June/July/Aug 2009

Tom Waits For No Man

The musician’s biographer looks high and low for his wily, elusive subject

David Yaffe


Tom Waits once wrote a two-line poem that summed up his attitude toward life as a public figure: “I want a sink and a drain / And a faucet for my fame.” This couplet might seem disingenuous for a performer whose cult-hero career has made little showing on the pop charts, yet Waits has inspired cover hits by the likes of the Eagles, Rod Stewart, and Bruce Springsteen and garnered two Grammy wins and an Oscar nomination (for scoring Francis Ford Coppola’s 1982 film, One from the Heart, a sink and a drain of sorts). He has also made it to the silver screen himself, usually playing, without much of a stretch, a no-account drunk. His is a story at least as old as Greta Garbo’s: Love me, make me a star, then leave me alone.

Yet Waits is not exactly a recluse. He emerges from his Sonoma County pastoral for interviews when he has a product to promote and for concerts, and each time, he plays a variation of his performance persona. His raspy growl is employed for maximum drama, and he intones Beat aphorisms and absurdist puns with postmodern Borscht Belt humor. “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” he chant-sings on “Singapore,” intoning Erasmus to the strains of a pirate chantey. Anyone writing a biography will hardly get to be the one-eyed man; the biographer is blind with the rest of us, left to ponder Waits’s surfaces while the musician keeps his inner self well hidden. He has found endless ways to be an exhibitionist performer who says, “Go away.” How much does Waits onstage resemble Waits in private? Nothing short of surveillance will answer this question.

“The stories behind most songs are less interesting than the songs themselves,” Waits has claimed. He was talking to Barney Hoskyns, a veteran British rock critic who was planning a biography of the musician, the book that would eventually become the exhaustive Lowside of the Road. Hoskyns had interviewed Waits twice (in 1985 and 1999), but when the writer attempted to get further access, Waits and his collaborator and wife, Kathleen Brennan, not only declined to cooperate but made sure that everyone in their circle—including famous friends like Keith Richards and Elvis Costello—refused to return Hoskyns’s phone calls. A dogged reporter, Hoskyns was forced to dig deep for interview subjects, and he was finally able to get gossip from producer Bones Howe and from studio musicians who had played on Waits’s Asylum records of the ’70s. He also utilizes others’ interviews with Waits and his intimates, but his use of this material seems fresh, especially since he puts it in the service of a narrative that offers many illuminating stories along the way. Clocking in at 640 pages, Lowside of the Road is not short on material. It is certainly the most thorough and detailed book yet written on Waits. So what can this biography—heroic in the face of opposition—ultimately teach us?

“I do believe in the mysteries of things, about myself and the things I see,” Waits once stated. “I enjoy being puzzled and arriving at my own inaccurate conclusions.” Is it self-contradictory for a book to capture this spirit while also telling the facts? Waits hasn’t always deflected the rumor he was born in the back of a taxicab, and he once claimed he was born in Indiana. But a birth announcement lists Park Avenue Hospital in Pomona, California. We do know he spent his earliest years in Whittier, the same hometown—Hoskyns enjoys noting—as Richard Nixon. When Waits’s hard-drinking father, Frank, left the family when Tom was ten, it was a bad example for life that proved to be an inspiration for art. In 1983, Waits made his artistic breakthrough with Swordfishtrombones; he stated that the album was narrated from the perspective of a man named Frank, who, in the spoken-word jazz-organ set piece “Frank’s Wild Years,” relates his story of living in the Valley (like the Inland Empire of Waits’s childhood) and loathing his life, his wife, and especially his dog. A day driving home from work becomes a tongue-in-cheek apocalypse:

Drove home, doused
everything in the house, torched it.
Parked across the street, laughing,
watching it burn, all Halloween
orange and chimney red.

This is no confessional singer-songwriter riffing on John Lennon’s “Mother.” This is looking into the abyss of one’s own childhood and rendering it with strange theatrics, a comedian’s timing, and a sense of the macabre; the song is from the point of view of the abandoner, not the abandoned. Reading Hoskyns’s account of the real Frank makes Waits’s perversity even more palpable. Was this song supposed to be funny? Waits plays his deadbeat dad not for pathos but for absurdity. A photograph from 1975 shows a bleary-eyed Waits resting his arm on his father’s shoulder. In the other hand, he holds a can of Coors and a cigarette.

