Step Right Up: The favorite Tom Waits songs of tons of local and national music figures

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We’re just nine days away from Tom Waits’s appearance in Houston, and I’ve got to say I’ve been pretty much obsessed all this week.

One manifestation: I asked about 100 a simple two-part question: What is your favorite Tom Waits song, and why?

Here are the results, along with a mess of videos....

I’ll start. My short-list would include “Step Right Up,” “Tom Traubert’s Blues,” “Fannin Street,” “I Wish I Was in New Orleans,” “What’s He Building In There?” “Please Call Me Baby,” and “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis,” but right at this moment my favorite is “The Heart of Saturday Night.”

He nailed everything on this song. Saturday nights are a lot like sex. You live for your Saturdays and they are never quite as good as you hope they will be, and yet they seem better than they ever were when you look back on them. And you know this while they are going on, but you don’t care. Hell, that’s not just sex and Saturday nights, that’s life.

I love the warm and absolutely exquisitely melancholy feel of the music, and the car-horn at the beginning sounds as excited as you feel when you step out into the town. the tear in your eye, the neon buzzin’, bar-maid’s smile and the crack of the pool balls – that’s what Saturday night is all about. Every now and then on my better Saturdays this song will actually pop in my head during those five or ten minutes when everything’s coming up tulips and laughter.

The only song I can think that comes close to capturing bar life as well is Guy Clark’s “Out in the Parking Lot,” which is another absolute classic.

(If you’re in the mood for something completely different…)

Eric “Ceeplus” Castillo, DJ, man with the plan: Man, thats really a difficult one.. “Ice Cream Man,” “Jockey Full of Bourbon, the oh so short and sweet “I Want You”... But if I had to pick one… Ah geez.."Tom Traubert's Blues (Four Sheets To The Wind In Copenhagen)". It's one of those songs that just means so much to me in life. I bet you agree.

Shane Lauder, drummer (Born Liars, Sideshow Tramps): Can I pick a whole record? You see, I feel like Tom Waits doesn't write "hits" or stand alone songs. He takes an idea or a thought and creates a body of work to compliment it. So an entire record is utilized to convey his theme. Small Change may be his greatest contribution ever. Further, I don't believe he had another solid inspiration until Mule Variations. It is par but not better. It does improve on his two earlier releases. He may never do better than Small Change. But hell, it ain't over til the fat lady sings, and she is still primping backstage. Mr Waits may have a second peak.

Honestly, I have yet to review any of the more recent releases on Anti, so my bumpkin opinion may change.

If you are going to make me pick a song I would have to pine over that for a day. Both of the aforementioned recordings were very helpful to me during very lonely points in my life. So drawing from that frame of mind and spirit, I may pick "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart." Call me a sap.

Jeremy Hart, Editor, Space City Rock: "I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You.” Being a sappy sucker, I'm always torn between this track and "Downtown Train"; this one wins out mostly because it doesn't have the sulphurous smell of Rod Stewart wafting over it. Plus, I love the ambiguity of the whole thing: does he know her, are they at least friends, if not lovers? Nope -- he's just a drunk at a bar who builds this entire fantasy narrative about a woman who he'd better stay away from because she really shouldn't fall for a heartbreaker like him. And then, just when he changes his mind, she's gone.

Carrie Ann Buchanan, recording artist: “Gun Street Girl”. I'm a sucker for a sad-story song, and the ragtag pie-tin percussion and jingle-jangle pulse of it are hypnotic. I sing the chorus to my son John all the time, seeing how he goes to Indiana on a pretty regular basis. Here's a cool version of it...

Greg Ellis, marketing director, Blue Corn Music: "What's He Building In There?"-The Mule Variations I love this song. It's about a suspicious neighbor. However, as the narrator lists the indictments against him it becomes clearer that the narrator is actually the one you should probably fear. It's full of singular Waits-ian observations ("he has an ex-wife in someplace called Mayors Income, TN", "I hate to tell you what Mr. Stitches saw") and I just never get tired of hearing it.

Rick Mitchell, Director of Performing Arts, Houston International Festival: "Diamond In Your Mind.” I have no idea if Tom Waits has studied Buddhism, but the Diamond Sutra is one of the essential teachings passed down from the time of the Buddha through India, China and Japan to America. As I understand it, the basic concept is that the mind can be polished like a precious mirror to reflect Ultimate Truth.

I remember several years ago riding in a ski lift at Lake Tahoe, marveling at the beauty of the falling snowflakes reflected in the early morning light above the deep green forest and the pure white mountainside. I did not realize I was softly singing the refrain "wherever you may ramble, wherever you may roam, you've got to always keep a diamond in your mind" over and over to myself until my daughter, who was trapped in the chair with me, muttered, 'Dad, we know...'"

