The Meaning Behind “Downtown Train” by Rod Stewart

Few pop/rock hitmakers have proven as resilient as Rod Stewart. Stewart has always shown a knack for recording the right song at the right time within the right genre. Like all artists, he endured some fallow periods, but he always seemed to pull himself back up with a crucial track. “Downtown Train” delivered that kind of needed pick-me-up for Stewart when released in 1989.

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What was this song about? Who was the critically acclaimed singer-songwriter who first wrote and recorded it? And what was the controversy surrounding this song, Stewart, and another Rock and Roll Hall of Famer? Let’s start by talking about the initial recording of “Downtown Train,” which appeared on one of the most lauded albums of the ’80s.

Waits Not Want Not

It doesn’t sound right to call Tom Waits a cult artist, as the guy is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, after all. Yet because of his unique vocal stylings, he was never fated for the pop charts, as great as his songs have always been. And as his music ranged further in an avant-garde direction as the ’70s became the ’80s, it became harder to imagine any cover versions bringing him to a mainstream audience.

In 1985, Waits released the album Rain Dogs, which featured his unique songwriting perspectives nestled in wildly diverse musical settings. Clanking percussion and wild melodic embellishments accompanied his narratives about outcasts and criminals. Yet in the middle of all the madness, sitting unassumingly as the eighth song on Side Two, was a somewhat straightforward, but still moving, love song entitled “Downtown Train.”

With the possible exception of the ballads “Time” and “Blind Love,” no other song on Rain Dogs seemed like cover-song material. The tricky part came when two rock legends took a shine to the song at approximately the same time.

Rod Vs. Bob

In Rod: The Autobiography, Rod Stewart claimed that his label head introduced him to “Downtown Train.” His reaction:

“It had a melody that connected emotionally and a lyric that absolutely ached with yearning. My son Sean, who was eight at this time, had come into the room during the third playing of the song and said afterwards, “Why was that guy singing so bad?” Which made the point very clearly, really: here was a great, great song, but sung by someone whose voice was always going to be an acquired taste, therefore hindering the song’s chance of being a hit. (I love Tom Waits’s voice, but it’s not for everyone.)”

Meanwhile, Bob Seger was also intending to release a version of “Downtown Train,” even potentially using it as the centerpiece for a new album. Stewart’s version beat him to the punch, causing some consternation in the Seger camp about how Rod came to hear about the song. In any case, Seger would eventually release a re-recorded version of the song as part of a 2011 compilation. Perhaps to ease tensions, Stewart did a take on Seger’s “Still the Same” years down the road as well.

Nonetheless, Stewart also talks in his autobiography about what the song meant to his career. Even though he was on a pretty good singles streak in the US at the time “Downtown Train” came out on a 1989 Best-Of package, he hadn’t been doing as well in the UK. Stewart’s emotion-wracked take on the song hit the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic.

What is “Downtown Train” About?

Filled with writer-ly details that paint an evocative picture, “Downtown Train” is, for all that, simply an open-hearted plea from a guy to a girl. Both have other options, but the narrator is suggesting that a proper fate would put these two together in the end. However, we leave the song not knowing if that’s indeed how it will all turn out, which is where the drama emanates.

In the first two verses, the narrator explains all about the Brooklyn girls who are within his reach but not within his heart. They’re just thorns without the rose/Be careful of them in the dark, he warns. Something instead draws him again and again to the girl he’s addressing, so much so that her physical surroundings are second nature to him. As for her other suitors, they’re fighting an uphill battle: They’re all having their heart attacks/They stay at the carnival/But they’ll never win you back.

Only the sight of this girl can pull him from the drudgery of his routine: Every night, every night, it’s just the same/On a downtown train. You’ve got several competing versions of “Downtown Train” from which to choose. That’s only fitting, because this magical little song certainly had some big-name folks competing for the right to record it.

(Photo by Greg Doherty/Getty Images for Haute Living)

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