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on 3 May 2009
Barney Hoskyns begins his 500 page biography of Tom Waits with a prologue. In it he explains how much Waits, and his wife Kathleen Brennan, loathe people enquiring about their lives - and how they had tried to prevent Hoskyns writing this book. He also describes Waits' deep conviction that truth is very overrated - and how Waits deliberately created confusion and mystique about his past.

It's a fascinating set-up, and one might expect it would be followed by a revealing account of Hoskyn's much impeded search for the elusively real Tom Waits. Disappointingly this is far from the case. Instead what we get is a meticulous, chronological account of every documented Waits move and comment, every song and every performance.

For Waits fans this thoroughness makes Hoskyn's book a must-buy. It is like a text book for those who want to enrol in the University of Waits. And once completed it acts as an excellent reference book: the tiresome precision with which Hoskyns describes every single track on every single album comes into its own if one wants to look up a particular song.

But it also gives the book a pedantry and small-mindedness that Waits himself would despise; and one can almost feel Hoskyn's self-consciousness that he himself knows this would be the case, but he just cant stop himself from sharing every last fragment of Waitsabilia.

For that we should in some ways be grateful. For instance, I had no idea before reading this book how unsuccessful Waits perceived himself to be until very late into his career - and inded how little esteem he was held in by his original record label, Asylum. Nor did I know just how much Waits seemed to regard his life as a piece of performance in its own right. I was fascinated to learn that the young Waits modelled himself so closely on Bob Dylan he wore a harmomica around his neck - even though he couldn't play it. And there is an unavoidable pleasure in finding that every Waits gig one has been to is, of course, decribed here - with tracklists.

So if, like me, you love Waits' music but have only a hazy sense of the man and his history, you will be gripped by this huge brick of a book. But you may find it a business-like rather than inspiring read. And by the time you get to Hoskyn's appendix in which he lists his top forty Waits tracks, you may, like me, find it irritatingly self-important: Hoskyn's earns our respect as a researcher, but not as a critic.
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on 16 January 2010
Barney Hoskyns must of had his work cut out for him. As any Tom Waits fan would know, the great man is a fiercely private individual, ever since his union with wife and collaborator Kathleen he has staunchly defended the anonymity of his private and family lives. Hoskyns' introduction to this very unauthorised biography primarily deals with the problem of trying to tap into the life and times of Waits, and the hostile reception he received from the various characters who were asked to contribute. The Waits/Brennan circle of trust are rightfully loyal to the wishes of their friends, in which they do not approve of any work prying into their lives, which is frustrating for fans of Tom who want to know more about their hero. Waits has always defended himself against this reluctance of public info with the old showbiz notion of leave 'em wanting more.
Despite this tricky task in front of him, Hoskyns' manages to acquire two significant sources of information (amongst others) that were supposedly banished from Waits' circle of trust, his producer of all his Asylum era albums Bones Howe, and saxophonist Ralph Carney who worked on every album from Rain Dogs to Mule Variations, as well as touring with Waits. They are the two biggest names to assist Hoskyns' in his quest, with great insights and stories, and are accompanied by a cluster of other names who come forward with their memories of the man. All in all, Hoskyns' biography is fantastic, truly fascinating and builds a great story of Tom's background and road to success, taking in his early boho days to his infamous time living in the Tropicana motel, all through his 80s musical left-turn with Brennan by his side and various film and theatrical works, mainly with Jim Jarmusch and Robert Wilson. Hoskyns' also gives a breakdown and synopsis of each of Waits' albums, including soundtracks, and are generally very good, however Hoskyns' regularly makes some strange song comparisons, most of which are baffling and a few plain irritating. Another criticism is Hoskyns' questioning of Waits' quality and long term sustainability post Mule Variations, although he isn't directly negative about the succeeding albums, its very clear that Hoskyns' is a primarily a fan of Asylum era Waits. He seems to brush past the dual release of Alice and Blood Money, his album reviews for the two are brief and almost disinterested, with similar efforts for Real Gone and Orphans. His list of the best forty Waits tracks is not required, a segment which is self-serving and a little childish.
"Lowside of the Road" is at heart a fantastic biography, a great conclusion to a substantial amount of research and effort on Hoskyn's part. The book is a testament to his qualities as a biographer, not necessarily as a critic. Ignore some of his bizarre views on Waits' latter efforts and enjoy what is an engaging insight into one of the world's most talented and private artists.
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on 2 February 2011
This is an excellent and comprehensive career biography of Tom Waits. It is exceptionally well researched, and well-written from the viewpoint of a fan. However the fact that Hoskyns is a fan doesn't prevent him from being critical and objective. He also resists the temptation to speculate that many biographers succumb to, preferring to stick largely to information that is in some way verifiable, or at least backed up by sources close to Waits. For Tom Waits fans and fanatics alike this is a very enlightening and entertaining book.
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Hoskyns does an excellent and very thorough job on the ornery old curmudgeon that is Tom Waits. It was interesting to read about Hoskyns as ageing 'fan-boy', trying to catch glimpse of his hero outside the Edinburgh Playhouse, just a year or two back. I was at that gig (indeed, it cost me a small fortune to make the pilgrimage to see the artist who's undoubtedly amongst my very favourites), but I decided against trying to buttonhole my hero.

