Peter Case

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Waits & Songwriting

I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.

“I know a girl, she been married so many times, she got rice marks all over her face”

“She was sharp as a razor and soft as a prayer”

“I did my time in the jail of your arms”

“I’ve got a bottle for a trumpet, a hatbox for a drum…”

One look in his eyes… and everyone denies… ever having met him.”

Even Jesus wanted just a little more time, when he was walkin’ spanish down the hall”

“I stay in a place called ‘Rooms’… There’s a whole chain of them.”

“…and I’m standing on the corner of Fifth and Vermouth.”

“…using parking meters as walking sticks.

“Money’s just something you throw off the back of a train”
“You’ll be buried in the clothes that you never wore”
“My daddy told me, lookin back, the best friend you’ll have is a railroad track”
“She’s my black market baby, she’s a diamond who wants to stay coal”

“The piano has been drinking, my necktie is asleep… And the combo went back to New York, the jukebox has to take a leak… And the carpet needs a haircut, and the spotlight looks like a prison break… Cause the telephone’s out of cigarettes, and the balcony is on the make… And the piano has been drinking…”
“Kathleen was the first person who convinced me that you can take James White and the Blacks, and Elmer Bernstein and Leadbelly – folks that could never be on the bill together – and that they could be on the bill together in you. You take your dad’s army uniform and your mom’s Easter hat and your brother’s motorcycle and your sister’s purse and stitch them all together and try to make something meaningful out of it.”

If you’re paying attention there are always ideas, they’re growing under your feet.”

“lt’s [songwriting] like being on medication, a balancing act, and a lot of time for me goes into getting ready to do this whole thing. It has its own drama, what it does to your life because all of a sudden things that are part of your scope and you never noticed will figure in.. . going to the shoeshine, the Port Authority, the steam coming out of the manhole, the guy on the horse, the news. You drag these things home from your day and put them somewhere and you have three weeks to make something out of it.”

Childhood is very important to me as a writer, I think the things that happen then, the way you perceive them and remember them in later life, have a very big effect on what you do later on.” “That one [Kentucky Avenue] came over a little dramatic. a little puffed up, but when I was 10 my best friend was called Kipper, he had polio and was in a wheelchair – we used to race each other to the bus stop.”

Do you ever listen to music? TW: “It’s hard for me to sit down and just do that. I like it best when I hear it coming through the wall in a hotel room. I like it best on a bad speaker from a block away… ,you really have to watch your musical diet, especially when you’re trying to write something. A couple of years ago on my wife’s birthday we heard a song called “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” and it stayed in my head for so long.”

How do you write a song? TW: “New York is really stimulating. You can get a taxi and just have him drive and start writing down words you see, information that is in your normal view: dry cleaners, custom tailors, alterations, electrical installations, Dunlop safety center, lease, broker, sale…just start making a list of words that you see. And then you just kind of give yourself an assignment. You say, “Im going to write a song and I’m going to use all these words in that song.” That’s one way. Or you can get in character, like in acting, and let the character speak. The song “9th and Hennepin” came out like that.”

“I love reference books that help me with words, dictionaries of slang or the ‘Dictionary of Superstition’, or the ‘Phrase and Fable, Book of Knowledge’, things that help me find words that have a musicality to them. Sometimes that’s all you’re looking for. Or to make sounds that aren’t words, necessarily. They’re just sounds and they have a nice shape to them. They’re big at the end and then they come down to a little point that curls. Words, y’know, for me are really, I love ’em, I’m always lookin’ for ’em, I’m always writin’ ’em down, always writin’ down stuff. Language is always evolving. I love slang, prison slang and street idioms and –”

You like rap music because of that, right? TW: “Oh yeah, I love it. It’s so, it’s a real underground railroad.” JJ: It keeps American English living. Rap, hip-hop culture and street slang is to me what keeps it alive, and keeps it from being a dead thing. TW: “Yeah, it happens real fast, too. It’s….and it moves on, in like three weeks maybe something that was very current is now very passe. As soon as they adopt it, they have to move on.” JJ: It’s an outsider’s code, in a way. TW: “Well, it’s all that dope talk that came because you had to have conversations, that whole underground railroad thing where you had to be able to talk to somebody in the presence of law enforcement, and have law enforcement totally unable to understand anything of what you were saying. I don’t know if people really acknowledge as much as they should how the whole Afro-American experience, how it has given music and lyricism, poetry to daily life. It’s so engrained that most people don’t even give it credit.”

On the ride home Waits is still thinking about his afternoon with his children and horses. TW: “I heard a Mexican guy working with the horses today and the way he spoke to the horses was so musical, so beautiful, the way he would shape his body to get the right sounds. “I’ve always thought that in Mexican culture songs lived in the air, music is less precious and more woven into life,” Waits says. “There is a way of incorporating music into our lives that has meaning: songs for celebration, songs for teaching children things, songs of worship, songs to make the garden grow, songs to keep the devil away, songs to make a girl fall in love with you. My kids sing songs they have made up that I listen to and know by heart, and these songs have become part of our family life. You have to keep music alive in your life or else music becomes an isolated thing, just a pill you take.”

