The lovely Suzanne Vega was in concert recently at Carnegie Hall WV, in Lewisburg. I have had my ticket in hand for months now because I consider myself a huge Suzanne Vega fan. However, as the concert drew closer, I began to question my own faithfulness as a fan.
When I was in highschool, I enjoyed Vega’s music on the radio, with her breakout hit “Luka.” But I have to admit that it probably wasn’t until the remix of “Tom’s Diner” by DNA hit the airwaves that I decided to jump in whole hog and actually buy her album Solitude Standing. It quickly became a favorite. I just loved her quiet, sorta smoky voice, and the stories she told. “Luka” and the original stripped down “Tom’s Diner” were not even my favorite songs on it. The title track was great, “Gypsy” and “Calypso” beautiful and intriguing. I was already into bands like 10,000 Maniacs and dipping into R.E.M., but Suzanne Vega quickly became another in the line of gateway drugs into more substantive artists who weren’t just the standard, bubblegum, Debbie Gibson pop.
I managed to miss her next album, Days of Open Hand, on its release, but eventually did pick it up. The next of her albums I gravitated to, though, was 99.9 F° (1992), was a departure from the style of Solitude, but I got over the more industrial-sounding hump and really started to enjoy it. Again the title track was a winner, as were Rock in This Pocket and Blood Makes Noise. At some point I went back and picked up her 1996 debut.
By the time Nine Objects of Desire was released, in 1996, I was in college radio at WMSV at Mississippi State. At the time, the station was not focused on playing singles, so we could play anything on the album. Most were sexy gems, made even more enticing to me by her picture on the cover–that red hair against the green of the background and the apple. So nice. I loved “Caramel,” “World Before Columbus,” and “Honeymoon Suite” the best. Her storytelling continued just as complex and concise as always, her voice still slightly smokey. If I’d known what smooth bourbon was at the time, I might have applied that description, but I was still 15 years away from any kind of appreciation of that.
I graduated in 1996, immediately became very poor, and did not buy a lot of albums for a couple of years. But I continued to listen to those of hers that I owned, particularly Nine Objects. I’m a bit strange with music I love, though. There are a number of cases in my collection where I love a given artist and a given album or albums by them, but am very hesitant to spend a lot of time on newer material by them. I often still tend to buy their music, but it sometimes take me several listens to really decide if I like an album and if I don’t do that right away then the chances of me doing it at all decrease. I think it was often easier for me to get into music back in the days of cassettes and CDs, before digital music, where you basically had a physical object sitting around to remind you you hadn’t listened to it yet. I still buy CDs, but I immediately rip the music and it winds up in the cloud. I store the CD in a binder sleeve, gut the CD case itself and keep the liner notes in a box with all the others. Saves space, but makes for a crappy display. And everything is out of sight, out of mind. My music listening has dropped off tremendously even though I have every album I own at my fingertips at all times via my computer and my phone. Irony, no? Suzanne Vega should write a song about it.
I’m embarrassed to say that I did not do a very good job at at keeping up with new albums. It’s kind of what happens to some of us who leave our primary music-fandom-formation years. I did buy 2001’s Songs in Red & Gray at some point, but have no memory of listening to it. I think I bought it as part of a multi-album purchase and it got put away somewhere safe before getting listened to.
Because of this lack of faithfulnessI was already questioning how big a fan I truly was of Suzanne Vega as her concert approached. She’d released nearly at least as many albums as I already owned since the last album of hers I’d really dug into. So I was anticipating a concert that could possibly have lots of music I was unfamiliar with.
As I sat in my sixth row seat near the middle of the house, the nice lady next to me said, “So… What song of hers are you most hoping she’ll play?”
I couldn’t even recall the titles of any of her songs. Oh, sure, I had “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner” easily in hand, but you don’t want to be the guy who says the very VERY obvious answers.
“Wow,” I said. “Probably something from Nine Objects of Desire.”
“Oh, you really do know her work,” the lady said. I explained that “Nine Objects” was my favorite album of hers and that my library after that was actually pretty thin. Really, I was just hoping to hear some favorites from across her range.
And we did.
Suzanne Vega gave a lovely concert, a nice mixture of new and old with, naturally, more emphasis on the older songs, going back to even her debut album. However, the ones she noted were fairly new were excellent. She was charming and full of stories about the origins of some of the music. Her voice was every bit as gorgeous as when I first heard her in the late `80s.
After intermission, she returned to sing more familiar tunes and a few ones from older albums I owned but which I had forgotten. Toward the end, she thanked everyone in her crew, and the venue, and then began her big hit “Luka.” I had to force myself not to sing along with her, as I have hundreds of times on that song before. Then, at the end of the chorus after the second verse, she was about to head into the third verse then, just as she reached the place where she was supposed to come in… didn’t. She continued to play, as did her electric guitarist (Gerry Leonard, who was a badass), but looked a little thoughtful as she did. Then she smiled and said, “I just sang the third verse in place of the second. And now I’m trying to remember the lyrics to the second verse.” She kept playing as the audience began to chuckle. “`Yes, I think I’m okay’ … no, I sang that,” she said.
“Maybe it’s because I’m clumsy!” I called out in a loud voice from the sixth row.
“`I think it’s because I’m clumsy,'” she said, correcting my paraphrase. “That’s it.” And then, with perfect timing, as she’d reached the entrance to the verse in what she was playing, she instantly began singing, “`I think it’s because I’m clumsy, I try not to talk to loud…'”
I beamed from my seat. That might have just made my year.
Thinking about it in the minutes that followed, I felt grateful to have witnessed a quirk of memory that plagues great performers like Suzanne Vega and those of us on my much lower performing level as well. You might have sung a particular song thousands of times, more than any other song you’ve ever sung in your whole life, and know it by muscle memory. However, muscle memory can occasionally develop a cramp–especially if you get the elements of that memory out of the order your muscle has memorized it by.
Afterward, I stood in line for an autograph on her CD from last year, Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles. I thought of lots of things to ask her and tried to winnow this down to something memorable and short, since it was already after 10p. When I reached the front of the line, I passed her my CD and said, “Hi. I was your prompter.” Then, thinking she might have been bummed out by it, I added, “Sorry.”
“No, no,” she said with the most genuine smile. “I actually love it when people help like that.”
And then, just like that, all the additional stuff I had thought to say to Suzanne Vega, back when I was standing in line, was no longer in my memory. Instead, I thanked her, told her the concert was lovely and then slipped away into the night.
The album is very good. True to Suzanne Vega form.