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Small Change

The more Tom Waits creates "Tom Waits," the less fans--or biographers--know about him

Alex Fine

By Van Smith | Posted 7/1/2009

A year before Barney Hoskyns' Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits (Broadway) hit bookstores in May, "Tom Waits True Confessions" was published online by Waits' record label, Anti (anti.com). Posted by "Gina" and linked on Waits' official web site (tomwaits.com), the over 3,100-word Q&A is heavy with lists of Waits' preferences--what he finds scary, for instance, or which sounds he likes--garnished with aphorisms and one-off stories with morals, in turns humorous and poignant. It's what one would expect from the mind of Tom Waits: cryptic amusements, absurdist entertainments, and sentimental journeys, courtesy of a wizened, irascibly likeable showman with an ever-evolving shtick borne both of hard time in a bottle and years of sober fatherhood.

While "True Confessions" fed the Tom Waits mystique, it hardly confessed a thing about Thomas Alan Waits, the person. Fans liked it, though. "He seems to see through the crap by talking a lot of crap," one enthusiastic commenter wrote at the end of the blog, while another urged, "He should interview himself more often." After all, who really needs to know the man behind the mask, as long as he's entertaining?

Outside of his showman's persona, Waits is intensely private, banking perhaps on the presumption that his fans possess a happy lack of curiosity about what fuels his greatness. Hoskyns confirmed this trait the hard way while working on Lowside. The 50-year-old British writer chose as his subject a 60-year-old with 40 years of contributions to the cultural landscape, but Waits wasn't having it. He and his wife, long-time creative collaborator Kathleen Brennan, wouldn't be interviewed, and they told a wide circle of trusted friends and associates not to help Hoskyns, either.

The shunning came from a man who gives good interviews--including some to Hoskyns in years past. But, as Lowside describes it, while conversing publicly Waits has "managed to shield himself behind a smokescreen of humor and verbal dexterity." The blackballing of Hoskyns probably wasn't personal, though, given the author's impressive record of work as a sympathetic, thoughtful scribe with his own fan base, the result of having covered music intensely for years as a working journalist, while also writing books about, among other things, soul music, the Band, and the singer-songwriters of the '70s era Los Angeles canyons. Lowside suggests, rather, that the shut-down was a matter of principles: Waits doesn't want to share because his approach to show business is all about imaginariness, and a biography's truthiness would spoil the party.

In Lowside, Hoskyns justifies his unauthorized foray into Waits' true stories by saying of great artists that "we all want to get closer to their greatness" and, of Waits in particular, that "the tension in his music is in the space between the mask and the emotion, the frame and the picture. We enjoy the artifice but are moved by the pain and compassion that seep through the tropes of the 'Tom Waits' shtick.'" He wants to get answers to the question: What about Waits' life explains the enormous empathy he evokes in his art?

Though handicapped by Waits' decision to undermine his efforts, with Lowside Hoskyns manages to part Waits' thickly woven veil. It's not a full unmasking, by any means--especially with respect to Waits' family life--and it keeps the legendary stories about Waits' long-ago partying to a minimum, but it shows much about what makes Waits Waits without ruining his mystique. Lowside examines coded autobiographical clues contained in Waits' songs and interviews, but it turns out Waits' path through day-to-day life hardly explains his timeless abilities as a gruff, smoky conjurer of modern Americana. Still, Hoskyns' painstaking efforts to recreate the whats, wheres, whos, hows, and whens of Waits pay off, providing sensible explanations for Waits' extraordinary run of high-level creative output, and giving insights into a complicated man who inspired deep respect in those who worked with him.

As the decades passed, Waits' records and tours kept coming, along with the plays and the movie scores and the bit roles on the silver screen--even an opera. Judging by them, one might guess that Waits' grew up the son of carnival workers, hopping trains before he could shave, and spent years drifting in and out of low-rent bar districts over several continents, relying here and there on the kindness of strangers, until he was discovered, a young man bent and broken, playing in an old-time medicine show. But his life has been nothing so impossibly authentic. A studious, compassionate observer of street life, he's hardly set foot in it, really, except as a visitor. In essence, Waits came out of the San Diego suburbs in the 1960s and invented an act he took to Los Angeles, and he's been shaping it ever since, even as he professes to run from its earlier incarnations.

As a hard-working young entertainer, Waits fell into highly functional alcoholism, but in his 30s he cleaned up his act and started a family. Along the way, he had some wild times and some dramatic romances, and he worked with many musicians and actors and directors, who remember him glowingly as a complete mensch, both in the studio and out. He's got a thing about journalists--they're like cops, and he's feels better when they're not around. During successive bouts of reinvention, he dropped long-time collaborators, sometimes without explanation, and they are Hoskyns' main sources in Lowside. Their memories of working with Waits--which Lowside recounts, song by song and session by session--are among the best in their esteemed careers.

The cost of Waits oppositional strategy is that Lowside readers are saddened that their hero coldly stood in the way of Hoskyns' well-intentioned and thoughtful project, depriving followers a full glimpse. Without Waits to explain matters, Hoskyns is left at times to chart Waits' inconsistencies and paradoxes, some of which leave him looking mildly hypocritical; if Waits had engaged Hoskyns, he instead could have explained how and why he evolved over time. While the cloak of riddles Waits wraps himself in is entertaining, by the end of Lowside, readers are left, like Hoskyns, standing by the stage door in the rain after a show, hoping the hard-bitten idiot savant will grace them with some off-stage interaction, to give them a kernel of understanding as to where his stuff comes from.

One hopes that Waits is happy for having been left alone by Hoskyns. After all, fans--and, like Hoskyns himself, most Lowside readers will be fans--are no fun when they're prying. If Lowside leaves Waits followers continuing to wonder what fuels his art, if not the true grit of living desperately on the lowside, then Waits' mystique survived Lowside intact. Turns out, "Tom Waits" springs largely from a very active imagination, just as Thomas Alan Waits thinks show business should.

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