99.9 F °

99.9 ° F by Suzanne Vega 1992

99.9 F ° came out in 1992. I’ve always been a fan of the album and I thought the 25th anniversary of its release was a good time to pull something together. I hope you enjoy the essay.

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In the fall of 1991 Def Jam released the album Daddy’s Little Girl by Nikki D. Its lead track “Daddy’s Little Girl” reached #1 on the Billboard Hot Rap Singles Chart.

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Excerpt: "Daddy's Little Girl" by Nikki D.

Nikki D’s rap was built around a sample of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” (more precisely, Nikki D’s version is a sample of DNA’s sample of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner”). It’s another chapter of the long, strange and amusing journey of that song. But I chose it to begin an essay on Vega’s 1992 album 99.9 F ° because hip-hop is one of the elements that informs the album and is one of the more intriguing aspects of the music of Suzanne Vega because many casual listeners generally associate her with “folk” music.

The transformation of Vega’s a cappella version of “Tom’s Diner” from Solitude Standing (1987) into a club mix by British producers DNA (1990) and then into a multitude of versions, including Nikki D’s rap, is a direct link between hip-hop and Vega’s music but I think that other, earlier songs have rap elements as well.

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“Cracking,” the lead track from Vega’s first album (Suzanne Vega 1985) is a song with rap-like cadences wrapped in the package of “alternative rock” or “alternative folk”. (One of the conundrums, and amusements, of writing about Vega’s work is how best to classify music that resists taxonomy.)

Words — their sound, meaning, and beat — take center stage in this song and Vega’s performance of it may not resemble the stereotype of the aggressive rap performance that people might have in mind, but it shares the same focus on enunciation and how the performer’s syncopation of the syllables is more important than the need to carry a melodic line.

Excerpt: "Cracking" by Suzanne Vega

The guitar in “Cracking” is also noteworthy. It is a bit like a sample itself, an acoustic guitar version of a repetitive synthesizer figure such as Pete Townsend’s famous element that introduces and runs throughout his composition “Baba O’Reilly.”

In its hypnotic simplicity and the way it cycles through continuously without interruption, Vega’s guitar line in “Cracking” is similar to the way hip-hop also cycles through a loop of a short, catchy musical phrase. These clean instrumental figures are important for rap DJ sampling.

Below is a mix of excerpts from Townsend’s original demo tape for “Baba O’Reilly” and then Vega’s “Cracking” guitar line.

Excerpts: Pete Townsend's demo for
"Baba O'Reilly;" "Cracking" by Suzanne
Vega from "Up Close Volume 3."

Part of my argument of Vega as an artist whose aesthetic is understood, in part, through the lens of hip-hop, is also expressed by Mark Grief in his essay “Learning to Rap:”

I’ve met real fans of pop music who tell me that they honestly never listen to the lyrics, and don’t hear them.

In rap, though, words are the music. Because it speaks in whole sentences, indeed in stanzas, with extended metaphors, quotations, puns – and especially jokes, often jokes that make you think before you laugh — hip-hop is complexly articulate in a way that separates it from the rest of popular music.

Hip-hop develops capabilities on one side, the lyrical, beyond anything that has ever been developed in the musical arts before. It communicates as language does, because essentially it is language, not just song.

In songs as varied as “Cracking,” “Headshots,” “Unbound,” “As Girls Go,” “Daddy is White,” “Laying on of Hands / Stoic 2” and others, drawn from across the whole of her career, there is the similar focus by Vega on language and wordplay as well as how words sit on the song’s beat which often features strong drum and bass lines.

Excerpts: "Headshots," "Daddy is White," "Unbound," 
"Laying on of Hands / Stoic 2," "As Girls Go" by 
Suzanne Vega

Indeed, the nature of language is the focus of one Vega song, “Language,” and the feeling of being unable to communicate, the focus of another, “Rusted Pike.”

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99.9 F ° landed at an interesting time. Just before Vega’s record, A Tribe Called Quest (ATCQ) put out The Low End Theory (1991). It is one of the best rap recordings and is also one that aptly illustrates Mark Grief’s points about the nature of rap.

From “Jazz:”

Stern firm and young with a laid-back tongue
The aim is to succeed and achieve at 21
Just like Ringling Brothers, I’ll daze and astound
Captivate the mass, cause the prose was profound
Do it for the strong, we do it for the meek
Boom it in your boom it in your boom it in your Jeep
Or your Honda or your Beemer or your Legend or your Benz
The rave of the town to your foes and your friends
So push it, along, trails, we blaze
Don’t deserve the gong, don’t deserve the praise
The tranquility will make you unball your fist
For we put Hip Hop on a brand new twist
A brand new twist with a whole heap of mystic
So low-key that you probably missed it
And yet it’s so loud that it stands in the crowd
When the guy takes the beat, they bowed

Excerpt: "Jazz" by A Tribe Called Quest.

 

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“Blood Makes Noise,” the second track of 99.9 F ° with its pulsing bass, Vega’s idiosyncratic New York accent, and her unique style of singing — a kind of musical recitation — is an example of the affinity between her music and hip-hop. Most of all, however, is the similar pride-of-place reserved for the words — their meaning and how it feels to say them aloud. I think Vega and ATCQ could easily swap places on these songs.

