Barney Hoskyns does protean Bohemian rock 'n' roll bard Tom Waits more than proud in Lowside of the Road, his sprawling, largely affectionate biography of the elusive Californian.
Drawing on more than 20 years of observations and interviews, Hoskyns has crafted a balanced portrait of a rock poet whose work spans the neo-Beatnik Nighthawks at the Diner, the spiky Swordfishtrombones and the surrealist, bluesy poetics of Alice and Blood Money.
Among the more interesting parts of this book is "The Email Trail," a reproduction of refusals people connected to Waits gave Hoskyns after Waits and his wife and collaborator, Kathleen Brennan, refused to cooperate on this biography.
Though Waits has always been singular — he links the Eagles-Jackson Browne-Warren Zevon school and the far more subversive Frank Zappa-Mothers of Invention-Captain Beefheart approach, though beholden to neither camp — he also fits the image of the "outsider" artist. His trademarks — porkpie hat, voice that spans growl and croon, crankiness and occasional, startling tenderness — distinguish his long career, but his most lasting stamp is his invisibility. Bill Schimmel, who worked with him on a 1985 tour, tells this story:
"Before each performance of Frank's Wild Years, Waits would show up outside the theater, park his yellow Chevy Citation on the opposite side of the street, and walk straight past the people lining up for tickets. Nobody, says Schimmel, ever recognized him. "He'd have his blues hat on and an old school bag that he carried," Schimmel says. "He'd get out of the car very slowly, close the door, and walk past the crowd . . . and they couldn't see him. He could do the Rasputin thing. Tom could make himself invisible, and that blew me away.'" Such shadow play makes Waits a frustrating biographical subject even as it drives his art.
Cleveland freelance writer Carlo Wolff is the author of "Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories."