Thursday, August 7, 2008


Back in May of this year, Scarlett Johansson released an album titled Anywhere I Lay My Head featuring the actress's interpretation of ten Tom Waits songs. When the album began generating headlines, I remember Tim suggesting that he would be much more enthusiastic about an album of a slightly different sort. (The discussion actually dates back to the November 2006 release of the Joanna Newsom album Ys.) Tim's observation was that a great many songs by Joanna Newsom were actually ready-made for cover treatment by Waits -- the song we kept coming back to was "Sawdust and Diamonds." On the flip-side, it also seemed fitting for Newsom to try her hand with some of Waits' song catalog.

The Waits vs. Newsom discussion was refueled this week by NPR's "All Songs Considered" concert series release of a recording of an epic Tom Waits performance at the Fox Theater in Atlanta. The concert recording and Waits' performance was so remarkable that Tim and I couldn't help but fantasize further about the notion of a collaboration of covers between Waits and Newsom. With the recent birth of this very blog, there was an immediate connection to be drawn between Counterfictionals and what we might now dub as "Countermusicals." In the spirit of what Counterfictionals has set out to do, I see a lot of fertile territory out there for documenting those discussions we have all had so many times before:

  • If you could create your dream supergroup, who would be in the lineup? Who is on drums? Vocals? Lead guitar? Bass?

  • What band or artist do you wish was still around making music today or what artist vanished before their potential creative zenith? Nick Drake? Kurt Cobain? What music would they be making now?

  • The Beatles? Dream up any sort of scenario with these guys and then just ask the magic question of "What if?"

  • To demonstrate -- not that I need to -- let's go back to the example Waits and Newsom. In plotting our dream album of cover songs, we managed to plot Waits interpreting "Sawdust and Diamonds" and then Newsom putting some harp over her singing "Sixteen Shells From A Thirty-Ought Six." Beautiful. My favorite Waits song, though, is most certainly "Downtown Train." I suggested to Tim that this would be a track that I'd love to see covered by Newsom. Tim responded in saying perhaps a female vocalist might actually get the gender (assuming heterosexual relationships) right on "Downtown Train." The lyrics as sung by Waits:

    Outside another yellow moon
    punched a hole in the nighttime, yes
    I climb through the window and down the street
    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

    You wave your hand and they scatter like crows
    they have nothing that will ever capture your heart
    theyr'e 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


    Will I see you tonight
    on a downtown train
    every night is 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
    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
    where every night is just the same you leave me lonely
    will I see you tonight on a downtown train
    all of my dreams just fall like rain
    all upon a downtown train

    Considering that "Downtown Train" hit #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1989 only after being covered by Rod Stewart, I think this is a poetic jumping-off point for the discussion on Countermusicals. Rod Stewart wasn't afraid to ask "What if?" and it garnered him a #3 hit. That's probably not a big deal for Rod, but as far as opening the floodgates of this blog, it might be a big deal for me.


    Gavin said...

    You raise an interesting point, Brandon, in that, through covers, counterfictions have always existed in music. Finding a parallel in fiction is hard, except perhaps, in comic books, where multiple authors and artists are given the chance to work with the same characters.

    McSweeney's has actually experimented with "covers" of short stories, but the only story from that experiment I've read is Rick Moody's "The Double Zero," which was based on Sherwood Anderson's "The Egg," which I've, uhm, also never read.

    Tim said...

    I want to respond, but there's too much! Can we take one of the questions (supergroups, Beatles, early deaths) and make a new discussion thread?

    Brandon said...

    Absolutely, Tim. We can make "musical fictions" a reoccurring blog theme. I think that supergroups might be a good place to start. I'll post shortly, but you go ahead if you have a spark.