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

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

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A detailed and penetrating yet affectionate account of the life and work of the American singer-songwriter, best known for 'Downtown Train'.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 640 Date: March 2009
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571235520

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Born and raised in Los Angeles, Tom Waits probably enjoys a status comparable to the UK's Richard Thompson. He has never sold out to a mass pop audience, preferring instead to sustain an engagingly low-key career for over 30 years, feted by critics, fellow artists and a cult following while only achieving modest record sales. While his 80s albums 'Swordfishtrombones' and 'Rain Dogs' are regarded as among the finest of the decade, most of his royalties have come through cover versions of his songs. Two, 'Downtown Train' and 'Tom Traubert's Blues', have been Top 10 hits for Rod Stewart, who once said that they paid for the swimming pool in Tom's garden, while in his early days the Eagles gave him a boost by recording 'Ol' 55' on their third album.

I only had a slender knowledge of Tom and his music before this book came my way. Thanks to youtube for a crash course, not least for a wonderful clip from a vintage US chat show in which he clowns his way through the song 'The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)', before taking part in what is the funniest interview I have seen for ages. In 500 pages journalist and devoted (but not blindly uncritical) fan Barney Hoskyns covers his subject's life, times and musical output with affection, insight and humour.

As a child Tom suffered from autism, discovered he was colourblind, and had a heightened aural sense for several months in which the slightest noise became a deafening roar. Like many a creative person, he loved to lose himself in books. Childhood was not made easier by his father walking out on the family when he was about nine.

Tom's musical career was always unorthodox. His main influences were Dylan, James Brown and Frank Sinatra. The latter explains his jazz leanings, a fascination with the emphasis on piano and upright bass, in preference to more conventional pop/rock arrangements. Hi-tech? No thanks. On one album he did away with the piano in favour of a pump organ and harmonium instead, and for drums decided he would rather bash doors with pieces of two by four than sample electronic drum sounds. According to one of the session musicians, he wanted to use instruments nobody liked any more.

By never courting stardom. Tom has always remained in some ways the typical average neighbour, a little bemused by his success. On one of his occasional acting stints, while appearing at the theatre he would park opposite, walk past people lining up for tickets and walk in without being recognized. When asked more recently about a seven-year gap between albums, he said he just got stuck in traffic.

Reading this fascinating book and catching a few isolated tracks have certainly inspired me to go further. Time to acquire a CD or two, I think. If you're into contemporary music but only have a nodding acquaintance with him, I think you may be similarly hooked.

Our thanks to Faber & Faber for sending a review copy to Bookbag.

Another title in a similar genre which you might enjoy is Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music by David N Meyer, or alternatively, going back a little further, why not try Delta Blues by Ted Gioia. We can also recommend The Many Lives of Tom Waits by Patrick Humphries.

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Buy Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits by Barney Hoskyns at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits by Barney Hoskyns at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits by Barney Hoskyns at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits by Barney Hoskyns at Amazon.com.

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