Detailed Biography by Bruce Miyashita
[Beauty & Crime][Brief Biography] [Detailed Biography 1 2]
SUZANNE VEGA: A Life in Music
by Bruce Miyashita
In April 2003, Interscope released Retrospective: The Best of Suzanne Vega. It begins, appropriately enough, with "Luka," the 1987 single (#3 in America, August ‘87) that remains her signature song. That recording, the album from which it came, Solitude Standing (April 1987), and her first album, Suzanne Vega (1985), had a significant impact on how pop music has evolved over the last two decades. Over the next 20 tracks on Retrospective one hears Vega not only re-invigorating the singer-songwriter genre with "Luka," but then re-inventing it over and over again for the next 16 years. We hear dance club re-mixes (D.N.A. mix of "Tom's Diner"), industrial ("Blood Makes Noise"), acoustic-driven story-songs ("The Queen and the Soldier"), bossa nova ("Caramel"), and soaring pop ("In Liverpool"). Rare has been the artist that has so spanned as wide a stylistic range without fundamentally straying from her basic sound: her vibrato-less voice; her acoustic guitar; her skeletal lyrics.
Alongside Retrospective is American Mavericks, a 13-episode production of Minnesota Public Radio hosted by Vega that began airing in April, 2003. The titles of the episodes alone speak volumes both about why MPR approached Vega and why Vega agreed to work on the project: "The Meaning of Maverick;" "Oh, To Be Popular!"; "Between Rock and a Hard Place"; "The Do-It-Yourself Composer (self sufficiency as career strategy)." But perhaps most appropriate given Vega's improbable career is episode 12, "Is It Music If Nobody Hears It? (finding new audiences)."
America's maverick composers have worked at creating a music that combines the well-thought-out structure of classical music with the physical and emotional energy of pop, but that avoids the sterile formalism of one and the commercial vapidity of the other. But once that music is made, how do you seduce audiences away from classical and pop music?
Accessibility was a 1980's buzzword, admired by marketers, abhorred by academicians, but really a deeply American concept, since we have uniquely had the task of building up a musical culture in a self-conscious age. But does music gain quality from striving for accessibility? Does it gain audience members?
A key to appreciating Suzanne Vega's story is that it is essentially no different than those of other American mavericks: namely, the pursuit of that most fundamentally democratic and American of goals – all-encompassing success – alongside the desire for invention and disruption of the norm.
Suzanne weighed just two and a half pounds when she was born, two months prematurely, on July 11, 1959 in Santa Monica, California. Her parents [right] divorced before or shortly after her first birthday. For many years she had no contact with her father. Vega's mother, a computer program analyst of German-Swedish extraction, remarried in 1960. About a year later she and her second husband, Ed Vega, a Puerto-Rican-born writer and teacher, moved with Suzanne to New York City, to East 109th Street between First and Second Avenue. Growing up in Hispanic neighborhoods with the three children born to her mother and stepfather Suzanne Vega spoke Spanish as well as English.
"My family lived in East Harlem for five years before moving to the Upper West Side…My mother had never been to New York – she grew up in the Mid-west – so "Harlem" didn't mean anything to her. She didn't know what she was getting into. When I asked her recently what she thought when we moved in, she told me she was just happy we were living in a three-story house instead of an apartment. We lived there because there wasn't any other place to go.
I'd fall down our narrow red linoleum-covered stairs all the time because I was off in my fantasy world instead of paying attention to what was in front of me. I remember coming face-to-face with the little nails sticking up out of the linoleum on many occasions. I liked to play in the front yard, which was a plain concrete patch enclosed by an iron fence topped with little spikes, but I really adored playing in the backyard with its weed tree. It was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn kind of tree, a tree with no name, that would drop little seeds that I loved to play with. There were caterpillars on the branches that I'd get to walk up my arm. Beyond the tree was a part of the yard that was dirt. Because we were in a courtyard, whatever people would throw out their window landed there. My mother didn't allow me to go to that part of the yard, but every so often I would do it anyway, travel all the way across our lot to the place where most of the stuff was. I was fascinated by all this junk. I loved finding little fuses back there. You could clear away the dirt from a fuse's window and see a little blue thing inside." (From Solo: Women Singer-Songwriters, 1998.)
