THE ROCKIST: Happy Birthday To Tah-ahm, Happy Birthday TOOOOOOO YOUUUUU!

DAVID R. STAMPONE REPORTS: Promoting your latest album can be dangerous stuff. Appearing on the Daily Show last Tuesday, a nervous host Jon Stewart — celebrating his 44th birthday — welcomed Tom Waits, apologizing for the ceiling that collapsed on the artist in the studio bathroom that day. “I can take it, I’m a man,” said a gracious Waits. “There were a lot of things falling around me and I kept my poise …. my balance … and mytom-waits-perform-786230.jpg rhythm.” He subsequently performed the homesick soldiers lament  — The Day After Tomorrow — (“I’ll be 21 today / I’m saving all my pay …”). Tom Waits turns 57 today.

And forget all that “ScarJo Does Tom!” hoo-hah. What fans of HBO’s critically acclaimed gritty urban docudrama series The Wire want to know is not which Tom-tracks actress Scarlett Johansson will cover on her all-Waits album next year. Rather, it’s who will cover his “Way Down in the Hole” when the brilliant Baltimore-based television show returns for its fifth and final season (artist thus far unknown). Each year has brought a different musical take on the good vs. evil-themed tune that plays as opening credits roll for each episode. A bluesy cover by The Blind Boys of Alabama (with help from ace players Charlie Musselwhite on harp and David Lindley on slide) was selected for The Wire?s first season. Season two featured Waits’ own grizzled version, originally appearing on Waits’ 1987 album Franks Wild Years.

New Orleans’ Neville Brothers gave it a loping gumbo-funk reading for season three.This year may have offered the best yet, a
street-sound-suffused neo-soul version arranged by Baltimore gospel stars Doreen Vail, Maurette Brown-Clark and J. B. Wilkins, sung by members of the Baltimore City Boy’s Choir. It’s worked well with the season’s story arc following four eighth-grade boys coming up together in the ghetto while all the drug-dealing, police activity and dubious politicking swirls around them. It also helped music supervisor Blake Leyh in his emerging desire to bring a more Baltimore feel to the show’s soundtrack, even with a song from a California songwriter that he wasn’t sure was right at the series’ start. Wire co-creator David Simon brought in the Waits track and later the idea of seasonally rotating versions but Leyh had favored other songs like Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” at first. “In retrospect, ‘Way Down In The Hole’ seems perfect and inevitable,” noted Leyh via a group chat interview last month. “But of course it now has the weight of history and fifty episodes supporting it.” The Wire’s fourth season concludes on HBO this Sunday.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: David R. Stampone grew up in Delaware, today celebrating its 219th birthday as the “First State,” “Small Wonder,” “The Diamond State,” “The State that Started a Nation,” “The Home of Tax-Free Shopping,” “The Duchy of Dupont.” He lived in San Diego for over two decades, where he once got an A in college for thusly responding to an American History course exam question asking for the significance of December 7: “The day Delaware ratified the US Constitution in 1787, the first state to do so, an event later and forever overshadowed on the ‘live in infamy’ USA big-deal timeline by the ill-advised doings of some headstrong future Japanese tourists out Hawaii way, circa 1941.”

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