This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #242: Downtown Train by Tom Waits.
Tom Waits is part poet and part troubadour. He is a friend to those who warm the stools at the end of bars and a champion of all who exist at the fringes of society’s light. He paints vivid portraits of lives often ignored by the shiny ones of our world. His gravel-hewn voice makes him completely unique among his contemporaries who sing. He has released seventeen albums. He has won multiple Grammy Awards and has sales of almost five million albums worldwide. Yet, most would be hard-pressed to list even one of his songs. Tom Waits stands as one of the most interesting yet, least known of all musical superstars….and, I imagine, that is just the way he likes it.
Tom Waits has been a musical performer for over a half-century now. His early career was spent mostly in jazz-oriented ventures. He was a fan of Beat poets such as Jack Kerouac, Allan Ginsberg and W. S. Burroughs and, as such, used the cadence of their writing to inform his own craft thus, allowing him to produce stories as songs that were perfectly suited to the Jazz genre. He became slightly more inclined to release “Popular” music once he met his current wife, Kathleen Brennan, who has been part muse/part collaborator over the course of their entire marriage. Of particular note, was the release of a trilogy of albums in the 1980s called “Swordfishtrombones”, “Rain Dogs” and “Frank’s Wild Years”. These three albums helped move Tom Waits more into the mainstream of public awareness and brought his music to a wider audience. From “Rain Dogs” comes today’s song, “Downtown Train”.
“Downtown Train” is Waits best known song and the closest he has ever had to being a legitimate hit. At its’ core, “Downtown Train” is a song based in NYC that describes those who seek to define their lives by going into the city, as opposed to being who they are, where they already are at. Needless to say, the artistry of his poetry raises their individual and collective journeys to another realm entirely.
“Outside, another yellow moon has punched a hole in the night time mist
I climb through my window and down to the street
I’m shining like a new dime.
The downtown trains are full…
Full of all them 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’ll ever capture your heart.
They’re just thorns without the rose,
Be careful of them in the dark.”
Mannnnnn! This guy! What a writer and storyteller! Tom Waits is often compared to the poet, Charles Bukowski. While his music may not have that quick beat that makes dancing come to mind, I find him mesmerizing. His music seems so intimate and personal; whether it is his stories he is telling or the barmaid’s or the taxi driver’s or the lady in the corner of the bar, using her cleavage as a lure. Tom Waits sees them all and brings dignity to their being. As such, he makes our world better. He presents as unlikely a music star as there is but, make no mistake, Tom Waits is the very definition of a star. He is a storyteller who uses poetry and music to breathe life into the lifeless. I feel he is skilled beyond compare.
If “Downtown Train” is your introduction to the music of Tom Waits then, enjoy the ride. If you like good storytelling and literate lyrics then, I encourage you to seek out more of his work on-line, via YouTube and so on. It is an easy rabbit hole to wander down into if getting lost for awhile is what you need to find yourself.
For now, here is “Downtown Train” as sung by the incomparable, gravelly-voiced, Mr. Tom Waits. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “Downtown Train” by Tom Waits, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Tom Waits, can be found here.
Thanks to KEXP for playing the music of artists whose merit is measured in the quality of their craftsmanship. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.