‘I Lived my Life on Dreams and Trainsmoke’ – Tom Waits & Trains

Along with crows and scarecrows, trains form the final relief of Waits’ holy triptych of lyrical obsessions. Trains are everywhere throughout the music of Waits, perhaps enrapturing the artist through their symbolic multiplicity. Representative both of transition and escape along with homecoming, along with connoting of days of yore and simpler times. Speaking to Jim Jarmusch in October 1992 for ‘Straight No Chaser’ , Waits elaborated that it was not just the image of the train though that so enraptured him, but its very sonic essence too:

‘…It’s got a variety of trains, it’s a sound that I’ve become obsessed with, getting an orchestra to sound like a train, actual train sounds. I have a guy in Los Angeles who collected not only the sound of the Stinson band organ, which is a carnival organ that’s in all the carousels, the sound from that we used on ‘Night on Earth’, but he also has pitched four octaves of train whistles so that I can play the train whistle organ, which sounds like a calliope. It’s a great sound’

So, what follows is a list of what I consider every single mention of trains within the music of Tom Waits. Please let us know in the comments if we’ve missed any:

’Diamonds On My Windshield (Looking For)’ – The Heart of Saturday Night (1974)

‘I got a steel train in the rain / And the wind bites my cheek through the wing’


‘Potter’s Field’ – Foreign Affairs (1977) 

‘On a train through the Bronx that will take you just as far/ As the empty of a bottle to the highway of a scar’


‘Foreign Affair’ – Foreign Affairs (1977)

‘Planes and trains and boats and buses characteristically evoke a common attitude of blue / Unless you have a suitcase and a ticket and a passport/ And the cargo that they’re carrying is you’


‘Whistlin’ Past The Graveyard’  Blue Valentine (1978)

‘I come into town on a night train with an arm full of boxcar/ On the wings of a magpie cross a hooligan night’


‘Kentucky Avenue’  Blue Valentine (1978)

‘Just put a church key in your pocket we’ll hop that freight train in the hall / We’ll slide all the way down the drain to New Orleans in the fall’


‘Ruby’s Arms’  Heartattack and Vine (1980)

‘So Jesus Christ this goddamn rain will someone put me on a train / I’ll never kiss your lips again or break your heart’


‘Town With No Cheer’  swordfishtrombones (1983)

‘Wrapped the hills in a blanket of Patterson’s curse / The train smokes down the xylophone’


‘Down Down Down’  swordfishtrombones (1983)

‘He went down down down and the devil called him by name / He went down down down hangin’ onto the back of a train’


‘Time’  Rain Dogs (1985)

‘And they all pretend they’re Orphans and their memory’s like a train / You can see it getting smaller as it pulls away’


‘Rain Dogs’  Rain Dogs (1985)

‘With the Rain Dogs aboard a shipwreck train’

‘Blind Love’  Rain Dogs (1985)

‘They say if you get far enough away you’ll be on your way back home / Well I’m at the station and I can’t get on the train’


‘Downtown Train’  Rain Dogs (1985)

‘Will I see you tonight / On a downtown train’


‘9th & Hennepin’ – Rain Dogs (1985)

‘And I’ve seen it / All through the yellow windows of the evening train’

‘Yesterday Is Here’  Franks Wild Years (1987)

‘Well I’m going to New York City and I’m leaving on a train /  And if you want to stay behind and wait till I come back again’


‘Train Song’  Franks Wild Years (1987)

‘It was a train that took me away from here / But a train can’t bring me home’


‘Gospel Train’ – The Black Rider (1993)

‘Come on people: get on board, train is leavin’ / And there’s room for one more just trust in the Lord’


‘Pony’  Mule Variations (1999)

‘I lived on nothing but dreams and train smoke’

‘Take It With Me’  Mule Variations (1999)

‘Far far away a train whistle blows / Wherever you’re goin, wherever you’ve been’


‘We’re All Mad Here’  Alice (2002)

‘And my eyeballs roll this terrible terrain / We’re all inside a decomposing train’


‘Barcarolle’  Alice (2002)

‘She’s skating on the ice in a glass / And in the hands of a man that she kissed on a train’


‘Circus’  Real Gone (2004)

‘The train tracks and a seagull dump / Topping the bill was Horse Face Ethel and her Marvelous Pigs in satin’


‘Green Grass’  Real Gone (2004)

‘Think of me as a train goes by / Clear the thistles and brambles’


‘Clang Boom Steam’  Real Gone (2004)

‘But the train that took my baby / It went clang, boom and steam’


‘2:19’  Orphans (2006)

‘On the train you get smaller as you get farther away / The roar covers everything you wanted to say’


‘Long Way Home’ – Orphans (2006)

‘Money’s  just something you throw off the back of a train / I got a head full of lightning, a hat full of rain’


‘Fannin’ Street’  Orphans (2006)

‘I wish I never got off the train / I wished I’d listened to the words you said’


‘Down There By The Train’ – Orphans (2006)

‘There’s a place I know where the train goes slow / Where the sinners can be washed in the blood of the lamb’


‘Home I’ll Never Be’  Orphans (2006)

‘So I left Montana on an old freight train / The night my father died in the cold cold rain’


Have you heard our Tom Waits centric podcast yet? Hosted by long-time friends/fans Sam Whiles (@sidwidle1) and Tom Kwei (@tomkweipoet), ‘Down in the Hole’ explores the entire ouevre of the American singer songwriter, album by album every fortnight.

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7 thoughts on “‘I Lived my Life on Dreams and Trainsmoke’ – Tom Waits & Trains

  1. Now find every mention of “rain” in the music of Tom Waits. Rain rhymes with train, so it makes sense that there should be a lot of both, but I’m willing to wager that “rain mentions” > “train mentions.”


  2. Love this! Here are some rail-specific references that come to mind:

    Bottom of the World – “Well my daddy told me looking back / the best friend you’ll have is a railroad track”
    Cold Water – “Some men are searching for the Holy Grail / but there ain’t nothing sweeter than riding the rails”
    Wrong Side of the Road – “Put a dead cat on the railroad tracks”

    Liked by 1 person

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