Tom Waits is not an easy artist to cover, but he sure is a popular one for others to try to interpret. Best known for his gravelly voice, dramatic persona and very peculiar style of poetic storytelling, his theatrics have created a certain distance between his fame and his actual self. As a prime example, he sings in “Tango Till They’re Sore,” “I’ll tell you all my secrets, but I lie about my past.”
It’s these details paired with such disconnect that makes Waits’ work seem so personal, yet so universal. No one can copy that voice of his, but it creates an opportunity for other artists to showcase his words and tone in their own ways. As a result, here are 10 of the best covers of Tom Waits songs.
Tom Waits’ original starts with a bit of brass. Then a heavy, steady, drum beat moves the song along with a plodding pace that adds gravity. The standard smokiness in Wait’s voice is present, but not choking. The song is an invitation to safety and shelter when, “the seas are stormy, and you can’t find no port;” you are invited to “come on up to the house.” Waits’ voice lends a particular strength to the conviction of the song.
However, folk singer Sarah Jarosz brings a very different element to Waits’ words. The heavy drumbeat is absent, replaced by a deft fiddle and a standing bass. Her smooth infliction is sweet with a low southern inflection seems like a kinder invitation to “come on up to the house” that is just as believable as the original.
This song highlights some of the most indecipherable tones of Tom Waits’ vocal timbre. The song starts with an indistinct voice, strange tinny drum sounds and mysterious laughter. The verses comment critically on certain societal expectations like the idea that one should, “work them fingers to the bone.” The move to the chorus provides a slightly clearer tone, and the petulant refrain of “I don’t wanna grow up” carries a deftly defined rebellion with a hint of weary wit. There is an irony in this execution from a singer like Waits, who has sounded well past grown throughout career.
The rollicking rhythm of the Ramones brings an immediate, noticeable, different tone to the song. This is an anthem and a head-nodding good time for youthful rebellion. The guitar solos carry the song to a fun new place. Lead singer Joey Ramone brings a rocky warble to the chorus of “I don’t wanna’s.” The critique of society takes a different turn with the youthful energy of this version. It’s a more approachable take on the matter.
Tom Waits sings his songs like a play-by-play of a good night in a rough bar. This is a friendly, if gruff tune from the perspective of a good-time barfly from 1985’s Rain Dogs. Luckily, Brazilian vocalist Cida Moreira can go head-to-head with the Waits’ distinctive rough singing. In her version of “Tango Till They’re Sore,” the piano sounds softer and more even-keeled, especially due to the lack of brass backing from the original. The character she sings about is one that could easily be seen in the same bar as Waits’, found side by side on rickety barstools. Moreira’s voice is a brassy confident swagger and when she sings about falling out of the window with confetti in her hair, it sounds like she did it all on purpose. Moreira’s voice brings a vivid life to her interpretation of this song.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops offer a much faster take on this tune, turning a mumbled lament into a song out of the folk tradition. The fiddle brings a jaunty anxiety to the tune and the banjo notes are a sharp addition. Singer Dom Flemons’ voice is stark and clear, as he holds notes forcefully, but in a controlled manner. The cover maintains the same devotion to an ambiguous loss that Waits conveys, but when Flemons sings, “what I’ve done to you, I’ve done to me,” it is a more declarative statement.
Tim Buckley, 1960s counterculture icon and father of Jeff Buckley brings a lighter, sweeter, tone to this lament about a lost, long-distance love. His take leads immediately with soaring strings. The balanced vibrato of his voice helps convey the expanse of Tom Frost’s feelings for Martha. If Waits tried to put his heart on his sleeve in the original, Buckley grandly tosses his up to hang on a telephone wire here.
This is one of Tom Waits’ earlier songs, from 1973’s Closing Time. Waits sings in a very clear tone of a man in a bar who sees a lonely stranger and gathers the courage to hit on her. But this is Tom Waits, after all, so his line offers a slighter dour observation: “I can see that you are lonesome just like me.” The easy swagger in his tone has an underlying vulnerability that make the song more than its simplicity initially suggests.
10,000 Maniacs’ version tells the same story, but clearly takes place in a different bar, thanks to singer Natalie Merchant’s delicate sensitivity. By the end of the song, they have built the energy to a slightly tragic tone as Merchant sings of how they, “search the place for your lost face.” The sound of a closing door at the end adds an interesting addition to a song that already that already has a variety of delicate nuances.
Tom Waits goes full on narcissist in “Goin’ Out West,” but California rock band Queens of the Stone Age plays it a little cleaner. In particular, the cover’s guitarwork features more heavily and the drums fall further in the background than Waits’ original. Additionally, frontman Josh Homme gives a rockabilly blues tone to the song, smoothing out the vocals with clearers pronunciation. Lines like, “goin’ out west where they appreciate me” come off more petulantly youthful compared to Waits.
If “Folsom Prison Blues” is any indicator, Johnny Cash has an affinity for train-based music, so it makes sense that he would cover this song. Cash slows down the tempo, creating a tone of restraint in “Down There by the Train.” His voice, gravelly and gruff like Waits’, has a more gentle, higher, timbre here, though. Like in many of his songs, Waits offers nothing but sympathy for all the sinners he names; so, too, does Cash approach the more religious lines about sin and forgiveness with reverence, which adds a particular hymn-like quality to his cover.
Cibelle, a Brazilian singer, songwriter, and performance artist now based in London approaches her version of “Green Grass” in a softer way than Tom Waits. This song from his 2004 album Real Gone is a lament for a lost love, but Waits sings the story in a dark whisper, demanding not to forgotten with lines like, “you’ll never be free from me.” Yet, Cibelle hits every note of suspense and tragedy in her interpretation. All the instruments press far into the background and are secondary to her voice. And her voice, ranging from joyful recollection to desperate plea for remembrance, is precisely what makes her version of “Green Grass” so beautiful.
If Waits’ version of “Time” is the man in the bar that grumbles loud enough for the room to hear, Tori Amos’ is a women who delicately whispers in your ear. Her version of this classic Rain Dogs track starts with a tumble of slow piano notes. Her voice begins as a low growl, but mellows with her particular softness, as she sings Waits’ story told in recollection from the lives of various tragic people. Amos has a way of lingering, pausing ever so slightly before the chorus, as her quiet longing morphs into a plaintive cry for things lost.