Suzanne Vega performed for two weeks last year at one of New York’s smallest and most intimidating concert venues, Café Carlyle.
“You can hear everybody talking,” she said of the long-running cabaret. “You can hear criticisms if anybody’s criticizing. On the other hand, when people love it, they were hanging on every word. You’ve got to hit the ground running and just bring it. That’s what I learned and that’s what I did … we were happy with the sound, so by the second week we decided to record it.”
Interrupting the coronavirus blues, Vega released an engaging live album recorded there, An Evening of New York Songs and Stories, on the Amanuensis/Cooking Vinyl label on Sept. 11. (The release date was especially poignant given that the album features a track, “Anniversary,” about those lost on Sept. 11.) And she will present a show of the same name, in celebration of the album, in two livestream concerts from New York’s iconic Blue Note Jazz Club, Oct. 7 at 9 p.m. (EDT) for North American audiences and Oct. 8 at 3 p.m. (EDT) for European fans.
For tickets and information, visit events.seated.com/suzanne-vega. Once you buy your ticket, you can watch the show for 72 hours after the performance.
She will be joined onstage by her longtime guitarist Gerry Leonard (who has worked with David Bowie), keyboardist Jason Hart and bassist Jeff Allen. Leonard, Allen and keyboardist Jamie Edwards perform on the album.
NEW YORK SONGS
Vega’s haunting images, distinctive and steady voice, poetic lyrics and catchy, satisfying tunes make her one of the most noteworthy American songwriters of her generation. One of the leaders of the folk revival in Greenwich Village, she has shared her impressions of the city — its residents, its parks and winters, its grit and glamour — and told tales of love, loss, longing and survival for more than 35 years with an understated and elegant delivery. Even the most jaded, latte-sipping New Yorkers recognize themselves in her songs.
She thought “Thin Man” and “Pornographer’s Dream” were right for the Café Carlyle show and album given their “sort of jazzy, lounge-y feel.” “New York Is My Destination” (see video below), she said, touches on “glamour and bohemianism, which don’t always go hand in hand — in fact, most of the time they don’t. There are things that are boho, but then you have the starving-artist caricature and a lot of people in New York don’t make a living, if you’re an artist. That’s one of the reasons I love the Carlyle. It’s an odd combination of uptown swank and bohemianism.
“I felt transported. It was heavenly. ‘This is the life.’ I felt like it was a new threshold of achievement.”
“New York Is My Destination” comes from Lover, Beloved: Songs From an Evening with Carson McCullers, Vega’s 2016 album that explores the courageous life of the Southern author, who published the novels “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” and “The Member of the Wedding.” (Vega premiered her play “Carson McCullers Talks About Love” in 2011 in New York; her investigation into Cullers’ life took advantage of her studies when she was a student in the English department of Barnard College). Mentioning iconic buildings in that song — the Algonquin and the Plaza Hotel — Vega reminds us of the glamorous side of her city.
Also on the album, she honors her mentor and friend, the late Lou Reed, through a cover of “Walk on The Wild Side.” She released a video (see below) to accompany her rendition in August that features images of characters in the song, including Andy Warhol, Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling.
We can hear Reed’s influence on her songwriting in her lyrics. In “Ludlow Street,” for instance, she sings of lost love and a party that lasted for several days:
This time when I go back to Ludlow Street
I find each stoop and doorway’s incomplete
Without you there.
Another generation’s parties and it is still the same old scene.
I can recall each morning after, painted in nicotine.
Vega’s 2007 album Beauty and Crime is well represented on the album with five songs, including “New York Is a Woman,” which celebrates the allure, appeal and toughness of some women as a metaphor for New York. With the city still largely shut down, the song reminds us of its bright side.
Given the glamour and intrigue of the Carlyle, she wisely sings “Frank and Ava,” which, she tells us in her recorded conversation from the evening, depicts a fight between Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner in their apartment on Central Park South.
PLAYING THE CARLYLE
Nestled near Central Park, a favorite place for Vega and Paul “Poez” Mills — her husband, a poet and civil rights lawyer — to take their yorkie for a walk, Café Carlyle has welcomed legendary artists to its intimate space, including Bobby Short, Eartha Kitt, Elaine Stritch and Judy Collins. (Café Carlyle is located inside the Carlyle Hotel, which is currently boarded up, temporarily, because of the pandemic.) Getting booked at the Café Carlyle, Vega felt pressure to put on a spectacular performance.