Of course, she might not have minded if I could sing it like Solomon Burke, who transformed Tom's poetic beatnik musings into a old-time radio hymn where "everything is sacred, nothing is profane, and money is something that you throw off the back of trains..." This is pretty much what Buddha's disciple Bodhidharma, when asked for his understanding of the essence of Buddha's teaching, told the Chinese emperor some 1600 years ago.

Kimmie Rhodes, recording artist: That's a tough choice but I love the song “Flowers On A Flower's Grave" a lot. Equally I love "Picture In A Frame' and I recorded it as a duet with Willie Nelson and we made it the title track of our duet album... mainly because I had a picture of the two of us sitting by me on the table when I was deciding what to do for the cover so I just scanned the photo frame and all and gave it to Joe Gracey and said, "There. There's the cover!"

Here are some drunks singing “Picture in a Frame” at a party:

Arthur Yoria, recording artist: “The Piano Needs a Haircut.” Funny as hell. Touching as hell. All rolled into one melodic tune. What more do you want? [Note: I’m assuming Yoria means “The Piano Has Been Drinking”]

Here’s a surreal performance on Fernwood Tonight.

Patterson Hood, singer-guitarist, Drive By Truckers: Very hard choice and i am a huge fan. “9th and Hennepin” and “Shore Leave” are probably my two faves (and when I saw him he did both). I almost bought a plane ticket to Houston for the upcoming show, as we're both touring at exact same time and that was my only night off, but I just can't afford it.

Jonny Reeves, recording artist (The Wiggins): "And the [Earth] died screaming, as I lay dreaming... dreaming of you.."

I like it because in the verse he sings about monkeys.. Any song w/ monkeys in is good by me. Plus the song is about the end of the world and who doesn’t love that! The ends of times is a perfect metaphor for rejection and heartbreak.. I also really like "I Dont Want to Grow Up" ‘cause.. Who does?

"I Dont Want to Grow Up"

Reg Burns, Director of Finance & Operations at Miller Outdoor Theatre: “The Earth Died Screaming” I love the primal instrumentation accompanied by Waits' in-your-face vocals.

“Cemetery Polka” and “The Earth Died Screaming” mashed up with The Corpse Bride

William Michael Smith, Press contributor: “Going Out West” The ultimate actor resume expresses Waits' longstanding cynicism about California to a Tee, and the music is just plain badass. There've been some great covers of this; the one by The Blacks is my fave.

John Egan, recording artist: “The Black Rider,” the sound of William Burroughs’ needle.

Bizarre fan video, with pelicans and sunflowers:

Brad Tyer, managing editor, Texas Observer, and recovering music writer: I know I can't be alone on this, but I've gotta give my nod to "Step Right Up" (Small Change, 1976). Five minutes and 43 seconds of finger-poppin' extemporaneous Beat prosody over an 8-note bass line that wobbles around the block like a drunk looking for breakfast at a diner that closed last month. Poetry-wise, somehow bridges the gap between Kenneth Rexroth and Gibby Haynes, clearing a path for Jack Kerouac to meet Maynard Krebs halfway, then punch him in the kidneys ‘til he pees blood. Oh yeah, and it says everything that ever needs to be said about the deserved death of salesmen. Dig it.

Wrecks Bell, Owner of Galveston’s Old Quarter the titular subject of Townes Van Zandt’s “Rex’s Blues”: Damn, that's sorta like trying to pick the worst Elvis movie. Well, “Step Right Up”, because there is no other song or style like it anywhere.

Jesse Dayton, recording artist: There's so many....but if ya put a gun to my head it would be "Postcard from a Hooker in Minneapolis" ...I love the irony of the lyrics....after she writes a letter to her old pimp ,"Charlie", that she's got this great new guy in her life whose taking care of her,(he takes her out dancing, bought her a ring, takes her shopping) ....then BAM!...she pulls the rug out from under ya and confesses that she's really writing him to ask for money to pay some lawyers so she can get out of jail AND she was lying about the new guy...Tom Waits' music helped me thru some really hard times....ex: during my divorce, my ex-wife got the house, but I got ALL the Tom Waits records...I think I came out ahead.

Dr. Roger Wood, professor and author: There are many many many great ones by the brilliant Tom Waits, ballads and brawlers and more. But if I had to choose only one, it would be "Time" from the Rain Dogs album.


First of all, there are the amazing sequences, line after line, of great imagery. For example: "the wind is making speeches / And the rain sounds like a round of applause." Or "their memory's like a train / You can see it getting smaller as it pulls away."

But even more than that, it's the theme, simple yet profound, repeated in the chorus: "It's time time time / That you love."

I take this line to mean two things.