I’d like to help you doctor, yes I really really would
But the din in my head it’s too much and it’s no good
I’m standing in a windy tunnel shouting through the roar
And I’d like to give the information you’re asking for
But blood makes noise
It’s a ringing in my ear
Blood makes noise
And I can’t really hear you
In the thickening of fear
I think that you might want to know the details and the facts
But there’s something in my blood denies the memory of the acts
So just forget it Doc I think it’s really cool that you’re concerned
But we’ll have to try again after the silence has returned

Excerpt: "Blood Makes Noise" by Suzanne Vega.

On “Excursions” A Tribe Called Quest sampled from the Last Poets’ “Time” by Omar Ben Hassen from the 1971 album This is Madness. The lines ATCQ selected further accentuates the artistic parallels, at least in my mind, between themselves and Vega. Just as with Suzanne, there is the same poetic beauty and intellectual dexterity to the words and images:

Time, time is a ship on a merciless sea
Drifting toward an average of nothingness
Until it can be retarded for its own destiny
Time is an inanimate object
Praying and praying and praying with no justification for relief
Time is dancing, boogalooing away all memories of past

Excerpt: "Time" by Omar Ben Hassen from "This is Madness."

99.9 F ° is also simpatico with hip-hop in its visual style. The album’s color scheme echoes the bold and garish look of graffiti art. The album also features a form of stencil graffiti on the cover.

99.9 F album art detail of stencil graffiti-inspired graphic

99.9 F ° album art detail of stencil graffiti-inspired graphic

Suzanne’s late brother, Tim Vega, was a graphic designer who worked in the graffiti art scene. He designed the album Tour logo.

Logo designed by Tim Vega for the 99.9 F ° Tour

Logo designed by Tim Vega for the 99.9 F ° Tour

 

“Daddy is White”

I am an average white girl who comes from Upper Manhattan.
And I am totally white, but I was raised half Latin.
And this caused me some problems among my friends and my foes,
Cause when you look into my face, you see what everybody else knows:

If daddy is white.
You must be white too.
When you look into the mirror, what
Comes looking back at you?

If your daddy is white,
You must be white too.
If you look into the mirror
what comes looking back at you?

I feel it in the city when I take a walk uptown
I feel the tension in the street, I feel it ticking all around,
I feel it filling up the sidewalk, in the spaces in between,
Between my face and your face in public places where we get seen.

Excerpt: "Daddy is White" by Suzanne Vega.

 

Suzanne’s autobiographical “Daddy is White” (from Close-Up Volume 4: Songs of Family 2012) is another stylistic link to the hip-hop sensibility of Vega and 99.9 F °. It echoes (or perhaps is a reverse image of) another theme Mark Greif explores in his essay, specifically race identity and how it figures into one’s relationship to music.

Hearing Public Enemy and Minor threat, I was scared by both, and I knew that I wasn’t wanted in the world of either one. But I gave myself up to punk, and I didn’t at the moment give myself to rap. Why? I couldn’t say to myself then, “Because I’m white,” though surely that’s the quickest way to state the complication. Even now, I don’t want to say it. Not in my head, and not out loud. What kind of resistance (in the psychoanalytic sense) or vanity is that?

I want to not say it because for as long as I remember, seeing the way race divided things in my grandparents’ world, I knew it was bullshit, because I could see that they wanted to be white, and they weren’t. They were poor, Orthodox Jewish, and weird. My parents, in taking us out to the suburbs, had let me gain the habits and self-confidence of vanishing identity, which even they — first to go to college, first to leave the ghetto — never gained. I got to be the first in my family to be effortlessly white, and thereby also the first to obsess on how whiteness is bogus and unfair, not something you’d want to creep in and poison your mind.

In a 2001 article on Vega The Guardian’s Lindsay Baker wrote:

Growing up in Spanish Harlem, Vega was a fair, blue-eyed girl of European descent who assumed, wrongly, that she was half Puerto Rican. Her mother was a computer analyst and her Puerto Rican stepfather a writer and teacher of political science. She always wanted to fit in, but says that, even before she learned that there was “this other father”, she had always felt like an outsider. “Some of it must have been unconsciously knowing that I was somehow different from my brothers and sister.”

When she was finally told, aged nine, that her biological father was of a Scottish-Irish-English background – what was called “white” in her neighbourhood – she felt “ashamed to be different”. Her mother, who was from a Swedish-German family, had always been very quiet about her own upbringing, and Vega had never identified with white people: most of the other kids in the neighbourhood were black or Hispanic. “I didn’t know what to identify with, and when you’re that young, you don’t really know what white means anyway.”

Surprisingly, she says, her “otherness” in the family didn’t affect her relationship with her stepfather, whom she “idolised”. Compounding her desire to fit into her adopted culture was the political atmosphere in the household: both her mother and father – she doesn’t refer to him as her stepfather – were supporters of the Puerto Rican separatist movement that focused on the history, language and culture of the island. Her stepfather’s fiction has always centred around the Hispanic experience. “He raised us to be proud of our heritage, even though it wasn’t mine by birth.”

She spent a lot of time with her stepfather’s mother and the rest of his family, and some summers in Puerto Rico. As a teenager, she performed with the Alliance of Latin Arts, a city-sponsored group that went from borough to borough performing traditional songs from Spain, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. “I was still trying to fit into that world even at that point, though I knew I didn’t really fit in.” One photograph from the time, she says laughing, shows a row of Hispanic faces with her at one end, “looking as pale as Emily Dickinson and like I’d wandered into the wrong picture”.