We drive home in virtual silence. TW: “Children don’t know the first thing about music and yet they make up songs and sing them all day long,” says Waits. “Who’s to say my melodies are any better than theirs?”

Q (1999): Mule Variations is a bluesier album than some of your more recent efforts. Is there a reason for that? TW: “Well, I don’t know where it all came from. Maybe I’m kind of re-examining my whole folk roots. My roots, as far as music, are perhaps diverse sometimes. Sometimes you try and find a way to reconcile the diversity of your influences. So you listen to Elmer Bernstein and you listen to Skip James and you like ’em both. And though you’ll never see them on a bill together, they can be on the bill together in you, right? In some way, in some form or another or on your record, you can have elements of those styles. It’s really my wife that started helping me see that you can find the place where Leadbelly and Schoenberg overlap. Or Cryin’ Sam Collins and Beefheart, you know, intersect with Monk or Miles

 

And “Get Behind the Mule” you have these characters like Molly Be Damned, Jimmy the Harp, the Pock Mark Kid. You hear the name and immediately that image comes to mind, like this woman I can’t get out of my head with no nails and 6’9″. Is your life populated by those –?… Who are they? Are they real people? TW: “Yeah, they’re all real people. Trade secret — they’re just folks, just plain folks. Read the paper, listen to the radio, look out the window, go to a cafe and eavesdrop. Correspond with people. It’s just people I’ve come across in … just names of people. Some I know, some I’ve heard of, some are famous blues guys from the ’30s, some are people I used to go to school with all mixed together.”

“The record becomes like a survival kit that people can take on camping trips.”

“The blues is like a planet. It’s an enormous topic. There are so many people, it’s like a phone book. If I tell ya who’s at the top, I’ll keep thinking of others… Son House, Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Skip James…Jellyroll Morton, Memphis Minny, One-string Sam, I dunno. It’s an enormous topic, I don’t know where to begin. But you can’t ignore the impact that it has had and continues to have on the whole musical culture. It’s a tree that everyone is swinging from. Without it, I don’t know where I would be. It’s indelible and indispensable… Charlie Patton, Cryin’ Sam Collins, yeah. Anybody who’s first name is “Little.” Little Jimmy Scott, Little Stevie Wonder.”

(Raspy laugh) “I like weird things, ludicrous things. I have a notebook full of eerie facts. Don’t get me started on them. I could go on for ages and would confuse you – or probably even scare you.”

Q (1999): Where do you get your information from? TW: “I read papers. I read magazines, and if I find something that’s worth collecting, I’ll write it down in my little notebook. Just call it a hobby or a weird spleen.

“With Bob Dylan, so much has been said about him, it’s difficult to say anything about him that hasn’t already been said, and say it better. Suffice it to say Dylan is a planet to be explored. For a songwriter, Dylan is as essential as a hammer and nails and a saw are to a carpenter. I like my music and the rinds and the seeds and pulp left in, so the bootlegs I obtained in the ’60s and ’70s are where the noise and grit of the tapes became inseparable from the music, are essential to me. His journey as a songwriter is the stuff of myth, because he lives within the ether of the songs. Hail, hail The Basement Tapes. I heard most of these songs on bootlegs first. There is a joy and an abandon to this record, it’s also a history lesson.”

“Once you’ve heard Beefheart, it’s hard to wash him out of your clothes. It stains, like coffee or blood. (The music) encouraged a lot of people to go into some kind of a cocoon and come out as something (different) than when they went in. “(But) it’s not just Beefheart (for me) . . . I like Tricky, the Staple Singers, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Charley Patton. . . . You start out being the sum of those parts, and at some point you’ve got to decide when you’re soup yet.

“It’s important to travel your own path. Conformity is a fool’s paradise. I think I’m influenced by people just like everyone else is, but I try to fight the urge to conform. I keep wanting to use turntables and stuff, but my wife says no, she says that’s going to be like a ducktail eventually, or a flat-top or Mohawk. And I struggle with that… I mean most musicians don’t go to school, they listen to records. They sit down at one point next to a record player and put their ear up there and try to write the words down and wonder, “What the hell’s he doing on that thing?” and try to learn off it. And I assume somebody at some point will do that with my records. I hope they do that with my records, ’cause that’s what they’re for. It’s a natural cycle to the whole experience of evolving as a musician yourself, you hope others evolve. I love slave songs and work songs and jump rope songs, all those early beginnings, and where it’s going and where it is now and where it’ll be in ten years”

