OK, Michael Jackson is weirder, but Tom Waits is a more interesting sort of weird. I thought so before I read Barney Hoskyns' "Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits," but now I know it.
Thing is, Tom Waits is his own genre; there's no other songwriter or musician that does what Waits does. No one ever tagged Waits a folkie or rock musician, or even all that much of a musician. Waits is Waits, and that's all he has to be.
Hoskyns tries to nail down exactly who Waits is, but never really succeeds. We learn that in the early 1970s Waits was a beatnik poet of sorts, but somehow his tunes were covered by mainstream acts like the Eagles ("Ol' 55") and Bruce Springsteen ("Jersey Girl"). During his early days he was based in Los Angeles, but Waits wasn't really part of the radio-friendly LA singer/songwriter pack led by Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon. His early heavily textured, noir-romantic records were populated with stellar jazz players.
Waits acted in a string of Jim Jarmusch, Francis Coppola and Robert Altman films, but even as he evolved as an artist, he remained the streetwise, funny/sad poet, and always an outsider. Waits is the rare songwriter who's gotten better as he's aged. Unlike Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Paul McCartney or any surviving 1960s, '70s, or even '80s band, Waits doesn't have to play his old hits for the umpteenth time. Waits concert playlists mostly stick with newer material and his fans don't seem to mind. The Rolling Stones wouldn't dare play tunes mostly from "A Bigger Bang," no, their best stuff came out when Nixon was president.
Waits has managed to have a long and varied career without ever having a hit record.
The best way to first experience Waits is to see him live or check out his videos on YouTube. My favorite Waits CD is "Mule Variations." It's a great-sounding record, and that's true for a lot of Waits' output.
As for Barney Hoskyns' "Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits," I'd give it three stars. Better yet, buy some Waits music instead.