Even as aspects of Suzanne’s music embraces modernity and, in the case of 99.9 F °, draws upon her urban roots, there is simultaneously a pull towards the past. It is a desire to lose oneself in a landscape of a memory. Some songs are first-person — “Rosemary,” “Some Journey,” “Priscilla” — while others are mediated through characters both real and fictional — Carson McCullers, Kaspar Hauser, a Queen, the Biblical Jacob — to name a few.

I believe this attraction to the past is symbolic of both a search for identity as well as an escape from it, a way to lose oneself. It is a journey that by its nature is introspective and hermetic, requiring solitude with our thoughts and daydreams.

 

 

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The Anthology of American Folk Music was created by Harry Smith and originally issued in 1952 by Folkways Records of New York. The “Anthology” is the founding artifact of the American folk revival, a strange, bizarre, mesmerizing, brilliant, and downright weird collection of six long-playing vinyl disks. Smith, then 29 years old, used the fairly new long-playing “micro-groove” format to piece together an album from 78 RPM discs from the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.

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It was reissued by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings on Sony Music Special Products SW CD 40090 on a six CD box set including original artwork and CD-ROM with archival information such as old photos, essays, and additional audio. The Anthology is also the centerpiece of an essay by Greil Marcus titled “The Old, Weird America” found in his masterful book Invisible Republic.

Smith was born in Portland Oregon in 1923 and died in 1991 in New York City. He was nothing if not an interesting character, in Marcus’ words “a dope fiend and an alcoholic, a legendary experimental filmmaker and a more legendary sponger.” He had also built an enormous collection of old recordings.

It was from these that he programmed the semi-bootleg that is the “Anthology.” Writes Marcus:

The whole bizarre package made the familiar strange, the never known into the forgotten, and the forgotten into a collective memory that teased any single listener’s conscious mind…The Anthology was a mystery—an insistence that against every assurance to the contrary, America itself was a mystery.

Greil Marcus quotes Dylan in September, 1965, after the storm he had unleashed at the Newport Folk Festival, struggling to express what it was his music trying to capture:

…the main body of it is just based on myth and the Bible and plague and famine and all kinds of things like that which are nothing but mystery and you can see it in all the songs. Roses growing right up out of people’s hearts and naked cats in bed with spears growing right out of their backs and seven years of this and eight years of that and it’s all really something that nobody can really touch.

“Fatal Flower Garden” by Nelstone’s Hawaiians is an example of the eccentric, fascinating weirdness lurking in the Anthology. A little ditty about a ritualistic child murderer is par for the course in Smith’s programme.

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It rained it poured it rained so hard
Rained so hard all day
When all the boys in our school
Came out to toss and play

They toss that ball again so high
Then again so low
They tossed it into a flower garden
Where no one was allowed to go

Up stepped a gypsy lady
All dressed in yellow and green
Come in, come in
My pretty little boy and get your ball again

I won’t come in I shan’t come in
Without my playmates all
I’m gonna get my father and tell him about it
That’ll cause tears to fall

She first showed him an apple seed
And then again gold rings
Then she showed him a diamond
That enticed him in

She took him by his lily-white hand
She led him through the hall
She put him into an upper room
Where no one could hear him call

Oh take these finger-rings off my fingers
Smoke them with your breath
If any of my friends should call for me
Tell them I’m at rest

Bury the Bible at my head
The testament at my feet
If my dear mother should call for me
Tell her that I’m asleep

Bury the Bible at my feet
The testament at my head
If my dear father should call for me
Tell him that I am dead

“Fatal Flower Garden”

"Fatal Flower Garden" by Nelstone's Hawaiians 1930.

Even as 99.9 F ° is contemporary in its outlook and sound, it is also an album in communion with the past. It is a past described by Marcus in Invisible Republic and whose nature we partially glimpse via Smith’s Anthology.

It is not the past of well-known historical figures, but apropos to the words “invisible” and “republic,” is a parallel universe of forgotten, eccentric characters of the kind in Vega’s “Fat Man and Dancing Girl” in 99.9 F °.

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Detail of album art from 99.9 F ° Special Edition.

I stand in a wide flat land
No shadow or shade of a doubt
Where the megaphone man
Met the girl with her hand that’s
Covering most of her mouth

Fall in love with a bright idea
And the way a world is revealed to you
Fat man and dancing girl
And most of the show is concealed from view

Monkey in the middle
Keeps singing that tune
I don’t want to hear it
Get rid of it soon

MC on the stage tonight
Is a man named Billy Purl
He’s The International Fun Boy
And he knows the worth of a beautiful girl

Stand on the tightrope
Never dreamed I would fall

 

Excerpt: "Fat Man and Dancing Girl" by Suzanne Vega.

“Fat Man & Dancing Girl” is a song that could come from virtually any time — the 2020’s, or the 1920’s. In that sense it is a song about “pastness,” the idea of The Past, not just one person’s past but our collective past; about how we lose and forget the past, yet it never entirely vanishes. It is ever ready to enter as dream and as nightmare.