Even in this short vignette, Vega's preference for the introvert's world-of-the-mind, of day-dreaming, and a heightened sensitivity to detail and her senses is marked. A short poem, written at age 9, titled "By Myself," captures the sense of solitude:
I stand by myself
Not lonely at all
I listen to the little birds
Beckon and call.
I stand by myself
By the pond, with the fish
And now I don't even
Have one little wish
Except to be by myself
Each and every day
And come down to the woods
Where the little dear play.
("By Myself." Suzanne Vega)
When Suzanne was about 11, she began to "fool around" on a guitar and teach herself some chords. "I got some chords from my father and I got some chords from my Uncles. Then, I guess, I wrote my first song when I was 14. It took me 3 years to write it. It was a country song. It was a country song written to my younger brother Matthew."
Now you come back here, you scruffy little brother
Come on back here and let me kiss you good night
'Cause I know if you were gone I'd miss the sound of laughter
And that's gonna make everything all right,
Yes, that's gonna make everything all right.
Suzanne was enrolled in the High School for the Performing Arts. "I focused on dance studios – the wooden floors, the big mirrors, everyone dressed in pink or black tights, the musicians accompanying us – and the feeling of ritual the classes had," Suzanne would reminisce years later. Although she did well academically, and attended The New Dance Group Studio after hours on scholarship, Suzanne decided that she would not excel in dancing, to be among the best.
…I really really wanted to stand out and I wanted to shine and I didn't want to be in the chorus. And I kind of had a really bad attitude. Because I wasn't willing to do anything. I wasn't willing to do what it took to be a good dancer. If I didn't like the teacher or if I didn't like the choreographer, I wouldn't give my best. I thought to much. I spent a lot of time thinking about things and I didn't really have the technique to really shine and stand out. I was really...and also very shy. I started to think that maybe songwriting was a really good way to go because I then I felt like I had a wide open field. I felt like I had some kind of instinct. I felt that at least I could stand on a stage by myself and if I failed then I had no one to answer to except myself. So, when I was 18 I stopped dancing. (From The Learning Annex Discussion, January 1995.)
Driven to make a mark, ambitious and quick-witted, with an aversion to routine, Suzanne shifted her energies to music.
Besides dancing at school and the studio, I'd written all these songs and had begun to play them at auditions. I felt I'd have a chance to shine more if I focused on writing instead of dancing. One of the pianists for my dance classes knew I wrote songs and told me that I wouldn't do well in the world of commercial music because I was so shy and the music business was so horrible. He suggested that I buy the Village Voice to find out where the little coffeehouses were and then go audition at them. He said it was a very gentle scene that I'd be comfortable with. So I read the Voice and went to one coffeehouse in a church basement on Eighty-sixth Street. There was a woman there named Mary Grace in a long white dress playing an autoharp and singing "Wild Mountain Thyme." I said to myself, Okay, I can do this. Mary Grace liked my songs and she gave me a booking seven months from the date of that audition – the following year – January 2, 1976. So that was my first gig. (From Solo: Women Singer-Songwriters.)
In September 1981 the Musician's Cooperative, consisting of musicians such as Jack Hardy, took over a Greenwich Village disco that was around the corner from Folk City, and re-opened it as the "Speak Easy," an all-folk music club, that would operate as a cooperative. One of those involved was Suzanne Vega.
Within a few months the Cooperative began to publish a monthly "Fast Folk Musical Magazine" titled The CooP, which usually consisted of commentary, essays, reviews, and lyrics. It also contained a vinyl LP. Two years later The Coop was re-titled as Fast Folk.
Suzanne's lyrics and music appeared in twelve issues of The CooP/Fast Folk between February 1982 and October 1992. On CooP Volume 1, Number 1 from February 1982, one hears on track four Suzanne's recording of "Cracking." To listen to it today is to travel back to a quiet but significant musical moment. It sounds unlike anything else on the album and quite unlike anything else in music – it is an entirely original sound. (The Coop/Fast Folk recordings are available through Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.) If the record resembles anything, it is the simplicity of Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" (from Transformer, 1972) with its unspoken evocation of New York City, its ambiguous, oddly disturbing lyric, its sense of aimless wandering, and the menace beneath an apparently idyllic façade. Suzanne attended a Lou Reed concert in 1979 that proved to be pivotal in the evolution of her writing.
