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Tom Waits – The growl and the gravel

Tom Waits – The growl and the gravel

by Philip King

BIOGRAPHY : Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits By Barney Hoskyns Faber, 640pp. £20

TOM WAITS is one of the greatest artists America has ever produced and this is his story, a story Barney Hoskyns is well qualified to attempt to tell.

A native Angeleno, Waits was born on December 7th, 1949, to Mrs and Mr J Frank Waits, and weighed in at 7lbs 10ozs. “All they ever wanted was a showbiz kid,” he would say years later, and in Tom they got what they were looking for. Waits later claimed he’d been “conceived one night in April 1949 at the Crossroads Motel in La Verne amidst the broken Four Roses bottle and smouldering Lucky Strikes . . .”

His dad, Frank, was a wild one, a boozer who left home early for the high stool. This left its mark on Waits, who throughout his life was prone to looking for surrogate father figures; these included manager Herb Cohen, producer “Bones” Howe, movie director Francis Ford Coppola, and theatre director Robert Wilson. Tom also became an alcoholic. The disease consumed his life until 1992 when he became sober. “Sometimes you have to quit being a vagabond and being drunk every day. One day you just wake up and realise there’s an empty space in your soul. It’s not cool, just weird. My wife said ‘I want you to stick around godamnit’.”

Years later, he admitted he was in AA. “I am in the Programme. I am calm and sober. Hooray. But you know it was a struggle.”

Hoskyns takes us on a ride around the world of Waits. He succeeds in penetrating it further than Patrick Humphries did in his book, The Many Lives of Tom Waits , published in 2007. Hoskyns has form; he graduated from the NME school of rock journalism and has several weighty titles to his name ( Across the Great Divide: The Band and America; Hotel California: Singer-Songwriters and Cocaine Cowboys In The LA Canyons 1967-1976; Waiting For The Sun: Strange Days, Weird Scenes and The Sound Of Los Angeles to name a few). His research is exhaustive if not exhausting and so it is with Lowside of the Road.

Tom Waits was signed by David Geffen out of LA’s Troubadour club as another singer-songwriter, in the golden age of singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, James Taylor and many more, onto the Asylum label. This was 1973. But no way was Tom just another singer -songwriter.

Admonished by father Frank that if he ever adopted a ducktail hairdo he would “shoot him”, rock’n’roll simply passed Tom by. Country music, Mexican music, old bluesmen, Harry Smith, Sinatra, James Brown, Ray Charles, Dylan and Captain Beefheart all sang to the gangly young man, who was all ears and reading everything he could lay his hands on. More thrilling to Tom than anything else was disc jockey “Wolfman” Jack Smyth, who was broadcasting soul and r’n’b from XERF, across the Mexican border south of Del Rio, Texas. “The first station I got on my little two-dollar headphones was Wolfman and I thought I had discovered something that no one else had. I thought it was coming in from Kansas City or Omaha, that nobody was getting this station and nobody knows who this guy was and nobody knew what these records were.”

Setting out to make a life for himself in the business called show, Waits was focused and energetic. From the folk clubs of San Diego to the open mic night at LA’s Troubadour, Waits kept his eyes on the prize. Always going against the hippy grain – no buckskin flares, no Laurel Canyon smoke – his was the consciousness of the Beats: Kerouac, Corso, and later Bukowski. With a copy of On the Road and a hip flask in his pockets, he burrowed his way under the skin of America and met those who walked on the lowside of the road. These he referred to as “the gravel we walk on everyday”.

Signed to Asylum in 1973, he turned in an album a year until 1980. Each and every one of these is parsed and analysed by Hoskyns in considerable detail. Some of the finest songs of the decade are there: Ruby’s Arms, ( Looking For) the Heart of Saturday Night, Kentucky Avenue, Jitterbug Boy , and the peerless Tom Traubert’s Blues . Throughout the 1970s, as he honed his craft, he became a daytime sleeper at the Tropicana Hotel, fell in love with Ricki Lee Jones, dated Bette Midler, kept cement in his fridge, and grew to hate the road. “Sometimes when I think about touring I would rather be attacked by a school of hagfish . . . hagfish eat another fish from the inside out. That’s sometimes what touring does to you.”

By now he was tiring of his old milieu of “mortuary piano” and “cocktail hairdos” and the decision to work with Francis Ford Coppola on One From The Heart was, he said later, “ a step backwards”. It was no doubt the most important step of his life.

On the set of the movie he met Kathleen Brennan, fell in love with her, got married and began a new phase of his life. In music, his journey from chromatic to serial now began in earnest. Ever the sonic expeditionary, now he had a mate and a collaborator who gave him the confidence to go to work. The Brennan/Waits relationship became something of a talking point, much discussed, resented in some quarters. To quote Hoskyns, “she rebranded him”. Tom describes the dynamic thus: “I hold the nail and she swings the hammer. In a good way. I’m alive because of her. I was a mess. I was addicted. I wouldn’t have made it. I really was saved at the last minute. Like a deus ex machina ”.

It was now that Chris Blackwell and Island Records appeared on the scene. The Waits/Brennan output for Island is an enormously creative, imaginative and challenging body of work. For Waits, songs carry emotional information and can transport us back to a poignant time, place or event in our lives. So it is with this music, from Swordfishtrombones , which Hoskyns says was a “shot in the arm for all true music believers” to Raindogs, Frank’s Wild Years , and Black Rider . The drums were no longer played with brushes but hammered with tyre irons and lumps of four-by-two. Marc Ribot played guitar prepared with crocodile clips while Tom dragged screeching chairs across the concrete shed floor and growled through a bullhorn. Historian Simon Schama has described Tom’s take on American life as Shakepearean in its scope: “he pushes his furious refusal of songster indignation to the edge of self parody”.

Waits’s movie career is well documented here, as is his relationship with Robert Wilson. Hoskyns sees Wilson as beguiling, guru-like and seductive – and a significant influence on the second act in Tom’s career.

According to Hoskyns people may worry that “his (Waits’s) recent adoption as National Public Radio’s National Treasure threatens to swaddle him in cultural approval”. But Tom raves on, through Mule Variations, Alice,Orphans etc, creating and playing music with a heaving heart and a knowing soul.

Hoskyns became captivated by the Waits allure while dropping the needle on his discs in a druggy Paddington crash pad he shared with Nick Cave. He follows his hero all the way, always a mile or so behind. Waits, the shape changer, like mercury will never be snared.

The Lowside of the Road is a fine biography, though unauthorised. Perhaps because of this it is shot through with mild resentment. Hoskyns vents his frustration with what he sees as the Waits/Brennan spin, achieved through control of their immediate circle of friends and collaborators, none of whom, according to Hoskyns, will risk displeasing the pair. E-mailed requests for interviews garner only negative replies. Hoskyns is irked. He cannot resist sourly commenting “certainly Kathleen Brennan got her wish, which was to change her hubby from Jazzbo self-caricature to sui generis art house eccentric ”.

Hoskyns is no Kitty Kelly or Albert Goldman though. He is too much of a fan for that and has no appetite for dirt digging. He is perhaps one of those “zealots of explanation” as Denis Donoghue would have it. They give us the “arts without mystery”. As for Waits: “I don’t know if honesty is an issue in show business – people don’t care whether you’re telling the truth or not; they just don’t want to be told something they don’t already know”.

Philip King is a film maker, musician and director of South Wind Blows Productions

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March 3, 2009 - Posted by | Tom Waits, _ARTICLE, _MUSIC

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