In November 1982 Suzanne Vega played a gig in Watertown New York at Jefferson Community College. WTNY Radio recorded the concert and your correspondent has heard eight of the songs that survived from that set. This post is part of a series looking at Suzanne Vega’s music and career prior to the release of 1985’s Suzanne Vega.
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The week of November 1st 1982 is 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 Coop Advertising Manager, to make ends meet. She is 23 years old.
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.
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.)
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. It is still at least a year before she’ll sign with A&M and two years before a prominent concert review in the New York Times. But things are progressing.
Three of her performances—“Cracking” (February 1982), “Gypsy” (June 1982), and “Knight Moves” (September 1982)—along with a with a fourth composition, “Calypso,” recorded by Lucy Kaplanski (March 1982)—are included on albums that accompany the monthly issues of The Coop—The Fast Folk Musical Magazine. Equally important is the sense of affiliation she has with the people who are part of the Musician’s Co-op/Fast Folk/Speakeasy. Jack Hardy, the Editor of Fast Folk and one of the organizers of the Co-op, gives some hint in his editorial to the first issue of the magazine, in February 1982, of what must have attracted Suzanne to this group:
We can have relative newcomers side by side with older stalwarts. Performers climb on stage at different levels of development. At every level there is merit. We will work with merit: discovering it, championing it and honing it…People have to be creative in the way they listen. There can be much enjoyment derived from listening to someone who has creative potential, but is in an early stage of development.
Gratifying too is the serious attention her work receives. Before her appearance in Watertown, Brian Rose, Assistant Editor and co-founder of Fast Folk, had written a thoughtful critique of her work (probably the first time Vega’s work had been so analyzed) in Fast Folk, focusing on the songs “The Marching Dream,” “Knight Moves,” and “The Queen and the Soldier.” Rose wrote:
There are few young songwriters whose work is developed enough to stand much close analysis. Suzanne Vega, a twenty-three year old New Yorker, is a notable exception.
Rose quickly zeroed-in on that part of Vega’s work that would seduce millions years later—the elusiveness and “riddle” at the heart of her songs and persona, the enigma of the dreamy fantasist, yielding to her dreams, who is also the stubborn, self-reliant realist.
Vega is or allows herself to become the queen. It is difficult to ascertain to what extent she is indicting herself–the mythic nature of the song allows for the revelation of forbidden emotions that bore to the heart of relations between men and women. Ultimately, the triumph of the song is the queen’s refusal to bend, regardless of the horror of the situation. Vega does not let the queen fall into the arms of the gallant soldier, but neither is the queen allowed to find unjust freedom in her rejection of him. “The battle continued on…”
Fast Folk might not be a huge or national vehicle, but it is a serious publication and musicians’ network in the one of the few places, New York City, large enough and diverse enough to keep alive a viable folk/acoustic guitar-based songwriter co-operative. Important too are the friendships. Rose:
I cannot remember the exact time that Suzanne and I met. She was a student at Barnard College and I had finished school. I was starting to photograph the Lower East Side (of Manhattan), which was my first project. And I was trying to make a living. Later I got more opportunities but in the beginning it was hard. If you have not done work, if you don’t have a portfolio you won’t get hired, but you cannot build your portfolio until you get hired, so it is Catch 22. You have to figure out a way to break through that. But at that time I didn’t need a lot of money, the apartment was cheap, and we were all very poor. Suzanne was even poorer than I was, and that was poor. Maybe Suzanne and I met at an open mike (at Folk City). You had to be there at 7:30 p.m. but when you got a number between 30 or 40 you were playing your two songs around 2 a.m. So we were hanging out all night. (Interview in the fanzine Language, by Karien Smeding.)
My big hero in those days was my friend Brian, who was also…well he was not unemployed but he was freelance, which to me seemed like the same thing. Got up in the morning and sat around for a couple of hours and drink a cup of coffee and read the paper, this seems admirable to me and something that I wanted to do too. His word for doing this was being a boulevardier, so during that summer when I was unemployed I was a boulevardier as were my other friends. The three of us would sit around doing nothing and being very pleased with ourselves. (Language)
Her recordings in Fast Folk, the opportunity to learn how things work, the chance to work-out bits of her stage work–these are no small things if you’re a young woman writing songs for the acoustic guitar in a way that’s unusual even by the informal, diverse standards of Fast Folk. She’s aiming for a sound that doesn’t quite exist anywhere else, that isn’t folk and isn’t rock, at least as anyone else might define it. It’s as though Vega’s in her own subculture of one, on the edges of the folk scene—the fringe of a fringe. (Vega’s unique sound continues to confound traditional categorization. Just one early example is Esquire Magazine’s attempt, included near the end of this article, to describe her music in a November, 1985 article.)
