My first 4 July in the United States was spent in the beautiful city of Savannah, Georgia with my friend John Barner. For personal, Faulknerian reasons involving a handgun and his mother, John is not a huge fan of Independence Day festivities (he'll no doubt clarify things in the comments below). Inevitably we spent most of the afternoon in the waterfront boozers rather than look for firework displays or funnel cakes. In one bar we decided to order a big plate of oysters but were told that the in-house shucker had taken the holiday off so there was no one available to open the shells. “No fear,” said John, “We’ll crack ‘em ourselves”. After a brief back and forth about health and safety legislation we were given a screwdriver and a thick towel and tucked in.
This bar had a great juke box that was heavy on Johnny Cash. It also contained Bruce Springsteen's epic album, Live 1975-85, home to the Boss’s cover of Tom Waits’ Jersey Girl. This was long before my Springsteen conversion but curious to hear another version of a Waits classic I got out my quarters.
My previous exposure to Tom Waits covers was the loathsome Rod Stewart's horrendous sabotage of Downtown Train. On first listening, over the bar's speakers, I didn't think Bruce's version was much better. Too polished, too safe (he changes the lyric "whores" to "girls") and too predictable. I wondered if he sang it just for the inevitable crowd reaction to any mention of Jersey.
Thinking about this post earlier today I put "Jersey Girl" into Hype Machine to see if any other covers were floating about. Instead of finding rubbish versions by people I'd never heard of I stumbled across this blog and found the equivalent of a rare artifact I never knew existed - Tom and Bruce performing the song together at a Los Angeles basketball arena in 1981!
For me, of course, what makes this version so much better is Tom's vocal. As Heart On A Stick, the original blogger said, "What's remarkable about the performance (beyond the fact that it actually happened; you don't see ol' Tom playing a lot of basketball arenas) is just how dominant Waits' vocals are. That voice is lived-in, not run-down. It's thick, and expressive." Really what makes this such a special find though is the first point - that Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen once shared a stage in an LA sports venue. If I saw the two of them in the same place today I'd probably explode with excitement.
I'm not sure that this discovery has really changed my opinion of Springsteen's original cover. Sure, I've become a Boss devotee since first hearing the song in that bar in Savannah, but no one will perform Jersey Girl as well as the man who wrote it for his wife.
As usual, if you want to play compare and contrast, please leave a comment below.
The Waitsing Room 2: Cruel Variations - Superb three-hour podcast of Waits covers