“It’s filled, filled, filled with stories,” said Vega, who debuted there three years ago. “I have to say, the first time I was very intimidated, and I wasn’t quite sure how to approach it … but I learned a lot that first run … One thing I learned right away is that you can’t warm up into it. You’ve got to hit that first night like it’s … the opening night to end all opening nights. You can’t slowly warm up into it. You better know what your set list is. You’ve got to know what your book is and do your book for the whole thing. Don’t come in with various experiments. Because you want to be at your best at all times at the Carlyle.
“The audience who goes there wants to see someone larger than life. It’s a small room … but these are not your buddies … you’re not playing for people in your kitchen. They are looking at you and they’re judging you, asking, ‘Are you worthy of playing the Carlyle?’ ”
When she was asked back the second time, she “started to do it up a little bit more,” she said, dressing up to match the bohemian glamour of the space. “I have a shirt that’s bright red with a feather collar and I decided, ‘We’re going there.’ I knew I better have a look and stick to it. I found this dress that looks like a jacket but it has no shoulders and I got my hair done, wore my false eyelashes.” And she wore her signature lipstick, Revlon’s “Cherries in the Snow.”
Vega has been writing songs and poetry since she was a young girl living in East Harlem in the 1970s. Her debut album earned rave reviews but she had her first hit with the Solitude Standing song “Luka” (see video below), an astonishingly powerful and accurate portrait of an abused child. (Luka never actually mentions abuse in the song, but Vega paints a picture that tells us about Luka’s suffering silently and with shame.)
Told from the child’s point of view, the song changed our collective consciousness about this subject. My thoughts turn to other iconic songs about significant issues, including Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child,” which describes racist reactions to an interracial couple, and “Ohio,” Neil Young’s protest anthem about the shootings of Kent State University students by the National Guard. “Luka” stands on the same honorary shelf as those songs, and serves as an example of music that brings us closer to justice by humanizing social problems. At a time when many of us grieve Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death and fear election results, songs that connect us are very necessary.
Though Vega wrote “Luka” quickly, its revelatory impact has endured. Vega’s lyrics capture the mindset of the abused child who sometimes takes responsibility for the abuser. Vega sings:
If you hear something late at night
Some kind of trouble, some kind of fight
Just don’t ask me what it was …
I think it’s because I’m clumsy
I try not to talk too loud
Maybe it’s ’cause I’m crazy
I try not to act too proud
They only hit until you cry
And after that you don’t ask why
Vega has heard from people who were impacted by the song, including a young woman who said it saved her life because it gave her the strength to tell her doctors what her father had done.
“She wrote to tell me this story and I found it incredibly moving and I kept that letter,” Vega said. “I kept all the letters from people who wrote to me with their own personal stories of how it affected them. I still, to this day, get letters from people who find me on Facebook from all over the world, from South Korea, from India, to say they heard the song — homeless teenagers in the ’80s. Somehow, they knew what it was about — it was so widely played. It gave them hope because they realized they weren’t alone in their situation. It had an impact much farther than I ever imagined.”
Vega said she knows how abused children feel. “I had my own experiences with it and I wanted to put it in words and I thought it was important to express,” she said. “At best, I thought people would understand it. But before we produced it, a lot of times when people did understand it, they would look upset. They would look at the floor. They would look uncomfortable.
“So when my manager said to me, ‘I think that song could be a hit,’ I said, ‘What?’ I didn’t see it. But he said it’s a song about an issue and we need songs about issues. … And I finally said, ‘Go ahead and do it. Produce it the way you think it should be produced.’ And he turned out to be correct.”
She said being asked about abuse “was something that I had a way of dealing with, and it was very stressful … it’s different now and it’s a different era … It was still very fresh … on the other hand, that was my karma, in a sense, it was my responsibility. I brought (the song) into the world and the world responded.
“I actually took comfort that I wrote it in the third person because what was important was the truthfulness … Not the personal nature of it. Not that this happened to me and therefore it’s really bad. But no, this is bad because it is true, because it happens to people. And of course in those days, in the media, everyone was acting like it never happened.”
