I've been a fan of Tom Waits for a long time. His music is so distinctive, his clever jazz-influenced sound cutting across the blues and folk of his contemporaries, his worn voice telling stories of bad luck, bad whisky and life on the edge of society. The apparent shambles of his music and his person hides a rare sophistication and attention to detail which has produced a unique body of work over almost 40 creative years.
So one of my holiday reads this year was Barney Hoskyns' Low Side of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits. I wanted to know, what makes Waits tick? How does he come by the slanted, left-field view of the world which makes his songs so distinctive?
Unfortunately - or perhaps fortunately, as we will see - this is just what Waits himself does not want me or anyone else, especially a journalist like Barney Hoskyns, to know. Waits not only refused to speak to Hoskyns, he also discouraged his friends from doing so. This left the author relying on ex-friends and the public record for his story.
While clearly frustrated and a little resentful, Hoskyns has resisted the temptation to take revenge by writing a hostile biography. If anything, he is a fan. It also seems there is not too much dirt to dish. Even the ex-friends who were willing to talk had little bad to say beyond some resentment at his capacity to drop people he no longer finds useful. Waits appears as an amusing, clever performer, a charming friend and companion, a hard-working and slightly introverted artist, a respectful collaborator.
Yet as the book progresses, Waits disappears into the haze of his own smokescreen. Once there is no-one from inside the camp to spill the beans, Hoskyns has to rely exclusively on the hints that Waits provides in his interviews and publicity. This, it seems, is something no sensible biographer would ever do.
This is because alongside his day-job as a musician, Tom Waits moonlights as an actor and story-teller. Before he ever performed on stage, he worked as a doorman at a San Diego nightclub. His jokes and fanciful, meandering tales gathered an audience who often found them more entertaining than the earnest folk musicians within. Over the years he has refined this talent, appearing in everything from mainstream Hollywood films to avant garde theatre.
His greatest role, one to which he constantly returns, is as a character called 'Tom Waits'. This character bears a more than coincidental resemblance to a real person of the same name, a famous musician who lives at an undisclosed rural location in California with his wife and children. However, it is not always clear where the real person and the fictional character diverge, because 'Waits' (and perhaps also Waits) is an accomplished bullshit artist.
Sometimes it is clear that he is pulling your leg, such as when he tells the story of the woman in the supermarket who asks him to pretend to be her son. He is also clearly having us on when he tells us his wife and collaborator Kathleen Brennan was a nun when he met her. Independent witnesses confirm she was a script editor working on a movie for which Waits composed the score. I also suspect that the story about dog snacks made from bulls' penis is...well...bull, but then you never know.
On the other hand, we know Waits is in dead earnest when he expresses his views on the use of classic songs in advertising. He has the lawsuits to prove it. We also know for a fact that he is married and has three children (now grown up) since they have all provided physical evidence of their existence.
Most of the time, though, the lines are more blurred. For instance, it is a matter of fact that Waits is an alcoholic. Yet when he shambled around the set of the Don Lane Show in 1979 how drunk was he, really? The stories he slurs out may appear spontaneous, but they recur time and again in his perfomances and even in his songs. This is the character he plays in interviews (both televised and in print), who comes on stage when he performs, who appears as the baffled and unreliable narrator of his songs and stories.
It seems, perhaps, that Tom Waits was once a lot more like 'Tom Waits' than he is now. Waits did, apparently, really live at the Tropicana Motor Inn, eat at cheap diners and stay out all night getting drunk in seedy bars with Chuck E Weiss. You can only do this for so long before you either change your life or die. We should not begrudge Waits his desire to go on living. Yet how interesting is a sober, artsy middle aged musician? Of some academic interest maybe, but 'Tom Waits' is a lot more fun, and a lot more able to poke anarchic fun at his society, at the conventions of religion, music and family life, and at himself.
A hallmark of great acting, and of great storytelling, is to make the viewer or listener suspend their disbelief, to buy into the illusion for long enough to be entertained and moved, whether to laughter, tears or pity. Waits has been able to make us do this for almost 40 years. A big part of his success is his ability to keep us off balance, always wondering "is this real?".
Why, then, would he submit himself to the unmasking that is biography? Nothing would kill the show more certainly than a carefully researched, fully documented and scrupulously accurate account of his life. Hoskyns, admirer of Waits though he is, does not seem to have fully grasped this fact. Perhaps one day Waits will write his own life story, or perhaps collaborate on it with a writer he trusts. It would be brilliant, amusing, insightful and elliptical, and quite probably untrue.