Book Review: Lowside of the Road – A Life of Tom Waits – Barney Hoskyns

(Faber & Faber) £12.99
Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams


Pausing at a crossroads, Tom Waits casts a glance of displeasure, or so it appears, over his right shoulder in Jill Furmanovsky’s great photograph on the cover of Lowside of the Road. Though perhaps the look is one of challenge, catch me if you can, as there is a distinct element of Holly Martins’ pursuit of his old friend Harry Lime in The Third Man, in the subplot of this absorbing and affectionate unauthorised biography. Hoskyns, who was turned on to Waits whilst spending a Waitsian sounding “long wet summer with Nick Cave, who often played Small Change, Foreign Affairs, and Blue Valentine, in the druggy crashpad we shared in Paddington”, has interviewed the man himself twice in person, in 1985 and 1999, and a number of times on the phone. The first time they met, in speaking of how he is perceived, Waits quoted his huge inspiration, collaborator, and one of a line of surrogate father figures that Hoskyns identifies (including Francis Ford Coppola and William Burroughs), the writer Charles Bukowski, ‘People think I’m down on Fifth and Main at the Blarney Stone, throwing back shooters and smoking a cigar, but really I’m on the top floor of the health club with a towel in my lap, watching Johnny Carson.’

The intriguing couplet at the core of Lowside of the Road is Hoskyns’ quest to both locate the real Tom Waits behind the carefully constructed “Tom Waits” persona which the performer has presented to the world throughout his 40 year career, whilst also promulgating and in many ways seeking to perpetuate the enigma. Allied to another duality that plays out through the book, like a thriller, as a host of friends, collaborators, and acquaintances at first agree to Hoskyns’ interview requests and then rescind after Waits requests they do not co-operate, which leaves Hoskyns feeling both frustrated and offended whilst also entirely appreciative “that it must be a little like being stalked, or just being loved by someone you wish would go away.”

Wherein lies the nub, as Hoskyns is not engaged in a Wildean killing of the thing he loves, rather he has combined phenomenal research and highly erudite critique to create a fascinating exploration of every facet of Waits’ extraordinary career over the past four decades, which includes 20 studio albums, and as many acting roles in films from an evocative list of directors including Jim Jarmusch, Robert Altman, Tim Burton, and Terry Gilliam. Lowside of the Road is a celebration more than worthy of this soon to be sexagenarian.

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