During October 1997 Suzanne Vega broadcast her performances at The Knitting Factory in New York City over the internet. Although this was less than 20 years ago (after all, Apollo 11 landed on the moon over 45 years ago) reading the old Undertow email posts to the list-serv (a fan-run email distribution list that pre-dated things like Facebook or Twitter) is a reminder not just of how much things have changed in the world of consumer IT, but the lengths to which fans would and did resort to engaging both with each other and with Suzanne.
Today, one can send out a tweet or post to Facebook with ease compared to the arm-twisting gyrations of long ago. Yet, although I would not wish to go back to those ancient and much more fiddly days, the sheer effort to connect online engendered an appreciation — an awe — of any online connection that one does not normally get when using today’s tools.
(The image above, by the way, is a capture of a part of the undertow email archive; there is a strange beauty to its arcane headers and other routing data.)
Here’s a flavor of the conversation between members of The Undertow trying to connect to Suzanne’s Knitting Factory concerts through the now-crude 28 kbps dial-up modems of the time. It is charming that trying to capture a 20 MB video file (of the entire 90 minute concert) was daunting, that we reveled in a screen resolution of 640 x 480, and that RealAudio was the cat’s meow.
Still, there was something engaging about the email-based approach to an online community and the sense of marvel of accomplishing anything on the equipment of the day.
From firstname.lastname@example.org Fri Oct 3 18:33:30 1997
Received: (from majordomo@localhost)
by misc.meer.net (8.8.7/8.8.7) id SAA18232
for undertow-list; from meer.meer.net (meer.meer.net [188.8.131.52])
Received: from arl-img-10.compuserve.com (arl-img-10.compuserve.com [184.108.40.206]) for <email@example.com>;
Subject: Suzanne on stage now
To: Undertow <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Content-Type: text/plain; charset=ISO-8859-1
X-MIME-Autoconverted: from quoted-printable to 8bit by meer.meer.net id SAA26335
I can’t believe this – I’m sat at home in England watching Suze live on
stage in New York. The sound is a bit like AM radio, but still worth the
effort, even on a 28.8 modem.
It’s now 2:20am here and she’s playing Gypsy. I heard Tom’s Diner during
the soundcheck, which sounded very different! I’ll have to see if I last
till the end. Wish I could tape it… trouble is we pay for the phone calls
over here so I can’t afford to fall asleep!
I only loaded the Real Audio Player today, which by a strange coincidence I
found on the cover disk of a magazine (PC Pro). Does anyone know if the
picture or sound improves much on faster connections? My sister has a fixed
connection at work, though I don’t know if she’s allowed in to the building
at night. If they’re broadcasting tomorrow, I guess she might go in and
hang a casette deck of the back of the soundcard for me…. can’t work out
how to save the video though.
Can’t really make out the chat between the songs
Anyway back to the show – now we’re on Neigborhood Girls.BYEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Subject: Knitting Factory Broadcast (was: Suzanne on stage now)
To: Undertow <email@example.com>
Content-Type: text/plain; charset=ISO-8859-1
X-MIME-Autoconverted: from quoted-printable to 8bit by meer.meer.net id QAA14565
You almost got there, the site your looking for is indeed
knittingfactory.com. From their homepage, click on “Live”, to get to the
page you need:
Then click on the Real Audio logo. Set your video resolutionto 640×480,
turn the speakers up, the lights down and enjoy!
Incidentally, does anyone know if it’s possible to save the show to disk?
According to my browser last night the whole show was somewhere in the
region of 15Mb at 19k per second on a 28.8 connection, over the hour and
3/4 I was connected. Trouble is, right clicking doesn’t give you a save
option. My connection stayed up right through the show with no
interrruptions at all to the sound, but I did lose the video right at the
end, don’t know why. I dropped to one frame every 20 seconds or so, which
hardly counts as video any more <g>.
Comments: Authenticated sender is <firstname.lastname@example.org>
From: “BobK” <email@example.com>
To: “‘firstname.lastname@example.org'” <email@example.com>
Date: Sun, 5 Oct 1997 00:03:23 +0000
Subject: One small step for Suzanne …
X-mailer: Pegasus Mail for Windows (v2.10)
… which I say because watching her hazy, postage-stamp-sized image
tonight reminded me mostly of that hazy, black-and-white image of
Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon (which I’ve only seen reruns
of, thankyouverymuch) — or of what it must have been like when my
parents were kids to see those first crude televisions with the tiny
screens, viewing shows that had to be aired live because videotape
didn’t exist yet.
In other words — in 5 or 10 years we’ll probably be laughing at the
crudity of these net-broadcasts, but for now I’m just stunned that
it’s happening at all. It’s been a little over 10 years since I
attended my first Suzanne Vega concert, and I never imagined that a
decade hence I’d be watching her in New York from my bedroom in
Florida. (Or that I’d be living in Florida, but that’s another
Anyway, the sound was adequate — slightly rough AM radio minus the
static and interference, with only a few pauses for Net congestion.
The image was usually just a series of still photos, but the video
flowed nicely while they were playing “Tom’s Diner”; you could see
Suzanne doing her little dance.
And what a performance, too! Unfortunately, I was having dinner with
friends and didn’t make it back till 10, so I missed a lot of the
show. But what I saw made me wish I’d been there with all of you.
The arrangements were fantastic (this was kind of like Sessions minus
the intrusive camera work), especially on the revamped “Tom’s Diner.”
This basically struck me as the original a-capella version married
with the instrumental “reprise” at the end of Solitude — which,
frankly, always annoyed me so much that I just stop playing the album
after “Wooden Horse” ends. But this hybrid, I’m convinced, is the
song as it always should have been. It came across as sort of Kurt
Weill, maybe sort of Marlene Dietrich (don’t ask me to justify that
last comparison; this voice in my head is making me type all these
things), a lot of fun, and a great change from all those awkward
pauses that typically arise while the audience gets up its nerve to
start singing. The a-capella is the classic, but it’s had its day;
the singalong was fun but it was getting old. Now Suzanne has
exorcised the ghost of DNA, taken back her song and made it fresh
“World Before Columbus” and “Queen and the Soldier” were each
heartbreaking, in their own way. And I think it’s been a decade since
I’ve heard Suzanne play “Undertow” — was that just for us? If so,
thanks. Thanks for playing it, whatever the reason.
Has anyone else been checking in all day to see what’s happening at
the Knitting Factory? It’s voyeuristic, but kind of neat, to watch
people wandering around at random, moving ladders, etc. — though I
wish these people would speak up! Only kidding. Anyway, I got to hear
“Tom’s Diner” twice today because they played it in the soundcheck
before I had to leave. It’s funny how recognizable Suzanne was even
though her face wasn’t really discernible on the screen.
After the show, there were a few men and women milling about in front
of the stage and shaking hands with the equipment guys. Any
Undertowers among you?
Anyway, I’ve got plans tomorrow night but I hope to get back in time
to catch more of the show than I did tonight. Any chance we can
make these RealVideo feeds a standard part of Suzanne’s tour? (Of
course, a few of her more avid fans would probably be lobbying for a
24-hour SuzanneCam following her every move. Big Brother is here and
it is us, folks.)
All in all — a giant leap for Undertow-kind!
— Bob, flogging those analogies till they squeal
“If you don’t want me juggling your balls, don’t throw them in my
— Michelle Pfeiffer in a dopey movie I saw today
P.S. This Knitting Factory Suzanne-cam inspired me to upgrade from
RealAudio 3 to RealPlayer 4, which includes the video capability. Has
anyone here bothered to spend $30 for the RealPlayer Plus, which
has a button for recording to the hard disk?