Tom Waits: “Downtown Train”

Posted: June 20, 2016 in THE CLASH of Cover Tunes
Tags: , , , , ,
Tune du Jour: “Downtown Train” – Tom Waits
THE CLASH of Cover Tunes: Mary Chapin Carpenter vs. Rocking Chairs vs. Patty Smyth
Broc 3 - Cover Me Impressed

Everybody’s Dressin’ Funny … Cover Me Impressed!

From Waits’ sublime masterpiece, Rain Dogs, Downtown Train beautifully captures the romance, hopes and desires, insecurity and confusion, and, at times, overcrowded-loneliness of a New York City weekend. 

As Bill Janovitz of AllMusic puts it: “The verses of Downtown Train are chock-full with more concrete and evocative images than all of the contemporary Top 40 pop hits combined; images like ‘another yellow moon has punched a hole in the nighttime,’ ‘The downtown trains are full/With all those Brooklyn girls/They try so hard to break out of their little worlds,’ and ‘you wave your hands and they scatter like crows’ ring of Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter.”

One rock critic observed “a Lou-Reedish guitar lead pervading the song” but, personally, I think Downtown Train has much more of a Springsteen-esque feel to it. Although, whether Waits was influenced by Springsteen or vice versa is difficult to say. 


The Original


Tom Waits:

That’s former World Middleweight Boxing Champion, Jake LaMotta, in the video. 


TheMost Popular


Rod Stewart:

Rod Stewart recorded a lousy cover version of Downtown Train that became a #3 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in late 1989, and was also a number-one single on the album rock and adult contemporary charts. Strangely enough, Stewart’s lackluster debasing of Downtown Train went to number-one in Canada – a country where people generally make intelligent choices – and made the top ten on the UK Singles Chart in 1990. And if all that wasn’t putrefying enough, Stewart also received a Grammy nomination for the song in the category Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. When asked to comment on Stewart’s version of Downtown Train, world renowned scholar and preeminent expert on cover songs, R.J. Dubbengoth IV, vomited profusely.


THE CLASH of Cover Tunes


Mary Chapin Carpenter vs. Rocking Chairs vs. Patty Smyth
Mary Chapin Carpenter:

Rocking Chairs:

Patty Smyth:


Oh the disharmony! Much like Harlan County there are no neutrals here. It is your solemn responsibility to decide which cover song prevails. In other words … Which Side Are You On?!!? 


Disclaimer: Votes cast from Florida may or may not be counted.

  1. Cuspid says:

    Such a cool song, and 3 such unsatisfying covers. I was really hoping for a slow, acoustic version somewhere in this mix. But alas, it’s not here. Forced to choose one of the 3 I guess I’ll go with Patty Smyth because it’s the earliest version, predating ever Rod Stewart. So at least she gets credit for knowing the soonest that it was a cool song to cover. She also get credit for the nostalgia factor because that the tempo was sped up a lot to give it a very 1980’s sort of feel; the 1980’s being the last great music decade.

    • RDubbs says:

      There’s a fair amount of covers of this song but not a lot that stand out. I think this is a real tough tune to cover. Waits’ style from this period is practically impossible to duplicate and Downtown Train epitomizes that feel. If I were a musician I’d want no part of trying to simulate Waits’ bravado. As you mentioned an acoustic interpretation is probably the best approach. But isn’t that what Mary Chapin Carpenter delivered? I actually like her interpretation quite a lot.

      • Cuspid says:

        By the 2:00 minute mark in Carpenter’s cover ya got drums and synthesizer. That’s not what I had in mind as an acoustic cover.

  2. Arnold Plotnick says:

    As I’ve mentioned before, I just don’t “get” Tom Waits, but will acknowledge that there must be something there, because of all the acclaim he gets from people who know what they’re talking about. This song wasn’t bad. It sounded to me like an outtake from an old Springsteen album. Rod Stewart’s version was truly atrocious. I thought Mary Chapin Carpenter did a nice version.

    • RDubbs says:

      I hear a lot of Springsteen in this song. There is definitely overlap in their styles. It is quite evident in Springsteen’s reverent cover of Waits’ Jersey Girl.

  3. bornunderabadsign says:

    Wow, I am about to blow my brains out, first Waits does a bad Springsteen imitation and then Rocking Chairs repeats the mistake, Smyth seems to have dredged up every production flair used in the 80’s. Carpenter by default…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s