LIFE DURING THE PANDEMIC
During the pandemic, Vega has primarily stayed at home in her Manhattan apartment. She went through the familiar stages of confusion and cleaning when the coronavirus first hit. She has appeared in several livestream concerts from her apartment, including fundraisers for the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation and Parkinson’s Disease research and the Greenwich Village Folk Festival.
“At first I was at home, stunned, and then I thought I’d better learn how to do these livestreams that everybody is doing,” she said.
She was excited to share her first livestream event with Norah Jones. “I was beside myself with excitement, which is crazy because I’m just here by myself. It was just me and the dog. It was so surreal. This is not a venue.” She records these shows surrounded by books, in her library.
One fundraiser, which is still up on her Facebook page, shows a homey exchange with her husband, who was receiving texts from their daughter Ruby, advising Vega to turn up the volume on her laptop.
She said she has been “okay” during the pandemic. “My mother apparently had it in March,” she said. “She thought she had a weird cold … She’s the most vulnerable one in the family and she’s the one who came down with it. She was very much at risk and is going to turn 80 next month so we were concerned about her.
“The person I lost that meant a lot to me was (music producer) Hal Willner. I just couldn’t believe that happened … we worked together over a long period of time … the first time in 1988 when he did the Stay Awake album, which was a Disney collection of songs, and I did the title track. And then the last time I saw him was just last fall. I did a repeat of that song in his studio — I did a re-record of that song for a movie for a friend. So I saw Hal then, and he brought me into his little office. I saw his toys and all his funny things. I loved seeing him because when he tasked you for a project, he always saw things in you that you didn’t know you had. So, I feel like a little part of my universe has gone dark.”
Vega is impressed by New Yorkers’ responses to the coronavirus. “Everyone, for the most part, said, ‘Yeah we are gonna wear a mask, we are gonna social distance,’ and then we did it. I thought that was fantastic. I’ve been very proud of NYC and I think other states should be studying how we did it, because it’s been down now since the end of June. At the apex it was scary and frightening … it’s very insidious, silent and you don’t know who to trust. You have to keep cleaning, washing hands, door knobs, wearing your mask and be vigilant, and you hope the people you love are being the same way.”
We talked about her experience when the lockdown was announced and Broadway went dark. “Before the pandemic I was in an Off-Broadway play, much to my own surprise,” she said. “I started rehearsals the day after Christmas… ‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,’ which was a movie back in the ’60s. And I played a character called Bandleader, which is actually a collection of characters, 10 to 15 different characters — everybody in the play who is not Bob, Carol, Ted or Alice. I loved it. I was having the time of my life doing eight shows a week, taking public transportation down to 42nd Street and walking over to the theater. I was very exposed.”
She was disappointed that the show was suspended on March 15, a week and a half early, but also relieved not to have to work while the virus was spreading. She received a text one day, advising her to pick up her stuff “sooner rather than later,” because the show was going dark.
“It was confusing,” she said. “We didn’t know how long this was going to be. At first, I thought two weeks.”
Though touring is suspended for now, she hopes to resume in 2021.
Vega misses touring, but she also likes being home “because there’s some comfort in it.”
When Ruby was very little, they would be together in June and July. But soon she opted for sleepaway camp. Vega recounted her daughter’s explanation: “What’s better? To be in one good place where you know how it is, or a bunch of different places where you don’t know how it is?”
COLLINS AND KITT
Like Vega, Judy Collins started out on the folk circuit, and later played the Café Carlyle. The two are friends, and have attended each other’s shows there.
“She’s tough and fierce,” Vega said. “I love her. I feel myself being mentored by her. She takes me by the wrist and says, ‘Come here, we’re doing this now — watch how I do this.’ She’s great. I lived in her building for a while. We became neighbors and I got to see her in the morning with her fabulous hair and pink cashmere scarves flung around her neck even at 9:30 in the morning. She’s just fabulous.”
I asked her if she felt the spirit of another Café Carlyle alum: Eartha Kitt, who attended the same high school as Vega, the High School of Performing Arts, now called Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts.
