What's He Building?

Album: Mule Variations (1999)
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Songfacts®:

  • Waits wrote this about nosy American neighbors who can't mind their own business. We are meant to be on the side of the guy inside the house, whatever he may "build." >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Claire - Sydney, Australia
  • In a 1999 Austin Chronicle interview, Waits said of this song: "It's kind of tipping my hat to [voiceover and recording artist] 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."
  • In the book Wild Years: The Music and Myth of Tom Waits, Waits said of this song: "We seem compelled to perceive our neighbors through the keyhole. There's always someone in the neighborhood, the Boo Radley, the village idiot. You see that drives this yellow station wagon without a windshield, and he has chickens in the backyard, and doesn't get home 'til 3:00 A.M., and he says he's from Florida but the license says Indiana... so, you know, 'I don't trust him.' It's really a disturbed creative process." >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Graham - Glasgow, Scotland
  • Waits recorded this in his barn at his home in California. He frequently collaborates on songs with his wife, Kathleen Brennan. This song was written by Tom and produced by both of them. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    erourke - Raleigh, NC
  • In April 1999, when asked about this song by Mojo, Waits replied, "We seem to be compelled to perceive our neighbors through the keyhole. There's always someone in the neighborhood – the Boo Radley, the village idiot – and you see that he drives this yellow station wagon without a windshield, and he has chickens in the backyard and doesn't get home till 3 a.m., and he says he's from Florida but the license plate says Indiana... so, you know, 'I don't trust him.' It's really a disturbed creative process."
  • The suspicions of the nosy neighbor become increasingly paranoid and absurd as the track goes on. In the beginning, the observations are of common enough things: "He has subscriptions to those magazines" and "he never waves when he goes by."

    By the end, we reach full-blown paranoia that is every bit as hilarious as it is unsettling: "I swear to God I heard someone moaning low"; "There's poison underneath the sink, of course"; "I heard he was up on the roof last night, signaling with a flashlight."

Comments: 2

  • Daniel from Seattle, WaA perfect video version of this would be various scenes from Universal Films of their old 1930s-1940s horror movies. You could run these scenes at half speed showing stuff from Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory with the sparking jacob's ladders, the dry ice fog, etc.

    At the end, the angry villiagers with their torches and bloodhounds are shown coming up the hill and Waits says the line, "We have a right to know."
  • Gary from Wilkesboro, NcThis song and the movie "The Burbs" with Tom Hanks have a lot of parallels.
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