Tom Waits (2008): “Songs just like being around some folks more than others. They won’t just live anywhere. Birds like some trees better than others. We don’t know why… making up songs is just like coming up with something crazy to do with the air besides just breathing it. Seems like a waste to just breathe it in and then push it back out quietly. It must have excited the air to go through Lead Belly as ordinary oxygen and come out the other side as the Midnight Special or Silvie or Ella Louise or Rock Island Line. There’s a bird in South America whose song is so powerful and lovely, and who sings so rarely that when he does sing all the animals in the forest are quiet until his song is finished. They say to hear it brings luck, to see it insures you a place in heaven. Lead Belly was loud. I was born the day after he died, on December 7, 1949, and I passed him in the hall. He was as strong as Jack Johnson, he was louder than Caruso. Songs climb up some folks like a vine climbs a trellis. There is something in Lead Belly’s voice so urgent, “Come here right now and listen. Drop what ever you’re doing…” he’s hollering to you from the next hill over. It carried bold and impatient. He broke microphones, they weren’t prepared for his impolite delivery. When I first heard his voice, I knew it already. In mole communities they reward the brave ones. The ones known for tunneling beneath great rivers who faced the dangers involved in pulling off such an incredible feat of engineering, the ones responsible for taking other moles safely to the other side. Lead Belly is as much a part of the natural world as crows are, as dogs are, children playing in the yard are, trains are, jails are, second floor apartments are, and his songs are safe on the other side. And they’re all a part of you now.”

(UK), November 9, 2006. By Mick Brown)

Tom Waits (2007): “Well, the amazing thing about songwriting is that you don’t really go to school to learn how to do it. You just learn by listening to other people’s songs. You listen to Big Mama Thornton and Big Joe Turner and Big Irma Perkins. And Little Milton and Little Jimmy Dickens, Little Willie John, Little Stevie Wonder. All the littles — and all the bigs. And then everything you somehow absorb you will secrete in some way.”

Shore Leave

Well, with buck shot(2) eyes and a purple heart(3)
I rolled down the national stroll(4)
And with a big fat paycheck strapped to my hip-sack
And a shore leave wristwatch underneath my sleeve
In a Hong Kong drizzle(5) on Cuban heels(6)
I rowed down the gutter to the Blood Bank

And I’d left all my papers on the Ticonderoga(7)
And I was in bad need of a shave
I slopped at the corner on cold chow mein
And shot billiards with a midget until the rain stopped
And I bought a long sleeved shirt with horses on the front
And some gum and a lighter and a knife
And a new deck of cards with girls on the back
And I sat down and wrote a letter to my wife

And I said, baby, I’m so far away from home
And I miss my baby so
I can’t make it by myself
I love you so

And I was pacing(8) myself, trying to make it all last
Squeezing all the life out of a lousy two-day pass
And I had a cold one(9) at the Dragon with some Filipino floor show
And I talked baseball with a lieutenant over a Singapore Sling(10)
And I wondered how the same moon outside over this Chinatown fair
Could look down on Illinois and find you there(11)
I know I love you, baby

And I’m so far away from home
I’m so far away from home
Yeah, I miss my baby so
I can’t make it by myself
I love you so

Shore Leave, shore leave, shore leave, shore leave, shore leave
shore Leave, shore leave, shore leave, shore leave, shore leave
shore Leave, shore leave, shore leave, shore leave, shore leave
shore Leave, shore leave

Notes:

(1) Shore Leave
– Tom Waits (1983): “It’s kind of an oriental Bobby “Blue” Bland approach. Musically it’s essentially very simple. It’s a minor blues. I tried to add some musical sound effects with the assistance of a low trombone to five a feeling of a bus going by, and metal aunglongs the sound of tin cans in the wind, or rice on the bass drum to give a feeling of the waves hitting the shore. Just to capture the mood more than anything, of a marching marine or whatever walking down the wet street in Hong Kong and missing his wife back home. I worked in a restaurant in a sailor town for a long time. It’s Porkcola (port called?) National City. So, it was something I saw every night. It was next to a tattoo parlor and a country & western dance hall and a Mexican movie theater. So I imagined this Chinese pinwheel in a fireworks display spinning, spinning and turning and then slowing down. As it slowed down it dislodged into a windmill in Illinois. That same of… and then looked down on us. A home. Where a woman is sitting in the living room sleeping on chairs with the television on. When he’s having eggs at some grumulant (?) joint, you know, thousands of miles away.” (Source: “Tom Waits – Swordfishtrombones”. Island Promo interview, 1983)
– Tom Waits (1983): “Some of the stuff on Shore Leave is like sound effects, the low trombone is like a bus going by and I got a little more adventurous, I’m still a little timid about it but melody is what really hits me first, melody is the first thing that seduces me.” (Source: Unidentified Swordfishtrombones Interview (interviewer’s tape). Date: 1983/ 1984)
– Tom Waits (1983): “Underground” is the score for a mutant dwarf community. “Shore Leave” is a Chief Botswain’s mate’s nightmare with a bottle of 10 High and a black eye.” (Source: “The Beat Goes On” Rock Bill magazine (USA). October 1983, by Kid Millions)