Vaudeville comedian and impresario Billy Purl, ca. 1920s

Vaudeville comedian and impresario Billy Purl, ca. 1920s

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Suzanne’s Grandmother

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The All-Girl Band. Suzanne’s grandmother is third from left.

Billy Purl, the “International Fun Boy,” smiles at us from a yellowing, faded photograph. Suzanne’s grandmother, the drummer in one of Billy Purl’s All-Girl Bands, is captured in a moment from long ago. During the tour to support the release of 99.9 F °, Suzanne would use a megaphone for some of the lines, her voice sounding like something from an old phonograph, all as though distorted by the journey through time itself.

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Smith's booklet for the Anthology of American Folk Music

Smith’s booklet for the Anthology of American Folk Music

Greil Marcus on The Anthology:

Smith’s twenty-eight page accompanying booklet was […] dominated by a queer schema: heavy black, oversized numbers, marking each of the eighty-four selections as if their placement altogether superseded their content, as if some grand system lurked within the elements Smith had brought to bear upon each other.

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Like her previous album, days of open Hand, Suzanne would lavish attention to the album art. The Special Edition of 99.9 F ° (A&M 31454 0026 2) is particularly revealing. In the best tradition of Harry Smith, her album notes and artwork are like souvenirs from a strange inner landscape, with all the distortion that photos from someone’s dreams might have.

Writes Marcus:

(Smith’s) booklet was decorated with art from record sleeves advertising “Old Time Tunes,” with woodcuts from turn-of-the-century catalogues of musical instruments, and with faded, hard-to-make-out photos of performers.

The Special Edition of 99.9 F ° is presented in an old-fashioned brown hard board sleeve, its pages of translucent paper full of cryptic pen and ink sketches and script like the diary of an alchemist.

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The titles and lyrics to the songs on 99.9 F ° are set in a riot of Victorian type fonts, more like newspaper headlines than song lyrics. They seem like kindred spirits to Smith’s song summaries, which were presented as one-line headlines. For example, in the song “The Butchers Boy,” we read this:

“FATHER FINDS DAUGHTER’S BODY WITH NOTE ATTACHED WHEN RAILROAD BOY MISTREATS HER”

Or this summary for “Fatal Flower Garden:”

“GAUDY WOMAN LURES CHILD FROM PLAYFELLOWS; STABS HIM AS VICTIM DICTATES MESSAGE TO PARENTS”

This is not far removed from the lyric headlines that throws these words at us from 99.9 F °’s liner notes:

“IT COULD BE NORMAL BUT IT ISN’T QUITE
Could make you want to stay awake at night”

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Detail of lyric graphics from 99.9 F °.

Suzanne stares out at us from the photos of 99.9 F °, surrounded by characters straight out of Smith’s Anthology and from a mysterious and distant time and place.

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“Blood Sings” is another important song for the theme of Pastness. Old photographs haunt “Blood Sings,” the eyes that “start with light, getting colder as the pictures go.” The past is ever-present in our bones, in the “curving of the lip,” in blood that “sings to see itself again,” in the “body split and passed along the line.”

When blood sees blood
Of its own
It sings to see itself again
It sings to hear the voice it’s known
It sings to recognize the face

One body split and passed along the line
From the shoulder to the hip
I know these bones as being mine
And the curving of the lip

And my question to you is:
How did this come to pass?
How did this one life fall so far and fast?

Some are lean and some with grace, and some without;
Tell the story that repeats
Of a child who had been left alone at birth
Left to fend and taught to fight

See his eyes and how they start with light
Getting colder as the pictures go
Did he carry his bad luck upon his back?
That bad luck we’ve all come to know

And my question to you is:
How did this come to pass?
How did this one life fall so far and fast?

When blood sees blood
Of its own
It sings to see itself again
It sings to hear the voice it’s known
It sings to recognize the face

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Album art detail 99.9 F °

 

"Blood Sings" by Suzanne Vega.

 

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Album art detail 99.9 F °

The presence of the past in 99.9 F °, particularly a past that pre-dates digitization and the other sign posts of our cybernetic age, is an important skeleton key to the third theme I wish to explore, specifically how the recording seeks to portray and, ultimately, to overcome the trap we have set for ourselves in our modern age — the trap of humanity fading in the shadow of our own isolating, alienating technologies.

 

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In “Blood Sings” the child “who had been left alone at birth, left to fend and taught to fight” symbolizes the idea, present in one form or another in every album Vega has done, of the vulnerability of all of us as human beings and the need for shelter, identity and dignity.

Sometimes it is a struggle for safety and survival, a shielding from harm at the hands of others, from ourselves, or from an indifferent bureaucracy. This need has always existed. In certain times and places the continued existence of humanity (as opposed to a state of barbarism) itself is uncertain.

Visually and thematically I consider the 1990 album days of open Hand and 99.9 F ° as closely linked, as though Volumes I and II of a single work.

First, although the styling is different for each package, both albums have their own unique, painstakingly detailed and self-contained unified systems of graphics, colors, fonts, costumes, photographic lighting designs, hair styling, and jewelry. These aesthetic systems create self-contained universes that are mirrored by the distinct and consistent production approaches and musical arrangements that are contained within the respective visual envelopes of album artwork and text.