His performance and his songs shocked me, disturbed me. He was the first performer I had ever seen who had acknowledged the lifestyle I grew up in, difficult neighborhoods and people who are violent. His performance kept seeping into my mind and I bought a couple of his records. I realized I could write songs about things I experienced. The subways, the streets, lonely people, damaged people. I began to see that I could be a contemporary folk singer, maybe opening another chapter. Mix in some other influences like jazz in the music and minimalism in the lyrics…Fuse folk and minimalism -- Lou Reed made the link in my mind. (Interview with Anthony Scaduto.)
Through Reed's work she realized that there was no need to tell "the whole story" in a song, or even to "make logical sense."
During 1982, three additional compositions by Vega would find their way onto The Fast Folk Magazine: Lucy Kaplanski's performance of "Gypsy" (SE102, March 1982); Suzanne's performance of "Gypsy" (SE105, June 1982); and "Knight Moves" (SE108, September 1982). Suzanne's live appearances during this time were largely at Folk City. She would first play there June 4th, 1980, and played there again in July 1980 and in February 1982. Between March and December of 1982 she would play at the Speak Easy seven times. In November 1982 she traveled to upstate New York to play the Jefferson Community College, in Watertown.
The week of November 1st 1982 was the beginning of a several days away from Suzanne's job at Crown Publishers. Earlier in the year she had graduated from Barnard College with her BA in English and had taken this day job, as Co-op Advertising Manager, to make ends meet. It is a moment captured in her journal:
Tuesday November 2, 1982:
…The ride up was beautiful. I am too tired to think, though, and I am losing the desire and the discipline to write in a journal. Not fair, not fair! I want a record of the days that are going by too quickly, and I desperately need to be more creative. My job is squeezing the spontaneity out of me. ("Watertown: A Journal," from The Passionate Eye, Avon Books.)
The engagement in Watertown is part of her ongoing second job to pursue her dream "to be a famous singer and songwriter." The local AM radio station, WTNY, sponsors a weekly concert series, "Coffeehouse 790," at the Jefferson Community College's James McVean Theatre. She traveled the 300 miles from New York City the day before, a trip of eight hours by bus, staying over at the City Line Motel.
Over the next few days she'll play in places like Watertown, Geneseo, and Bloomsburg, one of many apprenticing musicians; writing--or trying to write--playing whenever and wherever possible, and working day jobs to pay the bills.
In a primitive, partial recording that exists from the performance at Coffeehouse 790, one hears amongst several early compositions, performances of "Straight Lines" and "Some Journey," songs which would later appear on her first album, Suzanne Vega. That "Straight Lines" follows the more traditional "Playing" only heightens the impact of hearing it. It has the same effect as seeing a master's painting alongside an accomplished amateur's sketch. One wonders to what extent Vega realized then that in "Straight Lines" she had achieved an entirely unique sound and aesthetic. The guitar line is precise, skeletal, unmistakably Vega; the lyric crisp, sharp, assertive. "Straight Lines" is, like "Cracking," a singular act of originality, a sound no one has ever quite made before.
So today I am getting back on the bus for NYC. I wish I had time to write down my impressions of Geneseo and Bloomsburg.
Bloomsburg seems to be a sad little town. I like it. The audience was the best one I've had, I think. They were like me! Reserved, but they liked the music, and came up in between the sets and requested songs from the LPs and I thought, "They really came to hear me and not just the 'coffeehouse performer. (The Passionate Eye.)
Earlier, while performing in 1981 at the Speakeasy, Suzanne had attracted the attention of Steve Addabbo and Ronald K. Fierstein, who had just formed a musical management partnership. (One source reported that the men approached her after hearing a radio broadcast of a recording made as a cooperative venture by Vega and other Village musicians.) As 1983 wound down it was apparent to Suzanne that she had taken her musical career as far as was possible while still holding down the full-time job at Crown, so she quit the job at Crown to devote herself full time to music.
In late January she played The Bottom Line for the first time and in April 1984, she recorded a professional five-song demo tape. She continued to play at Folk City and the Speak Easy as well as the Iron Horse, a club in Northhampton. Then in everything came together with breath-taking speed in the fall of 1984: a contract with A&M Records, a glowing review in The New York Times, an eleven concert tour of Italy, and the recording of her first album.
