Wednesday, November 25, 2015

TMFW 116 - The "Tom's Diner" Doggie Bag

Last week, TMFW brought the long story of Suzanne Vega's surprise hit "Tom's Diner."  As that entry got longer and longer, I realized that I couldn't stuff everything I had learned into one entry, and I ended the post with the promise that "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..."  So today's TMFW is two more cool stories about "Tom's Diner" and its legacy.  Both of them are included in this nice New York Times rumination by Suzanne Vega about the song; it's worth a read.
Our first item for today is the story of Tom's Album.  As Vega describes in her essay, shortly after she and DNA released the "Tom's Diner" remix, "[o]ther versions came flooding in from all over the world. People made them up and mailed me cassettes."  With a box full of adaptations - some sincere, others silly - and with the fresh memory of finding success by celebrating creativity rather than suing it into oblivion, Vega decided to work with an audio engineer and put some of her favorites together onto an album.  A&M Records agreed to release it, and the result is an album with one new DNA/Vega remix song ("Rusted Pipe," from her then-current album Days of Open Hand) and 12 versions/adaptations of "Tom's Diner."   As Vega describes it on the liner notes, "A small song about eating breakfast became a song about accidental pregnancy (Daddy's Little Girl – Nikki D.) and the recent war in the Gulf (Waiting at the Border). One version incorporates forgotten bits of pop culture (Jeannie's Diner). All of them surprised me; a couple made me wince. I include them anyway."
A funny thing about Tom's Album is the copyright law reality that Vega and her record label needed to clear all of the rights to the songs they included, even though the songs were first made by borrowing Vega's.  As she described the process: "it was a logistical nightmare to administrate. I had to go back to all the people who had taken the song without permission, and ask their permission . . . to use their version of my song!"  
Today's second item(s) are the technological legacies of "Tom's Diner."  First, it has an analog legacy in that the song is often used to test the sound quality of high-end audio components.  I had read that and intended to include it as a general item, but then TMFW neighbor and reader Clifton sent me a text this week that "[i]n the early 90s when I was shopping for a serious pair of speakers, the a cappella 'Tom's Diner' was one of the three cuts used to evaluate candidates."  That's pretty cool.  
The song has a cool digital legacy, too: "Tom's Diner" and Suzanne Vega are often called the "mother of the mp3."  (For TMFW readers who do not know that file format or its value - it is the compression scheme that allowed for digital music files to be made small enough that they could be easily transferred between computers and over the internet.  It lead to Napster and to iPods and to Spotify and to YouTube and to the modern music industry.)  Vega earned that title because her song - with its quiet-but-warm vocal - was used to perfect the mp3 encoding algorithm and "prove" the format.  The linked article quotes Karlheinz Brandenburg, the principal developer of mp3: "Suzanne Vega was a catastrophe. Terrible distortion...The a cappella version of 'Tom's Diner' was more difficult to compress without compromising on audio quality than anything else." So when they got the song to sound true, they knew they had succeeded.  
For his part, Brandenburg is still a fan: "I've listened to this 20 seconds [of Tom's Diner] a thousand times," he said. "I still like the music."
BONUS FACT:  One of the tracks on Tom's Album is called "Tom's ?" by a band called "Bingo Hand Job."  You have probably not heard of "Bingo Hand Job," but it turns out you know them.  The band was a two-shows-only pseudonymous version of R.E.M. in March 1991, along with friends that included Robyn Hitchcock and Billy Bragg.  R.E.M. was in London promoting their album (and TMFW 74 subject) Out of Time, and did two shows at a small club there under the assumed name.
One of the Bingo Hand Job shows was later released as a bootleg CD, you can find several videos from the show on YouTube, and the band released the version of "Toms Diner" (credited to themselves, this time) as a b-side to their woefully underrated song "Near Wild Heaven."
Here's the video of Bingo Hand Job performing a verrrrry loose version of "Tom's Diner".  I will confess that it sounds pretty terrible to me, but I fully support the idea of a band having fun while making music, and they clearly are doing that.
BONUS FACT 1.5:  While we are on the subject of Robyn Hitchcock and R.E.M. and woefully underrated songs, here's Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians in 1991 doing "She Doesn't Exist," with background vocals from Michael Stipe. 
BONUS FACT 2:  I was first exposed to "Jeannie's Diner" from this Nick at Nite promo spot.  I always loved that line "it's kind of like Bewitched." 
SOCIAL MEDIA NOTE/UPDATE:  A couple of weeks ago, TMFW friend/reader Ben sent along this update to the TMFW 18 story of the "Amen Break" and wondered why TMFW didn't have a Facebook page where I/he could put stuff like that.  The reason was because I didn't know you could do that.  So last week I made one: it's at  I will post each week's entry there, along with an old entry too.  Go and "Like" it if you want.  Or don't; it's really up to you.  This is America.

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