AKA Abraham Bacoln

Cities mentioned in Tom Waits songs
February 6, 2010, 12:03 am
Filed under: tidbit | Tags:

I was discussing with friends the other day how I probably only know the town Waukegan, Illinois because it’s referenced in a Tom Waits song. Then of course the discussion led to how to create a Tom Waits song, and how they inevitably involve the name of a town or a kind of car, or some girl’s name that sounds a bit antiquated, and so forth.

This got me to thinking, “Just how many cities does Waits reference throughout his discography?” I couldn’t find a list of exactly that online, so I decided to make my own list.

A caveat: I was very literal in my search and only kept cities explicitly mentioned by name. You won’t find in here any time he says Hollywood, Brooklyn, the Bronx, etc. as those are neighborhoods or boroughs within proper cities. Likewise I skipped a time he referred to something as a personal Waterloo since I figured he wasn’t actually talking about the city but instead what it stands for. Finally I didn’t take any note of cities referenced in songs that he covered. I just wanted a list of cities that he felt were worth mentioning.

So, more or less chronologically, we have:

The Early Years, Vol. 1:
Had Me A Girl: Los Angeles, CA; San Diego, CA; Tallahassee, FL; Chula Vista, CA; Toledo OH

The Heart of Saturday Night:
Diamonds on my Windshield: San Clemente, CA; Riverside, CA
Drunk on the Moon: Cleveland, OH

Nighthawks at the Diner:
Better Off Without a Wife: Reno, NV
Spare Parts I (A Nocturnal Emission): Cleveland, OH; Bakersfield, CA

Side note: there’s a song on this album called Putnam County. I grew up in Putnam County, TN and I know that I have heard more than one person there claim that Waits was referencing our home. However, since there are nine Putnam Counties in the US, I don’t think it was Tennessee. Plus, in the song he says, “just like a bastard amber Velveeta yellow cab on a rainy corner” and my Putnam County sure doesn’t have yellow cabs. I would like to think he meant Putnam County, Illinois, but this song was written before he met Kathleen Brennan. Come to think of it, I think I read once in an interview which one he is referencing, but now I’ve forgotten.

Small Change:
I Wish I Was in New Orleans: New Orleans, LA
The Piano Has Been Drinking: New York, NY
Pasties and a G-string: Portland (but is it Oregon or Maine? Gasp.); Paris, France (“Gay Paree”)
The One That Got Away: San Francisco, CA
Small Change: Seattle, WA

Foreign Affairs:
Barber Shop: Cincinnati, OH; Pittsburgh, PA

Blue Valentine:
Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis: Minneapolis, MN; Omaha, NE
$29.00: Chicago, IL; Los Angeles, LA
Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard: Baton Rouge, LA
Kentucky Avenue: New Orleans, LA
Blue Valentines: Philadelphia, PA

Johnsburg, Illinois: Johnsburg, IL; McHenry, IL
Town With No Cheer: Melbourne, Adelaide, and Serviceton, Australia
Swordfishtrombones: Crutchfield, NC; Birmingham, AL

Rain Dogs:
Singapore: Singapore; Paris, France
Clap Hands: Cincinnati, OH; Baltimore, MD
Tango ‘Til They’re Sore: New Orleans, LA
Time: East St. Louis, IL
Gun Street Girl: Birmingham, AL; Waukegan, IL

Gun Street Girl also mentions a city named Baker – I think it’s Baker, MT because earlier in the song he references the Burlington Northern Railroad, and there are train tracks right through the middle of Baker, MT.

Also, in case you were wondering, though the song 9th & Hennepin doesn’t explicitly say it takes place in Minneapolis, it probably does.

Frank’s Wild Years:
Hang On Saint Christopher: Reno, NV
Yesterday is Here: New York City, NY
I’ll Take New York: New York City, NY
Telephone Call From Istanbul: Istanbul, Turkey
Train Song: East St. Louis, IL

Mule Variations:
Low Side of the Road: Kokomo, IN
Hold On: Monte Rio, CA; St. Louis, MO
Get Behind the Mule: Atchison (KS?); Placerville, CA
Pony: Murfreesboro, TN; Natchez, MS; Belzoni, MS; Talulah, LA
Black Market Baby: Moberly, MO
Eyeball Kid: Saigon, Vietnam

Real Gone:
How’s It Going To End: Liverpool, England
Circus: Kankakee, IL; Sheboygan, WI
Day After Tomorrow: Rockford, IL

If you’re paying attention at this point (and I don’t blame you if you aren’t) you’ll see I skipped Don’t Go Into That Barn which has a litany of place names. Many of them exist (in name) in multiple states. However, since he says “take me on a flat boat” just pick one that’s near a river. Anyway, his list is: Dover; Covington, LA; Louisville (KY?); Smithland; Memphis, TN; Vicksburg, MS; and Natchez, MS.

Fish in the Jailhouse: Yazoo City, MS; Rolling Fork, MS; Natchez, MS; Kenosha, WI; New York City, NY
Road to Peace: Jerusalem, Israel
Rains On Me: Argyle, TX; Dix, TX
Fannin Street: Houston, TX
First Kiss: Elkheart, IN

So there you have it, a more or less complete list of cities mentioned in Tom Waits songs.

There were three albums that I was not surprised to find featured no names of cities: The Black Rider, Alice, Blood Money. Those were all in some way meant to be soundtracks to plays.

Albums that I was surprised to find named no cities: The Early Years Vol. 2, Closing Time, Heartattack and Vine, Bone Machine. If you had picked any of those and said, “Does Waits, at some point during this album, call out a city?” I would have put twenty down on yes without hesitation.

As for city most mentioned, it’s a two-way tie between New Orleans and New York at three each. They both get a used in a song title, so I can’t declare one a true victor. Coming in a very close second (third?) place is St. Louis, which would have tied for first, but there are two mentions of East St. Louis and one mention of regular St. Louis so I’m arbitrarily handing out the bronze.

Finally, if you know some place that I missed, by all means point it out. This research was performed haphazardly at best.

[EDIT: someone immediately pointed out that I had missed Kenosha, WI which was mentioned in Fish in the Jailhouse. Well, I hadn’t just missed Kenosha, I’d missed the whole song … which includes one more mention of NYC, putting it in the top spot for most-mentioned. Sorry, NOLA, looks like the Big Apple trumps the Big Easy.]

[EDIT II: I totally forgot that Singapore was an island city-state, so it’s been included (as has been the mention of Paris in the same song).]

[EDIT III: Thanks to Erich for pointing out I missed Talulah, LA in Pony.]