The freshest and clearest new voice on the New York folk- music scene these days belongs to Suzanne Vega... [She] has the pristine enunciation and ringing, acoustic guitar style that make her an heir to the folk-pop tradition of Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Joni Mitchell. But the introverted, diamond- hard imagery of her song lyrics, many of which describe New York's street life with a photographic objectivity, and her trancelike melodies that favor the whole-tone scale also reflect new-wave and Eastern influences. (Stephen Holden, The New York Times. September 28, 1984.)
Suzanne's first album was released in April 1985. Critics greeted the album enthusiastically. "[Vega] emerges as the strongest, most decisively shaped songwriting personality to come along in years," John Rockwell wrote in a New York Times (April 14, 1985) review, in which he called the album "a major achievement". In New York Newsday (May 7, 1985), Wayne Robins described it as "one of 1985's most satisfying debuts, a varied yet firmly reined tour de force that puts in sharp focus Vega's multiple assets." "[Vega] is a masterfully economical and literate lyricist whose piercing images repeatedly strike an emotional bull's-eye." he continued. "She's a gifted melodist and an instinctively clever singer whose voice veers, when appropriate, from aloofness to intimacy. Vega's strength is in lean, provocative imagery and unlikely but dazzling metaphors."
In a review of Suzanne Vega for Esquire (November 1985), Sarah Crighton wrote:
New York folkies haven't had a singer to swoon over for a long time, but they do now. They have Suzanne Vega, whose self-titled A&M debut album is causing palpitations in Folk City circles. They're calling the twenty-six-year-old singer-songwriter the new early Bob Dylan, the new early Joni Mitchell, and yes, the new early Leonard Cohen. Those who worry she will be tainted by the folkie label are also calling her the new folk-style Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, Patti Smith. It's not old-style folk music, they argue, it's proto-minimalist folk-rock. Several songs, they'll tell you, are prime examples of a new musical form: "folk-rap fusion."
With wit, grace, intelligence, and an honestly cruel edge, [Vega] skates past the pitfalls of folk music. While she is often found in the stranglehold of love, she watches herself with irony and unflinching insight. Underneath her cool detachment lies a heat that comes from burrowing beyond defenses to see what lies in her heart and her mind. What Vega finds there is startling, distinctive, true.
Much to the surprise of A&M, who had anticipated selling 30,000 albums, about 250,000 copies of Suzanne Vega were sold in the United States and more than 500,000 abroad (in England, "Marlene on the Wall" became a hit single). In its November 1989 issue, Rolling Stone included the album in its list of the one hundred best albums of the 1980s.
The ten songs of Suzanne Vega represent one of the strongest debuts in pop and it immediately established Suzanne as a major recording artist. "Cracking," the curtain-raiser for the album, is a particularly appropriate opening – as it foreshadows many of her later recordings: the stark instrumentation, the prominent acoustic guitar, the centrality of rhythm and beat, the short, sharp, jagged consonants and vowels juxtaposed against flowing guitar and bass lines. Present are her signature themes of interior worlds of imagination and fantasy set in hard, urban landscapes. Also present is a subtle connection to rap music: Vega's affinity for rap's rhythms and structures are one source of an enduring contradiction and tension in her music – her image, among many, as a "folk" singer of pastoral songs, and the reality of her pluralist musical interests.
I feel this kind of strange affinity for rap music and the way that they use the language: short words with lots of consonants, and it's hard and it's fast and it's rhythmic.
As a model of pure, almost architectural structure, "Cracking" might well be without peer. The quality of the writing on rest of the album is of an impossibly high order. In addition to "Cracking," are at least a half dozen other songs that would make Vega's career: "Small Blue Thing," "The Queen and the Soldier," "Freeze Tag," "Marlene on the Wall," "Some Journey," "Straight Lines," "Undertow," and so on – an embarrassment of riches.
In the wake of Suzanne Vega, she was asked to play for the Prince's Trust in June of 1986 at Wembley Arena, contribute the lyric to Philip Glass' composition, "Freezing," and played two shows at The Royal Albert Hall in November 1986. She was also commissioned to write a pop song for the movie, "Pretty in Pink." The result was the song "Left of Center." It had been little more than 30 months since she had played at the Jefferson Community College.
