Book Review: Innocent When You Dream: The Tom Waits Reader
Musical one-off and self-styled blues hobo shoots the breeze
Chances are if you’re willing to pick up and read this book, you already love Tom Waits and want to learn more about the man who evokes a subterranean bohemia with songs such as ‘The Piano Has Been Drinking (not me)’ and ‘Bad Liver and a Broken Heart.’ However, given that Waits has compared speaking to the press as ‘a bit like talking to a cop’ – it’s perhaps no great surprise that the autobiographical details are a little thin on the ground.
This book features pieces from CREEM, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, NME, Playboy, GQ, and The Onion to name but a few. The collection does two parallel things: on the one hand it charts the career of a pretty amazing musician, on the other hand – it sells the idea of Tom Waits – a slice of Americanski which the diner waitress probably dropped on the floor but still served up anyway.
Most of the articles begin with the palpable glee of the journalist rubbing their eager little hands together, trying to work out where to start describing this man. One writer in this collection described trying to keep up with Waits in conversation as like trying to go for a walk with someone who happens to be evading assassins. Most of the pieces end with the audience only a fraction wiser about what actually makes the man tick, but readers will have some pretty unlikely images, interesting facts and brilliant witticisms wandering around in their minds instead. “People who can’t cope with drugs turn to reality,” “Fire is just the sun unwinding itself from the wood,” “She’s a diamond in the rough that wants to stay coal,” – to name but three which have stuck with me.
By the end of this book, having read various interviews spanning thirty years – the only thing you have to go on to work out if any given story is true or not is the frequency with which Waits tells the story. Was he born in a taxicab? Has he met the Marlboro Man’s mother? Does he actually know all the regulars of the latest dive bar he’s invited the interviewer to? It’s impossible to tell what’s invented and what’s real, but what you miss in concrete fact is amply made up for in Waits’ enthusiasm, wit and oddball take on the world. Describing the world as he sees it: scenes of smokey bars, petty crooks, ‘warm beer and cold women.’
Waits is by turns tragic, dazzling, hilarious and often oddly tender – the beatnik spirit of Burroughs and Kerouac reborn, and still snarling at suburbia. The writers gathered for this collection are pretty damn good too – and there’s a very interesting key change when the interviewer is someone like Jim Jarmusch who Waits has frequently worked with.
The only downside I’d say to this book is that my attention seriously started to flag about two thirds in. It’s a lot of interviews going over the same territory – and even with a Class-A Bullshitter like Waits to navigate around the journalists’ questions – it’s inevitably going to drag at some point.
What Waits lets journalists in on is more of a character concept, and he does his best to keep him away from all nameable homelife facts such as anything about his wife, kids, where he lives – or even where he’s been in the seven year gap since his last album (“traffic school.”) That said, his character concept of the mad old blues hobo is pretty incredible, and well worth reading about.
Some absolute Beat beauts (if a little repetitive.) Welcome to his world. It won’t take you anywhere in particular, but it’s worth the ride.
Originally appeared on Goodreads.com