The Infinite Jukebox: Tom Waits’ ‘Downtown Train’

By the time I got to hear about Tom Waits, he was through the first part of his career, singing jazzy, bluesy, boozy songs in a voice pickled by far more whiskey than was good for any one human being. I knew one song by him, the crazy, incredible ‘The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)’, which you can write off as a novelty song, like I did then, but you do so at your peril.
No, when he first started pulling at my ears, it was that second phase, the Swordfishtrombones/Rain Dogs/Frank’s Wild Years era of the early-Eighties, when Waits moved on from the jazz-influence of his first half dozen albums, reinventing himself under the influence of Captain Beefheart and Harry Partch. Waits eschewed things like pianos and saxaphones, not to mention conventional song structures, turning to broken and fractured melodies, frequently with strong percussive elements, in which no two songs sounded remotely similar.
Despite my interest in bands like Pere Ubu, this was going quite a way out into leftfield for me, and I was far from sure of what I was listening to, though I knew that this was something that demanded attention. And Waits’ voice was hard to take, with its gravelly depths interfering with the range a song could encompass, whilst you could practically smell the booze-fumes in every syllable. And there was a rawness to every track that came from its concentration on the New York of the ordinary folks, the working stiffs, the bluecollars and their bars and alleys, the feel of the stink of trashcans.
It isn’t an album I play all that often, though it’s also one I’ll never let go, because it stretches all the things that I understand as music until they’re almost out of shape, whilst staying within my grasp, just about, which is more than you can say about his next and even more angular period.
So you may imagine my relief when, on listening to Rain Dogs for the first time, I came, late in the album, to ‘Downtown Train’, and found myself listening to an actual song, with a verse and chorus structure, and a pining guitar track. The video has Waits singing in the street on a hot Brooklyn night, when people cannot sleep, and the thin, angular figure of Waits moves erratically, but cautiously, like a drunk trying not to drop an ice cream cone, singing himself into the middle of a night that’s as down to earth as you can get yet at the same time an almost mystic fantasy, a love story to no-one in particular but someone very specific that you feel Waits has yet to meet.
He draws a picture of a night with a yellow moon, punching a hole through the night time mist, a moon that draws him out of his house, through the window and down to the street. The downtown trains are full of Brooklyn girls, flocking back after night adventures uptown, looking for and failing to find the way out, because there’s no escape for them. He dismisses them, as having nothing to capture your heart, thorns without the rose, to be wary of in the dark, and he aches for the one who will choose him to be her only one.
That’s to whom he’s singing, out on that street corner, beneath the windows, asking if he’ll see her tonight on that downtown train, every night, things unchanged, unchanging, unchangeable.
And he knows her window, her stairs and doorway. And he knows its late, too late, for she is behind those panes of glass, as he walks down her street, past her gate, unable to reach her, and there is only the night to which the Brooklyn girls return, tired and disappointed and he’s part of the bones of that world, but still he asks if he will see her tonight…
It’s low-key, and wistful, and I feel the things in his heart, despite that somehow-sozzled voice that nevertheless gives up all its secrets and despairs in the full moon of longing.
So I give my heart to the only ‘song’ on the album, as opposed to the gallimaufrey of musics that clash and collide with a vigour that ‘Downtown Train’ is too tired to muster.
Some years later, at the very end of the Eighties, Rod Stewart covered the song, having a hit with it around the world, including the British Top 10. His version was absolute crap, not least because he doesn’t have a rough-throated enough voice to do the song justice. He slows the song down, fills it full of instruments, melodramatises the words and completely misses the point of the song, or its impact. He doesn’t understand what it’s about.
And his is the one most people know. Life’s a pisser sometimes.

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