(2) Buckshot: n.:
– A large lead shot for shotgun shells, used especially in hunting big game (Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Houghton Mifflin – Third Edition)
– One variation of the little metal pellets that fill a shotgun shell. An individual piece of buckshot is larger and more damaging than some other types, like birdshot. Larger pellets for larger animals (Submitted by Russell Fischer. Raindogs Listserv discussionlist. September, 2000).
– Waits might be playing with the common phrase “bloodshot eyes”:
– Bloodshot: blood·shot adj. Red and inflamed as a result of locally congested blood vessels: bloodshot eyes (Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company)

(3) Purple heart
– n. [1960s] (drugs) 1. amphetamines 2. (rarely) barbituates. (the colour of the pills) (Source: Cassel’s Dictionary of Slang. Jonathon Green 1998. Cassel & Co., 2000)
– Any barbituate or mixture of a barbituate and morphine used as a narcotic by addicts, esp. a Nembutal (trademark) capsule; a “goof ball” or “yellow jacket” Orig. W.W.II Army addict use, when the addicts would take or mix any drugs they could obtain from military medical supplies. (Source: Dictionary Of American Slang, Wentworth/ Flexner)
– American military decoration awarded to members of the armed forces of the U.S. who are wounded by an instrument of war in the hands of the enemy and posthumously to the next of kin in the name of those who are killed in action or die of wounds received in action. It is specifically a combat decoration.

(4) Stroll:
– n.: A road, highway, or street. c1935 jive use; some Negro use (Source: Dictionary Of American Slang, Wentworth/ Flexner).

(6) Cuban heels: mens boot, half boot or shoe with high heels (e.g. Manhattan half boot, Wincklepicker, Chelsea boot, etc

Get Behind The Mule

Molly Be Damned smote(2) Jimmy the Harp(3)
With a horrid little pistol and a lariat(4)
She’s goin’ to the bottom and she’s goin’ down the drain(5)
Said she wasn’t big enough to carry it

She got to get behind the mule, yeah
in the morning and plow
Got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow
You got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow
Get behind the mule in the morning and plow

Choppity chop(6) goes the axe in the woods
You gotta meet me by the fall down tree
Shovel of dirt upon a coffin lid
And I know they’ll come lookin’ for me, boys
I know they’ll come lookin’ for me

Got to get behind the mule, yeah
in the morning and plow
Get behind the mule in the morning and plow
Get behind the mule in the morning and plow
Get behind the mule in the morning and plow

Big Jack Earl(7) was eight foot one
And he stood in the road and he cried
He couldn’t make her love him, couldn’t make her stay
But tell the good Lord that he tried

Got to get behind the mule, yeah
in the morning and plow
Get behind the mule in the morning and plow, yeah
You got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow
You got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow

Dusty trail from Atchison to Placerville(8)
On the wreck of the Weaverville stage(9)
Beaula fired on Beatty for a lemonade
I was stirring my brandy with a nail, boys
Stirring my brandy with a nail

Got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow
Get behind the mule in the morning and plow
You got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow, yeah
Get behind the mule in the morning and plow

Well, the rampaging(10) sons of the widow James
Jack the Cutter and the Pockmarked Kid
Had to stand naked at the bottom of the cross
And tell the good Lord what they did
Tell the good Lord what they did

You got to get behind the mule, yeah
in the morning and plow
Get behind the mule, yeah, in the morning and plow
You got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow
Get behind the mule in the morning and plow

Punctuated birds on the power line
In a Studebaker with Birdie Joe Hoaks(11)
I’m diggin’ all the way to China with a silver spoon
While the hangman fumbles with the noose, boys
The hangman fumbles with the noose

You got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow
Get behind the mule in the morning and plow
You got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow
Get behind the mule in the morning and plow

Pin your ear to the wisdom post
Pin your eye to the line
Never let the weeds get higher than the garden(12)
Always keep a sapphire in your mind
Always keep a diamond in your mind

You got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow
Got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow
Got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow
Got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow

(1) Get behind the mule
Tom Waits: “That’s what Robert Johnson’s father said about Robert, because he ran away. He said, ‘Trouble with Robert is he wouldn’t get behind the mule in the morning and plow,’ because that was the life that was there for him. To be a sharecropper. But he ran off to Maxwell Street, and all over Texas. He wasn’t going to stick around. Get behind the mule. . .can be whatever you want it to mean. We all have to get up in the morning and go to work. Kathleen says, “I didn’t marry a man. I married a mule.” And I’ve been going through a lot of changes. That’s where Mule Variations came from.” Q: What did she mean by that? TW: “I’m stubborn.”

