13 Songs for Halloween: Tom Waits - "What's He Building?"

Janice Headley

🚨WARNING: For Halloween, KEXP is exploring the horrifying true stories behind some of the creepiest songs we play. Please note, this post contains highly disturbing and graphic content. Please continue at your own risk. 🚨

What's he building in there?
With that hook light on the stairs
What's he building in there?
I'll tell you one thing: he's not building a playhouse for the children

While more of a spoken-word piece than a song, that doesn't lessen the impact of this Tom Waits track from his 1999 Grammy Award-winning album Mule Variations.  In his trademark low, gravelly voice, Waits wonders aloud about the strange activities of a neighbor. His delivery would sound menacing even if he was reciting "Mary Had a Little Lamb" (imagine it: "Everywhere that Mary went / The lamb... was sure... to go"), but against the unsettling radio static, metallic clanks, and ghostly sounds, his ponderings take on a more sinister tone.

In a 1999 interview with the Austin Chronicle, he explains that his vocalisation was inspired by the great "jazz word" voice-over and recording artist Ken Nordine.

It's kind of tipping my hat to Ken Nordine, who was a big influence on me. And I've listened to him since I started recording. Ken lives in Chicago. He has a peculiar imagination and tells remarkable stories. This one started out as a song, and I wasn't able to get it to fly as a song, so I just took the words and started saying them. And it all just kind of came together.

Now what's that sound from underneath the door?
He's pounding nails into a hardwood floor
And I swear to God I heard someone moaning low

His suspicions start out fairly mild ("He took down the tire swing from the Peppertree," "He never waves when he goes by") and become darker towards the song's end as his suspicions grow wilder. In a 1999 cover story for Magnet Magazine, he tells us:

I got kind of a Unabomber image. We seem to be living in a time when the guy next door may be building a fertilizer bomb in his basement. Guess it's the rat theory: There's too many of us, and we're going crazy because of the proliferation of the human manifestation. You go down the freeway, and ail of a sudden there are 350,000 new homes where there used to be wilderness. They all have to go to the bathroom somewhere, they all want toys for their kids, they all want eggs and bacon and a nice little car and a place to vacation. When the rats get too plentiful, they turn on each other.

He has a router and a table saw
And you won't believe what Mr. Sticha saw
There's poison underneath the sink, of course
But there's also enough formaldehyde to choke a horse

Ultimately, and not surprisingly for Waits, the query of what this neighbor is building is never answered as the song is more about the power of paranoia and how sometimes things imagined can scare you more than the reality. But he does reveal the true story of Mr. Sticha in a 1993 interview with Thrasher Magazine:

I used to make skateboards out of plywood and go down to a roller rink called Skate Ranch and buy just the wheels. We used to skate down this hill called Robert Avenue and it was a great curve and you dug up a lot of speed. It went by our neighbor Mr. Stitcha. He lived in the beauty of the curve, where all the momentum culminated in a beautiful slough of cement. It took you right past his house but as close as you could get to his porch. Mr. Stitcha drank to excess. This was common knowledge in the neighborhood. He had the thick glasses and the red face and the red wine stains down the front of his t-shirt. That' s like I look now. Anyway it was the only place to get that kind of speed and thrill, so the front of his house became sort of a festival for all the skateboarders in the whole area. On Halloween he had a heart attack and died on his front porch and we were all told he died because we skated by his house and that each and everyone of us killed him in our own way. And we were all left with the memory that we all had a hand in his murder. It was like a Shakespeare thing, everybody had their hand on the knife. So I carry this with me, but I just want to say here and now, in Thrasher Magazine, that I did not kill Mr. Stitcha. It took a lot of therapy and it took a lot of liquor. Mr. Stitcha, rest in peace.

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