Wild Years: The Music and Myth of Tom Waits

By Jay S. Jacobs (ECW Press)

Talking about music, goes the old wisdom, is like dancing about architecture. What Van Morrison called the "inarticulate speech" at the center of musical expression might explain why a significant number of music bios, from the glamour-puss paperback to the stately career overview, often spiral off into fan-boy strokes or humorless academic finger exercises. The built-in danger is compounded, of course, when the musician in question is marked by a fundamental uniqueness of character or artistic vision, both of which Tom Waits possesses in spades; pedestrian writing only makes reading about a visionary more painful. That said, Jay Jacobs' Wild Years may not be John Coltrane: His Life and Music; but to his holy credit, it ain't 'N Side 'N Sync, either.

For a long time, the only extended prose work even tangentially related to Waits was Patrick Humphries' execrable 1990 Small Change, a half-assed fan bio tarted up to look like a musical study, touching upon reality (and literacy) in but a scant few places. As the subtitle of Wild Years suggests, however, everything in Waits' self-proclaimed life story is to be taken with at least a few hunks of street-grade salt, and Jacobs admirably keeps to the biographical track only when independent corroboration can be firmly established. What's more interesting is how he traces Waits' careerlong employment of theatrical persona, bridging his early boho-hipster character creation with the outré weirdness of Swordfishtrombones so that it looks like a single, unbroken arc.

Jacobs did assiduous research in preparation for writing Wild Years, conducting interviews with associates such as David Geffen (who worked to get Waits his first record contract after hearing his set at L.A.'s Troubadour), Bones Howe (Waits' longtime Asylum producer) and Francis Ford Coppola (who gave Waits his first scoring job, on the film One From the Heart). He's compiled a truly mind-boggling discography, featuring all of Waits' studio work with track listings, his contributions to soundtracks and compilations, and a listing of his songs as covered on other artists' albums. And though a bibliography would have been helpful, the "Notes" section is a meaty cross-list of interviews, articles and long-forgotten sidebar pieces on Waits dating back to his local L.A. press clippings (the character-driven chapters on L.A.'s early-'70s folk scene alone are remarkable, a welcome act of historical rescue even though they're comparatively brief).

None of this would matter, of course, were the writing unserviceable, and Jacobs' style is both engaging and unobtrusive. His critical evaluation of Waits' catalogue -- following the prefatory material, Wild Yearsfollows a loose chapter-per-album format -- is both reasoned and objective, and the information he provides on particularly enigmatic portions of Waits' timeline, such as the Black Rider and Alice projects, are especially helpful. He tracks Waits' movements from California to New York and back again, and he traces the frustration with the seedy skid-row image that finally led to a complete reinvention of himself on the phenomenal Swordfishtrombones (named in homage to Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica).

Glaringly absent, of course, is any direct input from Tom Waits himself, which seems fair. Notoriously guarded when it comes to his family and homestead ("You taking a census?" he replied to one journalist who asked where he was living upon the release of Mule Variations), Waits may or may not have been approached during the writing of Wild Years, and Jacobs negotiates this tricky issue through a combination of dogged research and letting Waits himself spin the rumor wheel. Never gossipy and never intrusive, Jacobs actually does a fair amount of bloodhound work here, offering the real story of how Waits and Kathleen Brennan, his wife and collaborator since 1985's Rain Dogs, crossed paths (she was a script doctor in Coppola's Zoetrope Studios, not a nun in training, as Waits often claimed). Jacobs uncovers the stories behind some of Waits' most moving and affecting songs, and delivers priceless anecdotes like the time Waits showed up in character to perform on the Mike Douglas Show, with a three-day scruff and an inch of ash on his cigarette, and security refused to let him in.

But when the truth can't be pinned down, Jacobs mostly offers a caveat and lets the man himself do the telling -- sometimes in three or four contradictory versions. These are the funniest and most enjoyable portions of the book, as the author seems to realize they should be, and in the context of Jacobs' careful research, Waits' own voice sounds delightfully scraggly and irascible. Two relatively small lapses -- a brief summing-up chapter that does spill over into fan-boy fulsomeness and an evocative but maddeningly uncredited and uncaptioned photo section -- ultimately don't detract from Wild Years' usefulness or pleasure. Though written for the initiated, Jacobs' study isn't simply informative; it's a solid and entertaining read on its own. Wild Years comes recommended.

 
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