Musician Tom Waits and Photographer Michael O'Brien Team Up On Book To Help Homeless

By Karen Bliss 1/14/11 |

Tom Waits
Tom Waits
Musician Tom Waits and photographer Michael O’Brien have teamed up for a hard cover book called Hard Ground, hoping to bring to light the hardships and realities facing the homeless, and Waits is releasing a limited-edition chap-book based on a lengthy poem he wrote inspired by O'Brien's photos.

“Seeds on Hard Ground, ” written in the voices of those who were pushed to the margins of society, has just been posted in its entirety on Waits' web site.  "I am a seed that fell upon a hard ground," the piece begins. The chap-book, designed by Johnny Brewton, will be available Feb. 22 for $25 (U.S.), exclusively on and record label,, with all proceeds going to help homeless services in the San Francisco region. North America and Europe each got a run of a thousand copies. The advance orders sold out in hours and a second edition of a thousand is now for sale with a different coloured cover.

The 184-page Hard Ground, however, published by University of Texas Press, will be sold in March (S.L.P. $40 U.S.) at most traditional and online book retailers, including Amazon. It contains 88 black and white photographs and 74 black and white thumbnails, according to information on University of Texas Press’ web site. A press release for Waits' chap-book states that an abridged, rearranged version of “Seeds on Hard Ground” will also appear in it.

John Loengard, Life magazine photographer and picture editor, and one of American Photo magazine’s 100 most influential people in photography, offers his thoughts on Hard Ground that has been used in the press materials.  "Other collections of lost souls (Richard Avedon's In the American West comes to mind) are different," he says. "We meet O'Brien's people one on one. Their 'otherness' is removed. The photographs engender compassion and empathy. If that sounds simple, it is because it is simple. And, as you know, being simple is very, very difficult. Hard Ground is a rare and powerful book."

O’Brien is an award-winning American photographer whose work has been published in National Geographic, Esquire, Life, Time and the New York Sunday Times magazine. He has photographed Waits before and shot his 2009 album cover for Glitter and Doom Live.

Seeds of Hard Ground
Cover for
Hard Ground
Cover for Hard Ground
Both Waits and his record label Anti are donating all proceeds from the chap-book to Redwood Empire Food Bank (REFB), and the Homeless and Housing Program and Family Support Center, administered by Catholic Charities of the diocese of Santa Rosa.

According to their web sites, the REFB is the largest hunger-relief organization north of San Francisco, acquiring millions of pounds of food that it distributes it throughout Sonoma County via its own food assistance programs and 147 community based charitable organizations.  Catholic Charities of the diocese of Santa Rosa serves over 45,000 people in need — the homeless and hungry, immigrants, children and youth at risk, elders and the homebound. Its Family Support Center is a comprehensive shelter program in Santa Rosa for homeless families and serves up to 138 people daily, providing stable shelter with food, clothing and a warm bed, access to medical/dental screenings, pathways to employment, savings and housing.


* is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.