On this very subject, there's an appropriately melancholy note running though the book, like a musical theme, or refrain, that keeps returning: the sad blue note of those who've worked with Waits, or admired him, and yet have found themselves out of the orbit of the great man, and sadder for it, including, in some respects the author himself. This list of former buddies and associates left behind also includes such important collaborators as 'Bones' Howe, the producer who put Waits together with such jazz cats as Jack Sheldon, Jim Hughart, and Shelly manne, to such fantastic effect, on a run of 70s recordings that for me are the high water mark of Waits long and distinguished career.

It was reading about this period, from his youth and early beginnings, up to and including the period around Swordfishtrombones,Rain Dogs, and Jim Jarmusch's excellent film Down By Law (in which Waits delivers his career-best acting role, basically caricaturing himself, with John Lurie and Roberto Bernigni making up the central trio of lovably dysfunctional rogues, on the lamb from the law), that really excited me the most. But, like the true pro he is, Hoskyns continues the tale right up to date, and there's loads more that's of great interest.

Perhaps the pivotal point in the tale that Hoskyns relates so well is when Waits is recording the soundtrack to Coppola's bizarre movie One From The Heart [DVD], a film built around Waits' brilliant music (which, like the film, is also available under the title One From The Heart), which sadly, although it has a certain strange charm, fails to match the music Waits came up with. It was on this project - in which Waits achieved an apotheosis of the lounge-jazz/tin pan alley vibe he had always flirted with (in an odd but highly successful coupling with the very beautiful country singer Crystal Gayle), creating a lush, boozily cinematic effect, whose power is strangely more filmic and evocative than the movie it was supposed to be created for, working at the Zoetrope studio - that Waits met Kathleen Brennan, and the two became, quite soon after meeting I believe, man and wife.

How did this change Waits and the evolution of his magnificent body of work? Well, read Hoskyns fabulous book to find out. The cast of characters is large and colourful, the research diligent and thorough, and the end result excitingly readable. Very highly recommended.
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on 14 November 2009
If you are looking for a rock journalist who will deliver the goods, then you need look no further than Barney Hoskyns. His pedigree is second to none and the range of subjects that he has tackled is truly staggering - everything from movie idols (James Dean, Montgomery Clift), to rock stars (Prince, The Band, Ozzy Osbourne, Led Zeppelin), lifestyles (the west-coast singer/songwriters of the 1970's) and even hairstyles (The Mullet) - I kid you not!