Second, the albums are doppelgängers in the attention paid to “hand choreography,” the way Suzanne repeats for each album a specific hand gesture. Her hands become an icon or logo for each album, but they also serve, I believe, a deeper purpose of drawing attention to hands –specifically the bone structure and shape — as a symbol of blood lineage and as a metaphor for humanness.

Images from "days of open Hand"

Collage of images from days of open Hand. 33rd Grammy Award for Best Album Package: Jeffrey Gold, Len Peltier and Suzanne Vega (Art Directors) for days of open Hand performed by Suzanne Vega.

 

Images from 99.9 F.

Collage of images from 99.9 F °. Keeping secrets: the “girl with her hand that’s covering most of her mouth.” 99.9 F ° Art Direction: Len Peltier.

Third, and most importantly, I believe the albums speak to the issue of how to preserve our humanness in an era of cybernetics, political-corporate complexes, and a state of alienation and anxiety.

In his essay, “Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop,” Mark Greif writes:

The difference between revolution and defiance is the difference between an overthrow of the existing order and one person’s shaken fist. When the former isn’t possible, you still have to hold on to the latter, if only so as to remember you’re human. Defiance is the insistence on individual power confronting overwhelming force that it cannot undo. You know you cannot strike the colossus. But you can defy it with words or signs. In the assertion that you can fight a superior power, the declaration that you will, this absurd overstatement gains dignity by exposing you, however uselessly, to risk. Unable to stop it in its tracks, you dare the crushing power to begin its devastation with you.

This becomes even more necessary and risky when the cruel power is not natural, will-less itself, but belongs to other men…The nature we face is a billowing atmospheric second nature made by man. It is the distant soft tyranny of other men, wafting in diffuse messages, in the abdication of authority to technology, in the dissembling of responsibility under the cover of responsibility and with the excuse of help — gutless, irresponsible, servile, showing no naked force, only a smiling or pious face.

Vega’s song “Rock in this Pocket” embodies this idea of defying (and surviving).

I might be out like a light
Extinguished in the throw
But I’ll hit my mark
And you’ll know
Because I’m really well acquainted
With the span of your brow
And if you didn’t know me then
You’ll know me now
You’ll know me now

Excerpt: "Rock in this Pocket" by Suzanne Vega.

A condition of alienation, it seems to me, is often the mirror twin of defiance. Although Vega’s protagonists, such in “Rock in this Pocket,” shake their fists, in part they understand that their over-riding objective is to survive, and that cultivating a survivalists’ disengagement and remaining out of the crosshairs is essential in the way that mammals survived by sticking to the ecological niches ignored by the dinosaurs. It is a feeling well-captured by the song “Institution Green” from days of open Hand.

I wonder if they’ll take a look
Find my name inside that book
Lose me on the printed page
Where to point the aimless rage

I cast my vote upon this earth
Take my place for what it’s worth
Hunger for a pair of eyes
To notice and to recognize

“Institution Green”

Excerpt: "Institution Green" by Suzanne Vega.

 

When 99.9 F ° was released much was made of its “industrial sound.” Leaving aside for a moment the vast range of possible definitions for “industrial music,” if one simply listens to the songs such as “Rocket in this Pocket,” “99.9 F °,” or “Blood Makes Noise,” and compares them alongside a selection of well-regarded music experimenters, one is struck by how innovative Suzanne’s recordings were, especially when one considers not only the arrangements but also the themes they address.

Consider, for example, Cabaret Voltaire’s Red Mecca (1981), a highly-rated album by one of the more important industrial and electronic groups. I believe it illustrates how Vega sought a sound for 99.9 F ° that was credibly rooted in the industrial-electronic genre and not merely a decorative garnish.

Excerpt: "Sly Doubt" by Cabaret Voltaire and 
"Rock in This Pocket" by Suzanne Vega

 

By coincidence, the band Cabaret Voltaire took their name from the Zurich nightclub named “Cabaret Voltaire” that was an important part of the founding of the anarchic art movement known as Dada. Among other things, the Dada movement influenced the visual arts in the use of cut and pasted paper objects (collage) and the assemblage of objects into a three-dimensional collage. I believe this influence is echoed in the album art design of days of open Hand (see the images above).

As mentioned earlier, I consider days of open Hand a mirror twin to 99.9 F ° and that the two together present a musical expression of alienation (days of open Hand) and defiance (99.9 F °). As such, days of open Hand was as experimental an album as 99.9 F °.

In a sound that pre-dates artists such as Portishead (their debut, Dummy, would appear in 1994) as well as Radiohead, days of open Hand’s songs like “Rusted Pipe,” “Those Whole Girls,” “Big Space,” “Predictions,” “Fifty-Fifty Chance” and especially “Institution Green” embody themes of alienation, anxiety (especially on songs like “Fifty-Fifty Chance”) and claustrophobia (“Institution Green”) through a soundscape that is neither pop nor folk, in much the same way Portishead’s sound is also hard to slot into a category.

Excerpts: "Subterranean Homesick Alien" by Radiohead; 
"Numb" by Portishead; 
"Fifty-Fifty Chance," "Predictions," and 
"Institution Green" by Suzanne Vega.

 

A landscape of alienation is certainly a difficult place to inhabit without respite nor release, which is why the incursions of pop-rock in days and 99.9 F ° is important. I think we care more about what happens to the narrator of days of open Hand in “Institution Green” in part because a moment earlier we experienced her exuberance and the Technicolor of “Book of Dreams.”

