Suzanne Vega on Her Live Album, the Legacy of “Luka,” and Life Under Lockdown
Accepting New York
Jan 28, 2021
Photography by George Holz Web Exclusive
I had a chance to chat with Suzanne Vega over the phone back in November. An Evening of New York Songs and Stories had just come out earlier in 2020. A live album full of career highlights ranging from early hits like “Marlene on the Wall” and the worldwide smash “Luka” to her cover of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” it’s an enjoyable listen for longtime fans and newcomers alike with lots of detours in between. During this short chat, we talked about everything ranging from the effects of COVID-19 pandemic on touring musicians to her growing up in New York in the 1970s. Read on!
Matthew Berlyant (Under the Radar): How are you doing today?
Suzanne Vega: Not too bad.
The first question I have for you is actually about something that was on the recently released live album [An Evening of New York Songs and Stories]. I had long heard the rumor that “Tom’s Diner” was about the one in Brooklyn, but it always made much more sense to me for it to be about the one in Manhattan near Columbia University, where you went to school. Therefore, I’m glad it was cleared up. But do you know how that rumor got started?
I do know because I finally went there after 25 years of people telling me “oh, it’s so cute and in Brooklyn” and I kept going “no, the one I wrote about isn’t cute and is in Manhattan and not in Brooklyn.” So I finally went there to do some shooting and they had this paper on the wall that had the lyrics typed out and then someone wrote underneath it “I came. I saw. I wrote it.” Someone had signed my name to it and it’s not my handwriting, not my signature. Thus, someone had faked it and put it up on the wall. I think it’s closed now, but it was likely on the wall for 25 years, so it has an aged, kind of authentic look to it. But I don’t know who wrote it since that was my first time there.
[The real diner is a] pretty much an average greasy spoon. It’s not quaint or cute and it’s pretty utilitarian, pretty much your average diner and back in the ’80s, it was maybe even less than average. It was popular because it was there, open all night, and you could get coffee all night.
I read some years back that you now have a driver’s license and that you were living in California. Are you bi-coastal now? Do you still drive at all?
You’ve actually caught me at an awkward moment because it’s expired. It expired last year and that puts me in an awkward position. It’s not like I used it all the time anyway. I rarely used it and I was never comfortable driving. I’ve been on tour since the mid ’80s, so I’m not a person who’s used to driving myself around. So anyway, it lapsed because of an awkward situation. I had an appointment and I missed it and I didn’t realize that I only had another week to renew it and so now I guess I’d have to take the test all over again, which I don’t think is likely. So that’s how it is right now. I haven’t delved into it too deeply because I haven’t needed to drive. The last time I drove was kind of a disaster. It was raining, my phone fell out of my pocket and slid under the seat while I was trying to get directions from it and I couldn’t remember the address of the place I was going to. Thus, I came home and my brother said that he would drive me there. It was only 10 minutes away.
I know that you’ve collaborated several times with Joe Jackson, most recently in 1997 when you sang “Angel” on his album Heaven and Hell but most famously for the soundtrack to Pretty in Pink back in 1986 on the song “Left of Center,” a song of yours that he plays piano on. Are you still in touch with him? Would you collaborate with him again?
We run into each other from time to time. I always say hello when I can because he can be very shy and very reclusive. I saw him on his last tour because my drummer Doug Yowell is on tour with him and it was a great, great show. I wanted to say hi, but I think he’s the kind of guy who just leaves immediately for the hotel after the show. I would work with him again if the situation were to arise, sure.
How have you been dealing with COVID-19 canceling everyone’s touring plans and how has your spiritual practice [Nichiren Buddhism] guided you during this time as well?
It was a shock to me as well as everyone else. I was doing an off-Broadway play when we got the call on March 12th saying, “Come get your stuff from the theater. Come now; sooner rather than later and just take all of your stuff and go home.” And then we had to lockdown almost immediately. And so I’d been doing eight shows a week and taking public transportation (the 1 train to 42nd St) with all of these throngs of people on a daily basis. And so it went from that to “bang, you’re at home” and so I had to figure out what’s going on, how long this is gonna last, everyone is saying stockpile all of your stuff, your medicines, your food, and I’m like for how long? People said two weeks and of course it turned out to be more like three months until things opened up again. So I’m adjusting.
I had tours planned that were going well, some of them had sold out already and we were gonna start touring in May. So all of those dates were postponed and then postponed again and they’re probably going to be canceled but right now they’re sort of suspended indefinitely in the future. So for the most part, I’m just home in Manhattan. I’ve worked out a system to get groceries. I try to help other people, my family, and neighbors if they need help with anything and like everyone else, I’ve been at home riding this out. The hardest thing is trying to be more technically proficient. Figuring out how to do Zoom, figuring out how to do live streaming concerts from my library at home, which way does the phone have to face, all of these other details where normally I would have some guy standing there doing all of that stuff for me. So I’m just trying to figure out how to adjust to this new world and how to keep the pace with what’s going on because we don’t know how long this is going on for. It won’t go on forever, but it may go on for another year. So that’s kind of where I’m at. I’m just grateful that no one I know has symptoms or is sick and I’m just keeping my eye on the news and adapting as well as I can to every passing day.