On the surface, one person is advising another to allow himself to love (perhaps the only way to achieve happiness)--i.e., It's time for you to fall in love.

But it is also simultaneously a totally different and fundamental observation about humanity. That is, we are, as a species, in love with time and the productions of time (to paraphrase English poet William Blake). We are universally obsessed with time. It is the one thing that almost every single one of us ultimately values and treasures and can never have enough of.

I heard a BBC radio report once that the eggheads at the Oxford English Dictionary had completed an ambitious study to determine the most commonly used noun in print in contemporary English. The winner was that same word that Waits meditates on in this superb song: time.

The older I get, the more I dig Tom Waits in general and this amazing song in particular.

Charlie Ebersbaker, musician (Charlie Naked, Linus Pauling Quartet, Defenestration Unit): I think mine is "Time". I've always preferred Waits' ballads to anything else, but a lot of his earliest stuff is a little treacly. "Time" is perfect to me; it's neither as affected as his early stuff nor as overtly avant garde as his 80s-and-on stuff, and the lyrics are that perfect blend of emotionally evocative and contextually vague. I'm not sure what exactly the lines he's saying mean, but they definitely make me feel a sort of melancholy over the passing of time, time, time.

Wheezy accordion cover of “Time”

J. D. Herman, singer, the Castabouts: "Mr. Siegal" from Heart Attack and Vine. The track may be a little too obvious for the T. Waits purists, but the combination of the songs lyrical imagery combined with the stubbed-toe-tapping/hungover-again groove make the track a palpable and breathable experience. Anybody who ever had a bad day (week), followed by a bad night (week) of drinking knows exactly what that song infers. A rare tune that has the power to make you remember, and even relive the transcendence of your own worst binge. -"Tell me brave captain, why are the wicked so strong? How do the angels get to sleep when the devil leaves his porch light on." Classic.

Marty Racine, ex music critic of the Houston Chronicle, current editor of the Ruidoso, N.M., News. Anything on the live Nighthawks at the Diner, rock 'n' roll's quintessential beatnik/bohemian album. There's a song on there, title forgotten, that includes the line: "I'm so horny, the crack of dawn better watch out around me." That sentiment captures the up-all-night yearning of a young artist in heat, a restless and provocative young man of the wee hours searching forthe truth on the dark side of his psyche, a writer at the top of his prowess and the bottom of his despair.

To be more specific, "Invitation to the blues" is a particular song that comes to mind. This plaintive, laconic tune is like an aural film noir, a black-and-white lament mixing a sense of fatalism with urban hipster cool, a smoldering blend of vulnerability and defiance.

Robb Walsh, author and food writer, Houston Press: "Invitation to the Blues" an anthem for every chump who ever fell in love with the knock-out behind the lunch counter.

Scott Faingold, former Press assistant music editor: My sentimental favorite is "Kentucky Avenue" off Blue Valentine. It's the perfect Waits tearjerker with an emotionally wrenching vocal performance and a heartbreaking lyric. "I'll take the spokes from your wheelchair and a magpie's wings/And tie 'em to your shoulders and your feet/I'll steal a hacksaw from my dad and cut the braces off your legs/And we'll bury them tonight out in the cornfield." Sigh.

Craig D. Lindsey, press contributor and Raleigh News and Observer film critic: I'm torn between "Make It Rain" and his version of "Somewhere." "Make It Rain" is just crazy, while "Somewhere" I heard at the end of one those HBO embarrassing moments-in-sports specials they used to air. I was nine or ten and it just freaked me the hell out. I remember Streisand had her own version out at the time, and I always thought it was wild there could be two entirely different interpretations of the same song.

“Make it Rain”


Mike Barfield, singer, the Hollisters: Without thinking about it too much for me it would be "Walking Spanish" from Rain Dogs. I had the cassette tape.. I wore it out in my car. I liked that whole record and not long ago downloaded “Blind Love” also on Rain Dogs. Tom Waits can have so much going on in a song but manages to keep it all sounding spare and deceptively simple. Always good.

Jimmie Dale Gilmore, recording artist: I love a lot of Tom Waits' music, but I think "Jersey Girl" (especially Bruce Springsteen's version) might be my favorite. He has an amazing ability to create a rough, raw exterior but with a deep tenderness always managing to peek through. Come to think of it, that is a pretty good description of most of my favorite music - it's no wonder Tom Waits is so high on the list.

Brian McManus, music editor, Philadelphia Weekly: Typical it may be, but "Way Down in a Hole" gets my nod. His performance of it in Big Time and its use in the opening credits of the Wire have seared it into my brain forever.

Also love "Fannin Street" because it reminds me of home.

