Borderline Latin: Tom Waits, Cantinflas' #1 Fan

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Borderline Latin is back, after a brief but very productive hiatus. If Beck was a suitable godfather for this column’s first incarnation, this time around we’re in need of something just a bit stronger: another Californian, someone who grew up listening to a combination of ranchera and old Irish folk songs. Basically, Tom Waits.

Tom Waits is a quintessential American artist. It almost comes as a surprise to find out how close he was to Mexican music and culture from an early age, but he’s as American as some genres of Mexican music. He’s raw, untamed; a border crosser. I’m not trying to claim anyone’s cultural heritage here, but let’s not forget that America is a continent. If America is a dream, it’s everybody’s dream: the dream of the new. America is the End of the World. It is the New World. Asia, Europe, and Africa have found their new home here: on the streets of New York City, all across the Caribbean, in Mexico and South America.

But before I start quoting Vasconcelos or Bolívar, let’s get back to Waits. It is one thing to be a gringo and cross the border every once in a while to drink cheap beer and see a bunch of donkeys pose as zebras on the streets of Tijuana. It’s quite a different thing to be Tom Waits and drop the name Cantinflas in a Vanity Fair questionnaire, and then, again, when reflecting on his role as the devil in Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. “Looking back, I now see that I lifted a lot of my act from Cantinflas,” he told The Guardian. That statement is gold. Waits released a book of curiosities and photographs by Anton Corbijn a couple of months ago and appeared in Martin McDonagh’s oh-so-meta Seven Psychopaths, but we still love him primarily for his music. Just listen to him and Los Lobos performing “Kítate.”