BootLeg Betty

LOWSIDE OF THE ROAD: A Life of Tom Waits By Barney Hoskyns

Books of The Times
Piecing Together That Voice on the Barroom Floor

A Life of Tom Waits
By Barney Hoskyns
Illustrated. 609 pages. Broadway Books. $29.95.

If you could create the perfect rock biographer, he or she would probably be equal parts Robert Caro, Greil Marcus and Nick Tosches. That is, part buzz-saw researcher, part warm-blooded public intellectual and part roguish street-corner hustler. The resulting book — a biography of Randy Newman? Neil Young? Aretha Frankin? — would be, to quote the soul musician Swamp Dogg, total destruction to your mind.

Let’s not hold it against Barney Hoskyns, a journeyman British music writer, that he is not all that — or even particularly close to all that. Because in “Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits,” he is quite good enough. Mr. Hoskyns’s guile, dogged work and Nick Hornbyesque likability place him a notch above the average rock biographer. His book lights up and whirls like one of the greasy carnival rides in Mr. Waits’s own sprawling oeuvre.

Tom Waits is probably not, as Mr. Hoskyns would have it, “as important an American artist as anyone the 20th century had produced.” (Dude, please.) But he is as potent and unpredictable a musical force as most of us have witnessed in our lifetimes, and that’s not faint praise. The graveyard croak of Mr. Waits’s gravelly, bellowing baritone is righteous, paint-scraping, unmistakable; it scatters small animals and slaps your synapses to startled attention. With what’s left of your adrenalized wits, you can attend to his mordant lyrics, which he packs into songs he divides (as his wife, Kathleen Brennan, put it) into two primordial categories: “the grand weeper” and “the grim reaper.”

Now 59, Mr. Waits has been so good for so long that he is easy to take for granted. He was only a few years out of high school, after all, when he wrote “Ol’ ’55,” a song the historian Simon Schama has called “the single most beautiful love song since Gershwin and Cole Porter shut their piano lids.” Mr. Hoskyns’s book is a chance for a multiangled reappraisal.

Mr. Waits is not an easy man for a biographer to approach. He would not speak to Mr. Hoskyns, and asked others not to. But as Mr. Hoskyns points out: “He is no rock-and-roll version of J. D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon. He never hid out in the mountains like Dylan after his motorcycle accident, or like Bucky Wunderlick in Don DeLillo’s novel ‘Great Jones Street,’ ” adding, “Generally he’s been on hand to give good quote in support of the latest album.”

Mr. Hoskyns rummaged through Mr. Waits’s interviews, pored through the historical record and talked to those who were willing to speak. Thus his unauthorized biography mirrors, in some ways, Mr. Waits’s own junkyard aesthetic. Mr. Hoskyns picks up what shards of Mr. Waits’s life he can find and holds them to the light, turning them eagerly in his hands.

Tom Waits was born in 1949 into a middle-class family in Whittier, Calif., also Richard M. Nixon’s hometown. His parents were schoolteachers. “I had a pretty normal childhood,” he said in 1976. “I learned to handle silverware and all of that stuff.”

His mother was quiet, but his father, Frank, was a drinker and a night owl, who left the family when Mr. Waits was 10. Frank Waits loved music; he kept Mexican stations on the family’s car radio and exposed his son to the Great American Songbook.

Mr. Waits’s mother soon moved the family to a suburb of San Diego. There Mr. Waits became obsessed with the Beat writers, dropped out of high school and began taking piano lessons. While working as a doorman at a San Diego nightclub, he’d entertain the crowds outside with spoken-word performances, some of which became songs like “Diamonds on My Windshield.”

After Mr. Waits began performing onstage and then moved to Los Angeles, he toured with Frank Zappa. Zappa’s audience heckled him every night. Mr. Waits had to yell to be heard, and that, Mr. Hoskyns suggests, is where his voice picked up its gurgling roar.

Mr. Hoskyns’s book is good on the early years of Mr. Waits’s career, from the recording of his early albums to his relationships with Bette Midler (with whom he recorded the sublime duet “I Never Talk to Strangers”) and Rickie Lee Jones.

Mr. Waits was a vivid and unusual presence in Los Angeles in the early 1970s, when he began recording for David Geffen’s label Asylum Records, home to performers like Jackson Browne and the Eagles. He was the antihippie, a saloon singer who wore greasy ties and pointed shoes, anything but laid back.

“He was never going to be,” as one observer puts it, “the fourth member of Crosby, Stills and Nash.”

How much of Mr. Waits’s wino-dirtball routine, Mr. Hoskyns wonders, was an act? Where did Tom Waits end, and “Tom Waits” begin? Mr. Hoskyns suggests that the persona may have been an around-the-clock bit of performance art that simply became his reality.

What one onlooker calls Mr. Waits’s “faux-jazzbo schtick” began to grow tired by the late 1970s. Then, while working on music for Francis Ford Coppola’s 1982 film, “One From the Heart,” at Coppola’s studios, he made the acquaintance of his future wife, Ms. Brennan, who would take firm control over his career.

His songs, often written with Ms. Brennan, grew starker, artier, less predictable, more influenced by Kurt Weill than by Jack Kerouac. He jettisoned piano and guitar for odd, unusual instrumentation; he began dressing in black and working with the avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson.

He became, musically, a clattering neoprimitive. (“I like my music with the rinds and the seeds and pulp left in,” he has said.) In the decades since, he has created a tall pile of remarkable music. Still, Mr. Hoskyns writes, “the Waits we all secretly want” is the early one: “slurred, mawkish, broken.”

“Lowside of the Road” was first published in England, and I do wish its American publishers had taken the time to clean up its many Britishisms. Mr. Waits is a quintessentially American artist, and it’s jarring to read that he got into a “row” or sat on a “kerb.” I kept waiting for him to scarf a plate of bangers and mash.

These days, thanks to Ms. Brennan, Mr. Waits is cleaned up — he’s a father of three — and has quit smoking, no longer drinks and keeps sane, perky hours. Happily, though, he is still pouring his demons into his songs. Mr. Hoskyns quotes one admirer who asks: “Who needs alcohol and drugs when you have Tom Waits?”

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