Reviewed by Steven Cummings, Sydney Morning Herald
Air of mystery ... Waits is like a character from one of his songs.
TOM WAITS has cultivated his gravel-voiced, hobo-chic shtick for four decades and he's protective of it. Magicians are fierce about revealing their tricks, aren't they?
Waits comes from a lower-middle-class Los Angeles family, his mother a churchgoing housewife and his father a heavy drinker who went missing when Waits was 10 years old. He was a smart kid who studied at the clubs in California, picking up tips from figures such as hipster-poet Lord Buckley and the working musicians on the circuit. He has mythologised his origins as others - such as Bob Dylan - did before him.
Mind you, Waits does author Barney Hoskyns no favour; he would not talk to him and actively discouraged his musical colleagues from doing so. Waits says truth is overrated and there is a deficit of wonder in the world. So his life is as mythical as he can get away with.
Hoskyns's detailed biography is a big book and is often as irritating as it is enthralling. I was exhausted by his constant gripe about Waits being unco-operative. Hoskyns makes the case that Waits's life can be divided into halves - before marriage to Kathleen Brennan and after. We learn next to nothing about Brennan because she wouldn't talk, either. Presumably that's why they are still happily married and Waits's persona remains a mystery.
By Barney Hoskyns
Bloomsbury, 609pp, A$35 NZ$40