“Well, I love Eartha Kitt and I have all of her books … I bet you didn’t know Eartha Kitt had a bunch of books,” she said. Vega read Kitt’s book titles to me from her bookshelves: “Confessions of a Sex Kitten,” “Thursday’s Child,” “Rejuvenate!”
“I read ‘Rejuvenate!’ especially as a book about how to be young, beautiful and healthy,” Vega said. “She’s an inspiration. So, I did feel her spirit there.”
In the mid-1980s, Vega worked as a receptionist by day while performing at night. She found a strong community of musicians through the Songwriter’s Exchange, which first met at Cornelia Street Café in the West Village. Under the direction of Jack Hardy, the Songwriter’s Exchange developed into a cooperative that formed the Fast Folk Musical Magazine.
“I loved those guys. I was good friends with Jack Hardy,” Vega said. “I found my tribe … a group of people who cared passionately about songs, politics, melody, poetry, metaphor. I felt at home there.”
Soon she played started playing gigs at Folk City and The Bottom Line.
“I didn’t feel intimidated at that point because I had been trying to get a gig at the Bitter End for four years,” she said. “The guy who ran the Bitter End kept saying, ‘No, no, no. You’re just not right for this place. What you write is poetry, but if you write this stuff, you could write real songs’ … I was turned down by this guy for years. And then it occurred to me to go to Folk City. I had a ton of songs at that point.”
She already had written several songs that she still performs. “I had ‘Cracking.’ I had ‘Gypsy,’ so I was kind of thrilled to be part of this group. And it’s true that most of the people there were guys about 12 years older than me, but I felt that I could hold by own. I felt that it sort of gave me, not an edge exactly … I thought it was interesting. I never felt inhibited. I never felt victimized in any way.”
Having gained wisdom early on, Vega knew how to maintain control over her artistic vision.
“I knew enough not to be manipulated by my manager. No one was gonna tell me how I should look. It was a whole different thing going on in the early ’80s with women like Cyndi Lauper. She had ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,’ and we had Madonna and she was very sexy. I wanted to be serious, I wanted to be sober. I wanted to be covered up. I wanted to be in my jacket. I wanted to be more like Chrissie Hynde or even Patti Smith, who was poetic … she could be very sexy in some of her pictures, but it was all on her terms. I admired those women, as well as I admired the women who came before me, like Joan Baez and Judy Collins. So, I felt pretty confident.”
Vega’s music is eclectic, with rock, jazz and techno tones at times. I asked her how she felt about being labelled as a leader of the folk revival movement. “I totally get it,” she said. “And the reason why is because I suppose if were a real rock ‘n’ roller, I would have learned how to play electric guitar.
“Many people have asked me to do so. Lenny Kaye has asked me. Even my ex-husband Mitchell (Froom, who produced two of her albums) bought me an electric guitar and I just can’t play it. I can’t control it.
“The only instrument I play is the acoustic guitar. And I love the acoustic guitar. I love the intimacy of it. I love the sound of it and I’m always drawn to it. There is something about it that makes good sense, but I never let it limit me. But most people understand that I’m not a traditional folksinger, but I’ve got a folk root. I think of it as the heart of what I do. It’s not the whole thing. It informs everything.”
We discussed Vega’s early work with Kaye and Steve Addabbo, who co-produced her first two albums. “I love them both deeply,” she said.”I love Steve. I know him so well and he’s been a good friend to me. And I feel the same with Lenny in a very different way. I think of him as a kind of guardian angel. He appears and reappears in my life.
“But we definitely had our moments when we were making the first album and then the second album: a lot of creative tensions. Neither of them had ever produced anyone before. I had never made records before and my manager had never managed anyone before. And we were given all of this leeway and freedom and everyone would look at me and ask, ‘How do you hear this? How do you want this to be?’ And I didn’t have the vocabulary to really lead them. All I could do is say, ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it’ or ‘Why is the bass so loud?’
“I remember having some arguments, interestingly, with Lenny. And I’d say ‘I want it to have more edge.’ And he’d say, ‘It has edge.’ …
“Eventually, I realized everyone has their own version of edge. For some people it’s screaming, out-of-control vocals. For other people it’s a distorted guitar or a loud drum track. But there’s different ways of being edgy. So, that was my frustration. But on the other hand, it was a great creative time when we were all very free to speak our minds and those two were the most successful albums that I had. So, I think of them with great, great fondness.”
