Tom Waits on Tom Waits [originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers, 8/26/2011]

 

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Tom Waits on Tom Waits is a collection of lesser-known interviews with Waits over the course of his long career. When tantalizing hints of the artist’s ferociously guarded private life begin to emerge, Waits lobs a smoke bomb into the interview in the guise of a fact from his unequalled library of miscellanea–such as a decapitated cockroach’s ability to live for weeks.

From his first artistic age, Closing Time (1973), through One from the Heart(1982), we see the young artist re-creating a boho life he came to love from reading Kerouac, chronicling the “underbelly of the American dream.” Coincident with meeting his future wife, Waits realized that he “had nailed one foot to the floor and kept… making the same record”; the collaboration between Waits and Kathleen Brennan birthed the breakthrough albumSwordfishtrombones (1983). He also credits her with saving his life: with her encouragement, he quit drinking and smoking, ending his self-destructive caricature of a life and freeing him from the closed loop that had hobbled his artistry.

Tom Waits, even in his earliest stage, has never been what could be called “easy listening”; he’s the philosopher as artist, never a popular choice, and if that’s not daunting enough, his voice ranges from a ragged “been drinking cleaning products all night” to a seductive purr. His lyrics always demand attention, thoughtful listening and an open mind. In these 40-odd pieces, we get a glimpse of an artist honing his craft. —Judith Hawkins-Tillirson, proprietress, Wyrdhoard Books, and blogger at Still Working for Books

Discover: The development of the artistic anomaly that is Tom Waits.

Chicago Review Press, $19.95 trade paper, 9781569763124
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