Fame froze Tom’s Restaurant in time. Situated on 2880 Broadway, a block from the Cathedral of St John the Divine in Manhattan’s affluent, intellectual Upper West Side, its pink-on-blue neon signage formed many of the exterior scenes for Seinfeld, and it’s been coasting on its reputation as a pop-culture tourist attraction ever since. Framed photographs of the cast line the walls.
Peruse the menu and it’s casually noted, almost as a footnote, that the restaurant was also the setting for a song by “Susan” (Suzanne) Vega: the indelible, acapella Tom’s Diner. The misspelling is not lost on its author. “Whenever I go there I still have to pay for my whole breakfast, and they’re still kind of bad with the service,” she says, rather tartly. “So between you and me, I prefer the Metro Diner these days.”
Vega remains best known for two songs: Tom’s Diner and Luka, both top-10 US hits from her breakthrough 1987 album Solitude Standing. Some with longer memories may recall Left Of Centre, from the soundtrack of John Hughes’ Pretty In Pink, or Marlene On The Wall, from her self-titled debut. These numbers still turn up on hit compilations from the ’80s.
But for those who have kept up, they are merely the underpinning of a rich, remarkably consistent solo career by a songwriter’s songwriter. In the years following the punk explosion on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Vega was at the forefront of the Greenwich Village folk revival, but her drily delivered, acutely observed visions of New York are as gritty as her late friend Lou Reed’s.
She tours constantly, partially because the streaming age means she has to “for cash flow”, but also because she loves it: “I started performing when I was 16; it’s what I do.” She also continues to make records, the latest being Lover, Beloved: Songs From An Evening With Carson McCullers, the tragic American author whose Southern Gothic classic The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter captivated Vega as a teenager.
Some of the songs were written decades ago, before Vega had a record deal. In 1981, she adapted McCullers’ short stories into songs for a one-act play for her college thesis. Thirty years and many rewrites later, the expanded 90-minute production, Carson McCullers Talks About Love, had a six-week run in New York. In a page-boy wig and pinstripes, Vega bore a striking resemblance to her heroine.
But while the songs were uniformly well-received, Vega still wasn’t satisfied with the script, which hadn’t captured the context in which McCullers’ greatest work was produced: a Southern woman determined to mix it among New York’s literati. “It was a little too abstract,” she says. “I’ve always thought of Carson as a kind of timeless person, but the production was not rooted in anything.”
This time, she’s been more specific. An Evening With Carson McCullers is broken into two acts, the first set in 1941, the year after The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter was published when the author was just 23; the second in 1967, in the months before her death at the age of 50 after a brilliant but tumultuous life blighted by alcoholism, disability and suicide attempts. It was a character that Vega found rewarding to play.
“I loved how independent she was, especially as a young woman – her fearlessness in what she wrote about; her lack of inhibition,” she says. But McCullers had a pitch dark side, exacerbated by the bottle; one song, The Instant Of The Hour After, pictures a late-night drunken argument with her husband Reeves: “The pulse in your neck, how I’ll know it, right to the end / How I love you / How I loathe you.”
While the script tells McCullers’ story, the songs are among Vega’s best character sketches. One song, Harper Lee, records McCullers’ annoyance at being compared to the author of To Kill A Mockingbird, bragging “She only wrote the one book; I’ve written more than three”, elevating herself above a string of other more celebrated writers: “I have more to say than Hemingway / Lord knows compared to Faulkner, I say it in a better way.”
“She might not have found that very funny, but I would hope she would know I mean it affectionately,” Vega says. “She was a difficult person to be married to, a difficult person to be friends with, but ultimately I think there’s something very endearing about her, and childlike – naive, and yet wise. So I think she’s still a sympathetic character, in spite of her also being a pain in the ass.”
Vega’s empathy for others has distinguished her songwriting since her earliest years. Luka is told from the perspective of an abused child; the emotional tug of Tom’s Diner – following several verses of deceptively banal detail – hinges on the ringing of the bells of the nearby cathedral, as she remembers the voice of a lost friend, “And of the midnight picnic once upon a time, before the rain began…”
The song has since been covered and sampled dozens of times, most recently by Britney Spears and legendary disco producer Giorgio Moroder. “I’m just astonished at the variety that keep coming,” Vega says. “The Britney Spears version, I remember thinking wow, this really is something special, and then I learned that it was her idea, she was a fan of the song, so I was very tickled.”
The song has left another, more troubling legacy. In the late ’80s, engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg, who pioneered the development of the MP3, heard the original version and thought its minimalism might be a foolproof way to test the new technology. Vega remained unaware until many years later, when she was dropping her daughter Ruby off at nursery school.
“One of the parents, who I didn’t even know, turned to me and said ‘Congratulations on being the Mother of the MP3,’ and I said ‘Excuse me?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I just read about it in Business Week,’ she says. Vega later travelled to the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany, where Brandenburg played her the first, raw MP3 version: “It sounded like something from The Exorcist.”
Ironically, the song that continues to provide her with her most consistent stream of income is the one that upended the record industry. “I guess the ’80s were just not going to go on forever,” she says. “It was such a bloated time period, and so much money was wasted that I could see it coming, in some ways, as a kind of correction.”
Vega has adapted well to changing circumstances. With the publishing rights of her records owned by A&M, she started her own label, Amanuensis Productions, and re-recorded roughly three-quarters of her catalogue in a series of four albums she called Close-Up, divided by theme: Love Songs, People And Places, States Of Being, and Songs Of Family.
Apart from reclaiming ownership of her own material, the themed approach and intimate, not-quite unplugged productions served two purposes: it introduced her later work to those who lost touch with Vega after her hit-making period, and stripped the originals of some of the production tricks of the time in which they were made. Many of the new versions are superior to their predecessors.
She’s also engaged with her fan base on social media. “At the time I did [the Close-Up albums] I was trying to get 100,000 people on Facebook that I could stay in touch with. Not everybody on Facebook buys, though – if all of them bought a CD I’d be in great shape, but it doesn’t work that way. They’ll like a picture of my dog, but they won’t buy a complete CD.”
In 2010, in a thoughtful blog post for the New York Times, Vega wrote about being a “two-hit wonder”. She said that the demeaning description “makes me look as though somehow I managed to squeak out those two songs and then shuffle back to being a receptionist”. In fact, the songs have had exactly the opposite effect on her life: “they have been my passport out of life in an office”.
What’s to complain about? Being a two-hit wonder is better than one, or none. “I see people at the gigs and I say, OK, they know me for Tom’s Diner, or they know me for Luka, and that’s fine with me. However they come is fine.”
A shorter version of this piece was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 October 2016