'Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits' by Barney Hoskyns

Self-mythologizing is as much a part of rock as the 15-minute guitar solo. Tom Waits knows the drill: He's been messing with our heads for a full generation. Like Bob Dylan, he has proven a canny master of disguise, creating an impenetrable wall to keep his life from a discerning public.

But more like David Bowie than Dylan, Waits has utilized exaggerated theatricality as his mask of choice. He emerged in 1971 as a flophouse poet and beat-influenced boozer. When that conceptual well ran dry, he became a sonic junk man, a cockeyed carnival barker shilling opaque shards of sound.

For Waits, these costumes are both performance art and defense mechanisms. "People think I'm down on Fifth and Main at the Blarney Stone, throwing back shooters and smoking a cigar, but I'm really on the top floor of the health club with a towel in my lap, watching Johnny Carson," he told British rock journalist Barney Hoskyns in 1985.

Being a dodgy enigma makes Waits both a fascinating subject and frustrating challenge, as Hoskyns' "Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits" illustrates. Hoskyns builds his story from dozens of sources and archival interviews, but Waits did not talk to him directly for the book.

Indeed, as a character, Waits is an angry ghost here, shaking his fist at Hoskyns for daring to rummage through his life. Nor do we hear from those in the musician's orbit: They were asked to keep mum by both Waits and his wife Kathleen; Hoskyns includes some e-mails with those who turned down his interview requests.

Yet in spite of such barriers, Hoskyns commendably shadow boxes with the Waits myth, revealing some real flesh underneath the artifice.

Waits seemingly emerged on the music scene of the early 1970s as a middle-aged man -- "I wanted to skip growing up and rush all the way to 40," he once said -- but he was really just a kid. "Lowside of the Road" traces the roots of his persona to San Diego in the late 1960s. Just out of his teens, Waits was already a man out of time, eschewing prevailing hippie vibes for the beat prose of Jack Kerouac.

" 'On the Road' opened Waits' eyes wide to the choices he had in life," Hoskyns writes. He worked as a doorman and occasional performer at San Diego's Heritage Club before moving to Los Angeles in 1971. Here, he became a fixture at the Troubadour, where his offbeat performances were in stark contrast to prevailing musical fashions.

It was a good time to be a singer-songwriter, but Waits was a million miles from the ruling Laurel Canyon aristocracy. He lived in Silver Lake and became a disciple of Charles Bukowski.

With mid-1970s albums like "The Heart of Saturday Night" and "Small Change," which featured the lovely and enduring "Tom Traubert's Blues," Waits established himself as a noir jazz oddball, cultivating a small but devoted following. Still, by the end of the decade, his shtick had worn thin.

Eventually, he found him- self trapped by the character he'd created; he was a serious boozehound who lived year-round at Hollywood's notorious Tropicana Hotel. On the road, he put his band up in nice digs, while he went the flophouse route. "You almost have to create a situation in order to write about them," he told The Times. "I live in a state of self-imposed poverty."

It was only in 1980, when he met Kathleen Brennan while scoring the Francis Ford Coppola film "One From the Heart" that Waits saw a way out. They married soon afterward.

As Waits took on increasingly challenging projects like "Swordfishtrombones" and "Frank's Wild Years," he hunkered down with Kathleen, cutting himself off from many of his closest friends and curtailing his self-destructive tendencies. By 1994, he'd quit drinking, and eventually, he left L.A. for the seclusion of Santa Rosa.

As his life became more discreet and calmer, he had children, appeared in movies and collaborated with the likes of novelist William S. Burroughs and playwright Robert Wilson.

If there is a hero and a villain to "Lowside of the Road," it is Brennan. Hoskyns portrays her as a Svengali with a Yoko Ono-like grip on her husband.

Many of those Waits cast aside remain bitter. Says Bones Howe, who served as Waits' producer and mentor for many of his early records: "I blame Kathleen. She really separated him from everybody, but she also saved his life."

And yet, if Brennan were a calculated string-puller in regard to her husband, it's difficult to argue with the results. Since she isn't talking, the narrative deck in "Lowside of the Road" is stacked against her.

Today, Waits is a lovable old crank who does what he wants, a cult artist who emerges every few years to take victory laps around the world.

It's ironic: Waits' story contains just the sort of happy ending that would be completely out of place in his songwriting canon. But Waits has learned the hard way that life can't imitate art.

Himmelsbach is a Los Angeles writer and producer.

Copyright © 2018, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World