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

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.

Your Dirty Uncle, Learned Elder & Drinking Buddy

Your Dirty Uncle, Learned Elder & Drinking Buddy

Hoskyns crafts detailed scenes of every recording session, the atmospherics and processes of which are crucial to understanding why records like Bone Machine sound like they do.

Hoskyns makes it freshly clear that what appeared in 1983 to be a massive shift with the avante-pop of Swordfishtrombones was really the synthesis of elements which had been brewing for years: your use of a fake streetlamp on the Foreign Affairs tour of 1977, for instance; the cameo in Sylvester Stallone’s film Paradise Alley and a few prescient tunes on the soundtrack to Coppola’s One from the Heart (as producer Bones Howe notes, here is “where this Bertolt Brecht quality…began to emerge”); the heavy R&B influence on Blue Valentine and the even grittier Heartattack and Vine; and of course an interest in and talent for crafting stage personae. You described this sea change as “more or less putting on a different costume,” but the risky endeavor paid off so beautifully because you pieced together into one bizarre, compelling outfit what suits and hats had been laying around for years.

“Act Two” covers the post-Asylum years, picking up the pace to the point of becoming rather workmanlike. (Again, more than half of the book is dedicated to your youth and the first decade of your career, while the remainder covers what is approaching 30 years of musical expeditions into turbulent waters.) Hoskyns crafts detailed scenes of every recording session, the atmospherics and processes of which are crucial to understanding why records like Bone Machine sound like they do, but he resorts to the worn-out music-bio device of paragraph-long reviews for each major release’s songs.

With 2004’s Real Gone, Hoskyns becomes his most overtly critical, soured by an album which “featured no piano at all, just a cacophonous brew of human beatbox, threadbare bass, and gnarly guitar” and “musical modes” that “had been done before and better – by Tom Waits.” He goes so far as to confess that “nothing post-OFTH [One from the Heart, released in 1982] ‘touches’ or moves me as much as ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’,” or the songs “preced[ing] his Brennanite conversion on the road to avante-garde dissonance.”

This is backed up by the book’s lone self-indulgence, an appendix-ed, bewildering Top 40 list of Waits songs; “Ol’ 55” clocks in at number 7, “Muriel” and “Pony” are in the top 20, while “Jesus Gonna Be Here,” “Way Down in the Hole,” and “The Day After Tomorrow” are among the conspicuous absences. I can’t understand some of the choices, but then again, I can’t understand the necessity, or even the interest, of such a list.

If there is a cohesive thesis to the book, it’s the question of you being “inseparable from [your] created persona,” a phrase that pops up in any number of profiles and interviews, though here it’s from a typically useful, footnoted quote. The phrase rings with a secret desire; since the persona was, in fact, created – like some postmodern Frankenstein, I suppose – we wish we could separate one piece from the other. But even if that were so, even if the persona wasn’t the result of a life lived organically, stumbling and dreaming, latching on to the sublime when it appeared, who’s going to do the separating?

Journalists across the world raise their hands, morphing into mad, blood-thirsty surgeons, jealous of the enigma and eager to crack a few of its ribs, even as they talk piously and reverentially of the enigma. “Tell us what’s real and what’s not,” they say, “or we’ll take a swing at it.” They’re frustrated by what journalist Pete Silverton calls “a clever performance that refracted parts of Tom and left other parts untouched and private.” Even as Hoskyns realizes this, he continues a relentless meditation on the ‘real’ Tom Waits which grows tiresome by the last third of the book; we end up siding with you.

A more subtle narrative and theme is that of home life and drinking. Hoskyns reminds us that, although you were writing almost exclusively about grifters and prostitutes by 1975, you never really hung out with that crowd, instead staying on the fringes of nightlife, observer more than participant; your gang was populated by musicians, club managers, and bouncers. Even in the songs, we get the sense of this “in it” but not “of it” reporter, lubricated and in love with seedy L.A. but capable of walking away when he needed to.

It’s actually playing the music that threatened your health with the travails of the road: waiting around in clubs with nothing to do but drink and smoke; late nights, long distance relationships; and did I mention the alcohol? Hoskyns stays away from the scandalous, and supplies more quotes about your abstinence than your drinking. It dovetails nicely with his portrait of “Tom Waits the father” who reminds late in the book that “There’s a notion that artists are kind of impetuous and irresponsible and unreliable … But I don’t think you have to be.”

Tom, does the book disprove the apprehensions of a friend of yours, who vexes in the Prologue over the limitations of an approach that “reduces Waits to the sum of his life experiences”? No, it doesn’t. Those limitations are there, and probably would have been whether or not you’d granted more access or recollections. The enigma and the privacy you crave are still intact – everyone’s a winner! (Except those of us still waiting for whoever owns Island at this point to release Big Time on DVD).

Continue to lay down your thing, Tom.

II. Note for the Reader

The above letter to Tom Waits as a review of Barney Hoskyns’ biography Lowside of the Road is clearly a bit of a contrivance – okay, it’s a total contrivance – but the epistolary seemed right because, in essence, Hoskyns’ book is, at heart and despite its form, a letter to a man he admires about the music he loves. Hence all the book’s sheepish self-awareness.

And while I wish the astute Hoskyns had gone further into his own cogitations – covering less biography, perhaps, but speculating and meditating more – what remains in Lowside of the Road is a finely drawn portrait of an artist whose work cannot be easily described, just as his place in American music is not easily pinned down. He’s a deconstructionist vaudevillian with a heart who rails against cynicism; he’s a furious bluesman blaring unabashedly about the soul, and then he’s a preacher who may or may not believe in Jesus; he’s your dirty uncle, your learned elder, and your drinking buddy; he reports the news and mythologizes like a backwoods logger; though his territory often begins in the mundane – insects, houses, a fascination with shoes – his words and music stretch into a bizarre land, where the light is slanted, eerie.

But you and I know that when it’s time to introduce your little sister to Tom Waits, you won’t reach for a biography – this one, or any other. You’ll reach for Rain Dogs, or Small Change, or, if you’re cruel (or if your little sister is a big fan of Bertolt Brecht), The Black Rider. Thus I suggest that you, the fan, read Hoskyns’ book as a devoted monk in prayer, not as a theologian; you’ll appreciate Hoskyns’ work and lose nothing of the joy of your own wonder.