Sunday, February 10, 2008


Tom Waits: Downtown Train

The above song was a #1 hit for Rod Stewart, and my grandmother worked overtime, supervising the night shift making cassettes along with the last vinyl cut records ever mass-produced. At Decca Records, just as she was about to retire. Somewhat surprisingly to me, she became a big fan of Rod Stewart. I was fondly bemused, and had hopes she was recovering from the death of my grandfather. But she never did, and Rod Stewart didn't write that song. We all thought he did at the time but he just sang it like so many others. Nobody saw the man behind the lyrical curtain, a misshapen unforgiven dwarf who whittled patterns many other voices would take into fashion.

The dwarf's voice is a rock crusher. It makes gravel out of washboards, asphalt, and car parts floating in on tides of bourbon. As a child, he taught himself to play on a neighbor's piano, where he took refuge while his schoolteacher parents were acrimoniously divorcing in Pomona, California when he was 8 and 9. His father was named Frank, his mother Alma, and it was 1958 or '57, depending on how you calculate prodigy. He later played in an R&B band in high school, but his heart wasn't in it. You can almost hear a music teacher saying, "Class...please pay attention, and excuse Tom."

While the 60s revolutions raged, he listened to Bing Crosby to figure out his timing. He studied Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Lord Buckley, Hoagy Carmichael, Marty Robbins, and Raymond Chandler. He started playing lounges and strip clubs in San Diego when he was 18, and he was so good that word got out--Martha and the Vandellas, Charlie Rich, and Frank Zappa asked him to tour with them. He strove to make art with words and eventually mused a magnum opus on his father's absence in an album called Frank's Wild Years. While he steadily closed in on genius as a pauper, the Eagles, Rod Stewart, and Bruce Springsteen made millions of dollars singing his songs as their own.

When I heard Rod Stewart singing Downtown Train, I heard a tom-cat reasonably asking for free sex. Later, when I first heard Tom Waits singing his own creation, I heard someone describing people traveling into Manhattan, girls who hung from the straps on the downtown lines, also the people who came in preserved from New Jersey, people I worked alongside with thick accents and frank assessments. So I knew how fully he shook their essence down like a perfumer who bottled souls. Once an old guard on the exchange laughed long at me one morning when I first wore a new blue Italian silk pinstripe suit my mentor had given me, and I asked what was the matter. He said--"You look like a million bucks," and I said right back to him, his name was Jesse, "I'm shinin' like a new dime!"

Once you hear Tom Waits sing his own creations, Rod Stewart and everybody else scatters like crows.

The lyrics to Downtown Train:

Outside another yellow moon
punched a hole in the nighttime, yes
I climb through the window and down the street
I'm shining like a new dime
the downtown trains are full--with all those Brooklyn girls
they try so hard to break out of their little worlds

You wave your hand, and they scatter like crows
they have nothing that will ever capture your heart
they're just thorns without the rose
be careful of them in the dark
oh if I was the one!
you chose to be your only one
oh baby, can't you hear me now

Will I see you tonight?
on a downtown train
every night, every night is just the same
you leave me lonely now

I know your window, and I know it's late
I know your stairs and your doorway
I walk down your street and past your gate
I stand by the light at the four way

You watch them as they fall
and baby they all have heart attacks
they stay at the carnival,
but they'll never win you back!

Chorus

Will I see you tonight?
On a downtown train...
where every night is just the same
(you leave me lonely)
will I see you tonight?
On a downtown train...
all of my dreams just fall like rain
ooh baby on a downtown train

1 comment:

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