Wednesday, November 18, 2015

TMFW 115 - Suzanne Vega Buys a Bootleg and Hits it Big

Today's TMFW is about the odd path to success for Suzanne Vega's biggest hit "Tom's Diner."   You no doubt know it; many of you probably already have the "duh duh DUH DUH // duh duh DUH DUH // duh DUH DUH duh // DUH DUH DUH duh" starting up in your heads.  
When it was released as a single in September 1990, "Tom's Diner" was a giant hit.  It reached #5 in the US, #2 in the UK, and #1 in three countries.  Interestingly, even though Vega wrote and initially released the song, the version that made it big was billed as being by "DNA featuring Suzanne Vega."  That's because the 1990 song was in fact the third version of "Tom's Diner," and was a remix of the original that was created (and initially even sold) by the DNA guys without Vega's knowledge. 
We'll get back to DNA, but the story is worth starting at the beginning.  Vega went to Barnard College in New York City; she graduated in the class of 1981 and stayed in the City to start her career.  While she was there, she frequented a restaurant at Broadway and 112th Street called "Tom's Restaurant."  
Vega was friends with a New York City photographer. who told her once that he "felt as though he saw the world through a pane of glass." Inspired by that thought, Vega set out to write a song where she was simply an observer.  She constructed the lyrics around sitting at Tom's Restaurant and watching life happen around her - the man behind the counter greets a regular, a woman outside uses the restaurant's window as a mirror to adjust her wardrobe, bells go off at a nearby church, etc.  
The song was finished in the early 1980s - Tom's Restaurant became Tom's Diner because it sounded better - but Vega did not commercially release the song until she made her second record Solitude Standing in 1986.  Recording the track, Vega initially thought that she would back it with piano.  But she "didn't play piano and didn't know anybody who did, so [she] kept it a capella" on the record.  
The a capella version of "Tom's Diner" opened Solitude Standing, and an instrumental "reprise" version closed it.  Vega would often open concerts, a capella, with the song, but it was not otherwise notable on first release and Vega's career went on.
While "Tom's Diner" was just an album track, Solitude Standing became a success for Vega. Driven by its second single "Luka," a brutally on-the-nose song about child abuse that hit #3 in 1987, the album went Platinum in the UK and Canada and Gold in the US (in 1997, it made Platinum here, too).  It was a top-10 album in eight countries and reached #11 in the US. 
So as of 1990, Suzanne Vega had a Gold record in Solitude Standing and "Tom's Diner" was just a quirky a capella song that she opened concerts with.  That brings us back to DNA.  Well, almost.
In March, 1990, Vega released her follow-up to Solitude Standing, titled Days of Open Hand.  The album was generally well-received by critics, but it lacked a "Luka"-esque single and was for those days a commercial disappointment, never rising above #50 on the album charts.  Vega toured to promote the album, and was having a difficult time replicating her success of just a few years before.  
Okay, THAT brings us to DNA.  The group that called themselves "DNA" was really just two anonymous electronic music producers from England.  Without ever consulting Vega or her record label - though they say they called and didn't get a response - the duo (a) took the a capella version of Tom's Diner, (b) brought the "du du DUH DUH" stuff front and center (it was originally just sung at the outro of the song), (c) mashed it up with the beat from Soul II Soul's 1989 hit "Back to Life," and (d) added some embellishments along the way.  DNA then pressed some copies, using a plain white label and calling the track "Oh Suzanne!", and they started to sell them in dance clubs.  The record became an underground hit in the UK, and in the summer of 1990 it found its way back to Vega and her record label.
You will recall from 2 paragraphs above that Vega was touring in support of her new album and not having much fun.  So when the unauthorized remix and release of "Tom's Diner" came to her, it would have been totally reasonable for her to just tell the lawyers to kill it.  
Instead, Vega liked the remix and worked with her label to buy it.  Working out a deal that paid DNA for their work and credited them on the song (but gave the rights to Vega), A&M Records released the remix as a single.  By all accounts, both Vega and the label had modest hope that it would find some small success on the dance charts.  And the rest is history.   
Credit to Ms. Vega for seeing the potential in her/DNA's song, and going to market instead of to court.  
BONUS FACT:  Ms. Vega has described writing her song sometime in the 1981-82 timeframe, and it is rife with specific details of what she encountered at the diner.  So, much like the detective work to discover the precise date of Ice Cube's "good day" detailed in TMFW 67, music sleuths used clues in "Tom's Diner" to determine the exact date it was written.  
In fact, only 2 clues were needed: (1) in the newspaper, there was "the story of an actor who had died while he was drinking," and (2) the narrator was "looking for the funnies" in the newspaper.  Only two New York newspapers at the time of writing featured daily comics, and on November 18, 1981, the New York Post (one of those two) featured on its front page the story of William Holden's death with the headline "Drunken Fall Kills Holden."  Holden - the star of films such as Network, Stalag 17, and Sunset Boulevard - hit his head on a table and bled to death at his home in California. 
BONUS FACT 1.5:  On November 18, 2011, Ms. Vega played "Tom's Diner" at a show in Pennslyvania and noted that it was the 30th anniversary of the song's composition.  She confirmed that, true to the song's lyrics, although Mr. Holden had been nominated for three Oscars he was indeed "no one [she] had heard of" at the time of his death.
BONUS FACT 1.75:  If you have not checked your calendar, TODAY is November 18.  So happy Tom's Diner Day to you.
BONUS FACT 1.875:  When I was a kid I too called the comics the "funnies."  My wife's beloved grandma did, too.  I like that we share that.  
BONUS FACT 2:    As it turns out, Tom's Restaurant is doubly famous: it was the facade used for Monk's Cafe, where Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer frequently ate on Seinfeld.  The restaurant's fame has even inspired a documentary.
BONUS FACT 3:  Early in their career, TMFW favorites (and sort of TMFW 75 subjects) The Lemonheads did a really good cover of "Luka." 
BONUS FACT 3.5: Here's a great reflection on "Luka" from Vega herself in the New York Times.
IMPORTANT UPDATE (!!!):  Last week, TMFW was all about the 40-year speculation over the subject of Carly Simon's song "You're So Vain."  The entry ended with the quip "it's totally Warren Beatty." 
And then today - only one week after TMFW chose to weigh in on this long-running story - the news is awash with stories that Carly Simon has just confirmed that Beatty was indeed the subject of the song's second verse. This sort of timeliness and relevance is why TMFW is your best value in once-weekly music trivia story blogs.
BONUS OBSERVATION:  When I got an idea to write about this song a couple of months ago, I started the entry as "song was originally a capella." That's all I knew about it: it was on an earlier album and then these guys remixed it.  All of the stuff that filled in the gaps was discovered along the way, and then I saw that November 18 was a Wednesday and I pegged the entry for today.  These are my favorite kind of TMFWs.  (In fact, there's enough good stuff that I found that next week's TMFW will continue down the "Tom's Diner" rabbit hole just a little bit...)

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