Suzanne Vega at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue
Everything you read or hear about the singer Suzanne Vega inclines you to think that she remains something of a secret. Elusive, quiet, a kind of musical whisper in the annals of popular contemporary music. She seems part legend, part rumor, a mystery with staying power.
So you approach a phone interview with Vega, who’s doing a concert at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue downtown Saturday at 8 p.m., with a little respectful nervousness, even after listening to and watching her in the rich playing field that is YouTube.
The thing that pops up the most is her most enduring, best known and popular song, “Tom’s Diner,” a wispy, blank poetry infused, gritty little number that first saw the light of day in 1987 on her third album, “Solitude Standing.” Turns out, all poetry aside, you could dance to it—as in “do do do do do do do do.”
Even now, she’s a little puzzled by the continuing refrained fame of the song, which has been done, covered and re-mixed by hordes of musicians, groups and singers, and found its way into the pop culture like a house guest that always knew he was staying for good. The song, and Vega, are especially popular in Europe, where she is something of a goddess after 25 years on the scene.
“I guess I was surprised initially by how the song was received and its longevity,” she said. “I meant it as a light song, it was about this diner by Columbia University, it was bouncy, but it was also a series of observations by someone sitting in a diner, watching people, society, that kind of thing, a little ironic. It’s hard to say what you were thinking all these many years ago.”
Vega, who recently sang with her daughter Ruby, now in her teens, doesn’t seem like someone from all these many years ago. She—and her music, even though she hasn’t done a new album in some time—seem like yesterday, a minute ago, fresh off the train.
Vega came up for air and into the spotlight in the early 1980s when a kind of folk revival was going on, (among many musical uprisings), and as a result she is one of the more hyphenated singers in the annals of music, as in folky-acoustic-intellectual-pop-waif-new age. She is perhaps most importantly a writer with a keen, sharp eye. One that sees the world pretty clearly, as opposed to in ideal, romantic terms. “I’m not overtly political, singing about politicians and that kind of thing” she said. “But I do see things and feel them and I know that I don’t fit the mode of girl singers, even folk singers. I don’t care about that, the ‘you’ve got to look good to make it,’ that kind of thing.”
This may have something to do with the fact that although she was born in Santa Monica, she grew up in New York, in neighborhoods where you have to be savvy, a little tough and smart to navigate your way safely: 102nd Street and roadway in Spanish Harlem on the Upper West Side of New York City. They’re also the sort of places that heat up the imagination, inspire and make you, like the photographer Walker Evans urged, someone who goes out “with a hungry eye.” She went to the New York High School of Performing Arts, the “Fame” school. She wrote poetry at a very young age and also showed off her toughness in her writing. Here is Vega at 13: “I’m the baddest girl in the world/as I’m as bad as Super Fly/and I don’t need coke to get me high/I can beat you, Jack, and you better get back/when the Vega’s come around.”
She laughed when I told her I had read her early poetry. But poetry—blank verse, swift, hard, arrow-straight words mark her song-writing, and that quality makes her enduring, there’s nothing pretentious about her work, or the way she sings and talks. She’s a serious person, sure, but not so mysterious or waif-like as she’s often described.
“I don’t know about the waif part, now, I mean I am 50, so maybe that doesn’t apply,” she said. “But yes, I’m serious about the work, about how I live, about being a mother, about responsibility.” She has also written a play about Carson McCullers, worked with David Lynch, always pushing, always exploring. She toured with Bob Dylan in Europe and held concerts which re-created her first album in its entirety.
She sings, even on videos, with clarity, and while she’s not one of those singers that bowls you over with emotion, or movement, her songs fly straight at you, unfettered. “I’ve gotten more comfortable on stage over the years,” she said. “I move around a lot more.”
She picked up a guitar as a teen, but started out majoring at Barnard College in—surprise—English Literature. “I saw Lou Reed once in person, and that had a huge influence on me,” she said. “That influenced me strongly.”
Which is not to say she was an instant hit—her demo tapes were rejected by just about everyone of note. In her early twenties, she played in a bar in Buffalo called Nietzsche’s, which somehow seems perfect.
When she did finally put out her first, self-titled album, it was a huge hit to the tune of over a million albums. Her second album was called “Marlene on the Wall,” with the haunting hit song “Luka,” a song about a homeless child in the neighborhood. “I used to see the kid, and it was meant to be about his observations, how he felt about the world around him, in the hallways, out in the streets.”
“Solitude Standing” came next with “Tom’s Diner,” which apparently touched the imagination of all sorts of creative types high and low, including such diverse groups and artists asd Terror Squad, Eazy-E, Will Smith, Ludacris, Jars of Clay, 2Pac, REM, Nikki D and Peter Behrens with “Dep De Do Dep.”
High Tide times followed—at the very first Lilith Fair, that popular mobilization of all-star women vocalists touring the country, she was the first star to appear. She won Best Female Artist for “Luka,” beating out none other than Cher.
She is now in the midst of a four set CD project, the first of which, “Suzanne Vega, Close UP, Volume 1, Love Songs”—came out last year and sparked a 38-city tour. “Right now, yes I guess I’m looking back, summing up,” she said. “When I finish, then it’s time to move in to something new.”
Something new is hard to define. So much of what she has done , musically, writing wise, is new and in tune with the new—as the do, do, do, do’s of “Tom’s Diner” and Luka’s straight-talking and singing lament – continue to haunt. They carry forward, become a part of what’s next.