Downtown Train / I'll Take New York - Tom Waits
Two New York songs, the first "Downtown Train" from Tom Waits' 1985 "Rain Dogs", the second "I'll take New York" from "Frank's Wild Years" just two years later, in part responding to the relative commercial success of "Rain Dogs":
I and my friend Phil saw him in 1985 performing in the Dominion Theatre in London's West End. Extraordinarily he booked the theatre for a week and sold out every night. The evening is still tied first in the top 4 concerts I have ever seen, raw, musically shocking and brilliantly theatrical, and, of course, he sang "Downtown Train".
Right from the startling opening line
"Outside another yellow moon
has punched a hole in the nighttime...."
Waits reminds us that he is as much a poet as songwriter, the classic romantic image seen through the prism of violent urban New York.
The opening is a metaphor for the idea that romantic adoration can flower in the most tawdry circumstances, the image of the moon expressed with beautiful violence, perfectly articulating the continual balancing act Tom Waits maintains between an exuberant celebration of life and his appreciation of the small tragedies that populate the lives of ordinary people.
Which makes these people heroic, in their refusal to give in, or in their anguished surrender. My parents' generation pretty soon got to like the Beatles. "Nice" middle-aged people soon got the hang of the Stones, and could make themselves feel edgy listening to Genesis, Yes and Pink Floyd. Soon they were lapping up heavy metal, even curling up with their Ian McEwan or, goodness me, their Martin Amis, with Leonard Cohen on the turntable (no longer "depressing" but now "so romantic darling"). Later, they could even enthusiastically look back on punk and remember that they were "there".
But for every "nice" Tom Waits track, there were three not so nice tracks. Because when he first made it there was no internet and he hardly ever got on the radio so you had to buy his albums to listen to him, weird tracks and all, he successfully preserved an artistic inaccessibility that lingers to this very day. This and his refusal to let anyone use his music to advertise products (who else has done that?) means he is one of the few truly credible artists recording, in direct contrast to Mr Stewart.
In this wonderful pastiche of Frank Sinatra's hit, the sordid reality of an alcohol soaked city of self delusion is rendered in his sprawling descent into an atonal coughing fit.
Here is a pool of bitter irony into which Frank unwittingly dives headfirst, splashing about until the water turns cold and finds him alone and destitute.
"I'll make it happen I'm on the Garbo's I'm drinking Manhattans I'll take a splash on the big town that's how I will arrive.... have you got two tens for a five?"
Who's still listening?