The recent paperback release of Barney Hoskyns' Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits finally led to me grabbing the book and taking a read through. As a hardback, the book was of a rather intimidating girth. The idea of taking on the life of an artist with such a wide and varied career was a bit off-putting, knowing that there was a lot of material to be covered.
Happily, Hoskyns manages to make Waits' nearly 40-year career seem far less daunting a task to dip into than it would seem at the outset. The author avoids the frequent issues of dealing with a life story of such length -- namely, that of the biography becoming less the tale of someone's life, and more akin to the Pentateuch, with a litany of "so and so much such and such, who formed you know who, which became what's his name." 2008's Willie Nelson: An Epic Life by Joe Nick Patoski is a good example of that approach to musical history.
Lowside of the Road, while occasionally having the author pop in as a character -- specifically, in terms of Hoskyns relating his troubles getting people to speak on the record -- isn't the slavish story of a fan's quest to understand a figure of some reknown and mystery. Negative imagery of Waits is presented, although it seems that most folks left behind by Waits over the course of his career are fairly understanding as to why the musician moved on.
Granted, the fact that Hoskyns was unable to get any interviews with Waits' wife, Kathleen Brennan, means that a great swath of the man's personal life is left to conjecture and hypothesis. This leaves the early part of Waits' career in greater relief than the years after his marriage and the birth of his children. Essentially, once Waits moves up in the California hills, and stops drinking, what can be known about the man is reduced greatly.
A quote from David Kamp, author of the Rock Snob's Dictionary, near the end of Lowside of the Road sums up most of the book's latter third:
"A bit like [Brian] Wilson, Waits has been exquisitely curated. He's become an untouchable, and much of that has to do with the way Kathleen has sort of rebranded him."
Despite the fact that the last couple of chapters are compiled from interviews others have conducted, the first half of this biography is essential for any fan looking into the recording process, and the way Tom Waits creates music.