Idiosyncratic and incongruous, innovative and inventive, Tom Waits, the musically incorrigible genius, is many things to many people: musician of the highest calibre, artist of impeccable sincerity, exquisite songwriter extraordinaire, owner of a napalm tinged voice that can thankfully scare children in the next county - not to mention an infectious story-teller of (more often than not) hilarious persuasion.
Replete with a lyrical design that can turn even the most ardent of cynics into emotional ravioli within minutes (myself included), Waits, like Dylan and Lennon, is the consummate and all circumfluent artist; a renown trait of which is a fierce longing for privacy. And like all artists of a similar work ethic - Robert De Niro leaps to mind as does Marlon Brando - it’s hard to penetrate their most protective of perimeter(s).
This probably explains why Barney Hoskyns, author of The Lowside of the Road – A Life of Tom Waits (a rather all consuming book in itself), has written a totally fastidious account of the enigmatic Waits, sans his subject’s approval. Of this, Hoskyns states in the book’s Prologue that: ‘’Any biographer of Waits is necessarily engaged in an impossible but irresistible quest to find the truth about a man who claims ‘’truth’’ is overrated – or simply irrelevant in the context of ‘’show business.’’ But here’s the rub: is it conceivable that actually we glean more about the ‘’real’’ Tom Waits by, as it were, reading between the lines of his songs than we do about supposedly more ‘’open’’ singer-songwriters?’’
In the case of Waits, this is probably the case. After all, it’s not brain surgery to ascertain information about any artist - or politician for that matter - by reading between the lines. It all depends on how much one wants to actually read, learn and ultimately investigate. Having done so, it’s nigh possible to believe (or disbelieve) at will.
Regardless of the truth.
So as far as this book and Tom Waits is concerned - whom I very much respect and admire as both a musician and artist (and perhaps all round human being, although I’ve never met him) – it’s almost impossible to stop reading. This is because I want to learn and find out more. As well as be totally enveloped by the whole Waitsian mythology.
In the first chapter ‘Some Ways about Me that Just Aren’t Right,’ Hoskyns quotes Waits from an interview he conducted with the artist in 1999: ‘’I guess most entertainers are, on a certain level, part of the freak show. And most of them have some type of a wounding early on, either a death in the family or a break-up of the family unit, and it sends them off on some journey where they find themselves kneeling by a jukebox, praying to Ray Charles. Or you’re out looking for your dad, who left the family when you were nine, and you know he drives a station wagon and that’s all you’ve got to go on, and in some way you’re going to become this big sensation and be on the cover of Life magazine and it’ll somehow be this cathartic vindication or restitution.’’
A writer of considerable repute (the author currently writes for numerous publications such as Observer Music Monthly, Rolling Stone, GQ and Spin among others, and is co-founder/editorial director of online music-journalism library Rock’s Backpages: www.rocks-backpages.com), it was always going to be a foregone conclusion that Hoskyns’ words on Waits, would be an intrinsically worthwhile, if not more than compelling read.
Spanning all forty years of Waits’ remarkable career from Closing Time to Orphans, the 609 pages contained herein, are nothing, if not irresistible: ‘’I’d rather play a club with vomit all around me,’’ he told Time, ‘’than a clean little college with sassy little girls and guys with razor-cut hair and coke spoons around their necks.’’
Furthermore, the rejection emails at the back of the book, make for equally interesting investigation.
Reading between the (aforementioned) lines, there’s an alliance of ethical privacy, which is just as deeply entrenched within, and honoured by those who have worked with Waits, as there is within the artist himself: ‘’Hi Barney – thanks for the note. I certainly know your books and your byline, and I’ve admired your work. I’d love to speak to you, as I’m a huge Waits fan myself. But I just checked in with Tom and Kathleen, and they politely asked me not to speak with you. So while I know your book is likely to be a glowing portrait, and my thoughts about working with Tom and Kathleen are equally glowing, I’m regretfully going to have to honour their wishes. Sorry about that. Good luck. I like your stuff. Take care. Joe Gore.’’
Indeed, a glowing, informative and essential book. A must for all Waitsaholics!