Tuesday, 17 February 2009
There's never been a solid, revealing and well-written book about Tom Waits, so Barney Hoskyns' superb new biography, Lowside of the Road, is a tome I'd been waiting to read for more than a decade and devoured in a day.
The challenge facing anyone wanting to delve into Tom Waits' life and work is that he and his wife Kathleen Brennan have built a "wall of inaccessibility" around themselves and their close associates. The book has an appendix of emails the author received from potential interviewees happy to speak to him until the Waits/Brennan camp effectively gagged them and in the prologue Hoskyns asks himself whether he "has the right" to probe into Waits' life.
Thankfully Hoskyns' pressed on and the resulting 600 pages is as illuminating, amusing and heartening a portrait of a musician you could hope to read. Naturally it's rich with anecdotes. These are some I enjoyed alongside musical accompaniment.
MP3: Tom Waits - Kentucky Avenue
"Childhood is very important to me a a writer" quotes Hoskyns and that's rarely more evident than in this track. Kentucky Avenue is the street in Whittier, California where Waits grew up. The song, from Blue Valentine, namechecks a number of Waits' childhood associates. The leg braces which Waits says he'll cut off with a hacksaw belonged to his best friend Kipper who had polio. The steak knife wielding Mrs Storm (a real person) also crops up in Spidey's Wild Ride from Orphans.
MP3: Guy Clark - Cold Dog Soup
Waits moved from Whittier to San Diego after his dad, Frank, left the family home. Here he became a fixture of the local folk music scene when he worked as the doorman at the Heritage coffee shop in Mission Beach. Guy Clark's song recalls Waits "in a pork-pie hat and silver skates/juggling three collection plates".
MP3: Frank Zappa - Stinkfoot
In the 70s Tom Waits shared the same manager as Frank Zappa - the infamous Herb Cohen (who wouldn't talk to Hoskyns unless the author brought a tube of Bath Olivers for him from London). Waits supported Zappa on a few tours and had to put up with incredibly hostile audiences who only wanted to see the Mothers of Invention. Listen to Stinkfoot and you'll hear Frank's gentle poke at TW.
MP3 Tom Waits - Singapore
One of the joys of Hoskyns' book for me was getting a glimpse into how the albums were made, especially those with weird instrumentation. On Singapore, the opener to Rain Dogs, percussionist Michael Blair is whacking a chest drawers. Waits recalled that, "On the last bar of the song the whole piece of furniture collapsed and there was nothing left of it. That's what I think of when I hear that song. I see the pile of wood and it excites me."
There are many more stories to thrill and delight any Tom Waits fan in the book. I notice that this week's Time Out has even pilfered one as it recalls that Waits drank in the Island Queen in Islington on his first visit to London in 1976. Good choice Tom.
Stalking Tom Waits
Waiting For Waits
Tom Waits in Paris
Carnival Saloon: Tom Waits - all my posts that mention Tom, including cover version MP3s
Amazon: Lowside of the Road - buy the book
Faber & Faber: Lowside of the Road - publisher's info
The Times - review of the book
The Observer - review of the book