Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Low Side of the Road – Barney Hoskyns / Wild Years – The music and the Myth of Tom Waits – Jay S. Jacobs

I believe that my discovery of Tom Waits came about during the punk/new wave moment in the mid-to-late 70’s when I was buying anything “different”, in the hope of finding new and interesting sounds. Waits certainly fit the bill with Blue Valentine, which is still my favorite record of his. I was already learning to love jazz, especially be-bop, and was a big fan of the beat writers, so Tom was right up my alley and wore his influences on his sleeve for the world to see. From BV, I went on to find his earlier records, such as Small Change, Foreign Affairs and Nighthawks at the Diner, but did not follow up on his later works as he became more popular. While I respect what he has done over the years, the beat/bop crooner is still the Waits that I will put on when I want to hear his stuff.

These two books do their best to cover the career of this man who cherishes his privacy and who would not do any interviews for either book (though he has done many magazine interviews in the past, including several with Hoskyns) and even asked his friends and collaborators to not speak with the writers. Obviously, this made authoring a biography a little tougher!

Low Side of the Road is the much more in-depth read, as Barney dug up more tidbits about Tom’s life. The reader does get the feeling that Hoskyns is reading a bit too much into some lyrics and taking things a little too literally at times, but overall, it is an informative tome, with plenty of information about the musicians that Tom worked with and the unusual instrumentation that he used throughout his recordings. Barney does seem a little perturbed at Tom’s wife, Kathleen, for playing the gate keeper to Tom and his privacy, though most of Tom’s friends say nothing but good things about her and their relationship.

Wild Years, on the other hand, is heavy on the “myth” aspect of the “music and the myth of Tom Waits”. Jacobs admits in the forward that no one should take this book as the gospel truth and he recounts Waits’ stage patter as if these were true stories, rather than wild, lyrical, beatnik ramblings. Jay is trying to convey the feelings of the music more than relating a life story, but sometimes I would think that he was a bit naïve to think that making a joke about being born in a cab meant that he really was born in a cab (especially then he then goes on to say that he had to pay the fare for his mother!). Jacobs also quotes heavily from Hoskyns’ interviews and his book, which I read first, so there is not a lot of new ground here.

But, I am always entertained by stories of great musicians so these are fun books, but neither one can be said to be – nor do their claim to be – authoritative.