Playing against the alienation of days of open Hand is 99.9 F °’s defiance. “Rock in This Pocket,” “When Heroes Go Down,” “Blood Makes Noise,” “As a Child” and especially the soaring “In Liverpool” illustrate the sense of freedom of 99.9 F ° that is perhaps the best way to define “rock.”

It’s the sense of escape in the scene from The Beatles’ A Hard Days Night when Richard Lester filmed the boys running in the open field from above in a helicopter while “Can’t Buy Me Love” ran underneath in the soundtrack. I think Greif said it best when he wrote:

…if rock has a characteristic subject, as country music’s is small pleasures in hard times (getting by), and rap’s is success in competition (getting over), that subject must be freedom from constraint (getting free).

I think Portishead approached this conundrum — how to bring a human touch into a sometimes cold, sometimes indifferent, sometimes crushing place –by emphasizing the emotional undercurrents of Beth Gibbons’ vocals. In another context I think Gibbons would more than hold her own in a straight ahead rock group. There is a barely controlled rage implicit in her performance. “Silence” (2008) from their album Third (2008) is an example of this aspect.

Her vocals have the effect of humanizing the stark music through sadness and anger as illustrated by the haunting “Roads” found on Dummy (1994).

Oh, can’t anybody see
We’ve got a war to fight
Never found our way
Regardless of what they say

How can it feel, this wrong
From this moment
How can it feel, this wrong

Storm.. in the morning light
I feel
No more can I say
Frozen to myself

I got nobody on my side
And surely that ain’t right
And surely that ain’t right

Oh, can’t anybody see
We’ve got a war to fight
Never found our way
Regardless of what they say

How can it feel, this wrong
From this moment
How can it feel, this wrong

“Roads”

Excerpt: "Roads" by Portishead.

 

But apart from perhaps “Silence,” “Sour Times,” and “Strangers” (the latter two much more so in the live performances) I don’t think Portishead has ventured much into the territory rock, at least, not the rock of the “getting free” variety à la The Beatles. Not that this is a bad thing. Part of what I like about Portishead’s music is that, like Vega, they create entire landscapes (or gulags) within which the point is to survive, to keep alive the spark of humanness as manifest in Gibbons’ voice.

Radiohead, for me, is the inverse of Portishead. From the beginning they played music that embraced the aesthetics of rock (and its implicit power to overcome and to defy) but placed at its center a voice, Thom Yorke’s, that is as vulnerable, fragile and understated as one can imagine in a rock group.

It is Yorke’s voice, and especially the words, that provide the sense of a pervasive surveillance and paranoia that Portishead achieves primarily through its instrumentation.

“Exit Music (For A Film)”

Wake
From your sleep
The drying of
Your tears
Today
We escape
We escape

Pack
And get dressed
Before your father hears us
Before
All hell
Breaks loose

“Karma Police”

This is what you get
This is what you get
This is what you get when you mess with us

For a minute there
I lost myself, I lost myself
Phew, for a minute there
I lost myself, I lost myself

“Fitter Happier”

Now self-employed
Concerned, but powerless
An empowered and informed member of society, pragmatism not idealism
Will not cry in public
Less chance of illness
Tires that grip in the wet, shot of baby strapped in backseat
A good memory
Still cries at a good film
Still kisses with saliva
No longer empty and frantic
Like a cat
Tied to a stick
That’s driven into
Frozen winter shit, the ability to laugh at weakness
Calm, fitter, healthier and more productive
A pig in a cage on antibiotics

“No Surprises”

Such a pretty house
And such a pretty garden

No alarms and no surprises
No alarms and no surprises
No alarms and no surprises, please

It is also a voice pulped clean of defiance. Sometimes, as in “Karma Police” or “Exit Music (For a Film)” it conveys the deflation of an alienated state while the instrumentation eventually obliterates all humanness.

Other times, as in “No Surprises,” it expresses a child-like fragility that serves to highlight our imperiled state. Funnily, and sadly, the voice in the song “Fitter Happier,” is an optimistic automaton focused on self-improvement who, like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, is also ground-down and eventually deleted.

Excerpts from "OK Computer" by Radiohead:
"Exit Music (For a Film)"; "Karma Police";
"Fitter Happier"; "No Surprises."

With days of open Hand and 99.9 F ° Suzanne Vega did something beautiful, entertaining and fascinating. As discussed before she devised two complete aesthetic systems built upon the common base of her vocals and acoustic guitar.

Inventing two distinct musical personas, in my view, allowed her to more fully and effectively create and present the introverted, alienated feel of days of open Hand, and then the extroverted, defiant stance of 99.9 F ° all the while maintaining a continuity of humanness across the albums through her voice and guitar. This method is employed as recently as Lover, Beloved (2016) where the persona is the writer Carson McCullers.

Listening to “Institution Green” and then to “Rock in This Pocket” illustrates how the two systems play off of each other (or within the same album, such as “Book of Dreams” and then “Institution Green”).

Excerpts: "Institution Green" and 
"Rock in This Pocket" by Suzanne Vega.

days of open Hand and 99.9 F ° conclude, appropriately enough, with mirror images. “Pilgrimage,” is radiant and full of hope, counter-balancing the anxiety of much of days of open Hand, while “Song of Sand” is an introspective and muted mediation on war. The song places a question mark against the defiance and energy that came before it in 99.9 F °.