“There have been plenty of days when I’ve gotten up too late in the morning and the mule is gone,” he says. “Or somebody else is behind the mule, and I have to get behind the guy who’s behind the mule.’

(3) Molly Be Damned/ Jimmy the Harp:
– Kaufman/ Goldberg (1999): … On “Get Behind the Mule” you have these characters like Molly Be Damned, Jimmy the Harp, the Pock Mark Kid. You hear the name and immediately that image comes to mind… Who are they? Are they real people? TW: ” Yeah, they’re all real people. Trade secret — they’re just folks, just plain folks. Read the paper, listen to the radio, look out the window, go to a cafe and eavesdrop. Correspond with people. It’s just people I’ve come across in … just names of people. Some I know, some I’ve heard of , some are famous blues guys from the ’30s, some are people I used to go to school with all mixed together.”

– Slightly abridged passage from: “The Miners” volume from the Time-Life series “The Old West. Chapter “Highjinks in the hard-living mine camps”: “A number of the prostitutes were piquantly named — the Irish Queen and the Spanish Queen, Little Gold Dollar, Molly b’Damn, Em’ Straight-Edge, Peg-Leg Annie, and Contrary Mary. (The names of the customers of these ladies also were not without distinction: Jack the Dude, Johnny Behind the Rock, Coal-Oil George, Jimmy the Harp, and Senator Few Clothes.) Moreover, the reputations of the ladies were adorned with sentimental tales that helped to promote the legend of the Whore with the Golden Heart… Molly b’Damn was described by an Idaho contemporary as “an uncommonly ravishing personality. Her face gave no evidence of dissipation, her clothes no hint of her profession. About her, at times, was an atmosphere of refinement and culture.” Occasionally, “she quoted with apparent understanding from Shakespeare, from Milton, from Dante.” (Submitted by Kurt Gegenuber. Raindogs Listserv discussionlist. August 2, 1999)

(4) Lariat n.: A lasso; a rope for picketing grazing horses or mules

(7) Big Jack Earl: Jack Earle was born Jacob Ehrlich, a baby so tiny that doctors feared he wouldn’t live. He weighed four pounds. But immediately, he began to grow incredibly; by age ten he was over six feet tall. He finally topped out at 7 feet, 7 1/2 inches (other sourves claim he was 8′ 6 1/2″ tall). He was discovered by Hollywood as a teenager and offered a job acting in comedies. He made over fifty of them, until one day on the set when he fell from a scaffolding. When he woke, he found he was blind, due to a newly-discovered tumor on his pituitary gland. Doctors attempted to shrink the tumour with X-rays which miraculously both returned his sight and stopped his incredible growth. He enrolled in college, during which he went to see the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus where he saw Jim Tarver, billed as the tallest man in the world. Jack considered that odd, since he was taller than Tarver by several inches. He joined the circus and travelled with them for fourteen years. Upon retiring from the circus, Jack became a successful travelling salesman and was intensely creative. He painted, sculpted, was a prize-winning photographer and a poet. He even published a book of poetry called “The Long Shadows”. He starred in Tod Browning’s “Freaks” (1932)

– Jonathan Valania (1999): Who is Big Jack Earl? Tom Waits: “Tallest man in the world. Was with Barnum & Bailey. If you see old archival photographs, they used to put him next to some guy that was like a foot tall. Big hat, tall boots. That’s why “Big Jack Earl was eight-foot-one an d stood in the road and he cried.” Imagine a guy eight-foot-one standing in the middle of the road crying. It breaks your heart.” (Source: “The Man Who Howled Wolf “. Magnet: Jonathan Valania. June/ July, 1999)

(8) Dusty trail from Atchison to Placerville: This might refer to the historic “Overland Stage Line” to California (Overland Mail Company: Atchison, Kansas to Placerville, California).

(9) Weaverville: In the gold mining days the historical Weaverville stage coach crossed a rugged mountain range along the then-Weaverville Stage Road between California’s Northern Sacramento valley to Weaverville California.

(10) Rampaging v. intr.: To move about wildly or violently (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Houghton Mifflin – Third Edition) The chapter on the Jesse James gang from: “The Gunfighters” volume from the Time-Life series “The Old West” is titled “The rampaging sons of the widow James.” (Submitted by Kurt Gegenuber. Raindogs Listserv discussionlist. August 13, 1999)

