The Wire almost had a different theme song by... the Cowboy Junkies???
It's as synonymous with The Wire as Omar's shotgun, McNulty's bottle of booze, and Clay Davis' "Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeet." For five seasons, "Way Down in The Hole" (originally recorded by Tom Waits) was the theme for the HBO's epic drugs and drama offering that EW named as the best series in the history of television. But the song's journey to becoming the theme is almost as wild as the events on the actual show.
A longtime Waits fan, The Wire creator David Simon had actually first used tunes by the gravelly-voiced musician in a season 5 episode of Homicide: Life on the Street titled "Bad Medicine." So when he started work on The Wire, Simon went back to his CD collection to pick out another Waits tune for his theme. "The first one I found was 'Get Behind the Mule,'" explains Simon. "And it didn't quite work, lyrically. It worked emotionally, but the verses were all way off point. I kept trying to force it, tried to use different verses first, tried to play around with it. Finally, [executive producer] Bob Colesberry said, 'I like the feel of it. I like the guy's voice, but it's not quite getting there.' And I had to agree."
That's when another option emerged. "I went back and looked for similar things that were suggestive of the ubiquitous drudgery and pain of whatever you're engaged in," explains the showrunner. "And that's when we found 'Way Down in the Hole.'" Little did Simon know that his work in getting the song to the screen had only just begun.
The first step was that even though Simon had now found his song, he had to uncover the right version of the song. "The scene's being told of a drug war that's happening in a predominantly Black part of Baltimore, in a majority Black city," says Simon. The creator searched to see if there were any cover versions available, only to be reminded of one he already had in his collection by the Blind Boys of Alabama. "It worked perfectly, because for the voice to be African-American in that first season was important."
Now he just needed to get permission to use the song. While the Blind Boys quickly agreed to the use of their performance, Simon still needed to obtain authorization from the song's writer: Waits.
"We were getting near our air date and we still didn't have permission," says Simon about awaiting clearance from Waits. "We mailed him versions of the show, so he could see what the show was about and he could see his song laid in, but he wasn't responding. It was like, 'Jesus, what are we going to do if he says no? We got to get him to sign off on this thing!'"
Simon knew that it wasn't simply a matter of money: "I don't think Waits ever did anything for money in his life, so it's not like we're luring him in with the money. He either wants to do it, or he doesn't." But if money wasn't the issue, what was? The team at The Wire didn't know, and received little clarity back from the musician's representatives. "His management people were like, 'We don't know. We keep telling him you have a deadline!'" recalls Simon. "So finally, they give our post-production producer, Karen Thorson, his number. She calls him, and he picks up the phone."
Once Thorson reached Waits on the phone, the issue became clear, as Simon recounts. "He says, 'I got the stuff you sent, but I don't know how to work the VCR. Wait until my wife comes home.' And then, the next day, he approved it! So I just imagine those tapes just sitting there next to his video cassette recorder. They'd still be there now if she hadn't made the call."
And what if she hadn't made the call? Or if Waits' wife had not been able to show him how to use his VCR? What then? Well, Simon reveals they did indeed have a Plan B backup ready to go in case they did not the permission for "Way Down in the Hole." Had Waits not come through, the theme song for The Wire would have been… "A Common Disaster" by the Cowboy Junkies. "It's a song I very much like," says Simon. "The chorus is great. And the groove is great. But it's a little bit too much about the interpersonal."
Instead, "Way Down in the Hole" ran for all 5 seasons, with different performers for each season. After the Blind Boys cover, the original Waits version was used for season 2, followed by The Neville Brothers, a group of four Baltimore teenagers known as DoMaJe, and finally Wire star Steve Earle in season 5. "We just changed it as the tonalities of the season changed," notes Simon. "We tried to keep pace with that, and we changed it each time." And history was made, all thanks to the magic of VCR technology.
A version of this story appears in the February issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.