“Downtown Train.” “Ol ’55.” “Jersey Girl.” These are just three of the Tom Waits songs better known for their covers (respectively: Rod, Eagles, Bruce) than for Waits’ own performances.
It probably doesn’t need saying that Tom’s recordings are, in the best way possible, idiosyncratic. So it makes sense that, like Dylan, like Cohen, his songs often become more popular when more “traditional” voices sing them. Many of the best covers, though, keep some of that strangeness. No, they don’t do “the Tom Waits voice” – most people wouldn’t be able to talk for a week after attempting that. But they don’t sand off the strangeness.
Tom’s debut album Closing Time came out 50 years ago this month; he’s doing a reissue to celebrate. It, and its successor The Heart of Saturday Night, are in some ways his least representative albums, though. The songwriting is already strong on these, but it comes in – if you can believe it – a fairly conventional package. His voice hasn’t revealed its true character (to pick one among many memorable descriptions: “a voice like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car”), and he hadn’t discovered that hitting a dumpster with a two-by-four makes great percussion.
Some of those very early songs get covered in our list below. But his later, weirder, songs abound, too. Tom’s wife Kathleen Brennan, his musical co-conspirator for decades now, said her husband has two types of songs: “Grim Reapers” and “Grand Weepers”. On his Orphans box set, Tom divided them up another way: Brawlers, Ballers, and Bastards. You’ll find some of all flavors below. (And, if you want more new writing on Tom Waits music, subscribe to a newsletter called Every Tom Waits Song that – full disclosure – I also run).
– Ray Padgett
PS. Find Spotify and Apple Music playlists of this list, and all our other monthly Best Covers Ever lists, at Patreon.
Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
Jon Bon Jovi was on VH1 Storytellers, telling the audience about the cover he’d just performed. “Bruce wishes he wrote that song,” he said. “I wish I wrote that song even more. But it was that grouchy old guy from California.”
Indeed it was. Tom Waits had fallen in sha-la-la-la-love with Kathleen Brennan (born in Johnsburg, IL; raised in Morristown, NJ), and he wanted the world to know. “Jersey Girl” marked the moment Waits climbed out of the gutter to be with the one he loved. He sings of crossing the river to the Jersey side; it could be the Hudson River, but it could also be the river Styx, with Waits leaving the underworld behind to rejoin the carnival of Planet Earth. All for the love of a woman. What could be more romantic? Continue reading »
The first post of the month features covers of every track on a famous album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
My first experience with Tom Waits was listening to Rain Dogs my freshman year of college. I didn’t even make it through two songs. The voice grated on my nerves and the off-kilter rhythms made me feel seasick. Needless to say, I’ve come around since, even flying down to Phoenix for twoconcerts in ’08, but you never forget your first time.
Buck 65 – Singapore
Canadian rapper Buck 65 doesn’t seem like an obvious choice to cover Tom Waits, but his lazy snarl grinds its way through this sing/speak perfectly. [Buy]
This song tends to get covered a lot because it’s so catchy. Except when Rubber Donut does it. Then it’s just confounding. [Buy]
The Blue Hawaiians – Jockey Full of Bourbon
According to the Tom Waits Library this is Tom’s most-covered song. More than “Ol’ 55”? More than “Downtown Train”? Apparently. [Buy]
Southside Johnny with La Bamba’s Big Band – Tango Till They’re Sore
A cover of this by Billy’s Band was our Shuffle Sundays pick a few weeks ago (more from them below), so this time we’ll can the Eastern-Bloc cabaret for some brass-fueled swing. La Bamba’s Band, for those who don’t know, are the folks who play with Max Weinberg every night on Conan (R.I.P.) [Buy]
John Hammond – Big Black Mariah
John Hammond is the son of John Hammond, Jr. which must have caused endless confusion around the Hammond home. A longtime friend, Waits produced Hammond’s Wicked Grin covers album, even giving Hammond an unreleased song or two to tackle. Fun fact: Hammond is the only person to ever have a band featuring both Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. [Buy]
Firewater – Diamonds & Gold
Tom Waits would be about the last person you’d expect to have a thing for diamonds, but they sure crop up a lot in his songs (as metaphors at least). “Diamonds on My Windshield,” “Diamond in Your Mind” and this. Maybe one day we’ll see a “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” cover. [Buy]
Lucinda Williams – Hang Down Your Head
Tom’s wife says he writes two kinds of songs: grim reapers and grand weepers. This is the latter. [Buy]
Waitswatcher – Time
This is too, done in a typically gorgeous instrumental arrangement by Pascal Fricke. Poke around his Youtube channel for many, many more. [Buy]
Billy’s Band – Rain Dogs
The aforementioned Billy’s Band has done an entire album of Waits songs: Being Tom Waits. This song is not off it, but rather from their live album Открытка от. I’d love to know what he’s saying at the intro here. [Buy]
The Silver Hearts – Midtown (Instrumental)
The dealbreaker of many full-album candidates is just this: the short instrumental. Luckily, The Silver Hearts have covered the entire Rain Dogs album, so we turn the two brief instrumentals over to them. [Buy]
Max Seilhamer – 9th and Hennepin
A very unusual take on this spoken word piece. Seilhamer puts some grunge-goth guitar behind the scratchy vocals, stopping just short of giving them an actual tune. The source of one of Tom’s most-quoted lines: “All the donuts have names that sound like prostitutes.” [Buy]
Luke Doucet – Gun Street Girl
Doucet’s gritty blues avoids predictability by bringing in a chanteuse to rise above the grime. [Buy]
The Yayhoos – Union Square
A few years back I did a five-part series of live Waits covers called Yesterday Is Here. You can get the first three volumes here and here. [Buy]
Dave Alvin – Blind Love
