Discover more from Every Tom Waits Song
"Coney Island Baby"
'Blood Money', 2002
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The opening line of “Coney Island Baby” goes: “Every night she comes / To take me out to dreamland.”
I never thought much of it. But, researching this song, I discovered the dreamland means something more specific than I’d realized.
In the early 1900s, there was an amusement park on Coney Island called Dreamland. It featured several early roller coasters, a replica of Venice, a “dog and monkey circus,” and New York City’s tallest observation tower. This newspaper ad from just before it opened in 1904 lays out all the attractions:
You gotta imagine Tom was making this reference deliberately, right? Any one of those attractions could have inspired a Tom Waits song. There literally is a song on this very same album called “Circus.”
Despite the glamour, it didn’t last very long: Dreamland opened in 1904 and burned down in 1911. But Coney Island continued to be a strange and surreal amusement-park beachfront. In an interview promoting Blood Money, here’s Tom’s description of visiting 2002-era Coney Island:
I went to a shooting gallery there in February - it was the only place open in the whole park. It was one of those shooting galleries where the rifle shoots a beam of light instead of an actual bullet, and all the creatures in the gallery have these light-sensitive bullseye patches on their chests, so if you hit them their head comes off, a bell goes off or you hear a loud song. And I had a camera - I was taking a photo of my buddies - and I hit the flash on my camera and every animal in the cavalry went mad. And this Puerto Rican guy ran out shaking his fist at me and chasing me away, saying I was going to ruin his business. It's an extraordinary place.
Not that far from Dreamland, it sounds like. Here are some vintage postcards I found showcasing Dreamland back in the day: