Downtown Train (1985)
It’s a pity that Rod Stewart gathered up the Tom Waits tour-de-force, “Downtown Train.” Stewart, having lost his touch well before he recorded the song, schmaltzed it up with heavy-handed orchestration and overwrought vocals. In the process, he also destroyed the original melody by adding glad-lad curlicues to it. To add insult to injury, Stewart’s version reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The Waits edition went underground (fittingly).
Bob Seeger & The Silver Bullet Band did a praiseworthy version, but it falls just short of the spare Waits original.
Listen – the city as carnival
Although born and raised in Southern California, Waits assumed the broken-glass, mean-streets vibe of New York City without – literally – missing a beat. He also absorbed much of New York’s musical history from Folk to Punk to the radical inventiveness of Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground. Tossed in for a little high seasoning are Tango, spoken Jazz, and white Country-Funk (as best epitomized by Neil Young’s band, Crazy Horse).
Nowhere is this clearer than in “Downtown Train.” A Lou-Reedish guitar lead pervades the song, as does a simple and effective bass drum along with a deep-bottom bass guitar. Each musical phrase sounds as if a mad mid-20th century factory was playing its industrial rhythms while a sadistic overseer cracked a whip. Reed’s classics, “Coney Island Baby” and “Sweet Jane” (as well as Mott The Hoople’s execution of it), come to mind.
The lyrics are vintage Waits. Pictures are painted deftly, etching out the dense beauty of urban life as few songs have ever done. One turn of phrase is better than the next.
Outside another yellow moon’s punched
A hole in the nighttime, yes
I climb through the window and down to the street
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
Not many lyrics have attempted, let alone succeeded, in portraying the bleak but hopeful scene of the big-city’s train system on a weekend night. Partyers pour in from the outer-boroughs, the suburbs, everywhere. The line, “They try so hard to break out of their little worlds,” condenses the full-length motion picture Saturday Night Fever into one line. Astounding.
After dismissing the Brooklyn girls – “they scatter like crows” – eventually the narrator gets around to his own longing and pain. He may feel above the crows he scatters, but he is on the same symbolic train:
I know your window and I know its late
I know your stairs and your doorway
I walk down your street and past your gate
I stand by the light of the four way
You watch them as they fall, oh baby
They all have heart attacks
They stay at the carnival
But they’ll never win you back
Upon delivering the agonized chorus three times, with a few extra thoughts mixed in, at 2:30, the band delivers a very tidy short break that gives the listener just a moment to contemplate the nature of unrequited love, the alienation of the modern city and the rushing movement of a train.
It’s not just a train that will disgorge people to the clubs, parties and dinners where they will seek a momentary connection and weave their inner tales of hope. It’s a train rolling and lurching through the underground of our psyches, stopping at the platform marked “hunger” and “thirst.” It’s the train of life and Waits is a sharp-sighted straphanger on it.
Will I see you tonight on a downtown train
Every night, every night its just the same
You leave me lonely
Will I see you tonight on a downtown train
All my dreams, all my dreams fall like rain
On a downtown train
- Waits described the album Raindogs this way: “So all the people on the album are knit together, by some corporeal way of sharing pain and discomfort.”
- Waits said in interview: “When it rains in New York it’s like that line from Taxi Driver – ‘some day a real rain’s gonna come along and wash all the scum off the streets’. It never happens, though, it just rains. Everything looks shiny, like it’s been painted, but it don’t make you feel any cleaner.”