Song of the Day #1,169: ‘The Train’ – Frank Sinatra

Here we are, at our final stop on the Watertown journey, suitably titled ‘The Train.’

How will the story end? With reconciliation or despair? Anybody familiar with Sinatra’s torch albums should know the answer.

‘The Train’ starts out positively buoyant, as the husband checks the weather, checks his watch, and prepares to meet his returning wife at the train station. He’s had “so many nights to find the way,” another clue that this break-up can’t be placed entirely on her shoulders.

I get a kick out of the line “even bought that summer cottage yesterday.” I used to think that this guy is going to wind up with no wife, no job (assuming his boss at Santa Fe didn’t agree to the raise) and now a mortgage on a summer cottage he’ll probably never use. When it rains it pours.

And pour it does in the song’s final verses, as the train approaches, the passengers scatter and the husband finds himself alone on the platform. She was a no-show. The song’s upbeat tempo turns on a dime after the delivery of the fateful line, “and I know for sure I’d recognize your face.”

That realization grinds things to a halt, and Sinatra repeats the line filled with ultimate sadness. Then the song fades out on a slow bass line, a metaphor for the train disappearing toward the horizon, a mirror of the approaching train on the album’s opening track.

But for me, the turning point in ‘The Train’ doesn’t come at the end when the wife doesn’t emerge from the train. It comes a couple of verses earlier when the husband declares “I wrote so many times and more, but the letters still are lying in my drawer, ‘cos the morning mail had left some time before.”

That’s a stunning revelation, delivered casually like so many of Watertown‘s most profound moments. This man’s journey, told through letters to his wife, revealed to us through song, went unshared. He never sent the letters, throwing out a lame excuse about missing the morning mail.

That line casts the whole story in a new light… this isn’t a tragedy about a man abandoned by his wife, it’s a tragedy about a man who chooses to remain abandoned. The lonely figure on the empty train platform on the album’s cover art β€” he has decided to live that way.

And that brings me full circle to the opening track of Watertown, in which “there’s someone standing in the rain, waiting for the morning train… it’s gonna be a lonely place without the look of your familiar face, but who can say it’s not that way?”

I always assumed that someone was the wife, waiting for the train to take her to the city. But now I believe the album starts where it finishes β€” the person standing in the rain is the husband. It’s going to be a lonely place without the look of her familiar face (the face he knows for sure he’d recognize).

Who can say it’s not that way? He could have, but he chose not to. In old Watertown, there’s nothing much happening down on Main. And our tragic hero has made damn sure it’s going to stay that way.

And now the sun has broken through, it looks like it will stay
Just can’t have you comin’ home on such a rainy day

The train is leaving Ellensville, unless my watch is fast
The kids are comin’ home from school, must be quarter past

So many changes since you’ve been away
And there’s so many things to say
This time around you’ll want to stay
‘Cos I’ve had so many nights to find the way
Even bought that summer cottage yesterday

Pretty soon I’ll be close to you
And it will be so good
We’ll talk about the part of you I never understood

And I will take good care of you, and never let you cry
We will look so much in love to people passing by

So many changes since you’ve been away
And there’s so many things to say
I wrote so many times and more
But the letters still are lying in my drawer
‘Cos the morning mail had left some time before

All the passengers for Allentown wait closer to the track
It’s hard for me to realize you’re really coming back
The crossing gate is coming down I think I see the train
The sun has gone and now my face is wet with heavy rain

The passengers for Allentown are gone, the train is slowly moving on
But I can’t see you any place, and I know for sure I’d recognize your face

And I know for sure I’d recognize your face…

4 thoughts on “Song of the Day #1,169: ‘The Train’ – Frank Sinatra

  1. Amy says:

    Ha! Funny, I had always assumed the opposite – that it was him standing in the rain – but was starting to reconsider the possibility that it was her πŸ™‚ Fascinating how we could have both grown up on this record and never discussed the way we interpreted that original line, only to find out now all these years later that we’re reversing positions πŸ˜‰ I’ll have to go back and listen to it again immediately, though I still believe what I thought to be true for all those years, the album comes full circle, right back to him standing in the rain (but I like your original, and my recent, interpretation as another rich possibility).

    And, yes, I agree that our hero shares a good bit of the responsibility for the predicament in which he has found himself. When he promises that there are “so many things to say” and that “we’ll talk about the part of you I never understood,” he has every intention of being a better husband to her, revealing that he hadn’t tried so hard to understand her for all those years before.

    Why he never sent the letters seems simple (and simply inane, let’s be honest) at first, but when interpreted symbolically, holds more interest – “the morning mail left some time before” – isn’t that sort of the equivalent of such old trite sentiments as “that ship has sailed”? Maybe it’s just too late for him, for them, to have the sort of relationship he now recognizes would be better for Elizabeth? Or at least he has convinced himself that it’s too late.

    Regardless, what I love most about this album and this song is the memory of the whole family standing in the family room enacting our excitement for Elizabeth’s arrival and subsequent despair at her absence. Yes, it’s a pretty silly image, but the thought of all our mock tears and real embraces as we lived the moment of Francis Albert being left at the station brings a smile to my face as I sit typing here 25 years later, and that’s pretty special.

    As you said from the start of this two week journey, this album was the first time I ever thought of music being able to tell a story in quite this way. Sure, an individual song could do that. I expected it from a musical. But a whole album? How cool is that? I feel very lucky to have had parents who raised us on Sinatra. Think I’ll have to break out some old blue eyes for my own kids this weekend. It’s been too long. πŸ™‚

  2. pegclifton says:

    Well, I’m like the old man in Moonstruck-“so confused” I still think it was him” standing in the rain”, and maybe the letters left in the drawer were not all the letters he wrote but just the ones he couldn’t bring himself to share for whatever reason?? Anyway, I’m happy that you have those fond memories Amy, as do I of us standing there and hoping that this time the ending of the song will change πŸ™‚

  3. pegclifton says:

    Oh, and Clay this was a wonderful two weeks; thank you for bringing back the music and the memories!

  4. Dana says:

    Okay, first of all, your family was quite nerdy, but cute:)

    Second, wouldn’t your interpretation suggest that old Francis was a bit insane? He never made any effort to reconsile, never sent any letters, but goes to the train expecting that she might be there? I think Peg’s interpretation may be more on target–not that he didn’t send any letters, but that he didn’t send all the letters, and perhaps had he done so–had he truly gone all out to get her back, it might have worked.

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