(You) Genious, performer: There's soooooo many to choose from... I would say at this point in my life..."Way Down in the Hole" . Thats where I have to keep my devils...

Opening credits to Season Two of The Wire, with Waits performing “Way Down in the Hole”:

Jay Lee, Flying Fish Sailor, D.J., photographer and computer expert: “Rain Dogs”. I suppose the primary reason is that it was an early request on my old morning show Wake Up And Smell The Coffee on KPFT and ended up in my regular rotation. It was my introduction to Tom Waits and I am grateful for that request oh so many years ago. And hearing it today transports me back in time to when I did that show and discovered so many great musicians.

Brad Moore, bartender/bar owner, former performer (the Keenlies): Give my umbrella and my vote to “Rain Dogs”

Mash-up video:

David Sadof, DJ: My favorite Tom Waits song is "Drunk On The Moon". Sometime in the mid 90's I was dj'ing once a week at the short-lived bar, The Magic Bus, and I chose this song as my closing number each week. It's the perfect song for bringing the house lights up and letting the crowd know that it's time to go. Sometimes I would follow it with the instrumental "Closing Time", but "Drunk On The Moon" remains my favorite and reminds me of those nights at The Magic Bus.

Marshall Preddy, performer (Bright Men of Learning): "Cold, Cold Ground" slays me; the skeletal live version in particular. On Frank’s Wild Years the production is too goofy and sly. But on a few live versions I've heard, Waits is deadly sad and serious. And lonesome. The structure of this song always reminds me of Leonard Cohen, and maybe that's why it sends me into sad-bastard heaven.

Claudia Perry, former Houston Post music critic: "Pasties and a G String" because life these days IS harder than Chinese algebra.

Michael Graham Switzer, musician (Defenestration Unit): “Frank's Wild Years”.

I always liked beatnik Tom and I never could stand that dog.

Brad Turcotte, President, Compadre Records / Executive VP/Music World Entertainment. I'm going to cheat. I would rather listen to the entire Nighthawks at the Diner album. Why go to a museum to see just one masterpiece?

Bill Bentley, owner Sonicboomers.com: “Fannin Street” Tom Waits’ music makes everything seem possible. There are no walls to hem life in; it can go anywhere. Which was precisely the point in the late ‘50s when we’d ride the Westheimer bus downtown, wandering up and down Main, seeing a movie at the Metropolitan or the Lowe’s, eating two hot dogs (mustard only) with a Delaware Punch at James Coney Island and playing on the escalator to L.C.’s Cafeteria while waiting for the bus to go home. We’d even scoot over to Fannin Street and follow it down to Buffalo Bayou if we were feeling frisky. My buddies and I were nine years old, but up for anything. Sometimes, though, we saw too much, things we didn’t understand but marked us for life. People being hurt, men and women acting wrong, doing what they shouldn’t. But we had to go back and see more. Waits sings, “Don’t go down to Fannin Street/You’ll be lost and never found/You can never turn around.” He was right. We stumbled across a frightening life for fourth-graders on some of those downtown Houston streets, but once we walked through that door we could never go back.

Inside Tom Waits’ music, sometimes you cannot get out. It will be there forever, rattling through your brain like broken bottles, reminding you the rules you may have thought were written in ink were only in pencil. It’s a beatnik’s way of knowledge, plugged into a 100-watt Bogen PA system and run through an otherworldly reverb unit. Those songs are to sound what fun house mirrors are to visuals. Images get distorted until they become the norm and you wonder how you ended up there. That’s what Waits found on Fannin Street, and he figured out he should never have gone. Of course, it’s just a song, or is it? That’s the mark of genius: creating the unreal out of the real until the two merge into one. Somewhere when he was young, Tom Waits no doubt had his own Fannin Street and turned it into this song to send out to the world, reminding us the tab for freedom comes in a lot of different forms. Fannin Street in the Fifties has always been one of mine.

Nick Gaitan, bassist (Billy Joe Shaver, Umbrella Man). Gaitan lives above the Continental Club, a block away from Fannin Street at its most seedy: I've had many Tom Waits songs. I have to say what hits home is "Fannin Street.". Where I stay, I watch a cast of characters stroll down the 3700 [block], I watch ‘em across the way, lost, talking to statues at the antique shops… Folks out there like Bluetooth, Carmen the Bat Lady, she can really draw... Main Street Molly and her dog and grocery basket.

You know? It's a long stretch of road, rehabs, high rises, town homes , an African oil and candle shop, men’s shelters, a Paul Wall (wrapped) van and the tenement buildings left behind from another time. I've heard gun shots, sirens, and had many many nights that you can watch the red and blue lights bounce off the old brick and window panes. I wonder if Tom saw all that...

John Hammond does “Fannin Street”:

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