(11) Birdie Joe Hoaks
– Tom Waits (1999): “I read in the newspaper about this gal, 12 years old, who had swindled Greyhound. She ran away from home and told Greyhound this whole story about her parents and meeting them in San Francisco. She had this whole Holden Caufield thing, and she got an unlimited ticket and criss-crossed the U.S. And she got nabbed.” What did they do to her? TW: “They took her bus pass, for starters. I don’t think she did hard time. Me and my wife read the paper and we clip hundreds of articles, and then we read the paper that way, without all the other stuff. It’s our own paper. There is a lot of filler in the paper and the rest is advertising. If you just condense it down to the essential stories, like the story about the one-eyed fish they found in Lake Michigan with three tails, you can renew your whole relationship with the paper.” (Source: “The Man Who Howled Wolf “. Magnet: Jonathan Valania. June/July, 1999)

– Tom Waits (1999): “This one gal, her name was Pretty Jo Hoax. Her name was Birdy Jo Hoakes. She pulled this beautiful hoax. She told the ticket vendor at Greyhound that her aunt in California had sent a dispatch to the office in West VA. Some money had exchanged hands, and there was supposed to be some sort of cyber ticket. This was going to make it possible for her to ride the Greyhound continuously. One of those all-day passes. The whole thing was that she created in her mind, she managed to three card molly a ticket! They finally busted her and took away her ticket! But, before they caught her, she crossed the US something like 100 times! But, if you’re out there, Birdy, my hat’s off to you!” (Source: Sonicnet: host: Goldberg. April, 1999)

Gun Street Girl

Fallin’ James(2) in the Tahoe mud
Stick around to tell us all the tale
Well, he fell in love with a Gun Street girl
Now he’s dancin’ in the Birmingham(3) jail
Dancin’ in the Birmingham jail

Well, he took a hundred dollars off a Slaughterhouse Joe(4)
Bought a brand new Michigan twenty gauge
He got all liquored up(5) on that roadhouse corn(6)
Blew a hole in the hood of a yellow Corvette(7)
A hole in the hood of a yellow Corvette

He bought a second hand Nova from a Cuban Chinese
And dyed his hair in the bathroom of a Texaco
With a pawnshop radio quarter past four
He left Waukegan(8) at the slammin’ of the door
Left Waukegan at the slammin’ of the door

I said, John, John, he’s long gone
Gone to Indiana, ain’t never comin’ home
I said, John, John, he’s long gone
Gone to Indiana, ain’t never comin’ home

He’s sittin’ in a sycamore(9) in St. John’s Wood
Soakin’ day old bread in kerosene(10)
Well, he was blue as a robin’s egg and brown as a hog
He’s stayin’ out of circulation till the dogs get tired
Out of circulation till the dogs get tired

Shadow fixed the toilet with an old trombone
He never get up in the morning on a Saturday
Sittin’ by the Erie(12) with a bull-whipped dog
Tellin’ everyone he saw, ‘They went thatta way, boys’
Tellin’ everyone he saw, ‘They went thatta way’

Now the rain like gravel on an old tin roof
The Burlington Northern pullin’ out of the world
Now a head full of bourbon and a dream in the straw
And a Gun Street girl was the cause of it all
A Gun Street girl was the cause of it all

Get ridin’ in the shadow by the Saint Joe Ridge
And the click clack tappin’ of a blind man’s cane
And he was pullin’ into Baker on a New Year’s Eve
With one eye on the pistol and the other on the door
One eye on the pistol and the other on the door

Miss Charlotte took her satchel down to King Fish Row
Smuggled in a brand new pair of alligator shoes
With her fireman’s raincoat and her long yellow hair
Well, they tied her to a tree with a skinny millionaire
Tied her to a tree with a skinny millionaire

I said, John, John, he’s long gone
Gone to Indiana, ain’t never comin’ home
I said, John, John, he’s long gone
Gone to Indiana, ain’t never comin’ home

Bangin’ on a table with an old tin cup
I sing, I’ll never kiss a Gun Street girl again
I’ll never kiss a Gun Street girl again
I’ll never kiss a Gun Street girl again

I said, John, John, he’s long gone
Gone to Indiana, ain’t never comin’ home
I said, John, John, he’s long gone
Gone to Indiana, ain’t never comin’ home

Notes:

(1) Gun Street Girl
– Tom Waits (1985): “Gun Street Girl is about a guy who’s having trouble with the law and he traces all of these events back to this girl he met on Gun Street right there on Center Market right in Little Italy there.” (Source: “Rain Dogs Island Promo Tape”, taped comments on songs as sent to radio stations, late 1985)
– Tom Waits (1985): “I tried to make it a tale in a tale, y’know? Where is the end of this tale? Y’know? There’s: “Telling everyone they saw the went thataway”. There’s this girl tied to a tree with a skinny millionaire and a guy coming into Baker with a pistol and a… So I just tried to throw it all in there and make it like eh… “What the hell’s going on around here?!” Y’know? It’s like when you wake up in the middle of the night and you try to remember something that you don’t, you remember just pieces of things? Y’know?” (Source: “Nightlines Interview” Nightlines on CBC Stereo (Canada) conducted by Michael Tearson. Date: New York. Late 1985)

