January Man

The story behind the song...

Tom Waits has always been one of my favourite songwriters.

My favourite song of his is called ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)’.

You’ll probably be vaguely familiar with it, even if you’ve never heard of Tom Waits.

Rod Stewart covered it, and Waits, himself, adapted the old Australian folk song ‘Waltzing Matilda’ for the chorus.

It tells the story - as far as I can tell - of a drunken night in Copenhagen (though the city is only ever mentioned in the parenthesis after the title) and contains one of my favourite lyrics ever:

It's a battered old suitcase
To a hotel someplace
And a wound that will never heal

Those of you who have been listening to 'January Man' over the last week or so (and there have been nearly 20,000 of you) should recognise some of these themes and ideas.

Here’s a quick reminder of the first verse:

I got tired of waiting out the winter
I thought I’d see what next year has to say
I’m determined that tomorrow will be better
Than today.

I took that midnight plane to Copenhagen
I thought I’d set my four sheets to the wind
I’m no stranger to a strange old situation
Or more trouble than the trouble that I’m in

You see: there are no original ideas, only adaptations.

My song ‘January Man’ was originally a different song entirely.

I’d found the melody, the chords, and a vague sense of what I wanted to say a long time ago.

Originally the song was called ‘Forever Yours’.

If you can summon the line ‘January Man’ to your mind’s ear now, test the alternative out.

The verse was a series of fairly woolly metaphors about love and loss, and not being able to let go.

But something I’m learning to value more and more at the moment is the power of specificity.

It’s tough to say anything new about the pain of a lost love.

The best you can hope for, I think, is to find a different angle to approach the idea from.

To view it through the lens of place and persona, and to hope that the specific experience of a particular person in a particular situation gives it something we haven’t heard a thousand times before.

Without that touch of specificity, lyrics can become generic and powerless very quickly.

I think setting can be an evocative way of establishing it.

Grounding a song in a sense of time and place can do a lot of emotional and thematic work for you; and I’ve always felt that New Year’s Eve, like Christmas Eve in ‘A Fairytale of New York’, was ripe with connotations.

It’s a sort of annual prelude - the final moments before something both novel and predictable - that almost always fails to live up to whatever it seems to promise.

There’s a strange tension between hope and regret that seems to be embodied by it.

The point of ‘January Man’, I think, is to suggest that, often, our ties to the past are too powerful to be washed away by the oncoming year.

The speaker in the song has come to Copenhagen for New Year’s Eve in order to escape: it’s a final, triumphant, booze-soaked 24 hours in which he can have one last adventure to wish the old year goodbye, along with the love he thinks he has finally left behind.

Unfortunately for him, he just can’t shake off the memories.

We often fall drunkenly into bed on December 31st, full of resolutions and grand ideas.

But when we wake up on January 1st, we still come face to face with our old familiar selves.

As for Copenhagen - I’ve never even been.

But it’s a snowy city with a famous mermaid and, I’m sure, more than a touch of wintery romance.

I thought it’d be the perfect place for a story about disappointment; that sense of fading magic we get when the heady rush of alcohol begins to wear off and we’re left with nothing but the cold.

And if it’s good enough for Tom Waits, it’s more than good enough for me.

I hope you’ve been enjoying the song.

Keep dreaming (and streaming),


Rob Jones & The Restless Dream

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