Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits

January 01, 1970

(Broadway)

 

www.broadwaybooks.com

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

Regardless of specialty, biographers of all stripes have had
to contend with the fact that sometimes their objects of scrutiny simply don’t
care to be scrutinized. Nowhere is this truer than in the entertainment
industry, where public figures envision a scandal-seeking Kitty Kelley or
Albert Goldman lurking behind every interview request. That’s the story behind
the story of this exhaustive Tom Waits biography by British journalist Barney
Hoskyns, a veteran rock critic and cofounder of RocksBackPages.com. In the
course of his career (dating back to the punk era), Hoskyns interviewed Tom
Waits on several occasions – each time, it’s worth noting, under friendly circumstances.
To Hoskyns’ chagrin, when he decided to do the deeper digging required of a
comprehensive biography, he learned that Waits and wife Kathleen Brennan were
tacitly stymieing his efforts by letting it be known among friends and
associates that if they cooperated with Hoskyns and his inquiries they’d soon
find themselves banished from the Waits circle of trust.

 

Among those who tentatively agreed to talk to Hoskyns then
withdrew their involvement after consulting the Waits camp were Keith Richards,
longtime Waits guitarist Smokey Hormel, and Waits’ old girlfriend, Rickie Lee
Jones, whose 2008 email, reproduced in a fascinating appendix in this
doorstop-sized/640-page book, went somewhat evasively, “Waits, hmm, what’s to
say. I am waiting for a book about ME. Let’s see if his wife lets me say
anything about us, or me… then we’ll see.” Luckily Hoskyns had plenty of extant
source material to sift through – including, presumably, the two prior (and
deeply flawed) Waits biographies, Patrick Humphries’ Many Lives of Tom Waits and Jay Jacobs’ Wild Years – plus interviews he conducted with people willing to
talk on the record, notably Waits’ producer Bones Howe, saxman Ralph Carney and
numerous folks who’d populated the Sunset Strip when Waits was coming to
national prominence as the booze-swilling, piano-playing beatnik bard at odds
with the cocaine cowboy/singer-songwriter soft-rock SoCal scene of the mid
seventies.

 

Because Waits lived his life – some would call it a “role” –
largely in the public eye during that period, the early years are detailed
considerably more in-depth than the later ones, after he met and married
Brennan and eventually relocated from Hollywood up the coast to the rustic desolation
of Petaluma County. Yet Waits’ post-wild years (during which, significantly, he
stopped drinking) are arguably the more compelling ones, with his musical
output including the astonishing Bone
Machine
(1992) and Mule Variations (1999),
an aesthetic transformation that had commenced back in ’83 with the
hipster-approved (and rightly so) Swordfishtrombones. Cockblocking from Waits and Brennan notwithstanding, Hoskyns is still able to
capture each step of Waits’ artistic evolution with journalistic sensitivity
and gravitas – for example, he helps guide the reader through Waits’ often
inscrutable immersion in theater (e.g. his and Brennan’s collaborations with
avant-garde playwright/director Robert Wilson) – and readily conveys what’s
special (or not) about each album without getting too distracted by the type of
critic-speak dissections that frequently cause music bios to bog down.

 

In the end, Lowside of
the Road
is that best of biographical breed, a celebration that manages to
remain clear-eyed about the subject without ever descending to muckraking (or
ascending to hagiography). It has its funny moments, too. In Hoskyns’ coda, the
author finds himself outside an Edinburgh
venue following a Waits concert, asking himself why he’s waiting with a brace
of Waits fans for a glimpse of the man himself. Alas, they learn too late that
he beat them all to the tour bus. “Before I can quite register what’s
happened,” writes Hoskins, “the doors suck shut and the bus pulls away into the
damp Edinburgh
night.” Inside every veteran journalist, it seems, beats the heart of the
eternal fan. Don’t worry, Tom. We don’t bite.

 

 

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