It’s been apparent from the outset just what a coverable repertoire Tom Waits has. The Eagles recorded “Ol’ 55” on their “Across The Border” album. Bruce Springsteen has frequently played “Jersey Girl” in his live shows to the point that many people just assumed that it was a Springsteen song given the lyrics and Bruce’s ability to deliver it as a singalong. Rod Stewart has always had a pretty good taste in covers and his versions of “Downtown Train” and “Tom Traubert’s Blues” bear that out.
However a number of artists have gone a step further and devoted whole albums to Tom’s work. The singers are diverse, from grizzled blues artists, chanteuses to Hollywood stars. The success of the varying styles are testimony to the quality of his songwriting. I’ve got a few of the albums in my collection and I’ve tried to chose a song from each album but given the standard, this was a struggle.
The first cover album that I came across was Holly Cole’s “Temptation”. I picked this up speculatively when I was on holiday in the States. Cole is a Canadian jazz singer and her approach to Waits is to emphasise those jazz and torch song elements in his repertoire.
The arrangements are spare with her trio of piano and bass augmented on individual songs. The album is a little overlong as this recorded was well into the CD era of 60 and 70 minute albums. There are some wonderful versions though.
I’ve chosen the aforementioned “Jersey Girl” though. When Bruce or Tom sing it, it’s an affectionate late night arm around the shoulder of your favourite East Coast girl. When Holly sings it, it’s a sexy sashay down the boulevard with admiring glances from the barefoot boys and girls sitting on the hood of a Dodge drinking cold beer. I’m guessing Holly is a single malt girl. I’ve picked a live version below. Please do your best to tune out the extraneous audience clap along. I remember going to a Jeff Tweedy solo show where he slyly criticised the British audience for keeping appalling time. I think I’ve found worse, Jeff – I’m looking at you, Canada.
I could have gone for “Looking For The Heart of Saturday Night” as a companion piece, which Cole puts a country twist on by adding a pedal steel. It’s one of my favourite of Tom’s songs from one of my favourite of Tom’s albums.
Cole continues to work, specialising in interesting cover versions and in particular Christmas tunes! I ought to check her new stuff out, given the ease of availability now via the internet.
The next album I bought was “Wicked Grin” by John Hammond.
Hammond is the son of John H Hammond, a civil rights campaigner and music producer, who amongst others gave a substantial push to the careers of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. John Jr’s middle name is Paul, in honour of his father’s friendship with Paul Robeson. However John Sr was a largely absent father and John Jr was raised by his mother.
Hammond was in his late fifties when he recorded “Wicked Grin” with a bunch of crack blues veterans including Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica. The nature of Waits material and Hammond’s grizzled voice points to a life well lived. Hammond’s background is in the blues and the material and the player’s often suit his strengths. However there is often a twist. He takes “Shore Leave” from “Rain Dogs” and straightens it out, toning down the gruffness of the original. Hammond and Tom are friends and Waits produced the album.
I’ve gone for “Jockey Full Of Bourbon” (originally from “Rain Dogs” as well). The original is full of Waits neon dive bar vibe – a night with too many drinks in all the wrong place. Hammond treats it differently though. I’m going to post two versions.
The first is the album version which is taken at rattle with the accordion giving it a latino feel.
The second is a live version with Hammond solo on an acoustic guitar. It’s a more straight up blues version. Hammond gets the second verse wrong and goes back to sort it out, which makes it all the more charming.
The next tribute to Tom is from an unlikely source. In 2007, Scarlett Johansson recorded an album of ten Waits tunes with David Sitek of TV On The Radio in Louisiana with The Yeah Yeah Yeahs also pitching into help. The album (“Anywhere I Lay My Head”) comes with a sheen to it that is obviously Sitek’s distinctive sound, not unlike the stuff that Dave Fridmann does with Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev. Scarlett’s voice is likeable if a little thin. Help was at hand though.
Just before the recording was about to start, Scarlett was sat next to David Bowie at a party (I know – it happens to me all the time). He mentioned that he heard that she was making a record with Sitek. She made a casual invitation for Bowie to come to Louisiana and heard no more. She had recorded the album and was filming in Spain when Sitek telephoned to say that Bowie had recorded some vocals for the album in New York, having dropped by the studio. Scarlett said “It was the best phone call I ever got.”
The two tracks were “Falling Down” and “Fanning Street.” “Falling Down” is a studio track from Waits’ live “Big Time” album. The track is relatively straightforward song for Tom, given where it falls in his discography around the “Tom’s Wild Years” album. You can see why it wasn’t included on a contemporaneous studio album, although it may have slotted in the way that “Downtown Train” did on “Rain Dogs”.
I’ve posted the video to “Falling Down” below. If you stick your headphones on, you can hear Bowie’s distinctive backing vocals. There’s a live “in the studio” version on Youtube which, whilst enjoyable, unfortunately shows Scarlett’s limitations.
The album is really enjoyable although I’m not sure it would have got made without Scarlett’s cache and her stella associations.
My final selection is another East Coast compadre. Southside Johnny aka John Lyon is rather unfairly Asbury Park’s second favourite son, after a certain Bruce Springsteen. Johhny built a career in the seventies working with Miami Steve Van Zandt and his Asbury Jukes. The Jukes had a big bluesy horn section, featuring, amongst others, Richie “La Bamba” Rosenberg on trombone. Richie was a horn player for hire in the eighties as part of the Miami Horns who played and toured with the Allman Brothers, Diana Ross and Darlene Love as well as many other stars of the era.
As an aside, the use of the Miami brand shows just how far a nickname can stretch. The only reason that Steve Van Zandt acquired the moniker was as an ironic comment on how he hated winter, which attains further irony as he eventually ended up starring in the Scandi drama “Lilyhammer”.
Richie had acquired his nickname as follows:
I had an Afro and a Fu Manchu (moustache) at the time,” says Rosenberg. “Everybody from Asbury Park was given a nickname: Jukes (Southside Johnny), The Boss (Springsteen), and Miami (Steven Van Zandt …). The roadie said, ‘We have to come up with a nickname to call this guy. He looks Spanish. How about LaBamba?’ I’m Jewish, not Spanish,” LaBamba now laughs. “But Bruce got up on the bar there and started shouting, ‘Give me an L; give me an A; give me a B.’ He christened me, you know. And I kept (the nickname).
I digress – back to Richie and Johnny. Having toured with Horns, Richie came back to New Jersey to start his own big band, La Bamba’s Big Band. During the eighties and nineties, Johnny maintained his relationship with the Jules whilst doing solo work and eventually in 2008 made “Grapefruit Moon” with Richie’s Big Band.
The album is really straightforward – big band versions of Tom’s tunes. It’s very listenable and a lot of fun.
I’ve chosen “Walk Away”, originally from “Dead Man Walking” soundtrack album. The original swings in a small band style, another song about crime and murder. It’s too good a song to be buried on a soundtrack.
The version from “Grapefruit Moon” really really swings though with Tom helping out on the vocals. It’s turned into something more New Orleans.
Many of the songwriters that emerged in the seventies will be forgotten as source material as this century passes. I think though that Tom Waits will endure in the same way as Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, the Gershwins and all those other guys from the pre and post war years have to this day.