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Remembering David Bowie and Scarlett Johansson’s stunning cover of Tom Waits


Tom Waits is not an easy artist to cover. After all, his guttural voice seemingly echoes back through aeons, and his wild musical kaleidoscope melds folk, vaudeville and any instrument he can get his hands on despite once proclaiming: “A gentleman is someone who can play the accordion, but doesn’t.” Thus, you wouldn’t imagine that the silken voice of Scarlett Johansson and the madly colourful ways of David Bowie would sit well in his rough shadowy world, but your imagination can often be fooled.

Throughout David Bowie’s career, he was quick to champion other artists. Rather than detract from his own output, if anything, this attracted further fans as he welcomed you into his own bohemian oeuvre of inspirations. These inspirations often wove their way into his own work too. In fact, it is, without doubt, one of his greatest attributes as an artist that he wasn’t unhinged by his own sense of individualism and was happy to celebrate the artistic vision of others.

One artist who benefitted from both sides of that coin was Lost in Translation star Scarlett Johansson. While some stiff-upper-lipped cynics may have dismissed her 2008 Tom Waits tribute album Anywhere I Lay My Head with a hands-off our beloved Waits condemnation, Bowie approached the project with open ears and liked what he heard. 

Not only did Bowie appear on two of the tracks on the record, but he also heaped personal praise on the work. “Scarlett’s performances are mystical and twice cool,” he wrote on his website. He even went on to say, “She creates a mood that could have been summoned by someone like Margery Latimer [American novelist of We Are Invincible] or Jeanette Winterson [British novelist of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit].”

While ‘The Starman’ might have said, “The songs are great, really good Tom Waits stuff,” the ultimate nod of approval came from the man himself. As Johansson told NME, she received a phone call from his wife Kathleen Brennan saying that her husband loved the album, “I could hear him grumbling in the background,” the actress joyously recalled.

What’s more, Johansson was no doubt thrilled to work with Bowie too. She even revealed that along with Patrick Swayze, Bowie was her first big celebrity crush. “Patrick Swayze was my biggest crush. He still is. And David Bowie in Labyrinth. They opened my eyes to sexuality! Whoa! They both looked great in extremely tight pants.”

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Naturally, this made her pretty nervous at their first encounter. As Johansson recalls, “I couldn’t tell him he was my first love because I couldn’t actually speak when he shook my hand.” Fortunately for the sake of the album, the initial nerves diminished and evident chemistry blossomed as the pair propelled Waits’ tracks towards a new meadowy realm. 

The finest of their two singalongs comes with the Waits classic ‘Fannin Street’ (not that ‘Falling Down’ is far behind). Complete with Bowie’s iconic ‘Satellite of Love’-like backing wail the song is an atmospheric gem that lends a new take on the original and sends it down a different avenue without changing the architecture in place too much. This take casts Waits classic into spring and serves up a boom with all the literary thrills of the original like a twist of lime in an uncorked bottle of some oft sloshed liquor.