Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.
Anyone who followed Tom Waits’ career through the ’70s probably didn’t like the odds of Waits staying relevant–or even staying alive–into the ’80s. In his personal life Waits courted ruin, and artistically he was stuck. His beatnik schtick was played out; the booze-hound tropes were tired. Waits had become the sort of lost soul he’d always pretended to be in his act. When his Elektra/Asylum label dropped him in 1982, the setback looked to be self-inflicted–a sad but unsurprising turn in a once-promising career.
Then Waits re-emerged in 1983 and unveiled Swordfishtrombones. The chaotic gem of an album that Elektra/Asylum couldn’t deal with changed everything. Its surreal title and curious photography told you in an instant that Waits had a brand new bag.
Still, the new Waits was the same as the old Waits in some ways. His voice was still ravaged, the piano still needed tuning. His lyrics dealt with the usual fixations in the same old vocabulary: car parts and pawn shops and a greasy breakfast. Waits world. But musically and conceptually, Waits was stepping out–far out. “Field recordings and Caruso and tribal music and Lithuanian language records and Leadbelly,” he said. “There’s a place where all these things overlap.”
Waits now took his characters into outlandish emotional extremes; weird raw cinematic sounds evoked their fevered ruminations. He adopted bothersome instruments no one else else wanted: marimbas, calliopes, glass harmonicas; bagpipes, banjos, and brake drums. Musical orphans. All the while his peers were getting busy with MIDI (born 1983) and synth-pop possibilities–even Neil Young, with Trans. Not Waits.
The follow-up album dropped two years later: Rain Dogs. The project doubled down on the eccentricity and experimentalism, revealing Swordfishtrombones as an opening move in a larger game. Rain Dogs may stand as peak Waits; it is certainly the crowning centerpiece of the trilogy that concluded with Franks Wild Years in 1987. Right in the center of the centerpiece is where you find “Hang Down Your Head.”
The song is not a standout track on the album–not in terms of popularity or creativity. It competes for attention with eighteen (!) other tracks, all of which are keepers, many of which are more developed both lyrically and musically than “Hang Down Your Head.” It’s the album’s most conventional and safe song (probably why Island selected it for the first single). Its only cutting edge is the stabbing guitar-work of Marc Ribot.
But “Hang Down Your Head” does stand out in this way: it’s the only song on Rain Dogs or Swordfishtrombones not solely written by Tom Waits. The credits go to Kathleen Brennan and Tom Waits. Kathleen is the inspiration for Waits’ “Jersey Girl” (one of Waits’ best sellers, thanks in large part to Bruce Springsteen’s cover) and for “Johnsburg, Illinois.” The couple would go on to co-write many more songs on the albums to follow, but “Hang Down Your Head” is their first effort.
Waits himself credits Brennan for his ’80s resurgence, considers her the catalyst for his brave new approach to sound and songcraft. It’s curious that their first song together is not about starting over, but about loss, the train that takes you away from the unrequited love, the end of the affair.
In terms of covers, the musical world has somewhat overlooked “Hang Down Your Head.” But our three choices leap out from the pack, and we rank them as follows…
Lucinda Williams’ is good.
Jack Ingram’s is better.
Petty Booka’s is best.
Lucinda Williams–Hang Down Your Head (Tom Waits cover)
Lucinda Williams seems to know a lot about sorrow, and judging by her songs has had plenty to hang her head about. You can hear it in her voice. Lucinda’s drawl, her slurry words, strikes some listeners as–what, affected maybe? Too boozy? They have a problem with it, they are put off, but it’s their problem, not hers. Any Waits fan knows this issue well–the voice haters out there, the ones who forbid you to play his music when they are in the same room. How sad and unknowing they are, these people. How tiresome.
This cover comes from that early 2000s period, with Doug Pettibone on guitar. Lucinda’s band had its laid-back groove and buttery tones dialed in so nicely here. It’s that sound, as much the interpretation, that makes this cover a winner.
Jack Ingram–Hang Down Your Head (Tom Waits cover)
Now we move from alternative country (pretend that’s an adequate tag for Lucinda Williams) to country pure and simple. Jack Ingram and band show that “Hang Down Your Head” works fine as a country number.
If Lucinda’s rendition has too much personality for some, Ingram’s more self-effacing way with a song really brings out the song itself. (Your Waits-hating friends might even like it–unless they are also phobic about country music, in which case can you even be friends any more?) The lead guitar and pedal steel are nicely understated too, but far from the land of bland. In this live recording, it feels like the previous song in the set ran hot and the band down-shifted to a nice slow tempo the audience could sink into; there’s probably some slow-dancing going on.
Petty Booka–Hang Down Your Head (Tom Waits cover)
The two young Japanese women who formed Petty Booka in the 90s–namely, Petty and Booka–are both singers and ukuleleists. They applied their Hawaiian-adjacent flavorings to unexpected bands like The Ramones, The Grateful Dead, and, naturally, Tom Waits (because he’s big in Japan).
At first blush you might think the Petty Booka cover is merely cute, a bit of kitsch lacking in actual passion or depth. Their light touch makes you smile throughout–the chorus harmonies most of all–but there are subtle hints of Waitsian disarray here. Listen for the jazzy modulation after the chorus–a fresh addition not found in Waits’ arrangement or any other rendition out there. The hand percussion and the wash of chimes and bells are soothing organic touches. In our hectic lives we all need more chime time.