IT’S A GREAT SONG. IF YOU DON’T KNOW IT, SEARCH it out right now. Tom Waits wrote and recorded it in 1985 and it’s been covered many times. Mary Chapin Carpenter does a great version, as does Bob Seger. The big hit cover was by Rod Stewart in 1990.
Tom Waits growls his song in that hoarse gravelly voice which sounds as if it has been soaked in bourbon for a million years. Waits is the hobo poet, the beat poet, the balladeer of the seedy, the romantic, the grotesque.
He creates a world of drunks and hookers and junkies. Romeo is bleeding with a bullet in his chest. Small Change lies dead on the street and the newsboy picks the porkpie hat off the corpse and saunters off wearing it.
Waits takes us the heart of Saturday night, late night bars, strip clubs, nighthawks in diners. The songs are beautiful, haunting, mesmeric. His music is bold, brave, experimental, a mixture of jazz and blues, forays into vaudeville, trombones, kettledrums, bagpipes, clashing percussion.
Downtown Train is suffused with romantic yearning. The girls from Brooklyn crowd the trains taking them downtown, away from their mundane lives into a world of promise and excitement. You can imagine the air full of the smell of hairspray and perfume, the smell of dreams.
And somewhere among them is the one who has stolen the singer’s heart, the one he looks for every night with a mixture of longing and anger and obsession.
There’s something a bit scary and fierce here. The moon punches a hole in the sky. The girls, apart from the object of his desire, are spiky thorns without the compensating beauty of roses. They are dismissed with a wave of the hand. The singer haunts her window, her stairs, her doorway. His dreams fall around him like rain.
This is not Rod’s song. His musical and public person are at odds with its mood and its context. Rod is at heart Rod the Mod, cocky and cheeky and optimistic with a nice line in self-deprecation. The exuberant picaresque roller-coaster ride of Every Picture Tells a Story, the killer couplets in Italian Girls – she was tall thin and tarty and she drove a Maserati – the self-mocking humour as he combs his hair in a thousand ways and it looks just the same, these are the songs that seem to speak from the heart.
Rod’s girls aren’t Brooklyn girls or Jersey girls, they are leggy, blonde models. He doesn’t belong in a world of passion and desperation, not now, not ever really. He presents his previous tempestuous love life with an endearing rueful honesty, the ‘hands up, gov’ persona of someone fast becoming a national treasure.
Rod turns Downtown Train into swooping melodrama, a singalong anthem. Its rich orchestration makes it bright, crowd-pleasing. His voice with its distinctive rasp lacks the depth and richness the song deserves.
Still, his version brought Downtown Train to the attention of millions who would not have heard it otherwise, and choosing it demonstrated great taste.
So without a doubt it’s hats off to Tom Waits, most appropriate for one who wears headgear with such style and panache. If I had to choose a favourite, I think it would be the black Fedora.