Suzanne Vega: Still singing stories from the diner on the corner
In 2018, Suzanne Vega toured her two albums, Solitude Standing and 99.9 F° in back-to-back sets, separated by an interval. This is my definition of heaven. Not only are those two records my favourite by Suzanne, but they are both in my all-time top 30 albums ever. And — an interval — how very civilised! I attended the show twice: at the London Palladium and then later at G-Live in Guildford (probably the most civilised place to see live music in the UK, if a little over-run with the older crowd). Actually, the Guilford show was too civilised. We were running a little late, and by the time we arrived at all of 8.15, Suzanne was four numbers in, half-way through ‘In The Eye’. I ask you, since when did pop concerts start bang on time like that, just because the company directors and head teachers have to be home by 10.30?
To my company of the evening, two dear friends and my wife this was mildly irritating, but to me it was mildly devastating. It meant we had missed Tom’s Diner and Luka, two of Vega’s biggest and best known songs — what a shame for my companions. However, it also meant that I had missed Ironbound and that quietly broke a little corner of my heart. Because Ironbound is one of the saddest and most beautiful album tracks ever produced, in my humble opinion. It is a heart-wrenching story of an immigrant mother and market shopper, low on spirit and low on coin: “She stops at the stall, and fingers the ring, she opens her purse and feels a longing”.
The lyrics to Ironbound are sad as hell but the music matches them, a melody with such melancholy and darkness it’s almost unbearable — and it is brilliant. It segues into the companion piece Fancy Poultry which is an advert for unaffordable chicken, with the exception of backs (cheap) and wings (nearly free). Above all else, she is a master storyteller — and her live shows are embellished by her easy going abilities as a raconteur. Rare as rocking horse shit these days.
One of the many pleasures of that tour was Vega’s touring band. Ironbound has the most perfectly measured guitar lines, and Vega’s long-term guitarist/collaborator Gerry Leonard (also notable for his work with Bowie) plays those lines with subtle perfection. At London’s Palladium I was mesmerized, and hence at G-Live, so disappointed not to be able to drink it in a second time. Still, what a show concept that was. Having spent most of 1987 listening to Solitude Standing and a good chunk of 1992 in the company of 99.9 F°, revisiting those records with these shows is something I’m eternally grateful for, and my great hope is that once the live business finally gets back on its feet, more legendary artists will revive the trend of touring their classic albums with a bit of imagination.
In a way, the real delight of those shows was ‘Act 2’: 99.9 F. Five years after Solitude Standing (and following up on the lesser-acclaimed Days Of Open Hand), Vega had returned with a completely transformed sound and style, reducing the folk that had formed her core and instead hitting out with electrified pop-rock and sonic effects (the lead single Blood Makes Noise reached no. 1 on the ‘Billboard Modern Rock Tracks’ chart). It harks back to those days when part of the career arc for music artists was to make albums with a distinctive sound from the previous one, the notorious ‘change of direction’ that used to make record labels nervous (and probably still does). To my mind, 99.9 F is better twinned with the following album Nine Objects Of Desire in which she kept the same style — adult contemporary pop rock (Birth-Day is virtually a companion piece to Blood Makes Noise). Both albums were made in close collaboration with her then husband, producer Mitchell Froom. It is another excellent Vega record, and in so many ways would have made a more suitable double-act for touring with 99.9 F (as perhaps her debut would have paired well with ‘Solitude’ but hey, I’m now drifting into pure fantasy). If only the world’s greatest catalogue artists would come to their sense and consult us on repertoire strategy here at TSS!
As it turned out, ‘Nine Objects’ was not a commercial success (sometimes the workings of the music business and audience behaviours are mystifying), possibly because Suzanne left it four years between albums, something not allowed by today’s industry masters and gatekeepers. Perhaps for that reason, she brought back the folk (though kept some of the electronic touches) for sixth album Songs In Red And Grey — one of those ‘divorce albums’ that most career artists inevitably get to make at some point. Although the record contains some fine songs (three of which are included here) once again the album was not a commercial success and ended up being her last for A&M Records. At the time it might have felt devastating and disorientating, but she was beyond disillusioned with the machinations of corporate music by that point and if the lyrics of ‘Red And Grey’ are anything to go by, the institution of marriage as well. Unshackled of both, where would she go next?
Over the course of all six albums some continuity is provided by Vega’s willingness to face into the darkness. Whether it be the seduction of solitude, physical abuse, death or indeed bitter divorce, she has never been afraid to express her fascination with morbidity — even if she does it with occasional light touches of humour. This stems all the way from her teenage influences — dark movies (Vega described Taxi Driver as “beautiful in a very violent and terrible way”), Lou Reed, Monty Python. Oh yes, Suzanne is another American drawn to our drole British take on life (and she fell for a boy in Liverpool once as she recounts ‘In Liverpool’).
After one well-respected album with Blue Note (2007’s Beauty & Crime) between 2008 and 2013 Suzanne launched and built the foundations of an independent career (a familiar path for established career artists) by re-recording her back catalog in acoustic versions — The Close Up Series. The project produced four volumes, each one focusing on a different aspect of human nature she observes to spin her stories in song: Love, People & Places, States of Being and Family. At the time she told the New Yorker “I noticed that a lot of artists, like Carly Simon and Dar Williams, were recording acoustic versions of their songs, which is a way of owning the masters. You don’t own the original recordings, but at least you own something.” The desire to take back control ended up a fruitful labour, since the The Close Up series revealed a new character to many of her classic studio tracks (with a few of my own favourites included here).
From there, she found the inspiration to get back to new material with Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles — which might be viewed as one of her more curious steps (by the title alone). But the real Suzanne Vega is all there: that simple and pure (almost spoken) voice, the bookish lyrics, and in this case accompanied by the original arrangements of Gerry Leonard. Bonus.
It seems to me that Suzanne Vega has cracked the code of a long term recording artist career. It is fruitless to attempt to mine the same creative core that drove her early work and absurd to hold onto the same levels of commercial success — she discovered that 30 years ago with Days Of Open Hand. But then with that last 2018 tour, she acknowledges once again just how good her catalogue material is and how much it meant to people then just as it does now. Music lasts a lifetime for the creator and the fan. Those long-term career artists that blindly insist their most recent work is their best aren’t really fooling anyone, and possibly neglecting their heritage. Suzanne has become notorious for taking her time between new material. I wonder what she would make of Spotify CEO Daniel Ek’s recent comments that artists cannot get away with making albums every two years these days!
In this ‘third phase’ of her recording career, her freedom to go wherever she wants is rewarding for the listeners that stick alongside her through thick and thin. And, as she has with the new record, she can and always will, return to New York, and the rich seam of people-watching in that place that never fails to inspire another story. She spins tales with economy of classic American short story tellers, proper melodies and then, that voice. She’s still sitting at the counter at the diner on the corner. How very reassuring.
Suzanne Vega’s ‘An Evening of New York Songs and Stories’ is just released