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Author is sued over Tom Waits biography

June 25, 2009 | 10:57 am


Author Barney Hoskyns didn't get to talk to the notoriously private Tom Waits for his recent biography, "Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits." In it, Waits appears as a "dodgy enigma," our reviewer wrote, and "an angry ghost." 

But in a new lawsuit, it's not the musician who's angry.

Waits' former manager, Herbert Cohen, has filed a $1-million libel complaint against Hoskyns and publisher Random House in District Court in California on June 18. Cohen alleges that statements made in the book about his financial dealings with Waits are untrue.

Court documents cite several passages from the book, including this:

Waits would soon be in court with Cohen, alleging fraudulent accounting practices that had robbed Waits of royalties for years. . . . "I thought I was a millionaire and it turned out I had, like, twenty bucks," Waits told me in 1999. "And what followed was a lot of court battles, and it was a difficult ride for both of us, particularly being newly-weds."

Cohen's suit states that he was not sued by Waits "for fraudulent accounting practices," although it mentions that there was a dispute between the two that was settled in 1983. Is this a case of poor word choice on Hoskyns' part, and is it legally actionable?

Another section seems, to my nonlawyer's eyes, hardly Hoskyn's fault; Cohen's beef is with things others have said. For example, the complaint alleges that the following passage "is false, because plaintiff has never stolen or embezzled any amount from Waits":

"Kathleen [Brennan, wife of Tom Waits] told me Herbie [plaintiff] had nicked a lot of money from Tom," says Jerry Yester. . . . "She was very smart and just had a lot of really good input." To the likes of Yester, the news hardly came as a surprise. . . . "What was so distressing was that Herbie had always been part of the family," Yester says. "It was like your father or your brother doing it to you. . . . Waits absolutely trusted Herbie to his core, and it devastated him when he found out that he had grabbed a lot of the royalties." (Ellipses are in the court documents.)

Cohen, now in his 70s, was once a high-profile musician manager, working with Linda Ronstadt, Frank Zappa, Alice Cooper and others in addition to Waits. This is not his first time in court. According to a sentence elided from the above passage, Cohen was "taken to court by Frank Zappa several years before, and was fired as his manager in May 1976." 

Have a rock journalist and his publisher gotten caught up in the backwash of a decades-old dispute between Cohen and Waits? Or is this lawsuit destined for dismissal? 

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo credit: Kim Kulish / For The Times