If late 1982 is not the nadir of popular music cut from the cloth of the folk tradition, of the acoustic-guitar based singer-songwriter, then it’s close. It’s been a long dry spell of at least 10 years when performers like Jim Croce, Neil Young, Don McLean, and Gordon Lightfoot last hit pay dirt on the charts (albeit with work that was greatly pasteurized) and were even remotely considered at the forefront of popular music. This was the bind Hardy addressed in the premiere issue of Fast Folk:
Criticism in modern America, and especially in New York, has become either a part of the commercial process or has become synonymous with cynicism. Neither of these states is healthy for an artistic environment, nor are they serving the purpose that criticism was meant to serve: that of discovering, championing and honing art. Nowhere is this as true as in the criticism of modern folk music. Not only is folk music cursed with a label of being non-commercial by the multi-national record corporations, but this curse has been championed by the press. Somewhere along the line critics began reviewing success or potential for success and ceased reviewing music. It no longer mattered what a performance contained, but rather whether it was commercial, commerciality thereby being dictated by the economics of the lowest common denominator.
A number of acts try to keep things interesting, but as Hardy indicated, the folk music scene is cursed. By commercial standards the entire genre is a tiny backwater, and yet the small attempts to build a wider audience often threatens to further dilute those very things that make the folk music scene vital–the focus on the song rather than on image and packaging. It is not enough that Steve Forbert makes some good music, he must be promoted as the next “next Dylan” along with his album Jackrabbit Slim (1979). (Of all the things Vega has accomplished, perhaps nothing is more astounding than the fact that she overcame the hype accompanying her success. Not only was she the next Dylan, she was the next Leonard Cohen, as well as the great female breakthrough hope.)
To be sure there’s lots of good music. There’s Lucinda William; Loudon Wainwright III; Kate and Anna McGarrigle; Richard Thompson; Townes Van Zandt and many others. Bruce Cockburn’s song “Wondering Where the Lions Are” breaches the pop charts, reaching as high as #21 in 1980 and Bruce Springsteen’s, stark, all-acoustic album Nebraska is released in 1982. It reaches #3, but it’s considered a risky move, one made possible only because his last album, The River (#1, 1980), sold over two million copies. Still, even Dylan doesn’t seem to be the “next Dylan”–his last three albums are the gospel-fueled Slow Train Coming, Saved, and 1981’s Shot of Love. The week Suzanne is appearing in Watertown the Number 1 song in America is Men at Work’s “Who Can It Be Now?” “Folk singers” are seen by many, frankly, as great for college pubs, singing “Patricia the Stripper,” but they are far from attracting the attention of record labels or concert promoters, let alone capturing the public imagination. They aren’t chasing some Elvis-sized pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. It’s an accomplishment to be able to quit your day job.
All this to say, that if you’re traveling in the folk music circles you are decidedly swimming against the tide, in addition to the grinding work to find a new voice and songwriting style in what can be a tradition-bound musical aesthetic. Every guy (and it still is mostly guys at this point) who picks up an acoustic guitar seems to fall into one mold or another: Dylan ’63, the Neil Young songbook, or, at a stretch, the Bruce Cockburn catalogue. The long shadows of the folk music legends, The Newport Folk Festival, and the expectations of what an acoustic guitar-based song should sound like are cast everywhere. It’s within this context that we should listen to Suzanne Vega, 23 years old, playing at Watertown, playing gigs spliced here and there, but to what end? and when?
What we hear on this recording is what we can still hear today whenever Suzanne takes to the stage: a willful, stubborn need to sing her songs, in her way, and to perform her music in the face of a palpable sense of reserve that is moderated by her bits of stage ritual. Vega will not—and does not seem capable even if she wanted to—change her style or her essential approach to her music to please or even to solicit applause. There is at the heart of it all, an internal sense of how her music should sound, a mental image of the aesthetic she wants to achieve and how she wants to project herself. In the face of all of this, in the face of the impracticalities of her calling, there must be something that is keeping her going. This recording gives us a glimpse at just what that was.
