Monday, 3 November 2014

Lowside Of The Road: A Life of Tom Waits by Barney Hoskyns

You still live out by the airport?
It’s not a coincidence that, during one of the lowest points of my life of late, I reached out to Tom Waits, both for a soundtrack for my misery and to read more about his life and music. Having discussed, agreed, and facilitated a separation from my wife of six years, and in the middle of a temporary period of not seeing my son due to the complications of the move, I had no access to diversions other than my music and books – of course, who actually needs more than that? No TV, no internet, no telephone, no money. Had I been out of a job too I could have cracked open a bottle of white port and pretended I Henry Chinaski! 

Waits’ early beat-jazz style, his circus-freak albums, his junkyard phase; his bawlers, brawlers and bastards* have been ever-present since I first started working in a chain bookstore in 1997 and was introduced to Waits through the oxide-fatigued cassettes on semi-permanent repeat in the stock rooms (along with early Aphex Twin albums and, perhaps less excitingly, Evan Dando). I luckily picked up most of his albums on the cheap, in second-hand bins and by carefully targeting forgetful friends’ CD stacks for short unauthorised borrowings**, and they’ve been bellowing and crunching, thumping and warbling in pretty much every one of the formative scenes in my own narrative since university. That voice, like hobnails on gravel, like a demented mittel-European scientist, a bar-room balladeer, a lounge singer in the back room of a strip club, has the ability to flatten and uplift in equal measure, and I have playlists of the energetic, the lachrymose and downright bizarre to suit any mood.

But what did I know about the man behind the music? Apart from his occasional appearances on screen (of which there are far more than I ever imagined) I had no idea who the hell he was and what the hell he was doing. When Lowside… came out I snapped up a copy, but until now I’ve never felt the need to dispel the sense of mystery. What changed? Well, pretty much everything, but that’s another story.

From the start however I was a little disappointed – mainly with myself – as I hadn’t realised it was an unauthorised biography. It amused me however that the author had been stonewalled by pretty much anyone who still respected Waits and Brennan or who still sought a place at their table. It turns out Waits and family are Pynchonesque in their reclusion. Hoskyns’ rather petulant inclusion as an appendix of emails from various people who turned him down appears an ill-judged attempt to justify the gaps in his narrative and his over-reliance on the testimony of those who were burned, but who in the main still remained supportive of the artist. But on the flip-side it meant getting only a tantalising glimpse of an immensely private person, without hearing all about his toilet habits or getting a roll-call (with evidentiary statements) of the women with whom he slept. I should say that the biography itself was not at all disappointing. Its limitations acknowledged, Hoskyns actually does a cracking job at putting Waits’ life into context and arranges his chapters thematically, taking what must have been hundreds of interviews and distilling them down to add support to his own well-researched conclusions and suppositions. It was incredibly easy to read too***, especially compared to the other book I was attempting to read at the time, and I could consume whole chapters in a sitting**** without feeling the need to get up and move around. I got a very vivid impression of what it was to be in Waits’ circle of influence, and of a man bubbling over with both vigorous strength (of body and drive) and tender and gentle sentimentality. The portrayal is of a man of extremes, who embodies the line “there ain't no devil, there's just god when he's drunk”, who has struggled with his family demons, his addictions, and with his latent parental instincts of kindness and patience, of his search for a father figure of his own. A tortured genius is an over-worked analogy, so I won’t use it. Instead I’ll say he’s a risk-taker and a guy with whom you’d probably want to chew the fat, have a beer, listen to some records. But don’t, just don’t, suggest you’ve got a drummer for his next album.

In the absence of an authorised or auto-biography, this is probably the best one out there (that I’ve read). Hoskyns is clearly a fan, but has an ability to be objective, and the writing is good enough that you don’t notice it. Does he do Waits justice? Who knows, and maybe only time will tell.


*The subtitles to the three volumes of his Orphans collection (songs that didn’t make the cut for his albums), provided by wife and muse Kathleen Brennan

**Tom, if you read this, I’m sorry. I would have bought them new if I had the money at the time. If you’re not reading this, then I am unrepentant and would do it again in a heart-beat.

**All bar the parts, occasionally overly drawn-out, describing Hoskyns’ own thoughts on the tracks included on each album, through which he takes the reader track by track for every album up to and including Real Gone in 2004

****The definition of ‘a sitting’ is the time it takes to make and drink a cup of tea and find and eat a small snack, and before getting fidgety.

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