“The stars aligned for us,” says Addabbo. “Who would have thought we would have the success we had in a period of three or four years? We used to play for 30 people at Folk City. In a few years, she was at Royal Albert Hall. And she deserves every bit of her success!”
Vega’s brilliant songs demonstrate beautiful restraint even when taking on serious subjects, and that’s a very powerful edge.
I asked her if Lou Reed’s music is an example of beautiful restraint. “He is not screaming and shouting and he’s probably one of the edgiest people I’ve ever known,” she said. “It was his delivery and what he was writing about. He was very sharp and to the point. So yes, you can be intense and do it in a quiet way.”
When Vega was a young girl, guitar was an escape and Saturday evenings were the times she could indulge in playing. I asked her why she was drawn to guitar.
“It was something I had control over,” she said. “We had a piano, but if I sat down at the piano there was always somebody that would join me. My stepfather would sit down, or anybody else. It was out loud so everyone could hear me and say something, which I never wanted.”
She added that “with the guitar I could go into my room and just play it for myself and listen with my ear curled downward to the sound hole. It was personal and private. So, that’s what made me fall in love with the guitar. The sound of it. The feel of it. And it worked. It took me three years to write my first song, but it actually worked.”
As she got older and had additional responsibilities, she found it “more difficult to fiddle with a guitar unless I have to. It’s standing right in front of me looking at me reproachingly,” she said with a laugh.
Her songwriting process follows different paths. “Sometimes it’s the lyrics first. Sometimes it’s an image in my mind. Sometimes it’s a melody that I can’t get rid of. Sometimes it’s all three at once.”
I asked her if she has to be raw to write. “I have to be troubled, deeply troubled by something. Something has to be nagging at me. Bugging me, because then it will come back — visiting and revisiting and visiting and revisiting. Either that or I have to think something is funny or interesting.
“There’s an element of obsession about it. Once I start to hear the little voices in my head that start lining things up and the words start to have a little texture to them, I know I’m close to something good and then I have to start to write things down, even if it’s just pieces, fragments, so I get them on my phone, a tune on my iPhone, and then at some point I need to put it all together. But I need to clear space for that.
“And that’s what I don’t have right now. I don’t have time.”
She said that in addition to preparing livestreams, “there’s responsibilities that come from being home. If you want to live in a certain way, you’ve got to figure out who’s gonna do the groceries, who’s gonna do the cooking, all that stuff. Whereas when you are on tour, all that is taken care of.”
I asked Vega where she likes to write. She said she has used the writing rooms in the New York Society Library (New York’s oldest library) on East 79th Street, and the patrons lounge of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” I didn’t really have a place at home to sit and be by myself,” she said. “I think my daughter was still at home. So I paid all this money to become a patron of the Met I could go sit upstairs in that beautiful room and order tea and do my research, and work on my lyrics. It worked fantastically well.”
THE UNUSUAL ANGLE
Around the time that “Luka” was released, Vega searched and found her father. “I found him fairly easily,” she said. “I hired a detective in 1987 and he was easy to find. It’s wasn’t like he was hiding. He’s a very nice, straightforward guy and we remained close ever since. I found him in 1987 and I met him in 1988 and my daughter knows him as her grandfather. It’s worked out really well. That’s been a fascinating thing, to get to know that side of the family.”
Vega learned that her father played piano and guitar, and her grandmother sang and played drums and piano during the depression. “She spent a lot of time on tour, so it was amazing for me to find that it was there in the genes,” she said.
Her stepfather, Ed Vega, was a novelist and short-story writer. “At his best, he was wildly encouraging about anything to do with the arts and culture — school was something he loved. He instilled in all of us this love of learning.”
Vega’s songs aren’t really confessional, but she has a gift of explaining complex emotional states indirectly and poetically. In “Marlene on the Wall” (see video below), we hear about loneliness — and a troubled soul and a difficult relationship — in an unusual way. Vega had a photograph of Dietrich “dressed in her cool way up there on the wall. It was a fun game that I still like to play. What would it be like if Marlene had eyes and could see in my room?”
Vega sings, in this song:
Even if I am in love with you
All this to say, what’s it to you?
