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LOWSIDE OF THE ROAD by Barney Hoskyns


A Life of Tom Waits

by Barney Hoskyns

Pub Date: April 14th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-7679-2708-6
Publisher: Broadway

The bard of musical lowlife receives a sometimes ill-tempered biography.

British music journalist Hoskyns has long been an astute chronicler of Los Angeles rock; Hotel California (2006) briefly surveyed Waits’s early work in the context of the ’70s L.A. singer-songwriter scene. Here the author takes an expansive unauthorized look at Waits’s life and career. Hoskyns offers a well-delineated picture of the artist’s formative years in the Southern California towns of Whittier and San Diego, where his infatuation with Beat literature and old-school pop and jazz led to what the author calls “round-the-clock performance art”—the formulation of the musician’s anachronistic, finger-popping, prematurely grizzled stage persona. Hoskyns is at his best in amply reported chapters recalling Waits’s first flush of fame in Los Angeles as a gutter-crawling, melody-spinning boho poet. Witnesses include his producer Bones Howe and several intimates at the West Hollywood Troubadour club—though not, regrettably, early flame Rickie Lee Jones. The book grows less rewarding after Waits’s wife and creative partner Kathleen Brennan enters the picture. Hoskyns plainly lacks any abiding interest in the more experimental, cacophonous recordings that commenced in 1983 with Swordfishtrombones. The latter part of his account, which leans heavily on secondary sources, devolves into wearying, infrequently edifying laundry lists of album tracks, theatrical projects (mostly with Robert Wilson) and movie roles. The writer also encountered difficulty in enlisting cooperation from friends and musical associates of the privacy-loving Waits, and he loudly grinds his axe by including an appendix of several e-mails declining his interview requests. By the end, Hoskyns’s tone has turned peevish, and his admiration for Waits’s oddly beautiful, envelope-pushing music is eclipsed by his journalistic frustration.

Worth it for the informative first half, but not the comprehensive assessment that Waits’s artistry deserves.