You also wanted to know about Nichiren Buddhism. The great thing about it is that it’s a very concrete practice, which I find particularly helpful. I know other people who practice other forms of Buddhism that involve meditation or something more introspective. I’m already an introspective person, so I find it helpful that I can sit down and say the prayers out loud. You do the prayers twice a day, they’re said out loud, and you chant to an object of worship, a scroll that you receive. So these are real things in the real world and you hear your own voice saying these prayers out loud and I find it tremendously grounding. You chant for yourself and you chant for others because it’s not always all about you. You live in the world with other people. So I’ve found that to be a great venue for hopes and dreams and wishes and prayers and all of these things. If I don’t really know what to do about any given situation, then I can take it and chant about it and it has generally yielded real results in real time. I’m very grateful for it.
So the first time I ever knowingly heard your music was in 1987 when “Luka” became a massive hit. It was even played at one of my seventh grade dances. I wasn’t as aware of the issue it dealt with as I’d become later since I was only 12 at the time. So I’m curious how you think the issue of child abuse is addressed now in popular music and culture overall and how the attitudes towards it have changed since you wrote “Luka.” What do you think has changed in the last 33 years?
I think it is different now. There was at least one other song about child abuse, Natalie Merchant [“What’s the Matter Here?” by 10,000 Maniacs, which Merchant fronted then; it also came out in 1987, same year as “Luka”]. It’s a different perspective and not from the point of the view of the child, but she brought it up and it’s been addressed in music since then. But now, times have changed, so we do read about it in the newspapers. I was so impressed that the laws could change. A turning point for me was when I went to speak at a violence awareness day in Albany back in the ’90s, maybe 1998 or 1999. They asked if I’d come and sing “Luka” at a press conference they were giving. They were trying to pass a law against stalking and so I came and spoke and sang and later on, that year, I got a letter from the organization saying that the law has been passed and that I’d helped to pass it because of my efforts. I was very proud of that. I think I was as proud of that as I was to have a song that was a Top 10 hit all over the world with that subject because it’s really the laws that change things. So now we have stalking laws that say, for example, that if someone sends a woman flowers and says something like “these are for your funeral” then it can be reported to the police. Before the stalking law, they could say “he sent you flowers,; nothing wrong with that” and ignore the threat. So now people are more aware of it and talk about it more often, it’s reported in the newspapers, and it’s given a gravity that it didn’t have 30-40 years ago.
That’s a terrific answer and a great point about laws being able to be changed. The flipside of that, of course, is that some of the worst atrocities in human history were committed legally. So my thought is that there’s too much emphasis placed on what current law is and not enough on what it could and should be.
That’s right. People think, “it’s the law, so what can I do about it,” but laws change and that’s why people are in the street right now. That’s why we’re having protests. They can and will change, so it’s really important to be hopeful and not give in to despair. Anger is fine as long as there is a sense of justice and you use it as an agent for change.
And speaking of change, and I know that this is a bit of a weird segue, but what do you think of how New York has changed since you grew up here or even in the last 35 years since your career took off?
I basically accept New York through all of its changes, I’m not a person who sentimentalized the 1970s. I was a child in the 1970s. I was 12 years old in 1972. I wasn’t enjoying the loft spaces downtown or hanging out in cool scenes like Max’s Kansas City or taking drugs. I was just trying to live my 12 year old life, which was really hard because of all the drugs and crime and everything else that was going on in the 1970s, so I never had that sense of “I love New York, it’s so grimy, full of crime, yay” and wasn’t one of the people who felt that way. With that said, I know that New York City changes constantly, it’s constantly hustling. I’ve seen it through the ’80s, when it was all about this rich, haughty glamour. In the ’90s, I was on tour all the time, so I don’t know what New York was like then. In the 2000s, we had 9/11 and the aftermath there, so New York was mortally wounded and came back from that. Now, we’ve got this situation with COVID-19 where we were hit so badly. So I know New York and I accept it with all of its faults and it’s hustler spirit. I also love it for its refinements and educational opportunities, its museums, the art spirit, and I just love it through all of those phases.
I only romanticize that period because of the amazing music it produced and wish I could’ve seen those artists play back then.
I had the opportunity to see Patti Smith in 1975 and I had friends who were going to see her then, but I was really doing other things like babysitting, trying to make a little bit of money, so I wasn’t hanging out. Eventually, I came to greatly admire all of those artists who were hanging out like Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Jim Carroll, etc. I love them and I love their love of New York. Of course, we’re all part of that scene in time.
I very much view you as a continuation of that lineage.
I feel myself to be part of it. I’ve worked with Lenny Kaye and I’ve done [before City Winery closed] Lou Reed memorials, glam nights, and whatnot, so it’s a nice mixture of people from different scenes who have all gotten to know each other over time. I like that and really treasure that.
Is there anything else you wanted to speak out and do you have any questions for me?
I really enjoyed making this album and now it’s come out under completely different circumstances than I had been imagining, so it has a whole different context. I appreciate your taking the time and talking about the album and helping us to continue working through this bizarre time.
My pleasure; I’ve been a fan for over 30 years now.
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