it more natural, so on vocals, there was also a close mic and a far mic, something I’d seen Tom Dowd do years before. At times, we would use the distant mic only to make it sound bigger, but we could add various overtones using those different microphones.”

Rennick says that Waits used one main vocal mic pretty consistently at Prairie Sun: “He gave every vocal on one Neumann that we still own, an M 49,” Rennick says.

However, Dawes remembers switching things up more: “It depended on the song,” he says. “A ballad, we would have a nice warm condenser, and sometimes the louder pieces we might use a [Sennheiser MD] 421, a dynamic to cut through. There was no standard. On ‘I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,’ it probably would have been something like a 421 close to him, but there also would have been a 67 or something like that, two or three feet away.

“Prairie Sun had a lot of good outboard equipment, too,” the engineer continues. “Along with the Neve mic pre’s, I would have also used an LA-2A or 1176 on his vocal.”

Dawes says that, as Waits liked to define sounds during the recording phase, mixing was mainly about choices: combining the different instrument and ambient sounds they’d captured.

“Sometimes if we didn’t have enough options during mixing, we would set up a speaker down in the recording room and feed a track back into there, and bring that back up into the console,” Dawes says. He mixed about half of the Bone Machine tracks—to Ampex half-inch tape—before a family emergency pulled him off of the project. Then Tchad Blake, who had also worked with Waits in L.A., stepped in to finish the mixes on the Trident in Studio A. Playback was via the studio’s UREI 813 mains, as well as Yamaha NS-10s and sometimes a pair of Genelec 1022As.

“I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” one of the tracks Dawes mixed, certainly meant something to other artists as well as listeners. Every lyrical line is a gem, and though the song fits nicely on Bone Machine, it stands apart in its simplicity:

“I don’t want my hair to fall out

I don’t wanna be a good boy scout

I don’t wanna have to learn to count

I don’t wanna have the biggest amount

I don’t wanna grow up.”

Since it released in 1992, this song has been covered by punks, rockers, divas, jazzers, and singer/songwriters. The Ramones, Holly Cole, Hayes Carll, Scarlett Johansson, Eddie Spaghetti, Petra Haden and Bill Frisell, Pretty Little Demons, Maren Coleman, and The Pavers all have recorded distinctive versions. Many other Waits songs have been reinterpreted, but “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” seems to have had an exceptionally full and productive life.

Today, Waits is, of course, still nursing and realizing his magnificent creations. His latest, Bad as Me, was his highest-charting album to date: Number One on the Independent Album chart, Number 2 on the Rock chart, and Number 5 among Digital Albums.

Dawes has continued working as an independent engineer, recording and mixing concerts for Westwood One for nearly 30 years, before during and after his tenure with Waits. Today, he is a mixer for broadcast TV and cable music specials. At press time he was about to begin a documentary project about slack key guitarist Gabby Pahinui; he also works off and on with the band Mini Mansions, of which his son Zachary is a member.

Mooka Rennick is still owner and president of Prairie Sun Recording, where an enticement just as great as the studio’s equipment, or the beautiful weather and setting, is the opportunity to record in the Waits Room.