Observe the blood, the rose tattoo of the fingerprints on me from you
Other evidence has shown that you and I are still alone
We skirt around the danger zone and don’t talk about it later…
Marlene watches from the wall
Her mocking smile says it all
As she records the rise and fall
Of every soldier passing.
She explained that in her 20s, she would play “imagination games” with herself.
“I still play those games. I’m always looking for the interesting angle or odd perspective. It’s fun. It gets me out of myself. It’s a relief … that’s a trademark of mine. The unusual angle.”
LEARNING FROM LOU
Vega credits Lou Reed with influencing and inspiring her songwriting, and describes the first time she met him, on her 27th birthday, as “very intense.”
Initially, she saw him live as a fan at his concerts when she was a college student at Barnard. “I saw him when I was 19, all over New York, usually at the Ritz, and I was too shy to go up and to introduce myself and tell him I was a fan. I usually went by myself because I could never get any date to go with me.”
She was impressed with his blunt descriptions about people and taboo subjects.
“The first time I saw him in 1979, the first half of the show was chaos and violence … he lit cigarettes and threw them into the audience … he would knock over the mic stands. He’d pretend to be shooting up and I thought that was disgusting. I came from a neighborhood that was filled with addicts. East Harlem in the ’60s was having a heroin epidemic. My family was very anti-drug. I remember being repulsed.
“During the second half of the show I heard ‘Caroline Says II’ and that really opened my eyes. There was no metaphor there. He’s not a guy that uses metaphors. And I love metaphors. That’s how I think. But he was so blunt and the fact that he was writing from a female perspective, too, I thought was just awesome. ”
She added, “this was a world I didn’t know anything about. I knew about Leonard Cohen. I knew about Bob Dylan, but this Lou Reed character and all of his songs led me to understand … I went to see him over and over again, to learn how to be that blunt. How to say what I felt. And I return to his work over and over again. I still feel that I can do good versions of his songs (she’s done ‘Caroline Says II’ and ‘Dirty Boulevard’) because I get where he’s coming from. I’ve learned from him.”
Reed’s confidence impressed her. “I was introspective and sometimes frightened and I was busy being the observer and maybe it was my temperament. I recognized something in his temperament that I liked. This is how I want to be. There is a casual grace to what he does and I want that so that’s what I learned from him.”
She honors Reed with a cover of “Walk on the Wild Side” on her live album, and she released a video of her rendition in August.
COHEN AND FORNATALE
I asked her about another iconic figure that influenced her music — Leonard Cohen, whom she met in 1988.
“I had been listening to him for 14 years,” she said. “I loved his music.”
She met him backstage at a concert and later at a Rolling Stone photo shoot. “They had asked me to choose a mentor and I choose Lou Reed, but he was out of town. I said, ‘How about Leonard Cohen?,’ and he flew from Canada. We had a lovely friendship for years. He sent me gifts when Ruby was born. Then he went away for a long time … we were not as close after that.”
His songwriting inspired her because it was “mysterious, honest and blunt, but he never gave away the whole emotional ballgame, you never really knew what he was talking about, but you could kind of feel what it was. He’d mix politics and sex — power plays drawn together. He’s so deliberate.”
We reminisced about longtime disc jockey Pete Fornatale, whose “Mixed Bag” show was an important outlet for New York folk musicians for decades.
“I used to listen to him in the ’70s. He’d play Bob Dylan’s albums from beginning to end. I sent him Fast Folk albums. One day he dropped by the office where I was working as a receptionist until 1984, and I had to ask my boss if I could take the afternoon off. It was a wonderful coffee moment.”
LOVE AND PERSPECTIVE
She included “Gypsy” — written when she was a camp counselor in the Adirondacks — on the live album because it “needed a bit of folky warmth.” She is still friendly with the boy in the song and “he sends me emails with photographs of his granddaughter,” she said. One night a bunch of campers from her past showed up at the Carlyle, uniting her past with her present.
In her powerful song “Cracking,” featured on the album, she sings:
My heart is broken
It is worn out at the knees
Hearing muffled, seeing blind
Soon it will hit the Deep Freeze
Vega wrote “Cracking” when she was living away from home for the first time. Her roommate was struggling with mental health issues. She walks us through a wintry scene — a theme she explores in other songs — and shares her troubles with us.
