There’s no disputing that gravel-voiced oddball Tom Waits is an enigma to all but his closest associates, and that he’s a prime candidate for a probing, in-depth biography. Unfortunately, despite its considerable size, Patrick Humphries’ attempt to delve into his life only just manages to scrape beneath the surface.
There are plenty of anecdotes here from Tom himself, and some insightful comments on his varied output to date, including 2006’s mammoth 3-disc set Orphans, but Humphries struggles to unravel the layers of misdirection and obscuration that Waits has placed around his private life.
Instead he fills the book with pages of background detail, placing every step of his subject’s career in an appropriate musical, historical and political context, sometimes losing sight of Waits completely along the way. Two entire chapters pass while the young Tom works in a pizza parlour, as Humphries churns out a brief history of the 60s to keep the page count ticking over – it might have a place in a sociological history of the times, but here it feels like fifteen pages of filler.
He often engages in lyrical flights of fancy, too, as if determined to beat Waits at his own game, telling us that the early songs “scratch the furniture, piss on the floor, and keep you awake all night with their wailing”, but failing to puncture the man’s own self-mythologizing about his early years.
Part of this failure is due to the lack of input from a supporting cast, and it’s noticeable that we hear nothing from Waits’s family or friends, and very little from his contemporaries. In fact the dominant voice is Waits’s own, and by the time Humphries’ story draws to a close you’re left with the feeling that you’ve just been led on a wild goose chase by alternative rock’s own Pied Piper.
For the thousands of Waits fans out there who hang on the great man’s every word, this is a worthwhile encyclopaedia of his art, wit and wisdom — for those of us wanting a rare glimpse into his life, however, it ends up leaving us hungrier than when we started.