David A. Taylor
Alex Harvey’s Song Noir has a nicely contained thesis — that Los Angeles and its varied character shaped Tom Waits’ creative development. The book’s focus on the first 10 years of Waits’ quirky recording career serves that thesis well. Waits’ career path can be a head-scratcher: musician launches with a half-dozen albums in the familiar genres of ballads, jazz, and blues, then takes a hard turn toward theatrical avant-garde and keeps on going. In laying out this story, Harvey, a filmmaker, maps the journey in a clear and compelling way.
For a book about a musician, Song Noir namechecks a remarkable range of literary types — including Charles Bukowski, Joan Didion, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Flannery O’Connor, Nelson Algren, and Clifford Odets — plus inky-newsprint figures like the photographer Weegee. But make no mistake, the tenor of Harvey’s portrait of Waits and his hometown veers toward the guttersnipe image that the singer himself cultivated from the start, ranging from California’s Silver Lake and Echo Park to West Hollywood.
The glimpses into a personal past, from early years visiting family out past the railroad crossings, are satisfying. And the way Harvey’s story connects Waits to Frank Zappa, Harry Partch, and mariachi bands is just fun. Read my review on Washington Independent Review of Books.