New York Series: Tom Waits ‘Downtown Train’

Will I see you tonight On a downtown train?

Despite how overwhelming it can be to outsiders, when it comes down to it, New York City is truly just a big small town. It’s comprised of hundreds of different neighborhoods which each have their own quirks and personalities, but they all blend together to form a magnificent sum of diversity and prosperity. You will never get to know everyone in the city, or even your neighborhood, but once you live in an area long enough you get to know a hodgepodge of people, which makes the city begin to feel small. You walk down the block and see the Chinese delivery guy that comes to your apartment twice a week, the butcher who you make friendly banter on the street with, and that same annoying bus driver who you know is out to get you (but you still can’t prove a thing.) Tom Waits’ 1985 track ‘Downtime Train’ paints a murky picture of the obscure way New York can box you in a world knowing everyone around, while at the same time leaving you feeling lonesome and alienated.

Downtown Train’ provides an intimate look at the torment a person goes through when they are continuously hoping to run into someone they are madly in love with, but end up seeing everyone they know besides that person. On his local train to Brooklyn, the narrator constantly sees the same faces; all people he knows, but doesn’t care to see. He knows exactly how the Brooklyn girls act, who they are, and what their goal for the night is, but wants nothing to do with them. He notices that they all seem to want to break out of their little circles, but are all afraid to. Although they have the entire city at their disposal, giving them chances to meet new people and experience new things, they choose not to, and for that the narrator wants nothing to do with them.

The narrator is searching for someone different; someone he doesn’t see every night because they are out savoring new experiences and living life to the fullest. He hopes he will see them on the train each night, rather than all the regulars, but knows that the chances are slim because the person he is looking for doesn’t have a routine. Despite knowing everyone on the train, he feels incredibly isolated. He is stuck living the same night over and over again, hoping for something new, but nothing new ever happens. In many ways he is just like all the other people on the train, but by acknowledging his situation he is saddened by it, while those who are ignorant to it tend to live happier lives.

Although Waits never made ‘Downtown Train’ a commercial success himself, the song drew interest from other artists who saw the creative value in the song. Patty Smyth’s 1987 version reached #95 on the Billboard Hot 100, and Rod Steward brought the song into the spotlight with his 1989 cover of the song which peaked at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 list. It just goes to show, that even if you know everyone around you, it’s not uncommon to feel completely alone.

 ‘Downtown Train’ Lyrics:

Outside another yellow moon
Has punched a hole in the nighttime, yes
I climb through the window and down 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 baby 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 the fall
Oh baby, they all have heart attacks
They stay at the carnival
But they’ll never win you back

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

Will I see you tonight
On a downtown train?
All of my dreams just 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
On a downtown train?
All of my dreams just fall like rain
Well, on a downtown train

Well, on a downtown train
Well, on a downtown train
Well, on a downtown train
On a downtown train

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