Downtown Train - the Tom Waits original
Tom Waits is a treasure. A wholly unique character musically, visually, and even comically. A modern trubadour for whom there is no peer. Yes, we love Tom here.
So when he decides to write a song about stalking a young woman on a train and at her home, we just knew he’d pull us right into the scene, make us feel what the young man is feeling, and somehow forgive him for being a creep. Waits doesn’t write normal characters … and that’s one of the things we love about him. Everybody’s flawed. Everybody’s broken. Everybody’s going to hell.
The arrangement of this 1984 classic is simple. A basic lead guitar yanks us straight into the first verse while a companion rhythm guitar places itself squarely in the percussion section. Both musicians could play these parts in their sleep.
Waits’ lyrics really sell the vibe: the young man’s angst, hope and torment bubble through from the outset and never relent. Our hearts feel just as sick as his. Not a bad feat for someone impersonating a whiskeyed-up cookie monster.
Rod Stewart covers Downtown Train
I never got Rod Stewart. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great vocalist with a catalog brimming with classics and a bank account bigger than his hair. But no, I don’t think he’s sexy and I do not want his body. I’ll happily tell him so.
Sir Rod claims that his 1989 cover of Downtown Train bought Waits a pool. There’s enough star power in Rod that him deigning to sing your song increases your house price. Stewart neglects to mention how much Waits’ song lined his pockets, though.
Another piece of folklore surrounding this song is that Bob Seger and Stewart had a falling out over it. Seger was primed to release an album using Downtown Train as a centrepiece, but Stewart quickly recorded and released his version upon hearing this news from Seger. Seger promptly binned the album and started again from scratch. I know which star I’d back when elbows start getting thrown. Rod the Mod won’t be sexy after that.
Comparing Stewart and Waits
Stewart’s cover of Downtown Train is gleaming with polish. A full band of top-shelf session musicians, including a strings section, sparkle; a stark contrast to the original. A rhythmic burst of guitar and drums have you waiting for Stewart to hop into a highland fling that disappointingly doesn’t arrive. A stray piper wouldn’t be out of place in the back half of the song.
The vocals are flawless. You get the full Stewart experience with no disappointment. No disappointment unless you’ve heard the restrained pains in the original. There’s no suffering for Stewart; the spirit of Waits’ version is lost, replaced with a Hollywood glitter that pales in comparison.
Credit is due to Stewart. He made his recording a Rod Stewart song in its own right. There’s no mistaking it for a shallow copy or homage and his fans should be deservedly happy. Stewart’s version was also wildly successful, hitting #1 around the world and #3 in the USA.
I get that Tom Waits isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. He’s a polarising artist. Downtown train is one of his more accessible works and most people will still pass him over after hearing it.
Fortunately, they still get some of Waits’ stardust and genius in their lives through Stewart. It’s easier on the ear and easier on the soul. Despite being a fan of the original, I won’t punch the radio off when I hear Rod Stewart deliver his spin on Waits’ masterpiece. There’s a catchy, listenable quality to it, even for someone as jaded and cynical as myself.
I rate this cover five swimming pools of glitter gel, out of seven.
Please enjoy these rejected cover images.