I’ve been a pretty dedicated fan of songwriter Tom Waits’ cantankerous music, poetic lyrics, sideways humor, and beatnik-bohemian style for quite a long time — since I first heard his 1985 album Rain Dogs and caught a lengthy coffeeshop segment about him on MTV’s ancient underground music series I.R.S.’s Cutting Edge. Waits always seemed mysterious and exotic; his songs were mostly melancholic, but partially hilarious. His melodies and growly-howly vocal stylings could be gruff and edgy, but the music was always beautiful.
Lowside of the Road, the latest biography on Waits, landed in the music room a few weeks ago (the hardcover version at 640 pages went into stores in late May). Author Barney Hoskyns is a veteran British music critic who currently works as the editor for the online music journalism archive Rock’s Backpages. He’s written on music, pop culture, fine arts, and cinema in British Vogue, The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, The Observer, MOJO, and Arena magazine. He’s also contributed to Spin magazine and Rolling Stone, and he’s appeared on television as one of the UK’s more serious music pundits.
Notoriously enigmatic and private, Waits did not talk to Hoskyns directly for the book. However, the author gained unprecedented access to many friends, musicians, and colleagues within Waits’s inner circle. Between his conversations with them, extensive additional research, and the numerous interviews he has done with Waits over the years, Hoskyns assembles a comprehensive documentary and a colorful portrait
Lowside of the Road covers a lot of ground with great detail, from Waits’ childhood in the Southern California town of Whittier (southeast of Los Angeles) and his gradual ascension in the L.A. arts and music scene to his roller-coaster experiences in the music biz, his unexpected move to New York City, and his musical and romantic relationship with wife and collaborator Kathleen Brennan.
Here are 10 facts and asides (among many) I learned from Lowside of the Road:
• In the very early ’70s, Waits had hippie-length hair while performing at such SoCal clubs as the Heritage and the Troubadour.
• When Waits first moved to Los Angeles, he lived in a one-room efficiency in the hilly bohemian neighborhood of Silver Lake.
• Waits endured a “baptism by fire” in 1973 when he toured for three weeks with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. According to Hoskyns, he “suffered almost nightly at the hands of Zappa fans” who didn’t care for Waits’ beatnik balladeer style.
• There’s still debate among scenesters and music biz insiders over Waits’ first manager Herb Cohen’s hands-on approach. Some of the folks interviewed remember him as like a big brother, offering Waits guidance and encouraging him to get comfortable on stage and organize his ideas. Others regarded him as domineering, pushy, possessive, and corrupt.
• Late songwriter Warren Zevon shared his Californian love for the “rusty metal tables, deck chairs, and palms” of the Tropicana Motor Hotel in West Hollywood (where all the hungover rock stars and writers stayed, boozed, and recovered). Hoskyns describes Wait’s two-room pad as “emblematic of his state of mind …ankle-deep in albums and ashtrays, books and beer cans, porn mags … a space of creative chaos.”
• In 1977, when Waits performed his song “Pasties and G-String” at the Agora Ballroom in Cleveland, Waits’ backing band and the promoter tried to shock the singer with a surprise guest stripper named Bunny O’Hara, sending her on stage with one pastie that said “Tom” and another that said “Waits.” After the song, Waits barked, “Gee, that was great. I haven’t seen my mother in years.”
• Through the late ’70s, Waits found the recording process hard to bear, “describing it as excruciating, like going to the dentist.”
• Waits was nervous and intimidated by Stones guitarist Keith Richards during the Rain Dogs sessions, describing him as “having these old shoes that looked like a dog chewed ’em up.” The recording sessions yielded great, twangy stuff on “Big Black Mariah” and “Union Square.”
• In 1992, Waits won a “David-and-Goliath” case against corn chip company Frito Lay and marketing company Tracey-Locke for their adaptation/jingle of Waits’ jazzy “Step Right Up” (Hoskyns describes the tunes as a track that ironically “lampooned the hyperbole of American hucksters”).
• Waits’ character “Zack” in the 1986 black-and-white indie film Down by Law (written and directed by Jim Jarmusch) claims to be a disc jockey who goes on the air under the name “Lee ‘Baby’ Sims.” The name was based on an actual San Diego disc jockey in the early ’70s named Lonely Lee “Baby” Sims.
I could easily list a few dozen more. Stay cool. Support City Paper. City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.
Stay cool. Support City Paper.
City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.