Author’s note: Click on the words in green throughout this article for links to related video and audio clips and supporting articles.  Click on the song title and artist’s name at the end of this post to listen to this song in its entirety and to visit a Web site dedicated to Tom Waits.


The first time I heard and saw Tom Waits he sang this song on Late Night with David Letterman. This was back when Letterman was still on NBC in the time slot after the Tonight Show when Dave’s show could still be legitimately referred to as Late Night . Back then, Dave was still anti show bizzness and anti celebrity phoniness, and still openly insulting the Suits at General Electric (the parent company of NBC). This was back when he still booked non-mainstream edgy guests on the show that you couldn’t see anywhere else. 

It had to be the early ’80s.  I remember this because the next day after seeing Tom’s performance of this song, I went out and bought the Heart Attack and Vine album  and the Swordfishtrombones album (yes as in vinyl; the CD sensation was not upon us yet, and little did we know even that would be short lived).

Tom sang two songs that night and talked to Dave in between the two songs. The other song he sang that night was Frank’s Wild Years from Swordfishtrombones. When was the last time you saw something in late night or prime time break the cookie cutter, mainstream television format mold like that? 

 As Tom sang On the Nickle that night, his voice cigarette raw, and dressed as you’d imagine some of the characters that populated the gritty, unforgiving landscape of this song to be dressed, the music was stripped down to the bare essentials like most of his songs are, no unnecessary, obtrusive accompaniment.  Just Tom behind the piano singing and playing keys that fit perfectly with the musical narrative, a hobo’s lullaby, as he referred to it, sounding like a lounge singer channeling the spirit of John Steinbeck and shedding light on a segment of the population that has and will always be there, but often goes unnoticed by those who have been granted good luck or fortune to have the basic necessities in life.  The emotional sincerity of Tom’s performance gave me the impression, that he was empathetic, if not directly familiar with the plight of the characters in this song. You could almost imagine Tom himself having had to resort to a newspaper sleeping bag  In the Neighborhood for warmth or shelter from the rain at some point in his life.




 -and if you chew tobacco, and wish upon a star,
well you’ll find out where the scarecrows sit,
just like punchlines between the cars,
and I know a place where a royal flush, can never beat a pair,
and even Thomas Jefferson, is on the nickel over there.

so ring around the rosie, you’re sleepin’ in the rain,
and you’re always late for supper, and man you let me down again,
I thought I heard a mockingbird, Roosevelt knows where,
you can skip the light, with grady tuck, on the nickel over there.

so what becomes of all the little boys, who run away from home,
well the world just keeps gettin’ bigger, once you get out on your own,
so here’s to all the little boys, the sandman takes you where,
you’ll be sleepin’ with a pillowman, on the nickel over there.
    –Tom WaitsOn the Nickel

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