Wild Years: The Music and Myth of Tom Waits
by Jay S. Jacobs
Give it up for Jay S. Jacobs, ladies and gentleman. C’mon, let’s hear some applause. This music journo gladly, I say gladly, dove headfirst into the life and work of one of popular music’s most cranky enigmas (I think he’s up there with the Residents, let’s say) and surfaced with a goddamned good, solid piece of biography and investigative hagiography/journalism. Wild Years, the first (unauthorized, but won’t they all be) study into the man known as Waits, succeeds by dint of pure doggedness and passion for the music, where so many other secondary source hagiographies fail. This is due to a number of factors that testify to the strength of Jacobs as a pop-culture commentator par excellence. Faced with the no-doubt deafening, impenetrable silence surrounding Waits and his inner circle (no new interviews for Jacobs), did Jacobs pout, panic, or get out the long knives? Nope, he did what a good journalist is supposed to, hit the street, find what direct sources he can (like early record producer Bones Howe) and then locked himself into the archives of every magazine or radio station that it seems like Waits ever gabbed to or spun stories for, gathered up a mountain of clippings and tapes and then put the Man’s records on endless repeat while he pounded this fucker out. So what we have is a pretty close to excellent chronological reconstruction of the career of Tom Waits, with plenty of supplementary materials to boot! Jacobs succeeds, where so many other biographers (that I’ve read in the past) fail because he is content to treat the “myth” of Tom Waits — boozer, beat poet, bowery bum, spinner of fine yarns — on equal footing with the “real” Tom Waits — family man, successful actor, savvy businessman — and thus let the romantic mystique of Waits’ eccentric persona endure and not at all be diminished by his entire life story.
Far from just being a rote regurgitation of press clippings and record label bios, Wild Years is almost more of a travelogue, following Tom Waits’ musical journey from flophouse crooner to beloved cult figurehead, savoring the sights, smells and sounds along the way. Jacobs retells Waits’ sodden tenure in Los Angeles with particular relish, and I have to admit, it’s a rockwriter’s dream — moving a piano into the mini Hollywood Babylon of the Tropicana Hotel, wandering into bus stations to swap stories with hobos, re-enacting scenes from Barfly with Ricki Lee Jones, and at the end of it all, drunkenly staggering up to the microphone with a beer in one hand, cigarette in the other and singing the most tattered, beautiful torch songs, all dedicated to a lost late-night world, that you ever wanted to hear. See? Even still….
But such a life, while looking good on paper, can’t be good for the body or the soul, in the long run, and even hopeless romantics like Jacobs saw that it was an undeniably good thing when soulmate and future collaborator Kathleen Brennan entered the life of Waits, taking him away from his beloved nightlife. But only then, as Jacobs, shows, was Waits able to truly come into his own as a singular, fearless artist, able to pick through the darkest reaches of the human soul and the most wigged-out extents of the songform with an almost childlike glee in the endless possibilities of sound. Movies, plays, musicals, albums, operettas, rock’n’roll, Waits, with Brennan always close at hand as a writing partner (now how many of us knew that?) and muse, tried his hand at them all, and continues to blaze his own topsy-turvy trail, one of the few musicians truly in control of his destiny, realizing the need to burn it all down and start again every couple of years. Burn, baby, burn.
Jacobs breaks down every single Tom Waits record with a lengthy review woven into the text, as well as an incredibly detailed discography that would function very well as a fanzine/chapbook on its own AND a nice fat picture section too, tracing the visual aesthetic that went so hand in hand with Waits’ various characters (the barfly, the hard-luck poet, the song-n-dance man, the jazz cat, the mad junkman and elder statesman of weirdness). This stuff is indispensable! Wild Years is a great digest-sized Encyclopedia Waitsia that’s going to have to stand as the official record since it’s a pretty good bet that Tommy’s either gonna pull a Beefheart and run off to the desert or spend his sunset years in Victorian pile writing the first page of his memoirs over and over again. And I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way.
ECW Press: www.ecwpress.com