Bob Seger had a hit with this in 1991. It sounds like a Bob Seger song though, so we’re going to avoid it (sorry Detroit). Alvin’s reverb-drenched blues suits this song better. [Buy]
Toy Shop – Walking Spanish
Tom: “Walking Spanish is an expression they use when you don’t want to go somewhere. It’s 5:30 in the morning and the baby just woke you up screaming and you drag yourself out of bed, you’re walking Spanish. Somebody says, ‘Listen, buddy, give me all your money’ and your hand goes back around toward your wallet, you’re walking Spanish.” [Buy]
Hell Blues Choir – Downtown Train
If the word “choir” turns you off, hopefully the fact that the choir calls themselves “Hell Blues” will make you think again. Against all odds, this Norwegian chorus’ Greetings From Hell: The Tom Waits Song Book is a fantastic tribute, tackling some of Tom’s most difficult tunes (“God’s Away on Business,” “Swordfishtrombones”) with swagger and class. [Buy]
The Silver Hearts – Bride of Rain Dog (Instrumental)
This instrumental could make a great jam tune. My evidence of this is later instrumental “Russian Dance,” with Gogol Bordello and Les Claypool dragged out for fourteen minutes at the 2008 Bonnaroo “Superjam.” [Buy]
Scarlett Johansson – Anywhere I Lay My Head
Much ink has been spilt on Johansson’s 2008 Tom Waits tribute album Anywhere I Lay My Head. Saying it received mixed reviews puts it mildly. With TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek behind the boards though, no one can fault it for lack of ambition. This track works better than some. [Buy]
The grammar police will be on your back if you use a double negative, there ain’t no doubt. But from my brief days a linguistics major, I learned that “grammatically incorrect” language like this, when used widely enough, takes over. It’s how language evolves. So “whom” Nazis, give it up.
The double negative is a unique “mistake” though, as it seems socioeconomically based, and racially some too. So I can’t tell you whether it will ever become an “acceptable” for of speech. What I do know though, is a lot of great tunes use it, and you’d be missing out if you discounted them based on linguistic snobbishness.
Dolapdere Big Gang – (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (The Rolling Stones)
Covers of this one vary from the powerful (Otis Redding) to the seizure-inducing (Britney Spears) to the just plain bizarre (Devo). This one’s a little more unusual, but when I snagged it from over at Cover Freak a while back I wasn’t disappointed. A little string quartet appetizer, some salsa congo as the main dish, and a pre-chorus breakdown to cleanse the pallatte, and a horn-flute breakdown to polish things off. Yum. [Buy]
Buddy Guy – Ain’t No Sunshine (Bill Withers)
Lots of covers of this one, but I’ve never heard one that approaches this soulful horn-fueled swing. Guy’s molasses voice shines through here, but duet partner Tracy Chapman is no slouch herself, turning the song into a duet of two lost lovers missing each other. Buddy throws down his signature guitar lines, holding back enough to not overpower the tune but adding pure texture to this powerful slow jam. [Buy]
Santa Esmeralda – Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood (Nina Simone)
Elvis Costello does a decent version, but you can’t beat this ten-minute salsa funk from the Kill Bill soundtrack. Quentin Tarantino has got a hell of an ear for music, and he hit gold tacking on this dance frenzy. A must-hear. [Buy]
Aaron Neville – Ain’t No Cure For Love (Leonard Cohen)
I put this one up long ago in a Leonard Cohen album post, but since I removed the link months ago I figure I can throw it back up again. Neville does just fine without his brothers here, turning the over-produced schlock of the original (sorry Lenny) into a soul groove that just won’t quit. [Buy]
Francis and the Lights – Can’t Tell Me Nothing (Kanye West)
I posted one cover of this one a while back, but another has turned up on a recent covers-happy compilation. The comp is supposed to be based on guilty pleasures though, and I don’t think anyone should feel guilty enjoying Kanye West. And if you feel guilty enjoying this cover, then we’ve really got a problem. [Buy]
Hell Blues Choir – I Don’t Need No Doctor (Ray Charles)
Norway’s Hell Blues Choir has released two phenomenal tribute album, one to Tom Waits and one to Ray Charles. Where you’d think choir songs would be uniformly lame, the addition of creative arrangements and a rocking bands keep their sound fresh and exciting for song after song. Grab these discs! [Buy]
Jah Malla – Ain’t No Man Righteous (Bob Dylan)
Dylan’s born-again Christianity inspired him to write a whole flurry of songs in ’79, many of which never made it on record. For this he wrote a gospel track he performed with full backing singers on tour, but here is a reggae take (could you tell from the artist?) that somehow makes perfect sense. [Buy]
Bob Dylan – Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie (Elizabeth Cotton)
Cotton was a southern black folk musician not discovered until middle age, in the 50’s by folk revivalist Pete Singer. Wikipedia can tell you far more than I can, but it won’t tell you that Bob covered this tune 48 times in the late 90’s featuring his acoustic guitar solo-noodling and earthy background harmonies from Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton. This recording comes from a soundboard recording in Hamburg. Also scout around for Dylan covering Cotton’s “Shake Sugaree” around the same time. [Buy]
Peter Case – A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today (Merle Haggard)
Couple this with his more famous Working Man’s Blues, and it’s clear old Merle had a thing for the nine-to-five blue collar man. With some folksy instruments and slide guitar Case helps this song bounce along, sounding like Woody Guthrie on happy pills. But in a good way. [Buy]
Lyle Lovett – Ain’t No More Cane (Trad.)
“Lyle Lovett?” I can hear you saying. “Ew.” Now normally I’d be right there with you, but give this one a chance. An Americana-country background gives a sparse but lush field in which his powerful voice can roam free. The woah-woah-woah chorus brings the song back to its prison work song roots and (dare I say it) puts The Band’s version in its place. [Buy]