Well it's 9th and Hennepin
All the donuts have
Names that sound like prostitutes
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The story behind this track starts with a donut and ends with live ammunition.
Anyone who's heard Tom Waits' landmark album Rain Dogs
knows that “Ninth and Hennepin” is a weird track: the piano line wanders tensely, we can hear a train in the background, and Tom's speaking — not singing — about a strange and dangerous place where “steam/Comes out of the grill like/The whole goddamned town is ready to blow.” Had this piece appeared on Tom's later album Orphans
, it would've belonged in the “Bastards” category for sure.
As it turns out, the spot in Minneapolis where Ninth Street and Hennepin Avenue connect is real, and Tom has indeed been there. That corner left an impression on him, to say the least.
According to a 1985 interview with Tom in Spin
Magazine, much of the imagery found in “Ninth and Hennepin” actually came from his observations of New York. Why's it named after a street corner in Minneapolis, then?
Hennepin Avenue looking north, c 1912
Tom recounts the story: years before the recording of Rain Dogs
, he was sitting in an all-night donut shop with Chuck Weiss at Ninth and Hennepin. The radio was playing Dinah Washington's “Our Day Will Come.”
Suddenly, in comes a 12-year-old pimp in a chinchilla coat. He jumps behind the counter of the place, screaming “Leon, you're a dead man!” The kid picks up a handful of forks, the beater from a blender, a toothpick dispenser, hurls it all toward the street... then ducks behind the counter. From the street another pimp sprays the shop with automatic weapons fire, shattering a mirror, a framed dollar bill, and a ceramic dog. Tom and Chuck hit the floor, listening to “Our Day Will Come,” and presumably hoping to God that their day hadn't
Poor Tom. Imagine being in that position: you're sitting there enjoying a donut, minding your own sprinkles, and then suddenly a prepubescent pimp is throwing utensils and bullets are flying over your booth. And the jukebox plays on.
It's strange to think that in an alternate history somewhere, Tom Waits never had the chance to become a great American songwriter; instead he became a statistic with a casual mention (maybe) in an oddball newspaper headline.
This weird and true tale does help us make some sense of the surreal, nightmarish lyric of “Ninth and Hennepin,” though. It especially highlights the wry logic behind a line like “All the donuts have names that sound like prostitutes.”
Minneapolis city Hall.
Understandably enough, that street corner became a symbol of mythic volatility and danger in Tom's mind. Decades later, the songwriter still seemed a bit nervous around donuts. Here's the man himself giving his introduction to “Ninth and Hennepin” at the SxSW festival in 1999, 14 years after the release of Rain Dogs
"This is about a scary corner... It's a place called 'Ninth & Hennepin.' The ironic thing about this is that it's no longer scary. That's how long I've been around. It went from scary... to kinda fun! And it really kinda upset me. Eh, you know, now they've got the unisex hair parlor there and eh, you know, the yogurt ehm... the eh... the funny shoes with eh... you know.
“But in the old days, it was no place you wanted to be. It was a little donut shop. A 12-year-old pimp came in one night. I was in the middle of a war. Another guy firing live ammunition outside. All [the 12-year-old pimp] had was knives and forks and spoons. And he incorporated the donut shop as his... barricade. And I just happened be, well, having a donut. I haven't had my donut since... 'cause I know where donuts lead! On the jukebox it was playing ‘Our Day Will Come.’ It was too perfect. Well, it's Ninth and Hennepin..."
~ Nicholas Tozier
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