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Barney Hoskyns, author of Lowside of the Road (Faber & Faber).

READERSVOICE.COM aims to collect a few interesting reading tips. For this issue I contacted Barney Hoskyns, the biographer of singer, songwriter Tom Waits. Barney Hoskyns is the editor of the website Rock’s Backpages. He gives some excellent reading tips in this interview, including some classics about popular music. And he talks about writing his fascinating biography, Lowside of the Road, A Life of Tom Waits. (Faber and Faber).

After reading Lowside of the Road, A life of Tom Waits, I was looking through a music store in Toombul Shoppingtown, through the Tom Waits section. There was a copy of Blue Valentine, his 1978 album, for $15 so I bought it. There is a song on there called Kentucky Avenue, which is full of emotion. No cynicism whatsoever. No irony. Just a beautiful soaring song. It’s a fine album all the way through.
It features the classic Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis, and another great song, Red Shoes by the Drugstore. Some of the songs have a jazz or blues style, but Tom Waits adds something to it, so it doesn’t sound typical. You imagine someone listening to this album as they drive through the city streets of Los Angeles at night.
I’ll probably pick up a couple of his other albums now. Before reading Lowside of the Road, I was prepared to stick with Rain Dogs, his 1985 album, which I thought was perfect.
Tom Waits’s explanation of the title of his 1985 album Rain Dogs went something like this: Where he used to live there were always dogs wandering around the neighbourhood and they’d urinate on things so they could find their way home. But then it’d rain and wash away their scent. So there’d be all these dogs wandering around the streets lost. Rain dogs.
The story is typical of Waits’s humor and pathos, and his interest in city life, especially on his earlier albums. A lot of his lyrics on these Americana albums are the dialogue of city people: many are people left over from an earlier time. Sometimes it’s funny. Like on Rain Dogs, one guy talks about someone who’s a bigshot down at the slaughterhouse: he plays accordion for Mr Weiss. Sometimes it’s pathetic: a pawnshop owner selling the medals of a dead soldier bluntly says the soldier’s shoes are full of rocks; everything’s a dollar in this box.
But Rain Dogs will probably always be my favorite Tom Waits album. I found out about it when I saw the movie Down By Law, which Tom Waits acted in. I liked the music so much I looked through the credits so I could get the album.
I wasn’t a big fan of his later album Mule Variations, although it had some good songs in my opinion. I’ve heard some of his other songs over the years on the more obscure radio stations. The Piano Has Been Drinking, Not Me. But Barney Hoskyns’ biography Lowside of the Road, A Life of Tom Waits, (Faber and Faber) has got me interested in some of his other albums now.
He gives a knowledgeable analysis of all of Tom Waits’s albums, from his early 70s albums like Closing Time (1973), through Swordfishtrombones and Frank’s Wild Years, to later works like Alice which feature many songs he co-wrote with his wife Kathleen Brennan.
He also tells plenty of interesting stories about Waits’s life, and talks to a lot of people who knew him: when he worked at Napolean’s pizza place, or in clubs like the Troubadour. He also writes about Tom Waits’s reading. Tom Waits was a lot like a beat generation author. He took on the style and influences of people like Jack Kerouac (Visions of Cody influenced the album The Heart of Saturday Night), and Charles Bukowski (who said Waits didn’t have an original bone in his body, but might have been joking).
Tom Waits used to have a kind of Bukowski, street hobo kind of persona on stage and in a lot of his songs. He was no stranger to the streets of Los Angeles, living in the chic-seedy Tropicana Hotel, intersecting with the slimy drug-riddled mess of the 70s Los Angeles music industry, and playing at the Troubadour Club. And he’d write about people he listened to in diners or saw walking around.
Barney Hoskyns tells how Tom Waits’s stage persona changed over these years and gives the reader a good understanding of these personas and a very good idea of the person behind them.
Lowside of the Road is a great insight into a great songwriter who wrote songs in the vernacular of the street characters of America. The songs can be funny or sad, and sometimes full of emotion. A highly recommended biography on a songwriter who loves to read.

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-copyright Simon Sandall.