As we look back on 99.9 F ° from 2017 we see that the acoustic guitar, and Suzanne’s unique voice, continued to provide the continuity of humanness, while each subsequent album acted as a vehicle to don a wide range of musical styles from bossa nova (“Caramel” from Nine Objects of Desire) to straight ahead rock (“I Never Wear White” from Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles) to jazz (“New York is My Destination” from Lover, Beloved).

Despite 9/11, war and personal loss the overall arc of Vega’s music has moved, I believe, towards the light. Three examples I would give are: “Anniversary” (from the album Beauty & Crime 2007); “Man Who Played God” (from the 2010 album Dark Night of the Soul by Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse as well as a version on Close-Up Volume 2: People and Places by Suzanne Vega); and “Horizon (There Is a Road)” (from Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles 2014).

“Anniversary”

Fall and all attendant memories
Crowd the day with unrelated histories
Each year leaves its unresolving fantasies
To hang around each corner
Hang around each street.

Thick with ghosts, the wind whips round in circuitries
Carrying words as strangers exchange pleasantries
Do they intrude upon your private reveries
As they meet you on each corner
Meet you on each street.

Watch for daily braveries
Notice newfound courtesies
Finger sudden legacies
As they clean up every corner
Wash down every street.

Mark the month and all its anniversaries
Put away the draft of all your eulogies
Clear the way for all your private memories
As they meet you on each corner
Meet you on each street.

Make the time for all your possibilities.
They live on every street.

“Man Who Played God” (Written by Brian Burton, Mark Linkous and Suzanne Vega)

Ahh think about the world you know
Ahh now think of where it wants to go

All things you can see around you
You can change them
Rearrange them in your mind
If you love tales of transformation
Well then one two three
You could be
The man who played God

Ahh hammer it until it breaks
Ahh to every shape that nature makes

All things you can see around you
You can change them
Rearrange them in your mind
If you love tales of transformation
Well then one two three
You could be
The man who played God

Ahh the girl becomes a bird or a flower
Ahh in your sight you feel your power

All things you can see around you
You can change them
Rearrange them in your mind
If you love tales of transformation
Well then one two three
You could be
The man who played God

One two three
You could be
The man who played God
One two three
You could be
The man who played God
One two three
You could be
The man who played God

“Horizon (There Is a Road)”

There is a road
Beyond this one
It’s called the path
We don’t yet take

I can feel how it longs
To be entered upon
It calls to me with a cry
And an ache

As we go along this one
And we live the way we do
Love pulls us on to that
Distant horizon so true.

I knew a man
He lived in jail
And his tale
Is often told

He dreamed of that line that he
Called the divine
And when he was free
He led his country

Yes he taught the way of love
And he lived in that way too
Love pulled him on to that
Distant horizon so true.

There is a road beyond this one
It’s called the path we don’t yet take
I can feel how it longs to be entered upon
Calls to me with a cry and an ache

As we go along this one
And we live the way we do
Love pulls us on to that distant horizon
Love pulled him on to that perfect horizon
Love pulls us on to that distant horizon
So true.

Excerpts: "Anniversary"; "Man Who Played God"; 
"Horizon (There Is a Road)".

Many of the thematic concerns of Vega’s writing remain but I believe the earlier sense of alienation and anxiety has been replaced by an outlook that seems to me hopeful but moderated by Stoicism (captured humorously in her song “Laying on of Hands/Stoic 2” from Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles where she references the Stoic philosopher Epictetus). Life goes on, we seek a point of Stoic equilibrium, and then try to stay balanced about that point.

Each album of Vega’s represents a reinvention. For example on Lover, Beloved (2016) the persona is Carson McCullers and the production and arrangements are oriented to a post-war, New York aesthetic design (such as the jazz ensemble in “New York is My Destination”) inspired by McCullers. Once again clothing, props and images are designed and employed as part of the production.

we-of-me-03

Image from video for “Me of We” from Lover, Beloved: open hands.

Although not a frequent reference, a hip-hop sensibility is still present in Vega’s approach to some material. A recent example is her performance of “Dirty Boulevard” with Lang Lang and Lisa Fischer.

Throughout her career, I believe the most enduring element in her music remains memory, daydreams, and pastness. And the idea of humanness, of open Hands.

Perhaps most fittingly of all, given our discussion of humanness in her music, is the last line of the last song, “Carson’s Last Supper,” from Lover, Beloved: Songs from an Evening with Carson McCullers:

The love of my life is humanity.

Excerpt: "Carson's Last Supper" by Suzanne Vega.

 

 

Image from video for "We of Me" from Lover, Beloved

Image from video for “We of Me” from Lover, Beloved

Notes & References

99.9 F °

The original album remains widely available in CD and through download. The Special Edition is usually available on sites such as eBay and Discogs. It, and the Japanese version of the CD, contains an additional track “Public Goes Private.” A vinyl version of the album was made in several markets, such as Korea, and it is also found on eBay and Discogs.

In my opinion, the quality of the CD mastering is quite good — there is not much gained, in my experience, in terms of sound by getting the vinyl version. It is more for those who just like vinyl and who like the large format album sleeve. A documentary called “Letter From New York” on the making of the album is found on YouTube.