No surprise then that Hoskyns should turn his attention to Tom Waits and analyse the unique talents of a real rock superstar. The prolific Waits has been sadly overlooked in the biography department, with Patrick Humphries' book being (until now) the most detailed. Hoskyns however, gets right to the core of the man and examines his strange childhood, his formative years and his early recording career. This section of the book is by far the most interesting and gives a wonderful insight into Waits, his influences and how he invented himself as the definitve boho/hippie/beatnick character that is central to so many of his early songs. Much of this material is in the public domain, but Hoskyns writes with such ease and self-assurance that you come to feel that you really know the subject without being obsessive or intrusive.

Much of the second section of the book is sadly lacking in information about Waits the man, and Hoskyns concentrates more on his artistic output. This is due largely to Waits and his "people" closing ranks and not allowing the author much access - a situation that Hoskyns blames on Kathleen Brennan (Mrs. Waits). Hoskyns' slight resentment at being frozen out of this "circle of trust" is documented in an appendix entitled "The email trail." It matters little, the end result is a truly fascinating chronicle of a truly fascinating artist.

"The Lowside of the Road" runs to over 600 pages and is a richly rewarding read. Hoskyns is meticulous in his research and his high regard for his subject is quite apparent, something which I feel is neccessary for a good biography. I would recommend this book to both those who knows Tom Waits' music well and to the newcomer, in both cases it will send you back to the music, surely the object of the excercise.

Very highly recommended
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on 23 April 2011
I've just read this on holiday with all of Tom Waits' albums on my mp3 so I could have the soundtrack to the book playing as I read. A genuinely interesting and thoughtful book - not at all sycophantic (Mr Waits did not cooperate with this biography and the disappointment of the authjor is palpable). This book is not scared to go out on a limb in terms of analysis of the music (for example he is fairly scathing about Real Gone), and while I don't agree with some of that (for example the faint praise of Mule Variations) it always made me think.

In some ways the fact that the book was written without the approval of the subject allows for a more dispassionate view. Definitely worth getting for Waits fans.
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on 22 May 2009
The book was well written. The first section and early life of Tom Waits was more biographical due to the input of collaborators from samesaid period. It gives an insight into the life of that period as well as a background to songs written in that period. The second section was more of a record review due to the very limited personal information about Tom Waits after his relationship with Kathleen Brennan, his partner in crime.

It rekindled my interest in Tom Waits which started with Blue Valentines but which had flagged after his Island period. Having started to listen again to his old and new stuff I remain a solid fan of Tom Waits and appreciate him more than ever before.
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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.
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on 7 April 2009
Barney Hoskyns does a good job at his profile of Tom Waits who is notoriously secretive,and despite the fact that the Waits mafia type network are reluctant to give anything away, nearly gets to the bottom of the mans work.Having previously read "The Many Lives Of Tom Waits"by Patrick Humphries I was impressed by Hoskyns objectivity and reluctance to fawn over everything Waits has produced, but paints a picture of an artist who is ruthless sometimes in his pursuit of his vision of how music should be.
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on 1 March 2012
It is widely acknowledged that Waits is difficult to interpret as a result of his reluctance to divulge details of his private life. Hoskyns's job in writing this book was made even harder because he was denied interview requests by a large number of Waits collaborators, who were asked by the Waits clan not to collaborate with his unauthorised biography.
In many ways, this comes as no surprise because the persona created by Waits was largely caused by his desire to mythologise his public side whilst keeping his family life intensely private.
The fact that this book does give great insight into the man and his methods is therefore nothing short of remarkable and owes a huge debt to Hoskyns's knowledge of music in general, and Waits's ouevre in particular.
Each album is meticulously dissected and through this, Waits's journey from conventional bar-room balladeer to the compositer of often discordant junkyard symphonies is illuminated.
In a soundscape of conformity and manufacture, Waits's legacy is his originality, continuous reinvention and sheer songwriting prowess, and this book goes a long way to explaining the reasons and methodology behind the creation of one of America's genuine musical geniuses.
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