Friday, December 19, 2014

“On the Nickel” – The Cover Version #4

Some music for your Friday; & some heartbreakingly beautiful music at that.

It’s no secret that I’m a big admirer of Tom Waits’ music, & today’s selection has been a long-time favorite of mine. Waits recorded “On the Nickel” for his 1980 Asylum release, Heartattack and Vine. His next studio project was the album Swordfishtrombones, released on Island in 1983, & that signaled a major departure from the sound Waits had perfected from the mid 70s through Heartattack & Vine.

“On the Nickel” actually was part of the soundtrack Waits composed for the 1980 film of the same name. “The Nickel” of the title is 5th Street in Los Angeles—skid row—& Waits has described the song as a “winos nursery rhyme.” The lyrics are dense with imagery, & they contain some memorable lines: “I know a place where a royal flush can never beat a pair; & even Thomas Jefferson is on the nickel over there” is one of the best examples. Actually, the lyrics Waits sings on Heartattack & Vine are not the original words, which I generally like even better, especially the great line: “You’ll never know how rich you are till you haven’t got a prayer.”

Just as the songs lyrics pack a lot of punch, the music is notable for modulating up by full steps before taking an unexpected turn at the end. Starting out in the key of F#, the song then progresses through A-flat, Bb, & finally resolving in the key of G; since Gm is the relative minor of Bb, & is a chord used prominently during the Bb section, the resolution to G almost has the effect of a Picardy third. Waits’ gravelly vocal, hovering between melody & speech rides beautifully on top of a piano & strings arrangement.

In the cover version I’ve selected, we get to hear another singer I’ve long admired, Carla Bozulich. Bozulich has fronted a number of bands & has been a long time fixture in the Los Angeles punk & indie scene, but I know her best for her work with one of the great cow-punk bands, The Geraldine Fibbers. When they released Lost Somewhere Between Earth & My Home in 1995 I couldn’t get enough of it, & their sound & lyrics certainly were an inspiration to the poetry I was writing at the time. After the breakup of the Geraldine Fibbers, Bozulich has kept busy with a number of projects, performing in Bloody Claw, the Night Porter, in a duo with Ches Smith, as a solo artist, & perhaps most notably in her ever-morphing group, Evangelista.

I love Bozulich’s interpretation of “On the Nickel.” She stays close to the spirit of Waits’ original with the lush string background, but the short bursts of dissonance that punctuate throughout are a perfect accent. Although Bozulich is known as a singer who can belt out a song with the best of them, her voice is almost fragile as she sings these lyrics; a more melodic singer than Waits, Bozulich uses that fragile sound to convey the “winos nursery rhyme” sensibility of the song, & also to deliver its poignancy in an understated but very immediate way. It’s simply a beautiful recording.

Hope you enjoy it.

Image links to its source at Wiki Commons
Photo of Carla Bozulich: Michelle Cottam. Original uploader was Trobik at en.wikipedia
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


  1. A beautiful version. Sounding as 'lived in' as it should, and, as you point out in your excellent commentary, transmitted with fragility and poignancy.

  2. What an excellent soundtrack for a December 25 in Canada.


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