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This is one of the few, if not only, known recordings of this song. Written at age 15, “Playing” is transparently adolescent and is probably one of several early songs Suzanne included in her performances of that time to experiment and to fill-out her sets. As might be expected, the song’s structure is fairly straight-forward—when she wrote it, she was quite young and still working within the paradigms of the traditional folk-type song. Yet the song is fascinating not so much because of the music—the guitar-work is fairly undistinguished and anonymous—but because of the lyric. Like several of Suzanne’s early songs and poems, “Playing” reveals an exuberance and playfulness that is screened or only rarely revealed in Vega’s later music, but seems always just beneath the surface in songs like “Tombstone” (1996) or something like the “Wallaby Song.” It’s also an early example of the motif of wanderlust, fantasy, and desire for freedom that permeates so much of Vega’s work and runs through the songs on this recording. We hear the freedom to dream and the freedom of dreams, the freedom from identity that comes with play-acting, and the wanderlust and freedom from responsibility we are afforded in our fantasy life.
See me go I’m not earthbound
I barely touch upon the ground
Like Mercury I’m sailing free
maybe I’ll catch you next time around
You can hear that same yearning in “The Silver Lady,” another song she wrote at 15.
I said, “Lady, why are you crying?
If I had wings like you
I would be flying all over this river
And singing like only birds do.”
Well she threw back her head and she smiled at me
Her tears, how they shone in the sun
She said, “I have no wings to fly with
If I did I would surely be gone.”
There’s a sound
Across the alley
Of cold metal
That this song—mature, arresting—follows the more traditional-sounding “Playing” only heightens the impact of hearing it. Juxtaposed against “Playing,” it has the same effect as seeing a master’s painting alongside an accomplished amateur’s sketch. One wonders to what extent Vega realized that in “Straight Lines” she had achieved the unique sound and aesthetic for which she’d been searching. The guitar line is precise, skeletal, unmistakably Vega; the lyric crisp, sharp, assertive. Indeed so sharp, so jolting in its high-resolution images, that the ordinary, the mundane, takes on a malevolence and clinical fascination, like one of those disorienting close-ups of unidentifiable body parts.
As in “The Queen and the Soldier,” Vega seems equally the observer and the observed, with Vega keeping us guessing at where the line is drawn. The stripped-down lyric works on many levels– as will so many of Vega’s best songs in the future—as pure sound (“cold metal”, “Too close to the bone”), as metaphor (hear again the freedom, the liberation implicit as “She wants to cut through the circles/That she has lived in before”), and as graphic, almost cinematic, narrative (the way the lyric acts like a detailed storyboard—“She is taking the shade down/From the light/To see the straight lines”).
“Straight Lines” is, like her song “Cracking,” a singular act of originality, a sound no one has ever quite made before. It is, in its own way, as much an aesthetic triumph as Presley’s “That’s All Right,” a sound that seems so correct and natural after the fact, but utterly unimaginable until the artist blurts it out. The sound the critics will praise and fans will dissect a few years from now is already here, playing at Coffeehouse 790.
Written in 1978, “Gypsy” has been a mainstay of Vega’s sets for close to twenty years. Musically, it is less ambitious than “Straight Lines,” but it has remained effective because of the lovely, flowing melody and vocal as well as the honest emotion that is evident in the song–it’s one of Vega’s few songs that is so openly sentimental. An hour of nothing but this kind of song would wear thin, but when placed alongside the dispassionate “Straight Lines” and Vega’s other songs, the effect is startling, something that remains true to this day.
Black Widow Station.
This song is rarely performed by Vega today, but was a part of her set for several years. Vega assumes the direct, fist-in-a-velvet-glove, humorous tone that is so much a part of her appeal:
And it’s as crowded as a subway car and I think that
Now I would wait at your station but I do believe it’s time
that I went home.
It’s the same tone we’ll hear years later in songs like “Blood Makes Noise” (99.9F):
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
This song, like “Straight Lines,” “Neighborhood Girls,” and “Some Journey” would appear on Vega’s first album. One of its most distinctive features is the contrast between the short, sharp syncopation of the verses with the flowing, cyclical, hypnotic chorus (“Do you love any, do you love none, do you love many, can you love one, do you love me?”) a device she would use to great effect years later in songs like “Language” (Solitude Standing, 1987), “Pilgrimage” and “Those Whole Girls” (days of Open Hand, 1990), and “99.9 F” (99.9 F, 1992).
