More than any other artist, Suzanne Vega provided the soundtrack to my student years. Seeing her at the Konzerthaus brought back a flood of memories of my time at Sussex University between 1986 and 1989, memories which readers of this blog will no doubt find excessively detailed and trivial. Well, tough; I’m writing this for myself, not for you.
I first saw Suzanne (this is a first-name terms kind of piece) on Whistle Test in 1985, performing her signature song “Marlene on the Wall”. This appearance came at a time in my life when I was done with my teenage years of Gary Numan fandom and had also gone through every Pink Floyd album in quick succession. I needed someone new to be a fan of, and decided that Suzanne Vega would fit the bill, since she was clearly talented and intelligent as well as heartstoppingly beautiful. I knew nothing of folk music or the tradition that Suzanne came from, but that hardly mattered. The day after that TV appearance, I went into Salisbury and found both the “Marlene on the Wall” single and the Suzanne Vega LP for sale. As a mark of the significance I attached to this new relationship, I bought the LP.
I played that album constantly, enchanted by Suzanne’s cool and lovely voice, the quicksilver stab and glide of her acoustic guitar, the emotional precision of her lyrics and the air of calm, tender modernity she radiated. I also read numerous interviews with her in which she spoke of her musical influences, including someone I had never heard of called Leonard Cohen. It was only as a result of Suzanne namechecking Cohen that I began to investigate the music of the latter, who was to become another important figure to me as the 1980s wore on.
I was too much of a neophyte to attend Suzanne’s first British concert at the London School of Economics that month, but by the time of her next visit the following spring I had lost all such reservations. So I travelled up to London to see Suzanne play at the Piccadilly Theatre, being so in thral to my new object of devotion that I wrote down the setlist as the concert progressed, something that (thankfully) I’ve never done since. And my obsessiveness went further. With several others, I hung around outside the stage door afterwards hoping for an autograph; what they didn’t do, which I did, was to attach myself to the tail end of a small group of people who were being ushered into the theatre, clearly in some kind of official capacity. Thus I found myself at Suzanne’s backstage party, where I must have remained for all of two minutes before being thrown out.
A few months later I was at Sussex and Suzanne’s music helped me adjust to living away from home for the first time. I travelled up to London two days in a row, first to see the Cocteau Twins at the Town & Country Club (finding myself sitting next to Billy Bragg on the tube on the way there) then to see Suzanne at the Royal Albert Hall the next day. From a small West End theatre to the grandeur of the Albert Hall in barely six months; clearly I was not the only one with whom this music was striking a chord.
I bought Suzanne’s second album Solitude Standing at HMV in Churchill Square on the day of its release, and was gutted to discover when I got back to my hall of residence that my copy jumped like a trouper. CDs were in their infancy back then, and I can’t remember if this album was one of the few available in the new medium. Not owning a CD player myself, it was vinyl for me in any case. When I finally got hold of a playable copy, I found that the album contained several older songs with which I was already familiar from live performances – “Gypsy”, “Calypso”, “Tom’s Diner” – and a number of new songs that revealed a previously unhinted at depth and maturity to Suzanne’s songwriting, such as “Ironbound/Fancy Poultry” and “Wooden Horse (Kaspar Hauser’s Song)”. The latter especially was a revelation, its skeletal percussion and dramatically intoned refrain of “and what was wood became alive” inspiring me to seek out and marvel at Werner Herzog’s film on the same subject. As for “Calypso” and “Gypsy”, these were some of the most rapturous stories in song I had ever heard. “Gypsy” in particular affected me deeply and, with its gentle melody and tenderly enveloping lyric, remains my favourite of all her songs. Like the first album, Solitude Standing rarely left my turntable – indeed I would often finish side 2 and simply turn over to side 1 again.
I saw several more Suzanne Vega concerts at that time, including a bizarre solo show at the Regents Park Open Air Theatre at which the support act was not a musician, but a magician. I had left it too late to get a ticket for this gig, but was determined not to let the fact that it was sold out prevent me from seeing it. So I travelled up to London ticketless and, for the first time in my life, made use of the dubious services of a ticket tout. I paid £30 for a £9 ticket, and decided that it was a price well worth paying.