(2) Falling James
– Falling James is a real person. He is a transvestite guitarist who plays with a rock band called “Leaving Trains”. Waits was apparently amused by some of the anecdotes that Falling James might have told over the years, one of which could have included something about slipping in the mud in the Lake Tahoe area (Submitted by: Gary Duncan. Raindogs Listserv discussionlist. September, 2000. Drew Slayton. E-mail message to Tom Waits Library. October, 2001). Further reading: Leaving Trains site

(3) Joe, a: n. [20C] 1. A generic name for a person, e.g. joe average, joe citizen, the average man in the street; also one who has a job or position, e.g. joe plainclothes, a plain clothes policeman, working joe one who is employed etc. 2. a stupid or offensive person (Source: “Cassell’s Dictionary Of Slang”. Jonathon Green. Cassel & Co., 1998. ISBN: 0-304-35167-9)

(4) Birmingham: Also mentioned in Swordfishtrombones, 1983: “Some say they saw him down in Birmingham, sleeping in a boxcar going by.”

(5) Liquored up: adj. [1920s+] (US) drunk (Source: “Cassell’s Dictionary Of Slang”. Jonathon Green. Cassel & Co., 1998. ISBN: 0-304-35167-9)

(6) Corn n.: Liquor, esp. corn whisky, home made or illegally sold (Source: Dictionary Of American Slang, Wentworth/ Flexner)

(9) Sycamore tree
1. Any of various deciduous trees of the genus Platanus, especially P. occidentalis of eastern North America, having palmately lobed leaves, ball-like, nodding, hairy fruit clusters, and bark that flakes off in large colorful patches. Also called buttonball, buttonwood (Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Houghton Mifflin – Third Edition).
2. Sycamore (American Sycamore): Platanus occidentalis. In keeping with its size, Sycamores have the largest leaves of any native tree in North America. Frequently, the trunk of a Sycamore will be divided into several large, secondary trunks. The bark of the Sycamore perhaps is its most striking feature: mottled creamy white and brown with the darker bark of older trees peeling away from the lighter-colored, younger bark. Typically, the Sycamore grows on bottomlands, floodplains, and on the banks of streams. The tough, coarse-grained wood is difficult to split and work. It has various uses, including butchers’ blocks. A few birds feed on the fruit, and several mammals eat twigs and bark. The related Oriental and London Planetrees are ornamental shade trees, frequently planted along streets. (Source: OPLIN: © 1997 Ohio Public Library Information Network (OPLIN) & The Ohio Historical Society (OHS))
– The tree which Zacchaeus climbed to get a better look at Jesus.
– Also mentioned in Wrong Side Of The Road: “Poison all the water in the wishin’ well and hang all them scarecrows from a Sycamore tree.”

(10) Soakin’ day old bread in kerosene: WW-II survival countertracking technique, to escape a tracker dog trailing ones scent, by carrying bread or tobacco soaked in petrol, gasoline or kerosene.

(12) Erie, on the: Sitting by the Erie: Not taking chances; hiding. Underworld use (Source: Dictionary Of American Slang, Wentworth/ Flexner)

(13) During the 1999 Mule Variations tour Waits often combined this song with “Ain’t goin’ down to the well

Downtown Train

(Rain Dogs studio version, 1985)

Outside another yellow moon
Has punched a hole in the nighttime
Yes I climb through the window and down to the street
I’m shining like a new dime
The downtown trains are full with all those Brooklyn girls
They try so hard to break out of their little worlds
Well, you wave your hand and they scatter like crows
They have nothing that will ever capture your heart
They’re just thorns without the rose
Be careful of them in the dark
Oh, if I was the one
You chose to be your only one
Oh yeah
Can’t you hear me now
Can’t you hear me now

Will I see you tonight
On a downtown train
Every night it’s just the same
You leave me lonely

Now I know your window and I know it’s late
I know your stairs and your doorway
I walk down your street and past your gate
I stand by the light at the four way
You watch them as they fall
Oh baby, they all have heartattacks
They stay at the carnival but they’ll never win you back

Will I see you tonight
On a downtown train
Every night, every night it’s just the same
Oh baby

Will I see you tonight
On a downtown train
All of my dreams they fall like rain
Oh baby, on a downtown train

Will I see you tonight
On a downtown train
Every night, every night it’s just the same
Oh baby

Will I see you tonight
Oh, on a downtown train
All of my dreams just fall like rain
All on a downtown train
All on a downtown train
All on a downtown train
All on a downtown train
On a downtown train
Downtown train
Ooooh, baby
All on a downtown train

Notes:

