Let?s assume for a moment?and perhaps forever and always?that the ?original? version of a song (say, ?All Along the Watchtower?) is irrelevant as a standard for judging different versions of that song ? as if all versions are laid out on a buffet for our evaluation and our choosing. So, we can take Jimi Hendrix?s version of ?Watchtower,? and we can even take a bit of U2?s version, but we can leave Dave Matthews? where it lies ? all without consulting Bob Dylan?s brilliant two-and-a-half minute 1967 recording from John Wesley Harding.
This assumption helps us mimic the way we often listen to pieces of music ? one work at a time, not necessarily ?in order? or arranged according to some hierarchy.
So we come to The Wire, perhaps a bit of a television trailblazer in its use of different theme songs for each of its five seasons. More accurately, it used different versions of the same song: ?Way Down In the Hole,? originally written and recorded by Tom Waits for his 1987 Franks Wild Years album. Waits? version showed up for Season Two. But again, we?ll at least try to set aside whatever sort of authority or privilege we might often ascribe to the ?original? work.
As a preliminary matter, the lyrics, which are shared across all versions, deserve a bit of attention.
When you walk through the gardenYou gotta watch your backWell I beg your pardonWalk the straight and narrow trackIf you walk with JesusHe?s gonna save your soulYou gotta keep the devilWay down in the hole
He?s got the fire and the furyAt his commandWell you don?t have to worryIf you hold on to Jesus handWe?ll all be safe from SatanWhen the thunder rollsJust gotta help me keep the devilWay down in the hole
All the angels sing about Jesus?s mighty swordAnd they?ll shield you with their wingsAnd keep you close to the LordDon?t pay heed to temptationFor his hands are so coldYou gotta help me keep the devilWay down in the hole
The words express the earnestness of suppressing the devil and walking ?the straight and narrow path,? juxtaposed with the recognition of the utter impossibility of such an enterprise ? for the garden is far too wild. We?ll all be sucked down that hole, along with the devil.
To make matters more comically sinister, we are each taunted by a promise ? ?If you walk with Jesus, he?s gonna save your soul? ? that will never obtain.
Such is The Wire?s Baltimore.
And so, in judging the five versions of ?Down in the Hole,? we consider, in addition to the sonic elements, each version?s affinity with that incarnation of Baltimore, that vision of existence.
(5) Steve Earle (Season 5)
Steve Earle?s twang-ish rock version is not near the ear-sore that the Blind Boys? is (wait for it), but it reaches a new low for inspiration. At Season 5, the show?s last, apparently performing a straight vocal on top of some syncopated guitar hits was the most innovative strategy for approaching the song.
The selection of Steve Earle was not random?Earle plays the recurring character Walon, Bubs?s NA sponsor. As a highly successful rock and country musician with three Grammy awards, Earle was an obvious choice to perform the theme song. He?s not a very compelling actor, and that?s fine?Bubs and Marlo and Stringer and Jimmy and the gang made up for it. But double mediocrity? That I cannot abide.
(4) Blind Boys of Alabama (Season 1)
The mark of a passable theme song is that viewers don?t want to fast-forward through it. That was true for Scrubs, X-Files, Game of Thrones, True Detective. Unfortunately, it?s not true for Season 1 of The Wire.
The vocals and the arrangement are dated and out of place. It?s more fitting for a show based in, say, Alabama (crazy, right?) than one in Baltimore. And it gives a sense that the show is set in some distant time rather than the early 2000s. This incongruence perhaps could somehow reflect the antiquated bureaucratic spirals of Baltimore law enforcement and politics, but it?s difficult to bring the two into harmony rather than pure tension.
After the first few episodes, I fast-forwarded the Blind Boys? version for the remainder of the season ? every time.
(3) The Neville Brothers (Season 3)
The echoey, almost sneering, vocals and the scooping brass on top of the syncopation almost lend a sinister tone to the Neville Brothers? version ? perhaps the sense of resignation to irrepressible corruption? Too far?
(2) Domaje (Season 4)
Domaje?s clipped lines give the song a rushed but measured feel, which works well with the show?s pacing. The Wire is certainly not fast (in terms of plot or otherwise), but there is a sense of frenetic pace among the characters themselves, almost as if there are greater forces at work, such that those who are in power are in tight, regimented control while those who are not are simply lost in the muddle. It works.
(1) Tom Waits (Season 2)
Again, it?s not that Tom Waits?s version is the best because it?s the original ? it?s simply the best. There is a close affinity between Waits?s gritty, and even a bit sleazy, vocals and the show itself.
I wouldn?t be surprised if the tone of Waits?s version ? not just the lyrics or song structure ? inspired the producers to choose the song for the show in the first place. The fact that this version wasn?t used until the second season indicates to me that it was not a predetermined fact that each season would have its own theme song ? that came later.
Even though the Blind Boys took the first shot at the theme, Waits had already set the standard. Ultimately, it was never surpassed.