I get the feeling that Tom Waits, like Dylan, loves to fuck with people. Remain the enigma, speak cryptically, keep folks guessing, slippin' and slidin', juking right and left. Much has been made of their artistry, but few -- writers and journalists -- know how they really tick. And I like that. It's refreshing to know that some of our most endearing and enduring cultural icons remain outside of the public's scrutiny by refusing to air their dirty laundry on their blogs and websites, tell-all autobiographies, and police rap sheets.
Veteran rock journalist/author Barney Hoskyns' exhaustive and fantastic book (Broadway Books) leaves no stones unturned in his quest to paint as accurate a portrait one could hope to conjure up when a biography is unofficial. And believe me, this is a must-read.
Spanning Waits's extraordinary forty-year career from Closing Time to Orphans, Hoskyns paints in detail with thorough precision and dedication, culling material from former handlers, producers, players, and interviews he conducting with the colorblind (I didn't know that!) crooner over the years.
Very fair and candid, and certainly not negative, this is a loving homage. Sharing in depth instances about recording sessions or movie roles may not make intriguing reading for some, but this minutia helps define and dispel some of the myths. Moreover, if you can't get Waits to tell you his story, then you gotta get it from the folks -- 60 or so -- that surrounded him throughout his career. One of the things that disappointed me about him is that he just drops people for no real reason. Did it to devoted dudes like producer Bones Howe, Ralph Carney, etc.
I walked away thinking that his wife Kathleen pulls many of the strings in their loving relationship and that he defers to her, especially after she rescued him and they moved from smoggy SoCal to the rustic northern Cali town of Petaluma. No doubt she helped influence his current sonic sensibilities. She allegedly turned him on to Beefheart and got him to incorporate more of that avant-garde vibe into his Boho beatnik sound. Some say she's overprotective of her man, but make no mistake, they continue to collaborate on his music and probably influence each other.
Carney, one of my Akron homeboys and horn/multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire, actually played for quite some time with Waits in his post-Asylum label days and provided candid insights into recording sessions, live performances and observations about the man, from fascinating tidbits about Rain Dogs, to Waits's avant performance film Big Time and more. Carney may have lost his gig cuz he agreed to be interviewed by Barney for this very book.
It's a shame that Tom and Kathleen have disowned some of the folks that helped define and execute his sound. These players spoke respectfully and truthfully about Mr. Waits. One of the best sections of the book shares the emails inquiries Barney saved from musicians he was hoping would share their insights about Tom. Unfortunately, after checking with Tom and Kathleen they were advised against -- or thought better of -- speaking about their employer. I wonder if they have to sign NDAs to continue employment? Is this Apple computer we're talking about or a guy who makes music for a living? Makes you wonder if Tom ever really lets his guard down around anyone who happened to give their blood for his art.
This is better understood in what Waits was quoted as saying early in his career: "Many performers use the press as if it's a priest. They tell journalists very private details of their lives and you have to be careful about that because it can be dangerous and damaging."
And finally, I heard a third party story that Morris Tepper has shared with some folks, which didn't make the book, about what ol' Beefheart (aka Don Van Vliet) thought about Waits co-opting his sound. Don said, in typical poetic fashion, "Hey, Tom, wait here!"
I hope Tom reads this book. It's got that edge he'd enjoy. - Dusty Wright
Mr. Wright is the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released 3 solo CDs, and a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was a William Morris agent.