“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.
We are closing in on six decades of amazing music from Bruce Springsteen. In all those years of performing, The Boss has covered over 300 songs. Some he’s covered hundreds of times. Others he’s covered just once.
A new “Songs Under Cover” playlist he just released as part of his Live Series collects 15 soundboard covers spanning several decades and genres of music. Some of the covers are more successful than others, and we’re going to rank them for you right here. (Play along with the official playlist on Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music). 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]
In the spirit of the flurry of year-end lists, here are some of the best covers of the year. Needless to say, too many great covers came out this year
The Gaslight Anthem – God’s Gonna Cut You Down (Johnny Cash)
Anchorless Records just released a set of quasi-punk Cash covers called All Aboard (get it on vinyl if you can) and, though some are generic, 2008 break-out artist The Gaslight Anthem takes Cash’s posthumous single and gives it a haunted vibe, like someone singing to you from far far away. [Buy]
Lily Allen – Womanizer (Britney Spears)
This one just came out a couple days ago, but it’s an instant ironic-pop classic. Britney’s first number one single since “Baby One More Time” (really) gets the strummed acoustic, soft piano treatment. Once you get past Mark Ronson’s obnoxious intro that is.
The Peptides – Major Tom (Peter Schilling)
When the band first sent this cover my way, I assumed it was a mislabeled “Space Oddity.” For those equally clueless, Schilling wrote a response to the classic David Bowie song (that I once had to lip-sync for five minutes in middle school in a poorly conceived outer space version of The Hobbit). Luckily The Peptides knew more than I did, as they tell the bizarre story with folksy harmonies and propelling rhythms. [Buy]
Mystery Jets – Bleeding Love (Leona Lewis)
God knows how many times I’ve listened to this one this year, but their beautiful Americana take on this admittedly catchy-as-hell pop hit never loses its charm. This comes from the always cover-friendly Radio 1 Live Lounge on the BBC. [Buy]
Southside Johnny and Labamba’s Big Band – Walk Away (Tom Waits)
Two big Tom Waits tribute discs came out this year. One, by Scarlet Johannson, induced spontaneous nausea in anyone who heard it. The other, Southside Johnny’s big band take on some Waits chestnuts achieved the shocking feat of making Tom danceable. It’s called Grapefruit Moon, and this cut is the best for a simple reason: it features Tom himself on guest vocals. [Buy]
Max Vernon – I Kissed a Girl (Katy Perry)
Vernon sent this one my way long ago and I’m embarrassed to say I never got a chance to post it before. Luckily others did, as it quickly made the blog rounds and even earned him a s lot on the Guilt By Association Vol. 2 comp alongside Kaki King and My Brightest Diamond. Dude’s even got a music video! [Buy]
Pat Buzzard – Wagon Wheel (Old Crow Medicine Show)
This one hit the old inbox a couple weeks ago, and is an instantly catchy update on the OCMS/Bob Dylan (he wrote the chorus) semi-hit “Wagon Wheel.” It’s made for a campfire sing-along far cooler than any you had as a kid. [Buy]
Lowry – Africa (Toto)
This one comes off that same comp Vernon’s on. It’s a song you’ve forgotten how much you liked, made new in an electro-lounge duet. [Buy]
Denison Witmer – Is There a Ghost (Band of Horses)
I posted this one in the Halloween entry a few months back, but as that post got taken down, here it is again. Witmer’s had the ingenious idea of releasing a bunch of free covers to promote his upcoming full-length Carry the Weight, and while they’re all worth tracking down, I keep coming back to this one. [Buy]
Bob Dylan – Miss the Mississippi (Jimmie Rodgers)
Bob recorded this in ’92, but it got its first official release a few months ago on the top-notch Tell Tale Signs outtake collection. People criticize Bob’s voice, but this song wouldn’t work without the lived-in grizzle age provides. [Buy]