There were also two gigs in my home town of Brighton. Both were unfortunately at the atmosphere-free Centre, but were memorable for a number of reasons. I managed to persuade seven or eight of my fellow students to come along with me for the first (their reactions are unrecorded). A day or two later I went to check my post and, much to my surprise, found a postcard waiting for me. “Dear Richard,” it went, “thanks for listening. Suzanne Vega.” I wasn’t quite sure why Suzanne Vega was writing to me, or how she had got my address, but as you might imagine I was rather taken by that postcard, which I immediately knew to be genuine. The answer, when it came, was rather prosaic. My American friend Jordan F., who was one of those who had come to the concert, had passed a note backstage for the attention of Suzanne, saying how much her music meant to me and how it would be wonderful if she could send me something. And, rather thrillingly, she did. Jordan, if you’re out there reading this somewhere – thank you.
I can still remember the date of the second of those Brighton concerts – 20 December 1987. I was determined to secure the best possible tickets, and took a (not exactly rare) break from studying to go down to the box office (remember those?) at the Brighton Centre on the morning they went on sale. I borrowed my flatmate Ali L’s bicycle to ride down to the seafront from our Lewes Road bolthole, and was dismayed to discover when I got there that the lock had somehow fallen off the bike during the journey. Well, that would never do. I knew I would have to leave the bike unattended at some point during the ticket-buying process, whereupon it would no doubt be spirited away by some thief. The shops weren’t yet open, so I couldn’t buy a replacement lock. So, for the first and only time in my life, I enlisted the help of the boys in blue. I accosted a passing copper, explained my predicament to him and sought his advice. He said: “So you’re wanting to leave it in this vicinity, are you?” That use of “vicinity” has cracked me up ever since; do policemen really speak in the same language as they use to give evidence in court? Evidently so. Anyway, the cop suggested I take the bike round the corner where there was a manned car park open – perhaps I could leave it under the watchful eye of the attendant. And I did indeed entrust the bike to the care of this bloke, who gave a strangely touching response to my question of whether he would be there for the next couple of hours – “well, I’ve been here for the last twenty years, so…” In any event, I did end up being first in the queue for tickets, and duly secured front row seats despite the best efforts of a smartarse Brighton Centre employee who managed to get to the box office before I did. And the bike, since you ask, was fine.
I was back home in Salisbury for Christmas at the time of the gig, so had to travel along the coast to Brighton especially for it. For some unfathomable reason I had not taken the keys to my flat home with me, but had left them with the elderly couple upstairs for safe keeping. How I would gain access to the flat in the event that they were away was something that evidently did not occur to me, but fortunately they were at home. The gig itself not only took place shortly before Christmas, but was also the very last one of an epic European tour, leading to some side-splitting festive frolics between Suzanne and the band onstage. As for me, I nabbed a huge poster of the gig from the venue afterwards and attached it to the picture rail in my bedroom with drawing pins, since we were strictly forbidden from sticking posters up in the flat.
I think the main part of the story ends there, really. It would be another three years before Days of Open Hand came out; by that time I had left Sussex and was embarking on other musical experiences, ones in which the music of Suzanne and others like her featured less and less. I liked the album well enough, especially the limpid grace of “Tired of Sleeping” and the epic drift of “Pilgrimage”, but there was also a listless, even moping quality to some of it. Clearly Suzanne too realized that there was a need for a change of direction, since for her next effort, 99.9F°, she brought in an outside producer (who ended up marrying her, the bastard) whose use of industrial-lite rhythmic textures entirely failed to convince me. Subsequent albums, I’m sorry to say, passed me by completely.
Nevertheless, it was a no-brainer to see Suzanne at the Konzerthaus, and I even got front row seats as I had done that time in Brighton. The concert was greatly enjoyable, no doubt largely because only a handful of songs from those later albums were played. I do wish there had been a full band, though, instead of just bass (the same bass player as at every other Suzanne concert I’ve ever seen) and guitar (a bloke who seemed ludicrously unconcerned about his absurd ageing-punk hair and attire). A song like “Left of Center”, for example, suffered from being played with just bass and vocals, losing the tumbling, propulsive energy of the studio version with Joe Jackson on piano.
Between songs Suzanne was hugely entertaining, liberally throwing out anecdotes and launching into an audience-participation riff to find out what kind of person Vienna was (the not entirely inaccurate answer that came her way being “a grumpy old man”). For all her sparkling onstage persona, though, there’s a seriousness and a directness to her art that absolutely never falters, such is the clear-minded fluency with which she sings.
And best of all, Suzanne answered my silent hopes by playing “Gypsy”, a song that captivates me today as much as it did when I was a confused and lonely teenager a quarter of a century ago.