It’s peculiar how extra musical circumstances can affect one’s musical experiences. For me, places and locations strongly affect my response to songs, and changes in my life can and will change how I react to music. Recently, my move across country completely altered my experience of Tom Waits’ song “Downtown Train” from his 1985 album, Rain Dogs.
I first heard Rain Dogs in the late 1990s. My stepfather lent me his CD and I quickly fell in love with the album. But I was more drawn to songs such as “Singapore,” “Clap Hands,” and “Gun Street Girl.” These tunes had either a farcical or a mysterious quality that instantly drew me in. The orchestrations also captivated me; they were different than my steady diet of punk, metal, and classic rock. There was a stripped-back, visceral quality to the music that supported Waits’ voice and storytelling.
About fifteen years later I moved from southern California to New York City. I didn’t bring any CDs with me, they had moved onto my phone, and for the first few weeks I didn’t listen to much recorded music at all. I also never assimilated the habit of many New Yorkers who listen to music while on the subways, but during my weekly commutes to the Harry Partch Institute at Montclair State University I found occasion to listen.
During my commute I listened to mostly music I liked while I was a teenager: classic rock, metal, punk, alternative, and some Bobby Brown (Don’t Be Cruel). However, one Friday afternoon during a playlist shuffle, “Downtown Train” started playing. Early in the song, Waits’ sings that “downtown trains are full of all those Brooklyn girls.” He goes on to capture an eery reality of New York’s subways: that despite being surrounded by so many people, there is a real loneliness on the trains. Having lived that experience, and felt exactly what he is singing about, I was suddenly overcome with emotion. My relationship with the song had profoundly changed.
Nothing about the recording had changed. I was listening to the same sounds I first heard years ago. What had changed was me and my place. The references in the song meant something tangible. The places and things Waits’ mentions were real to me, not an abstract concept. The song quickly became my favorite on the album; not because of anything different the track had to offer, but rather due to the circumstances of my life. the place I now lived had altered my relationship with Waits’ work.
I often hear musicians talk about the “music itself,” or the “composer’s intent.” These ideas are portrayed as important in defining the musical experience. Certainly if Waits’ had composed different lyrics or a different song then I wouldn’t be writing about this today, but my change of locale brought about the strong response to “Downtown Train.” That change of locale is external to the song, and yet it’s just as important—if not more important—as Waits’ intent in understanding my experience with and love for the song.