During 1985-86, Suzanne played over 70 concerts around the world -- Boston, Toronto, Ireland, Hollywood, Dallas, Berlin, Zurich, and London. In the midst of touring, she recorded Solitude Standing. Released in April of 1987, it reached number 2 on the album charts in Great Britain and, in the United States, reached number eleven on Billboard's album chart and number six on its compact-disc chart. Ultimately, more than three million copies of the album were sold worldwide.
Critics expressed admiration for Solitude Standing. Eric Pooley described it as "a thing of great beauty" and the songs, with the exception of a couple of older ballads, as "modernist, point-of-view pieces, pored-down character studies a world away from the whiny, confessional songs of seventies singer-songwriters." "Vega's work manages to be both detached and passionate," he wrote, "coolly observed moments of deep emotion or isolation."
In its lead review of the album, Rolling Stone wrote:
Call Suzanne Vega uneasy listening. Beneath the pretty, acoustic-based melodies on her debut album, Suzanne Vega, released two years ago, was a series of impressionistic images: a gilted lover crying in a hallway ("Knight Moves"), a framed photograph acting as a caustic observer of the narrator's love life ("Marlene on the Wall"), someone walking shell-shocked through a park ("Cracking"). Add to that Vega's soft, distanced voice, set to her own brittle acoustic guitar and understated, almost gothic arrangements, and the result was the most striking singer-songwriter debut since the genre's early-Seventies heyday. Solitude Standing, Vega's long-awaited second album, ups the ante…On initial listen, "Luka," the first single, seems an upbeat folk-rock number with a killer hook of a chorus. Then you notice the lyrics: "They only hit until you cry/And after that you don't ask why/You just don't argue anymore." Only a writer as skillful and subtle as Vega could write a potent song about child abuse that gets your feet tapping while putting across its point. (David Browne, Rolling Stone Magazine.)
"I didn't want ‘Luka' to be a self-pitying song about a boy sitting on a stoop feeling miserable", Vega told Anthony Scaduto. "That kid had a dignity, as kids do, and that's what I wanted to come out. The strength, the backbone... All I wanted to do was reveal his point of view. [The song is] unresolved, frustrating, like it is in real life. By leaving it ambiguous, it makes people think twice about it."
During her conversation with Bill DeMain, Vega described another aspect of her approach in writing "Luka": "The audience in the song is the neighbor. So it was kind of writing a play. First of all, how do you introduce the character? You do that by saying, 'My name is Luka. I live on the second floor.' And then you get the audience involved, saying, "I live upstairs from you. So you've seen me before.' You're incriminating the audience. You're pointing the finger without really doing it. You're unfolding this story that can't really be told and you're involving the audience in it and that was what I wanted to do."
I'd been listening to the Lou Reed Berlin album that Sunday when I wrote the song. And you can really draw a straight line between "Luka" and that album. That Berlin album is filled with references of domestic violence and all kinds of violence. The songs are all in major keys. They're all done on acoustic guitar. So for me, ["Luka"] is like the extra song on the Berlin album. To me, stylistically, it almost belonged there. (Suzanne Vega in Song Talk, Vol. 2, #16, Winter 1991)
"Luka" received Grammy nominations for record of the year and song of the year; Vega herself was nominated in the category of the best female vocalist. "Luka" also earned single-of-the-year and song-of- the-year honors at the 1987 New York Music Awards (at which Vega was also named artist of the year and best folk artist and Solitude Standing named best pop album). The video for "Luka" won an MTV award for best video, female vocalist.
In addition to "Luka," Solitude Standing featured gems such as "Ironbound/Fancy Poultry," "Language," "Gypsy," "Solitude Standing," and the peerless "Wooden Horse," which Rolling Stone called "one of Vega's most chilling songs."
Symbolic of the success of Solitude Standing, and Suzanne Vega's growing reputation, was her triumphant return to New York City, to play at Carnegie Hall in July of 1987, and at Radio City Music Hall in October. Nevertheless, the sudden celebrity had its consequences:
Yeah, it was frightening because you feel yourself being blown up out of proportion. I mean, I've always felt life size or smaller sometime. I mean the songs are all about being small. So to feel yourself being blown up into a cartoon is a very peculiar thing. Everything is questioned. Why do you wear black? Why do you have a short haircut? Why don't you wear more make-up? Why are you so skinny? Why are you so pale? Why are you this? Why are you that? Why do you play acoustic guitar? What's "Luka" about? Why do you wear that...? (The Learning Annex Discussion, January 1995.)
Continue with part 2