Book Review: Lowside of the Road by Barney Hoskyns
Fri, 29 May 2009 16:39:11
If you’re looking for somebody to write an easy biography about…Tom Waits ain’t your man.
The boozed up bard of the bar stool has spent his entire career not only rabidly protecting his true identity—but also creating new personas to suit his creative pursuits.
Still, veteran English rock writer Barney Hoskyns, who chronicled Waits’ career from his earliest enigmatic appearances as a singular pop phenomenon in the early ’70s, peels away Tom’s theatrical skin with the precision of a historian, the familiarity of a friend and the reverence of a groupie.
His work is all the more impressive given the challenges he faced. Despite their long relationship Waits refused to cooperate with Hoskyns and put word out to his inner circle to follow suit. In fact, Hoskyns devotes an entire hilarious chapter to e-mails from all of Waits’ confidantes (including onetime muse and lover, Rickie Lee Jones) who politely refused his requests.
So it is left to Hoskyns to colorfully detail Waits’ personal and professional resume built on contradictions. Waits grew up in suburban comfort in suburban LA, but his public position was that he was born in the back of a cab. He even admits to cultivating his signature gravelly voice to emulate a favorite uncle, even though it is probably the biggest obstacle to his finding a wide audience.
Waits wore his distinction like his Salvation Army suits when he moved to L.A. and started singing at the Troubadour, where was spotted by David Geffen and signed to Asylum Records…home of the sensitive singer-songwriter…a staple of ’70s pop…and an anathema to Tom. But it was The Eagles’ hit recording of his “’Ol 55,” that provided Waits with the scratch to allow him to finance his own moody, blues and booze-fueled studies of the underworld from 1973’s Closing Time, to Nighthawks at the Diner (1975) to Heart Attack and Vine (1980).
Waits’ LA of the ’70s was a very different place than that inhabited by Don Henley. He lived at the seedy Tropicana Hotel, which Hoskyns describes as a rundown Raymond Chandler set. It was a gathering point for raw artists like Warren Zevon and where Tom met and became lovers with Rickie Lee Jones, helping her achieve the massive stardom that he never found for himself. It is also here that Waits found the kind of dark life he had tried to create in his music. “I found myself in some places I can’t believe I made it out of alive,” he admits.
Hoskyns skillfully demonstrates how Waits cast off his street persona at the end of the ’70s to become more adventurous in his albums and branching into other artistic expression through film scores and acting. The revolution in his work and lifestyle was partially driven by the stability of his marriage to playwright Kathleen Brennan (who became his writing partner) and his ultimate rejection of the alcohol. A move to New York also contributed to his metamorphasis. “I was exposed to a melange of sounds there. Everything from the steam rising out of the manholes to the ceaseless human commotion at the Port Authority Bus Terminal.”His jazzy barroom sound was replaced by booming percussion, low-pitched horns, bass instruments, and percussion in work like Swordfishtrombones (1983) and Raindogs (1985). He wrote a musical play and album loosely based on his father called Frank’s Wild Years in 1986. Then there were the roles in films like Cotton Club and Down By Law that stemmed from friendships with filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and Francis Ford Coppola, leading to an acclaimed role in Ironweed with Jack Nicholson in 1987.
Recent years brought more creativity, if at a slower pace; winning two Grammy Awards for 1991’s Bone Machine for Best Alternative Album…a label he hated… “Alternative to what?”…and 1998’s Mule Variations …for Best Contemporary Folk Album…
Hoskyns ability to pull together the carefully hidden pieces of the Tom Waits puzzle is an accomplishment of relentless reporting and devotion to the subject. Consider what Stephen Hodges, who played drums with Waits, says when people ask him what Waits is like. “I don’t say anything. I mean, how the fuck do you explain Tom Waits?”
Hoskyns somehow found the way.
Click here to win a copy of Lowside of the Road signed by Barney Hoskyns