Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits

by Barney Hoskyns

Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits

Rating: 2.0/5.0

Broadway Books

That's right: another fucking Tom Waits biography. Despite (or perhaps because of) Waits' consistent refusal to sanction an authorized overview of his life and work, in recent years we've been subjected to a steady piss stream of disappointing studies of the musician that relied heavily on previously published material. Separate entries by Jay S. Jacobs and Patrick Humphries glaringly revealed all the pitfalls in examining Waits, offering few insights into either the artist or his albums. Both books were largely inessential; any reader with an internet connection and a functioning frontal lobe could have simply read the interviews that formed the basis of both books.

Barney Hoskyns' Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits does little to deny that another Waits biography is wholly unnecessary. Although Hoskyns managed to wrangle fresh quotes from a few Waits associates like Bones Howe and Ralph Carney - both of whom have an axe to grind about perceived slights from Waits - Waits and his inner circle clammed up and denied access for Hoskyns. Thus the majority of the information here will be redundant to anyone familiar with Waits' work and the various half-truths, fabrications, total bullshit tales and rare bouts of genuine sincerity with which he peppers his interviews and concerts. Despite its ambitious reach - it's exhaustively researched and runs 500 pages in length - Lowside too often reads like little more than a flat and generic rehash of Waits' life and music.

First the good stuff. For those unfamiliar with Waits this book is a decent starting point, as it covers the musician's career in painstaking detail and is up to date as of the recent Glitter and Doom tour. Like almost everything Hoskyns has written (his Across the Great Divide: The Band and America is indispensable), the book is well composed and carefully crafted, with a readable style that is never tedious or plodding. To Hoskyns' credit, he offers a balanced and impartial portrait of the musician, despite apparent attempts from Waits' camp to discourage various artists and producers from contributing to the book (the author even goes to the trouble of documenting such cases in an appendix). If Hoskyns' felt slighted or pissed off by such roadblocks, it never comes through in his writing, and in fact, his portrayal of Waits is largely sympathetic and flattering.

Despite these charms, Lowside is ultimately underwhelming and exhibits the same flaws as every other Waits biography. Foremost is its reliance on Waits' old interviews. Since the typical Waits interview, with its tall tales and bizarre metaphors, is akin to negotiating a minefield of lies, it's a dicey proposition to use such interviews so extensively. Of course Hoskyns isn't to blame here, though it begs the question of whether another Waits biography is even worth the author's or reader's effort.

Other shortcomings are less forgivable. Too much time is spent debating the closely guarded persona of Tom Waits, with Hoskyns coming precariously close to armchair psychology in trying to analyze Waits the person vs. Waits the persona. The book is also excessively long. With an approach that only the most dedicated fan will likely appreciate, Hoskyns offers a song-by-song interpretation of virtually every Waits tune, with page after page dedicated to this analysis chock full of the usual buzzwords used to describe Waits' songs. Many of Hoskyns' conclusions and assumptions are debatable; worse, he periodically makes the classic critic's mistake of taking too much license when analyzing the songs, frequently going outside the songs' boundaries or viewing them in entirely biographical terms. In this way, Hoskyns describes "Ruby's Arms" as a "gesture of concern" for former flame Rickie Lee Jones and short-changes the geographically ambiguous "Hoist That Rag" as little more than an example of "anti-Rumsfeld rage," with no evidence offered to support such conclusions.

Though Hoskyns is usually rightly skeptical of much of what Waits has said in interviews and concert performances over the years, he sometimes accepts some of the Waits lore as pure fact. Did the Ox-Bow Incident story, recounted in hilarious detail in Waits' 1999 "VH-1 Storytellers" set, actually happen? Was the "Mr. Sticha" name-checked in "What's He Building?" actually a neighbor of Waits? Though Hoskyns' bullshit radar is usually attuned - he does a nice job of including quotes from Waits that seem sincere and honest - these stories are presented as fact without any skepticism. And, last but not least, the author misidentifies the surreal country-nightmare Missouri town of Branson as "Branford."

Certainly Hoskyns was dealt a difficult hand, as Waits and many people he's worked with declined to contribute to the book. That Waits is interested in maintaining a sense of privacy and managing his public persona is well known by now. One can't help but think the artist takes a perverse pleasure as writers and fans alike trip over themselves trying to understand him. Lowside of the Road is a good introduction to Waits for the uninitiated, though hardcore fans - and really, with Waits is there any other kind? - will likely be disappointed with this biography. Despite Hoskyns' best efforts, Waits remains elusive. One can't help but think this is exactly what the musician wants.

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