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…
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