(1) Downtown Train
– Michael Tearson (1985): “Downtown Train” Tom Waits: Yeah, that’s kind of a pop song. Or an attempt at a pop song (laughs). You know? (sings: la-la -la-la-laaa). MT: It’s got some other people playing on it. G.E. Smith from the Hall and Oats band, Tony Levin on bass… TW: Yeah… Ehhh… all nice guys. MT: How did you bring those particular players into this one? TW: Ehm… Well, they were all well paid… MT: That helps… TW: … believe me… (laughs) A triple scale. All real nice guys. I tried that song with the other band and then… It just didn’t make it. So you can’t get the guys to play like this on some of the stuff. I just couldn’t find the right guys. MT: It also gives the album a different kind of dimension there. TW: Mmm… MT: A little bit of a different sound. TW: Yeah a little bit. Yeah, that was hard to do cause I wasn’t sure where I was going. It was kinda unfamiliar. (Source: “Nightlines Interview” Nightlines on CBC Stereo (Canada) conducted by Michael Tearson. Date: New York. Late 1985)

Who Are You

Well, they’re lining up to mad-dog(2) your Tilt-a-Whirl(3)
Three shots for a dollar, win a real live doll
All the lies that you tell, I believed them so well
Take them back, take them back to your red house
For that fearful leap into the dark(4)
Oh well, I did my time in the jail of your arms
Now Ophelia(5) wants to know where she should turn

Tell me, what did you do, what did you do the last time?
Why don’t you do that?
Well, go on ahead and take this the wrong way
Time’s not your friend
Do you cry, do you pray, do you wish them away?
Are you still leaving nothing but bones in the way?
Did you bury the carnival, with the lions and all?
Excuse me while I sharpen my nails

And just who are you, who are you this time?
You look rather tired, are you pretending to love?
Well, I hear that it pays well
How do your pistol and your Bible and your sleeping pills go?
Are you still jumping out of windows in expensive clothes?
Well, I fell in love with your sailor’s mouth and your wounded eyes
You better get down on the floor, don’t you know this is war
Tell me, who are you this time?
Tell me, who are you this time?

Written by: Tom Waits and Kathleen Waits-Brennan
Published by: Jalma Music (ASCAP), 1992
Official release: Bone Machine, Island Records Inc., 1992
Arrangement and lyrics published in “Tom Waits – Beautiful Maladies” (Amsco Publications, 1997)

Known covers:
Solemn Sun Setting. Human Drama. 1999. Triple X
This Is Our North Dakota. No River City. September, 2003. Six Little Shoes Records

Notes:

(1) Who Are You?:
– Barney Hoskyns (1999): You’ve said that you tend to bury directly autobiographical stuff. What about Who Are You? Should we know who that’s about?Tom Waits: Gee, I dunno. I think it’s better if you don’t. The stories behind most songs are less interesting than the songs themselves. So you say, “Hey, this is about Jackie Kennedy.” And it’s, “Oh, wow.” Then you say, “No, I was just kidding, it’s about Nancy Reagan.” It’s a different song now. In fact, all my songs are about Nancy Reagan.” (Source: “Mojo interview with Tom Waits”. Mojo: Barney Hoskyns. April 1999)
– Tom Waits (1992): “It’s a cynical song; the kind of stuff you’d like to say to an old girlfriend at a party. Who are you this time? Are you still jumping out of windows in expensive clothes? A thing you’d like to say to anybody who maybe raked you over the coals.” (Source: Bone Machine press kit, Rip Rense. Late 1992)

(2) To mad-dog: v. [1990s] (US Black/ prison) to stare at intensively and theateningly (cf. bad eye). [mad dog, such animals fix their targets with an unwavering, aggressive stare] (Source: “Cassell’s Dictionary Of Slang”. Jonathon Green. Cassel & Co., 1998. ISBN: 0-304-35167-9)

(3) Tilta whirl: A tilt-a-whirl is a standard American carnival ride. Riders are strapped to the inside of a cylindrical section, which spins at a high speed. The ride then is lifted up on a metal arm, and the whole thing tilts in different directions (Submitted by Russell Fischer. Raindogs Listserv discussion;ist. September, 2000)

(4) Leap in the dark: Thomas Hobbes is reported to have said on his death-bed, “Now am I about to take my last voyage- a great leap in the dark.” Rabelais, in his last moments, said, “I am going to the Great Perhaps.” Lord Derby, in 1868, applied the words, “We are about to take a leap in the dark,” to the Reform Bill. (Source: “The First Hypertext Edition of The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable”, E. Cobham Brewer. © 1997-99 Bibliomania.com Ltd)

(5) Ophelia: Could be refering to Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Ophelia, daughter of Polonius the chamberlain. Hamlet fell in love with her, but after his interview with the Ghost, found it incompatible with his plans to marry her. Ophelia, thinking his “strange conduct” the effect of madness, becomes herself demented, and in her attempt to gather flowers is drowned. (Shakespeare: Hamlet.) (Source: “The First Hypertext Edition of The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable”, E. Cobham Brewer. © 1997-99 Bibliomania.com Ltd)

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