Who Are You: Tom Waits and ‘Lowside of the Road’ by Barney Hoskyns

Robert Loss

Waits is a deconstructionist vaudevillian with a heart who rails against cynicism; a furious bluesman blaring unabashedly about the soul-- his words and music stretch into a bizarre land, where the light is slanted, eerie.

I. Letter to Tom Waits

Tom, you don’t know me, and after reading Barney Hoskyns’ excellent biography about you, Lowside of the Road, I’m convinced more than ever that the only way I know you is through your music. And yet here I am, ready to talk about the music and the man, or the persona of the man, jumping into the three-ring circus of media which you clearly find a nuisance (at the very least): over here, the fire-breather’s got his critical ideas and moralism, and wants to know; in the center ring balances the horse-riding acrobat who only aspires to feel close to the sublime and ecstatic; and in the third ring jaunts the hobo-clown, who needs to make ‘em laugh and make a buck.

I’ve jumped in against myself, a malgre lui, wondering the point of Hoskyns’ speculation and thorough cobbling which, according to his fascinating prologue and appendix of emails, you and your wife Kathleen have tried to stop. How can I blame you? Stop being so damned compelling! Or do I blame MrHoskyns for dragging me and the rest of your fans into it, even though he comes clean about his own self-doubt and injured admiration?

I won’t answer those questions, because I can’t.

Tom, it’s strong work, this book. Frankly, Lowside of the Road is the most comprehensive “Tom Waits” biography out there; even a hardcore fan like me considers Hoskyns’ book a one-stop resource (although it inexplicably doesn’t offer a discography) and I’m pretty sure the initiates out there are going to be blown away. Hoskyns relies as much as possible on your own words, culled mainly from an enormous array of magazine interviews (including his own, done for Mojo) and new discussions with contemporaries.

His tone is objective, and when he does interject, it’s usually to knit together his portrait, not dress it up. His prose is economical: “Out of step with his own peers and dress-rehearsing for adulthood, paradoxically [Waits] was rebelling by conforming.” And let’s give Hoskyns credit for attempting to squeeze in every detail about almost 40 years of musical interrogation, which in the end is why Lowside of the Road is only as good as it can be.

What I mean by that: like many other biographies, and in the interest of comprehensiveness, Hoskyns’ book sometimes falls into a pattern of stringing together disjointed anecdotes, one after the other. His company is excellent – see James Knowlson’s biography of Samuel Beckett, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (Grove/Atlantic, May 2004), or Dave Marsh’s take on Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Springsteen on Tour 1968-2005 (St. Martin's Press, October 2006). (Gerald Martin, biographer of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, just published a 545-page tome, but has a 2,000-page version waiting in the wings.)

Here, in a succession of two pages of swift paragraphs, Hoskyns tells us about your exhaustion on tour with Bonnie Raitt in 1975; Jon Landau’s opinion of your show that year at Avery Fischer Hall; your appearance on WMMS in Cleveland with Kid Leo (dear to my northeast Ohio heart); performing with your hero Mose Allison on Soundstage; and finally levels out with your 1976 combo being supported at its first gig by none other than Charles Bukowski.

Later, this hit-it-and-quit-it approach is bothersome when discussing how certain collaborators like Bones Howe or Ralph Carney have allegedly been “cut off”; in its effort to keep up the pace, the book never really develops this trope fully, maybe because Hoskyns is reluctant, or maybe because he doesn’t want to further damage his informants’ standing. By the end of the book, these dizzying, sketchy smoke bombs obscure any kind of cohesive picture, which perversely seems about right.

Fans who favor your work from Swordfishtrombones on may get impatient and surly, waiting for Hoskyns’ book to get to 1983, as it spends roughly 275 pages on the “jazzbo” journey. The earliest chapters in “Act One” are the most entertaining, the most colorful, and Hoskyns beautifully evokes the settings of southern California where you grew up, especially the San Diego coffeehouse scene where the Tom Waits persona incubated.

Hell, if you want to do a road trip, you’ve got the addresses. The portrait of Herb Cohen could be a character from one of your “showbiz” songs: a manager “who carries hand grenades in his trunk”, literally. But despite those Asylum Records-era gems which Hoskyns clearly adores – “Martha”, “The Heart of Saturday Night”, “Burma Shave”, “Red Shoes” – and its inarguable masterpieces – everything on Small Change – nothing can save the slummed-out, increasingly exhausted story of your early LA years from repetitiveness; it’s a strange testament to Hoskyns’ thoroughness and ability to sketch your cyclical despair in the late ‘70s so well that one begins to root you on towards Kathleen, family, Kurt Weill, Son House, shore leaves and marimbas.

The “jazzbo” journey is a necessary one, though. The number of references in your songs to actual family members and places will be a surprise some people, given how broadly-painted the songs’ characters can be. We have Hoskyns’ diligence to thank for this.

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