Top critical review
Tom Waits 4 - 2 Barney Hoskyns
on 21 June 2014
As a long-time admirer of Tom Waits' work, without being an obsessive fan, I enjoyed this book because of its subject matter. Waits is one of the very few genuine originals in modern music, and on reading the book I was inspired to fill up the few gaps in my CD collection (One from the Heart which I had not known existed, and The Black Rider which I had, wrongly, assumed would just be too scary).
The problem with the book lies with Barney Hoskyns' response to his lack of personal access to Waits. Hoskyns is a competent music journalist and, having done some solid background research, makes a good job of setting Wait's music in the context of his unsettled upbringing and early adult experiences in 60s and 70s southern California. In particular the influence on his song writing of Waits' relationship to his semi-absent alcoholic father (Frank!) is very plausibly traced.
The difficulties start when the book gets to the period round about 1980 when Waits marries, changes record label and embarks on one of the most extraordinary reinventions in music. Because Hoskyns has no access to Waits the man, and much less than previously to his friends and collaborators, the book morphs into an extended record review, where we learn much more about the author's tastes and opinions than about the subject of the book. We discover that Hoskyns is basically a "Blue Valentine" rather than a "Frank's Wild Years" Tom Waits fan, and we are now down to questions of opinion. So while I, for example, would agree about the brilliance of Bone Machine, I feel that he has overrated Mule Variations and sadly misjudged the exquisite Alice and the radical Real Gone. This is all fun in a way, but I felt I learned little from the second half of the book.
Until we get an authorised biography, or even better a personal memoire (it won't ever happen), this will have to do, but it can't be more than 3 stars.