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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

30 on the 30th: Solitude Standing and "Gypsy"

March was The Joshua Tree; April was Sign o' the Times. For May, something much softer, more introspective and haunting: the 30th anniversary of Suzanne Vega's Solitude Standing.

Was I, as a high school senior, just preternaturally mature and world-weary and reflective, way back then? Not necessarily--I'm sure (and, if necessary, my memory can drag up more than enough evidence in support of the claim) that I was pretty much just as selfish and immature and oblivious as any usual 18-year-old; probably more than usual, actually. But I do think that maybe, just maybe, my seemingly inborn critical tendencies, the fact that I could from a very young age separate myself from a situation and ask existential questions about it may have set me up to receptive to the whole "sensitive singer-songwriter" phenomenon, years before I came to recognize what was going on in those James Taylor and Cat Stevens songs I loved so much. It's easy to dismiss this kind of vibe as a product of teen-age moodiness, a pretentious yearning that's been parodied by far too many Saturday Night Live sketches to possibly count. But defensible or not, Suzanne Vega spoke to me, made me feel sad and wise and thoughtful--and those are good feelings to have, in their place.

For this album, it was--radio-listener that I was and am--"Luka" and "Tom's Diner" that first caught my attention. But years later, listening to it again (along with what I consider to be her best album, 99.9F°), it is "Gypsy" that sums up the appeal of someone like Vega so well. This is a live performance from "Austin City Limits," and really, nothing more needs to be said. Just listen.


Matt said...

Have you been to "Tom's Dinner", Russell? I guess now that kids no longer know who Seinfeld, or Vega, are it's lost some of it's cache, but I'll admit that I did like their milkshakes. The rest of the food is just normal dinner stuff, but in a way it's good that, despite a photo or two, it didn't turn itself into such a tourist attraction that it was impossible to get a milkshake at the bar pretty much any time you wanted.

As to Vega, it's sad, but she's lost her voice. Several years ago, one one of those "songwriter circle" shows, with Richard Thompson and Loudain Wainwright, it was sadly clear. (Also, fun to watch those two watch Thompson play and be in clear awe at a master: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0qhe_U5q7tI It's maybe unfair that Thompson, in contrast, has become better looking and with a richer voice as he's gotten older.)

Gypsy was always something I had mixed feelings over. It was about her (freshman?) college boyfriend who was an exchange student from the UK, I think, and as such was almost certainly immature and inaccurate in its telling, though maybe that itself is part of the charm, if you can get to the point of seeing it with the right eye.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Nope, never been to Tom's Restaurant--I've only been to NYC a handful of times. It's nice to here that it didn't turn itself into a tourist trap--though, considering that it's claims to fame or Suzanne Vega and Jerry Seinfeld, maybe the owners realized that the best way to keep the tourists coming was to NOT market it to death.

I've listened to that whole concert you link to, and I have to disagree: I don't think it's clear at all she's lost her voice. I don't have the best ear to the world, to be sure, and it is obvious that she can't sustain the notes as long as she once could, but she can still hit them at least. You're right, of course, that Thompson is the master when it comes to this kind of stuff, though.

I love the melody of "Gypsy," but I agree that really enjoying the song requires one to be able to put oneself into that kind of naive, worldly-wise-without-really-having-earned-it attitude. But that's a huge amount of this kind of singer-songwriting, isn't it? (Paul Simon was only 21 years old when he wrote "The Sounds of Silence," so what the hell did he know?) Obviously lots of folks can get there (or else the stuff wouldn't sell), but I suppose it'll always be easy to mock singers to adopt that posture. I knew a sister missionary in South Korea who for some reason loved to mock "Luka," because she found the refrain--"Hello, my name is Luka"--simply risible for some reason. Different strokes for different folks and all that.

Matt said...

If you're in NYC, it's worth stopping at Tom's, I think - the food itself is just normal dinner food, as I said, but it is sort of fun, if you watched the show or know the song. It's right by a subway stop, near Columbia, on Broadway, so easy to get to. (Another fun place to see - the fire house from Ghostbusters. When I was a law clerk in NYC I was sent to find it as part of a photo scavenger hunt, not knowing what it was. There were two German tourists getting their photo in front of it, but no one else around. My co-clerk and I asked why they were getting the photo, and they said, in nice thick German accents, "It is the place from Ghostbusters!", as if we were idiots. It does have a sign if you look.


You're right about the songs. At some point a lot of early Simon and Garfunkel lost its charm to me, when I started to wonder how Paul Simon thought he knew this stuff at such an age. I'll admit, though, that every time I meet someone from Saginaw, I have a hard time not asking them exactly where it is it take four days to hitchhike to, from there.