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Barney Hoskyns' Biography Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits

Barney Hoskyns’ Biography The Lowside of The Road: A Life of Tom Waits
By James Calemine

“Take an eye for an eye
Tooth for a tooth
Just like it says in the Bible
Never leave a trace or forget a face
Of any man at the table
Any man at the table
When the moon is a cold chiseled dagger
Sharp enough to draw blood from a stone
He rides through your dreams on a coach and horses and fence posts
In the moonlight look like bones.
              --Tom Waits
              "Black Wings"

Barney Hoskyns ' new Tom Waits biography--Lowside of the Road--was not an easy book to write. Waits, known for his  privacy, conveyed to certain musician friends he requested they’d decline to go on the record for the book, making things difficult for the biographer. Nonetheless, Hoskyns wrote a fine portrait on one of America's finest songwriters.

In the book’s prologue, Hoskyns writes about his dilemma: “At various points during my two years of researching Waits’ life and work I had to stop and ask myself, ‘Do I actually have the right to write a book about Tom Waits?’ It’s tough not to personalize the rebuffs, not just from the Waits camp but from certain acquaintances and collaborators. Tough, too, not to see their polite requests that such people not consort with me as covert censorship.”

Hoskyns, a seasoned literary professional, has written for publications such as MOJO, Melody Maker, New Musical Express, The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, The Observer, Arena, Harper’s Bazaar, Interview, Spin, Rolling Stone and co-founded the music site Rock’s Back Pages. Hoskyns' other books include Across the Great Divide: the Band and America, Say It One Time For The Brokenhearted, Hotel California: Singer-Songwriters and Cocaine Cowboys in the LA Canyons, Glam!, Beneath the Diamond Sky: Haight Asbury 1965-1970 and Waiting For the Sun: A Rock and Roll History of Los Angeles.

Lowside of the Road traces Waits’ childhood in San Diego, his parents’ split, his fascination with music and the Beat Writers up through his early recordings and performances, relocation to Northern California, encounters, deals in the business and through Waits’ latest tour behind Orphans. Hoskyns does manage to speak with Bones Howe who recorded Waits' earliest album and various other associates that had nothing to lose by telling the truth. He also interviewed Waits twice. Hoskyns covers Waits' career in movies—like Ironweed, Short Cuts, Down By LawCandy Mountain, Night On Earth and Dracula, and how each era of his life was funneled into his music.

The book highlights Waits meeting his wife--at Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope studios--Kathleen Brennan, which marks a distinct change in direction and method to his music making. Hoskyns chronicles Waits’ albums and professional maneuvers through the years with honest fact. Email including even Keith Richards backing out of an interview with Hoskyns, which may indicate Waits asked the Rolling Stone to not say a word. Here’s an email exchange Hoskyns included in the book between he and Keith Richards’ personal manager Jane Rose to indicate how the process transpired for Hoskyns.

"Thu, Feb 8, 2007 Dear Barney, Keith has asked me to check with Tom to confirm that this is authorized before doing any interview. Will get back to you once I speak to Tom or his representative." Later that day, Hoskyns received this electronic mail: "Dear Barney, Keith will not be able to do the interview. Another time, another situation. Kind Regards."
Richards played on various songs on Rain Dogs and Bone Machine, and indicates Waits’ talent even interested one of the greatest rock and roll legends of all time, Keef.

Other close associates of Waits who refused to be interview for the book in included Jim Jarmusch, Prairie Sun Studio Founder Mark Rennick, musicians Smokey Hormel, Greg Cohen, Matt Brubeck, and Waits’ old flame Rickie Lee Jones. Lowside also contains rare photographs of Waits at different times throughout his prestigious career.
Hoskyns presents Waits’ influences such as Dylan, Ray Charles, Son House, Charley Patton, Howlin Wolf, Sinatra, Kerouac, Bukowski and Waits’ dislikes such as the California Laurel Canyon scene with his label-mates the Eagles.

Hoskyns does an excellent job of dissecting each Waits album by connecting musical lineages and influences to particular songs or eras. Also, Hoskyns does a fine job of presenting Waits' business deals, dilemmas and choices without judgement or scandalous innuendo. Even Waits’ lawsuit against Frito-Lay for using his style is elaborated on in the book.

Lowside also investigates Waits quitting drinking and how it influenced his work, which most might say it contributed to his prolific songwriting. Hoskyns writes of Waits collaborations with William Burroughs, Robert Wilson, Francis Ford Coppola, Jim Jarmusch and even Keith Richards in an in-depth way. Hoskyns, despite all the resistance to Waits camp, has managed to portray and prove Waits as one of America’s great songwriters.

Hoskyns does a fine job of documenting all of Waits’ albums, especially Swaordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, Bone Machine, Black Rider, Mule Variations, Alice, Blood Money, Real Gone and his latest work and tour from the Orphans CD. Hoskyns interviewed Waits on several occasions, and even Hoskyns admitted Waits could be quite evasive. Hoskyns also elaborates on other accomplished songwriters such as Rod Stewart, Bob Seger, The Blind Boys of Alabama and Bruce Springsteen as well as many others covering Waits’ songs. In this Swampland/Mystery And Manners Interview Hoskyns provides insight to his journey about writing this interesting book about the reclusive Waits.

James Calemine: How did with you grapple with "Do I have a Right to write a book about Tom Waits?"

Barney Hoskyns: You resort to the old clichés about "public figures", for example, anyone's life is fair game if they stick their head above the parapet of fame. After I finished the book I thought of another tack: asking Tom Waits if he himself had ever read a biography of a living musician. I very much doubt the answer is no.

JC: Most important thing to remember about Tom Waits?

BH: He's a fish in the jailhouse and all heart.

JC:. Elaborate and verify why Tom's an artist's artist...a songwriter's/songwriter…

BH: He's an artist's artist in that he's virtually never accommodated or second-guessed his market. He's a songwriter's songwriter in that several great writers have sung his songs.

JC: His movie career augmented his musical persona. Did it help?

BH: I don't know if movies helped his career but they helped him develop new "characters" for his songs. They also, eventually, made him impatient with waiting around in movie trailers – and so got him properly back on track with his music.

JC: Significance of Kathleen Brennan?

BH: Kathleen allegedly saved Waits' life. She also allegedly pushed him outside his comfort zone and helped him jettison his '70s props. It's unlikely there would have been a Swordfishtrombones without her. There certainly wouldn't have been a Waits homestead and progeny.

JC: Artists such as Keith Richards admired & collaborated with Tom. Keith's email declining to go on the record indicates Tom's power of persuasion. Yes?

BH: It's possible that even Keith Richards is a little afraid of Tom Waits, whose bite can be worse than his bark. For me, the Waits' overstepped the mark by censoring the likes of Richards, who only wanted to say glowing things about him. I tried not to hold it against them.

JC:. Safe to say Waits is a master of controlling his environment?

BH: One spin on the Waits' modus operandi would be say that they are control freaks to a fault.

JC: Most difficult part about writing this book? Waits' stonewalling?

BH: The hardest thing about writing a biography is leaving no stone unturned. You get paranoid that you might miss the "key" to your subject.

JC: If you could take only one Tom Waits CD on the road with you...what would it be?

BH: Probably Mule Variations. Maybe Foreign Affairs.

JC: Any feedback from Waits or his people on Lowside?

BH: They would never stoop so low.


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