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Tome On The Range

Lowside Of The Road: Barney Hoskyns' Tom Waits Biog Reviewed
John Robb , March 25th, 2009 10:19

Tom Waits is an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a hobo-voiced teller of peculiar narratives. The brilliant catalogue of this vagabond minstrel is packed with heartbreaking tales of modern America’s diseased undercarriage. Each album is an adventure of rasping blues, barroom piano, clattering percussion, deranged polkas, psychotic ragtime, and heartbreak country. That gravelly voice tarmacs melodies that surge from dark melancholy, to story-telling boogie.

Tom Waits is fiercely protective of the world that he has created around him, which must make him a nightmare subject for the rock biographer. He doesn't play the game, refusing to talk to the press and forbidding his closest confidants from doing so. He exists way beyond the media circus, somewhere out there in the desert dreaming up his latest macabre, dark, clanking masterpieces.

This should have killed Barney Hoskyns’ task stone dead, but somehow he turns this disadvantage on its head. Waits’ veil of self-imposed secrecy is surprisingly the key strength of the book. Because Waits’ genius is that he doesn’t exist - the clattering, cranky, mad professor of the songs is of course a persona, an invention and a smoke and mirrors exercise. The rumpled bar-room vagabond is a perfect conceit and the real Waits if probably a million miles away from the drink-sodden hobo of the folklore. Somehow Hoskyns maintains the myth and doesn’t puncture it. No-one is speaking: not Waits, not his immediate cronies or anyone who has ever met him - leaving him as a shadowy figure. This only adds to his endearing mystery.

Hoskyns runs with this and works from all the known facts of a career that has gone in reverse. He may have started off as some sort of singer songwriter with a nice line in cranky balladeering but with Rain Dogs took a swerve into some crazy charismatic 3D world of wild percussion and deeply literate songs. Since then, every damn record has been a killer and there seems to be no sign of Waits slowing down.

Hoskyns clings on to the trail like a battered and determined modern day Columbo as he sniffs out Waits’ elusive personae. Hoskyns himself has been on the musical frontline for decades, and was an authoritative and hip writer on the NME in the 80s, as well as writing the definitive book on LA’s sprawling music scene (Hotel California: Singer-Songwriters & Cocaine Cowboys In The L.A. Canyons). Waits himself ran parallel with that scene, and Hoskyns is perfectly placed to wrestle with the task of representing the maestro’s wild flights of imagination on the printed page.

Hoskyns tells the story through the most important signposts - the songs themselves. Their conception is explored and the songs themselves deconstructed, and we start to understand how Waits ticks through Hoskyns’ keen-eyed exploration of music and myth.

A marvellous and long awaited book, in lesser hands this could have been a disaster, but with Hoskyns at the helm we have the perfect guide to a man who has outsmarted and out witted even the most determined bloodhound. Even if he only gets to the fringes of Waits himself, this is a massive, sprawling and thoroughly entertaining journey though the life of one of American music’s most endearing characters.