Faber £20

Lowside of the Road: A life of Tom Waits

You could fit what this biography reveals of its subject's private life on the back of a cigarette packet

Self-revelation has never come easily to the Los Angeleno songwriter, musician and occasional actor Tom Waits, which is presumably why he writes the kinds of songs he writes, and talks the kind of talk he talks. A Waits outburst is usually worth hearing, whether it comes in song form or in the form of the florid jive he shoots at those members of the press he is prepared to outburst to, but what it reveals of his private life is invariably either negligible or misdirecting and can usually be inscribed, fully punctuated, on the flap of a pack of Lucky Strikes.

So poor old Barney Hoskyns, that most reliable of rock'n'roll narrators, is on a hiding to nothing here. How do you write a sophisticated, penetrating biography of such a studiedly impenetrable figure when his ferociously tamped-down public image amounts to an enigma wrapped in a torn scarf within an old tarpaulin guyed into place with a total media lockdown? How do you begin to loosen the ropes when a small army of Waits's friends and associates are unwilling even to say nice things about him? Not even Keith Richards.

Hoskyns worries about the question no end. In fact he devotes his prologue to agonising about the problem and then, in the appendix, prints the amiable thanks-but-no-thankses of those Waits mates he approached for a quiet word. It's a big book which has clearly required of its writer a substantial emotional outlay – there is no question that the author knows and cares about his subject. Yet, in terms of personal revelation and disclosure, small change rains.

Nevertheless, Lowside of the Road is highly enjoyable for those readers who bring to it a ready-made interest in the Waits oeuvre and its bric-a-brac of "broken things". You want Freudian interpretation? Then look elsewhere – but take Lowside along as a handbook and source of symbolic material. It's a career biography of the highest class, full of considered judgment, wise contextualisation and detailed analysis: read it and you will have nothing less than a firm grasp of what "Tom Waits" means.

Also, you'll have a much clearer understanding than before of the impact that Waits's marriage in 1982 had, if not on his selfhood then certainly on the arc of his creative dive. Kathleen Brennan is clearly a remarkable woman, artistic as well as protective. It's her ghostly passage through the fringes of the story that makes for the most compelling and frustrating aspect of the narrative. To mangle another Waits-ism: what's she doing in there? Looking after the interests of her marriage seems to be the answer. And that includes ensuring that everyone else keeps their noses out.

So Hoskyns is left with the songs, the performances, the mediated image, his own travels, his interviews and the good offices of the few Waits sidemen from the past who will talk. It's a measure of how good he is at reading ashes that the book is such a good read itself.

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