Waits managed to come of age in the ’60s and early ’70s while rejecting nearly every contemporary influence except Bob Dylan and Randy Newman. Signed by SoCal starmaker David Geffen to Asylum in 1972, he grumbled about the scene Geffen had helped create. He heaped particular scorn on the group he called “Crosby Steals the Cash” and on an LA neighborhood—right near the Troubadour, where he’d started out—as “Resting on my Laurels Canyon.” Waits was more of an anachronistic freak show, a character of the ’50s if its pop music had been uncensored. Sporting days of stubble and growling out novelty numbers like “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me),” he was playing a drunk guy while also, clearly, being a drunk guy—as inebriated on Ray Charles and Howlin’ Wolf as he was on moonshine. The mixture of debauchery and celebrity peaked when his home became LA’s seedy Tropicana Motel. There, he lived in a drunken, coked-up haze, having casual yet intense flings with, of all people, Bette Midler and the adorable boho twenty-three-year-old heroin addict Rickie Lee Jones, whom he shared with scenester Chuck E. Weiss. When Hoskyns describes Waits, Weiss, and Jones stumbling around LA together, it’s like Jules and Jim if it had been shot by John Cassavetes in Hollywood circa 1977. “This stuff will probably kill you / Let’s do another line,” Waits growls on the title track of Heartattack and Vine (1980). He meant it.

Salvation came in the form of Brennan, who was working as an assistant story editor on One from the Heart. One day, she knocked on the door of Waits’s office, and within a week they were engaged—and are still married twenty-nine years later. Brennan persuaded Waits to ditch producer Howe and his corny string arrangements and walk into the uncharted territory—at least in the pop world—of the avant-garde. Waits was soon intuiting the likes of Harry Partch and Captain Beefheart, and he made an astonishing trilogy of albums—Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs (1985), and Franks Wild Years (1987)—that were so defiantly idiosyncratic, so bizarre in their mélange of genres and spoken-word pieces, that they still leave us scratching our heads in wonder. Somewhere along the line, Brennan began sharing songwriting and production credits. Unlike even the greatest singer-songwriters of the period—Dylan, Joni, Cohen—Waits never succumbed to the synths and echo-chamber drums of the ’80s. He had guitarist Marc Ribot playing odd, angular lines that seemed almost violent. Sometimes the rhythm section sounded as though it consisted of instruments found in a junkyard (the brake drum on “16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six,” for instance); the equipment was defiantly low-tech in a pop decade that worshipped the state of the art. Hoskyns, unfortunately, relates very little about Brennan. Other than the fact that she spent her early life, as the Waits song says, in “Johnsberg, Illinois,” we have hardly any sense of her influence in this romantic and creative pairing. Does she play an instrument or sing? Did she go to college? How did she get so hip that she outhipped Waits?

Bone Machine (1992), Mule Variations (1999), and subsequent albums maintained the high quality, if not the shock of the new, of the previous three. Meanwhile, Waits kept acting, got off the booze, and sued Frito-Lay for a sweet $2.5 million (the snack company had hired a sound-alike for one of its commercials). But as his music got better, his life became less interesting—at least as far as we know. Waits realized at a certain point that “a guy who writes murder mysteries doesn’t have to be a murderer.” Just as a biographer doesn’t have to have a willing subject to produce 640 pages. If the admirable Lowside of the Road falls short of greatness, perhaps it is because, absent the primary material Hoskyns so yearned for, he plodded on at a rock-critic default setting, offering descriptions of every song on every album and cramming as much info into the book as he could. The narrative becomes repetitive: too much surface, not enough depth. It is certainly true that had Waits cooperated, he would have stayed in character, spinning a few more yarns but not revealing the man behind the mask. Perhaps he’s not even really there, or if he is, he would prove to be a disappointment. Lowside of the Road doesn’t quite reveal the person behind the personae, but it reminds us how pleasurable his wild disguises have been all these years. Hoskyns gives us every fact he could dig up. The rest is up to Waits’s listeners. As he himself put it in song, “If you think that you can tell a bigger tale / I swear to God you’d have to tell a lie.”

David Yaffe is an assistant professor of English at Syracuse University and the author of Fascinating Rhythm: Reading Jazz in American Writing (Princeton University Press, 2005).Tom Waits backstage in Copenhagen, April 1979.

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