Part 1: https://youtu.be/n-FnOOEh0-U

Part 2: https://youtu.be/04PhdNwYNXM

days of open Hand

Likewise, days of open Hand is easily found in CD and download formats as well as vinyl versions through eBay and Discogs. Like 99.9 F ° there is a limited edition version of the CD featuring a holographic image on front. To the best of my knowledge there are no bonus tracks on the Japanese version.

There is also a documentary found on YouTube on the making of days of open Hand called “Open Hand” by Chris Hegedus and none other than D.A. Pennebaker, the winner of a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award for work on documentaries such as “Don’t Look Back” (on Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour).

Part 1: https://youtu.be/X73XtHzir-o

Part 2: https://youtu.be/ZuQG2QcpoH4

Part 3: https://youtu.be/L-YWYKhAvds

Suzanne Vega Close-Up Series

Vega-closeup-Series-1024x1024

This 4-CD box set plus DVD is recommended in addition to the CDs above because it offers new versions of 11 of the 12 standard CD song list from 99.9 F ° (only “As a Child” is not included). It also contains “Daddy is White” and “Man Who Played God.” The quality of the CD mastering is uniformly excellent. The best way to get the box set is either at her concert (if still available). I don’t see it listed for sale on her website anymore.

Failing that, the last time I looked the prices for the box set on Amazon were outrageously high but it is worth re-checking Amazon, eBay and Discogs. More practical is to get the 4 individual CDs — these are more affordable. The one disk you don’t get, however, is the bonus DVD (and the photos in the box set).

Tom’s Album

suzanne-vega-toms-diner-pg_

This album, assembled by Suzanne, from an assortment of unsolicited versions of “Tom’s Diner,” is available as CD and download through Amazon. It includes DNA’s version, Nikki D. and Suzanne’s originals. It is not a priority album to get (the one’s above are higher priority in my opinion) but it is a curiosity that fans might find amusing or you can just download a couple of the tracks such as Nikki D’s.

Jameieson Cox’s piece in The Verge called “Tracing the long, strange history of ‘Tom’s Diner” is worth checking out.

deja-vu

One cover/sampling of “Tom’s Diner” to praise is by Giorgio Moroder feat. Britney Spears. It is found on his 2015 album Déjà vu. I think the recording and video are terrific.

Fittingly, Suzanne Vega’s voice, specifically her vocal for the original “Tom’s Diner,” was used to develop and refine the mp3 compression algorithm, surely the sine qua non of all that has revolutionized music beginning in the mid 1990’s. An excellent history of the mp3 and piracy is “How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy” by Stephen Witt.

The next time NASA has a chance to put a recording on a space craft that will head out of our solar system, they really need to put Suzanne’s version of “Tom’s Diner” on the device. It would be fascinating to see what an alien intelligence would do with it.

Pete Townsend and “Baba O’Reilly”

A trivia note: Townsend created the famous instrumental track using his Lowrey Berkshire Deluxe TBO-1 home organ and not an ARP synthesizer because Townsend hadn’t yet figured out how to use his newly acquired ARP 2500 and so made the Lowry organ sound like a synth through ingenuity and sweat. There’s a whole blog devoted to Townsend’s recording methods.

Against Everything

against-everything

This is a book of essays by Mark Greif published by Pantheon in 2016. I have quoted from the essays “Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop” and “Learning to Rap.” I think the book is thought-provoking, mixing essays on popular media with observations on various aspects of society such as income inequality, Octomom (remember her?) and hipsters. He is also publisher of the journal n + 1 from which the essays in this book were drawn.

The Anthology of American Folk Music and The Old Weird America

The Anthology is widely available on CD on Amazon.

invisible-republic

Greil Marcus’ essay, “The Old, Weird America,” is found in Invisible Republic. It’s available through Amazon and other outlets.

There is a fascinating blog called The Old Weird America dedicated to exploring the history of the performers and songs on the Anthology.

“Pastness”

room-237

Although the word “pastness” shows up in various dictionaries, I got the idea to use it in this essay from the film Room 237 that features various fan theories about the meanings encoded by Stanley Kubrick in his 1980 film The Shining.

One interviewee focused on Kubrick’s version of The Shining as a vehicle to underscore, among other things, how humans keep forgetting their own history, especially past genocides and thus are doomed to forever repeat the mistakes and bloodshed, hence the river of blood scenes in the film and the film’s preoccupation with memory.

The irony of fans of Kubrick’s film posing elaborate theories about The Shining is not lost on the author of this essay. Perhaps a film titled Room 99.9?

“Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate”

fortrancardproj039-agr-a

This phrase,”Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate,” is an oldy but goody. It refers to the warning that accompanied the object above, called a punch card. In the ancient 1920s right up to part of the early 1980s computers were programmed using these paper cards, the most common developed by IBM in 1928. I used them in my university days.

The warning about not folding a punch card was that folding would form a crease that could jam the card reader; to spindle refered to stabbing the card on one of those upright spikes you sometimes see in restaurants to spear tickets; to mutilate refered to ripping up the card.

The counter-culture adapted this technical phrase for use on buttons, stickers and t-shirts: “I am a human being. Please do Fold, Spindle or Mutilate Me.” There’s a blog outlining the phrase on the site Our Historic Future.

Maybe it’s time to bring the phrase back.

 

 

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