Suzanne Vega

by Harry on October 11, 2010

Regular commenter Tom Hurka expressed complete dismay a couple of years ago when I told him that I hadn’t seen any live music for 16 years or so (the last concert being Pentangle at the late lamented Palms in Davis CA). I did nothing to correct this omission at the time. But in February one of my undergraduate students invited me to go see her and her dad perform together at a local coffee shop: the kids (who know her a little as a babysitter) were riveted, so much so that the girls wouldn’t leave, and forced me to come back and pick them up an hour after we’d had to leave with the little horror (quite understandably, as you can tell from listening to her here — our horror was singing Jolene, with most of the lyrics gleaned from a single hearing, for months afterward, and her version of “Bad Romance” inspired our 13 year old to start playing Lady GaGa songs on the ukulele at her school talent shows). This experience prompted my wife to say we should go to live music sometimes which, indeed, we have started doing (our first outing, oddly enough, being to see Neil Young, supported by Bert Jansch who, therefore, constituted the bookends to our long drought of live music, and there’s no-one I’d sooner play that role).

So we went to see Suzanne Vega last night, with a couple of friends. I had completely forgotten that I once owned her first two albums (when they were actual records), and was therefore surprised to find that I knew about half the songs she sang, rather than just the three hits I had in my head. The venue was what I think they call “intimate” — in other words, she can’t have made much money from it (I reckon there were around 300 people in a 500 capacity theater, with tickets selling at $30 each, and she is touring with a sound mixer, a bassist, a guitarist and someone else). Anyway, she was great — her voice still pure, her songs good enough to please my wife and our friends, none of whom had as much prior interest as I did, and, most surprisingly, her stage persona quite at odds with the tenor of her songs. While the songs are reserved, reflective and not really cheerful for the most part, she is, herself, funny, self-deprecating but confident, and relaxed. After listening to a somewhat harrowing song the audience would burst out laughing at her stories and jokes.

She was promoting a series of retrospective albums that started coming out a few months ago. The second is released tomorrow, but, looking for it, I saw that the mp3 version of Close-Up, Vol 2, People and Places (Deluxe Edition) is for sale for only $3.99, today and tomorrow only. Worth it, if you have fond memories of her. UPDATE: I found a plausible explanation of the economics of the tour and album here.



Uncle Kvetch 10.11.10 at 2:46 pm

Such a vastly underrated artist. I had the great pleasure of seeing her live years ago, around the time of “99.9F°.” Thanks for reminding me that I need to keep an eye on her tour schedule.

I spotted that sale price on “Close-Up Vol. 2” this morning and pounced — can’t wait to give it a listen.


Harry 10.11.10 at 3:19 pm

Yes, actually I found myself thinking two things about 20 minutes into the show, viz “Why isn’t she more famous than she is?” and “Why haven’t I been continuing to listen to her for the last 20 years or so?”. My wife (with almost no prior interest) started busily finding her albums this morning, which is what prompted me to find the sale price.


Tim Worstall 10.11.10 at 3:25 pm

At the bottom of the WSJ piece she says that it also means that she can control or licence out for derivatives. Which reminds me of the two young lads who, on their bedroom recording equipment, laid her vocal from Luka (which I think was released purely as a vocal at some point wasn’t it?) over their own “dance type” backing track and had a hit single in the UK.

The record company marched in and “allowed” them £5,000 and the rest of the revenues went to them and/or Vega (mostly them, not Vega I would assume).

No particular point to this story, just something I recall.


Matt Heath 10.11.10 at 3:33 pm

@Tom Worstall: That would be “Tom’s Diner” not “Luka”


Harry 10.11.10 at 3:33 pm

I think it was Tom’s Diner (also, apparently, a very important song in the development of mp3), which had originally been a capella (though she sang it with very good backing last night). 5k quid sounds like not very much. Tom Robinson once said that he only has to sell 10% the number of self-released albums as he’d have to sell with a record company to make the same amount of money. So I’m guessing that the money went to the record company much more than to Vega.


Tim Worstall 10.11.10 at 4:06 pm

So I really have got to the age where memory fades then?


Phil 10.11.10 at 4:11 pm

For an awful lot of artists, music is turning back into a cottage industry. I remember an interview with Julian Cope where he said that one of his favourite works was “Odin”, a 90-minute cassette [sic] of spontaneous unaccompanied chanting. Slightly boggled, the interviewer asked how many people would buy something like *that*. “Oh, about 10,000,” Cope said. Which, if there’s nobody here but us artists, will do very nicely.

Live music has pretty much gone underground for some of us, too. I’ve been to about four gigs in the last four years, but I go to sessions and singarounds at least every other week.


Bruce Baugh 10.11.10 at 4:44 pm

Ooh, the Close-Up volumes exactly hit a spot for me right now. Thanks. :)


Doug K 10.11.10 at 5:11 pm

The NY Times ran a blog with some posts by Suzanne, which was fascinating reading:

There was also a recent interview in the New Yorker, saying she was back where she started in terms of performances – collecting names (emails now) for mailing lists and performance announcements, etc.


nick s 10.11.10 at 5:38 pm

“Oh, about 10,000,” Cope said. Which, if there’s nobody here but us artists, will do very nicely.

Stewart Lee has made a similar point about stand-up comedy, which (Edinburgh and Montreal aside) has more limited touring options than those for musicians:

And I thought, if I can get all the people that are normally a minority audience in a big lump, then that adds up to a lot of people, I just have to get them all together. Somebody said to me, “You have 5000 people who like you, and they all give you £10 a year, that’s a living.”

