Downtrain Train, from the album Rain Dogs, was an unexpected hit back in 1985, largely on the strength of a gorgeous black and white video that worked its way into regular rotation on MTV and its international counterparts, which reminded me of Hitchcock’s Rear Window in the way it peeked into the lives of the different folks living cheek-by-jowl in their high-rise apartments. Life in the big city goes on while Waits dances in the moonlit street below, singing what is, for him, an unusually accessible ballad to broken-hearted yearning, its melodic grace only enhanced, somehow, by the singer’s characteristically gravel-voiced delivery.
Waits was always at his best writing about lonely, heartbroken people mired in the urban underbelly – if you ever need a really good, cathartic cry, have a listen to On the Nickel, his emotionally devastating depiction of the homeless alcoholics littering L.A.’s Fifth Avenue – and Downtown Train, while superficially more pop-oriented than a lot of his output, is very much of a piece, its protagonist a solitary figure, wandering the darkened streets, bursting with repressed energy and love to give (I’m shinin’ like a new dime, he says), while the trains full of Brooklyn girls race by on their way to the hot spots downtown, leaving him unnoticed, unwanted, and wondering when his time will come. While he expresses – feigns? – disdain for the bulk of them:
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
…there seems to be one, in particular, who has captured his heart, and not just his, apparently:
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 heart attacks
They stay at the carnival
But they’ll never win you back
He doesn’t stand a chance, of course. She’s riding downtown with all the other girls, and as he wonders whether he’ll catch another glimpse of her tonight, when the train rolls by, you get the sense that she aspires to a life someplace he’ll never get to visit, probably full of people more hip and monied than he’ll ever be. You get the feeling, too, that as she tries so hard to break out of her little mundane world, she’s never going to get there, but it’ll be too late for him by the time she figures that out.
As if to emphasize the school-of-hard-knocks ambience, that’s boxer Jake Lamotta, the Raging Bull himself, complaining about the coming serenade at the beginning of the video.
You know what? I’m betting you do need a good, cathartic cry, so here’s On the Nickel, recorded from a live performance in which Waits uses a few strains of Waltzing Matilda as musical preamble – and here I was thinking I was alone in appreciating the inherent sadness of that beautiful melody. Enjoy, and the next time you trip over a derelict drunk, you can think of his mother singing him a lullaby, back when he was just a little boy who never combed his hair.