She said that “Deep Freeze” signifies “a kind of inner place that I would feel myself going into if I were very stressed as a child, usually if there was someone harassing me or demanding that I speak my feelings, which I always found very difficult. It was kind of a code name for an inner place. I can even describe it for you. It was like a cold, twilight place that I would see and feel within myself. Maybe this is how I feel emotions. I see an image and then I stay with that image… Deep Freeze was a code name for a terribly, terribly cold and safe place to get away from whatever was happening on the surface.”
She said she was “very attuned” to her roommate. “When you grow up a certain way, you are always attuned to what’s going on because you don’t know what kind of day it’s going to be.”
She explained that her roommate “had a breakdown,” and the song captures the stress she and her roommate were experiencing. “It made me see there were worlds beyond my own … and other people suffering. That’s life and how it is. And that’s why we have to be kind and be careful with each other.”
Sometimes songs we’ve heard years ago still bring up the same mood as when we first heard them. I asked Vega if songs she wrote in the ’80s still resonate for her.
“I don’t feel the same,” she said. “But I feel a strong and genuine feeling when I sing it. I’m never walking through it. I’m always invested in it and it’s true of all the songs. It’s especially true of ‘Luka’ and ‘Tom’s Diner,’ because it’s become such a joyful song, whereas it was such a lonely song.”
Written about a plain and greasy diner on Broadway and 112th Street, “Tom’s Diner” has such a distinctive tune that all that’s needed is the first few lines to take me back to my younger self, walking on the city streets when a cup of coffee didn’t cost $5. Vega takes us on a very New York tradition of watching people go by in a café when she sings: “I am sitting in the morning at the diner on the corner/I am waiting at the counter for the man to pour the coffee.”
These days she prefers Metro Diner on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. And she doesn’t feel lonely there. “I like going to a café and diner, sitting and writing among people. It makes me feel not lonely.”
Another song on the live album with a wintry backdrop, “Freeze Tag” relies on imagery of New York playgrounds and parks and was written for her husband when they first dated. “It’s a metaphor for adults … we dated from 1981 to 1983 and one of the first dates we went on was to one of my playgrounds in Riverside Park near 102nd Street … Our relationship and our love was just beginning.”
The song references Dietrich and James Dean and “the world of film which we are deeply involved in.”
Their relationship ended and they didn’t see each other for 23 years. “Then we got married,” Vega laughed. “He asked me to marry him then (early 1980s), but I had to think about it. (Later) I got pregnant and married someone else.”
Vega said she felt the marriage proposal was “always on the table.” They reconnected in 2005 and will celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary next year.
“He became a lawyer in California and then New York and he writes poetry. He’s a great stepdad to Ruby, making her breakfast (when she was young), taking her to the doctor, and picking her up. They have a really great relationship.”
Now Ruby is married and working towards a Ph.D in infectious disease. Vega said she has an “amazingly good voice” and sings backing vocals with her.
Vega ends the album with “Thin Man” and “Tombstone,” which “are both slightly defiant songs about laughing at death,” she said. “It fit the mood and now it’s even more weirdly appropriate given the pandemic and it gives me a shiver to think of how appropriate they are, in a sort of dreadful way.”
DREAM COMES TRUE
In Vega’s song “New York Is My Destination,” McCullers shares her aspirations. I asked Vega if she has achieved her dreams.
“I did achieve my dream fairly early on, more than I expected with ‘Luka,’ when it went Top 10 all over the world. I was like, ‘Holy cow, this is so much more than I expected,’ ” she said, adding “for a while I wondered if this is going to happen all the time … And it wasn’t quite like that because we had the peak and then eventually the whole music industry fell apart.
“But I feel very satisfied. I feel like I do what I want. I’ve done theater, I finished the Carson McCullers play and now it’s turning into a film. I feel like I’ve had this rich life and I have this good career, and I hear from people on social media from all over the world, which is fantastic.
“I love it. I love my life, I love what I do and I am thrilled with how it turned out. And yes, it’s almost exactly the way I had imagined that it would be.”
For more on Vega, visit suzannevega.com.
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of $20, or any other amount, to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.