I saw Suzanne Vega tour 99.9F with a band, fairly uncomfortably, then solo+bass a few years later, which was fantastic, and she’s stuck with that stripped-down format more or less ever since. I’m also sure that even her most loyal fans have mixed feelings about the earlier albums, which exhibit many of the production quirks of their time — a bit too much gated reverb, too much tinniness — so there’s a demand for minimalist remakes, not note-for-note re-recordings.


Mrs Tilton 10.11.10 at 6:48 pm

Re the economics of re-recording: Gang of Four did the same, and also for IP-related reasons (and theirs were no note-for-note retakes; fans got added value). Well worth a listen, if you’re a Go4 fan.

And thanks to Harry for the tip about Suzanne Vega’s album. (And yes, I like her and Go4. Go figure.)


ejh 10.11.10 at 6:48 pm

I meant to go and see her at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire when I was living in Acton in 2002. I phoned about the price of tickets, which – not having been to a gig for some years – I had assumed you could buy at the venue, which I passed on my way home from work in Hammersmith. Not only could I not do this, but I could only buy a ticket if I paid two different fees on top of the ticket price. That was one too many, and I passed.

For years I used to have a video with this on

but I accidentally threw it out, just before moved to Acton.


ejh 10.11.10 at 7:15 pm

(Apologies that it ends so abruptly, by the way. I should have checked before posting.)


Harry 10.11.10 at 7:16 pm

Oh, I love Go4 too. I like Roy Harper, Kevin Coyne (but not the Doors, thank god he never joined them, though their interest in him makes me feel I should like them), the Eagles, the Sex Pistols, ELO, and Mantovani. Beat that.


Uncle Kvetch 10.11.10 at 7:19 pm

(And yes, I like her and Go4. Go figure.)

You have good taste. Not that hard to figure, really.


There is hope 10.11.10 at 7:31 pm

About 5 years ago, a buddy asked me to go to a coffee shop and see if the singer was as good as he thought she was. She was. After set break, she played more original material that was quite good.

Family came in for ice cream. 4 or 5 years old girl just froze. She looked at the singer every way possible. Total fascination. Family left and came back. The fan promptly sat down in front of the stage and listened.

I’m cheering and like, yes, another one catches on.

Singer was 17 to 19, buddy was 35-37, I was in my late 50s.


Harry 10.11.10 at 7:42 pm

Thanks ejh. I’m certain that the bassist is the same guy we saw with her last night, 25 years later. The guitarist from last night might also be in that OGWT clip, but its much harder to tell.


nick s 10.11.10 at 9:40 pm

Mike Visceglia is her long-term bassist, going right back to 1985, and he’s playing the current tour.

I meant to go and see her at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire when I was living in Acton in 2002.

Worst venue in London, from my experience. I saw her at the Bloomsbury Theatre, which is just about the perfect size and layout for the current setup. (I also heard ‘Marlene on the Wall’ piped around a hotel in Kathmandu nearly 20 years ago, which was odd, to say the least.)


Uncle Kvetch 10.11.10 at 10:00 pm

Oh, I love Go4 too. I like Roy Harper, Kevin Coyne (but not the Doors, thank god he never joined them, though their interest in him makes me feel I should like them), the Eagles, the Sex Pistols, ELO, and Mantovani. Beat that.

I wouldn’t try to beat it, but I do sometimes think about what would be the single greatest pairing of incommensurables in my music library. The Fall and Steely Dan? Joni Mitchell and Bad Religion? Yes and Television Personalities?


lemmy caution 10.11.10 at 10:02 pm

The re-recorded version of Gang Of Four’s ” I Love A Man In Uniform” is pretty sweet:


Mrs Tilton 10.11.10 at 10:42 pm

Beat that

ELO? I got nothing.


Harry 10.12.10 at 12:15 am

Yes and Television Personalities by a mile.

Stiff Little Fingers and Peter Skellern must by mine.
Or maybe Gang of Four and Ralph McTell


gavinf 10.12.10 at 1:27 am

Good article in The Economist about the resurgence of live performance as a generator of income for musicians in the context of declining recording sales income.


Zarquon 10.12.10 at 9:49 pm

Also Suzanne Vega has a twitter account And for Australians who are unlikely to find Bert Jansch and Neil Young on the same bill, Lisa Miller’s excellent ‘Car Tape 2’ covers album is recommended. Listen to her at myspace


Steven Hart 10.13.10 at 1:44 pm

I appreciate the heads-up on the Suzanne Vega album. Buying it is more than just an exercise in nostalgia: “Luka” is significantly better in this new version, as are most of the other tunes I already knew. And with the unfamiliar ones, I was happy to make the acquaintance.


Mrs Tilton 10.13.10 at 4:51 pm

the single greatest pairing of incommensurables in my music library

In my case, any two darts thrown randomly at the iPod should turn something up. Off the top of my head: Nikolaus Harnoncourt & Concentus musicus Wien’s totally ass-kickin’ cover of Herz & Mund & Tat & Leben BWV 147 on the one hand; Stiff Little Fingers’ Inflammable Material on the other.


nick s 10.14.10 at 2:04 am

Also Suzanne Vega has a twitter account

She was web-savvy very early on. I remember an online chat she did on the fan-run for the release of Nine Objects of Desire in 1996; I had to get a friend in the US to send over the CD because there was no sign of a UK release and no way (yet) of downloading it, paid or otherwise.

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