Tom Waits’s “San Diego Serenade”

I recently purchased a copy of Dion’s Yo Frankie CD.  The album featured an excellent cover of Tom Waits’s “San Diego Serenade,” although Dion renamed the song “Serenade.” I love the Tom Waits version, which is hard to top, but Dion does a great job.

“San Diego Serenade” originally appeared on The Heart Of Saturday Night (1974), which was the second album by Tom Waits. Waits is one of the great songwriters of his generation. I am not sure why more artists do not cover his songs, but it might be because Waits’s vocal style is so distinctive and memorable.

In addition to Dion, Nancy Griffith also covered “San Diego Serenade” on Late Night Grande Hotel (1991).  But there are not as many covers of the beautiful song as one might expect. Nothing matches the original recording by Waits of this song about regret and about recognizing what you have lost only when it is too late.

I never saw the morning ’til I stayed up all night;
I never saw the sunshine ’til you turned out the light;
I never saw my hometown until I stayed away too long;
I never heard the melody, until I needed a song.

The Voice of Tom Waits

In later live versions, you hear a change in Waits’s voice, as later albums embraced a raspy gravely vocal sound. There are various theories arguing that the change was a choice, that it was due to a change or damage to his vocal cords, or that it was caused by cigarettes, alcohol and/or drugs.

Waits briefly discussed his voice in this interview on NPR (starting around the 7:45 mark), but he does not clearly answer the question. The live version below was recorded in December 1975, which is less than two years from the release of the original above.  But you can already hear a big difference in his voice. Still, the interpretation is beautiful.

A Nice Cover Version

I looked through a number of other covers and amateur recordings. One usually finds interesting amateur recordings of songs on YouTube.  But there may be something about the emotion and voice needed for this song.  It is difficult to find any worthwhile versions of “San Diego Serenade.”

A band called The Sensitives created one of the best covers of the song.  I had never heard of the band, and from their MySpace page, they are from Australia. Or were. They have not updated their MySpace page in more than two years.

Since no label apparently singed The Sensitives, and there are some rough signs in this video — like the use of a music stand, I suspect they are no longer performing. But the lead singer has an excellent voice.  He is one of the rare singers who capture the meaning of the song in his performance. Whoever you are, dude, I hope you are still singing somewhere, just as I hope Tom Waits keeps writing and singing these beautiful songs.

What do you think of “San Diego Serenade”? What do you think of the cover by The Sensitives? Leave a comment.

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