“Neighborhood Girls” is one of the songs that best conveys Vega’s personality–it’s unmistakably “New York” in its use of language (one can almost hear the accents in the dialogue), direct imagery, and dry sense of humor. It’s also one of the many vignettes of urban life that find their way into Vega’s music (the pastoral-sounding “Gypsy” is a rare exception). The stark, angular lines and shadows of the city inform the imagery of this song, along with “Straight Lines,” “Black Widow Station,” and “Some Journey.”
“Just Friends” is probably the most unusual cut on Watertown. Written in 1979, the song comes at one from left field–there are few if any songs in Vega’s recorded repertoire that bear any similarity to it. Vega has always been drawn to a wide variety of musical styles, yet many tend to think of her music within a fairly narrow stylistic range. In part, this perception is understandable given the chords and song constructions she favors, yet overall this impression is inaccurate, for even within this eight-song recording we can hear a variety of influences and themes at work. The countless transformations and incarnations of the song “Tom’s Diner” is but one example of how Vega’s music straddles traditional boundaries and of the breadth of its appeal.
“Just Friends” reveals a side of her musical personality that is all-too-rarely heard in her music, a whimsical, quirky, old-fashioned, almost music-hall-sounding style that brings to mind aspects of “Tom’s Diner” (a song she wrote in 1982) or “Tombstone” (1996). Suzanne Vega rarely writes the obvious. Here we find her writing a gently humorous song about platonic friendship, rather than another love song as most others would, and write it in a way that walks a line between heart-felt sincerity and gentle irony–it could be interpreted many ways.
If I see your hand upon me
it’s no reason for alarm
I realize you must have seen
something walking down my arm
And I know you didn’t
mean it that way
’cause we’re just friends
The song features a subtle set of tempo changes and a rapid fire lyric. Though at points a little strained, her vocal seems, for just a few moments, wonderfully unguarded and vulnerable, like a door briefly cracked open upon some beautiful, hidden room.
Would you have taken me upstairs
And turned the lamp light low?
Would I have shown my secret self
And disappeared like the snow?
Another powerful, early composition, “Some Journey” is still one of the strongest songs in Vega’s repertoire. In addition to the powerful imagery (“If we had met on some eastbound train/through some black sleeping town”), the song is noteworthy for the motif of the memory/fantasy/play-acting world inhabited by the narrator who snaps back to “reality” in the final verses (“But as it is, we live in the city/and everything stays in place/Instead we meet on the open sidewalk/And it’s well I know your face”). This theme of memory/fantasy will reappear in a wide range of her songs in the future such as “In Liverpool” (99.9F) and “Rosemary” (Tried and True, 1998), but “Some Journey” shows that this motif has played a huge role in Vega’s art from the very beginning.
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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)
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Vega’s performance holds up very well; her stage work over the years has been remarkably consistent. In her sense of humor and approach to performance, the Suzanne Vega one sees today is very much the same person as at the Jefferson Community College in 1982. Understated is probably the best word. Vega has never mugged it up for the audience and in this recording we can hear how straight and level she approaches the performance. “Hmmm” she says after singing “Black Widow Station,” almost as if appraising her own work from a distance. And there’s the self-conscious, laconic “I’m done,” that seems to sum up the intriguing mix of a theatric need to be the center of things, with an almost equally strong aversion of excess, and, one senses, of losing control. At times it’s as if we are eavesdropping on a public, private, performance.
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“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. New York Times, September 28, 1984.
“[Vega] emerges as the strongest, most decisively shaped songwriting personality to come along in years.” John Rockwell, New York Times April 14, 1985.
“[Vega] is a masterfully economical and literate lyricist whose piercing images repeatedly strike an emotional bull’s-eye. 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.” New York Newsday, May 7, 1985.
“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.” Esquire Magazine, November 1985.
Within three years of this performance, everything will have changed. The album Suzanne Vega will blow apart all expectations and will be played–will be studied–in a million bedrooms, the voice on the recording crowding ten thousand daydreams. By 1987, with Solitude Standing and with “Luka,” Vega’s fame will outstrip the limits of what was thought possible only a few years earlier. In a thousand ways that one can never fully trace, the music from these albums will inspire or boost the careers of countless guitar-wielding songwriters. It may have happened anyway, but today’s female singer-songwriters are some of the many unexpected end results of Suzanne Vega’s music and of the quiet revolution she set off.